Cartagena, Colombia — Fly into Cartagena over the sea, its special province, its reason for being for more than four centuries. If it is the sea and its beaches that lure you to Cartagena, you will find an abundance. There are lyrical coral islands, the Rosarios, that barely skim the surface of the Caribbean with a filigree of mangrove trees, with palms and white sand. Cartagena itself is situated on peninsulas and island pierced by multiple inlets, and beaches stretch along two sides of El Laguito and Boca Grande, the areas of luxury hotels, of resort facilities, shops, and casinos.
It was because of the particular intertwining of sea with land that Cartagena was founded. Its harbor is fortuitously close to the mouth of the Magdalena, the longest river in Colombia and route for the Spanish to the inland riches of the New World, to gold and El Dorado. By the mid-16th century, Cartagena had become Spain's warehouse and entrepot for colonial treasure, the key to the Spanish Main. It was a prize sought by pirates and by nations for two centuries.
The city's colonial past is preserved virtually intact in the old walled city and in the miles of massive fortifications that protected it; and if it is period architecture and history that draw you to it, you will be rewarded over and again by the austere and mellow beauty of the narrow streets, the lovely overhanging balconies, and the cool, lush mansion courtyards.
What you may not have expected of Cartagena is the profusion of its contempory riches. This is no stage set, no city stopped in time with an air of decadence or of reconstruction and artificiality. Life and vitality course through the city. Variety and contrast are evident at every turn: on the raucous waterfront, in the reserved streets and the staid central Plaza Bolivar, on the beaches, and always, always son the water, in the harbor, and on the myriad waterways. Cartagena is an intricate, multidimensional experience that you explore simply be being in the city. If you choose to look, you will see all around you a complex of cultures and history that can endlessly fascinate and captivate you.
But I urge you to visit the exquisite landmarks of colonial Spain: the house of the Marques of Valdehoyos, trader in slaves and flour, and the Church of San Pedro Claver, the Jesuit who made it his mission to mitigate the evil and suffering of slavery. You may see young black boys laughing and playing on the ramparts. You will see the public buses, brilliantly striped in bold colors, standing in silent testament by the austere gray walls.
Along the beach in the morning you might meet a scholarly old gentleman finishing his daily yoga. Cartageneros will be out running and doing calisthenics, mothers out with babies taking the morning air. You may also see fishermen pulling in their nets right in front of your hotel. I watched a long and beautiful tableau one morning -- from the beaching of the cayuco,m a canoelike boat, through the sorting and washing of the fish, to the serene finale of three lone women walking off into the streets of the city balancing tubs of fish on their heads with an ineffable grace.
You will certainly see several large black women selling cornucopias of fruit from tubs on the sand. The women are from the palenques,m villages in the surrounding jungle established by escaped slaves; and as I saw them, they sat with a commanding presence, dressed in bright yellow, red, and vivid turquoise. You can buy breakfast for less than 50 cents -- pineapple, papaya, mango -- carved up into manageable pieces by the vendor's knife.
You may want to go out from Cartagena to have a taste of the surrounding countryside. Have lunch at Matute, a large country estate only recently opened to the public. You will find yourself enveloped in the manners and the tempo of another century. Tradition and age suffuse the plain white, high-ceilinged rooms of the hacienda with their dark Spanish antiques, but Matute is no stilted piece of the past. It is gracious and warm and alive, unaffected and unpretentious, the tone set by the versatile and creative young owners.
A day at Matute includes horseback riding, swimming under a huge overarching bonga tree, and a tour of the beautiful old botanical garden. Abundant springs make the area exceptionally lush, and the garden is maintained in a natural state without artifice imposed on it. Palms tower over with their luxurious circle of leaves against the sun. You can stop and daydream under a large baroque nispero and eat its sweet delicious fruit. Or watch an oropendula flying off in brilliant yellow and black. And wander into a whole area near a creek fluttering with butterflies.
After a walk through the garden, sip fresh tamarind and watermelon juice served on the deep porch of the hacienda. Lunch is prime rib of beef, cooked over charcoal in the local manner, and an assortment of accompanying dishes, the most outstanding of which for me was the banana paso,m banana dried and aged in the rafters to a subtle rich sweetness.
Matutem means contraband -- suggestive of riches; and rich Matute is.Cartagena is one of the most conservative cities in Colombia. Matute allows a glimpse inside, into old-family Cartagena, into a way of life otherwise closed to the transient visitor. You enter the estate as a guest and participate directly in the tradition and elegance that permeate and underlie all the life of the city.
But above all, Cartagena should be experienced from the sea.
Go out to the Rosarios, islands strung like beads 20 miles off the coast. They can be a beautiful haven in the sun -- a place to snorkel, to swim, and to relax. You can buy your lunch en route from a passing cayucom and leave it to be cooked over charcoal at the superb and unpretentious restaurant on the tiny island of San Martin. The standard menu is red snapper, stuffed crab, or lobster served on an open porch at long tables ($4 to $6 with coconut rice and salad). Outside are palms curving out over the clear blue water and, on an even smaller island close by, thick colonies of magnificent frigateirds and pelicans crowding the trees and flying in a ceaseless, wondrous display.
As you come back in to Cartagena from the sea, you will pass slowly through the years of its history and the levels of its being. First the massive fortresses guarding each side of the Boca Chica, the entrance to its harbor. Close by, oil tankers stand off from a major petrochemical center. The naval base, Colombia's most important, lies ahead; and out from it sits the three-masted schooner Gloria, a training vessel for naval cadets and sparkling reminder of the Spanish fleet.
Isolated on the shore is an 18th-century palenquem with an utterly simple and beautiful white church. Freighter traffic passes, and cayucosm cut in and out -- some with gaff-rigged sails, some with outboard motors, all with the distinctive local paddles shaped like a long-handled fan. Slowly Boca Grande comes into view, the white strip of luxury hotels; and past them, old walled Cartagena.
It is from the perspective of the sea that Cartagena is most clearly a whole. It is not a sleepy relic despoiled by the activity of tourism and industry around it. This is and has been since the 16th century a commercial coast. Cartagena continues, as it always has, to draw its life from traffic on the sea. As a visitor you are privileged to partake of the treasure of Cartagena, a living past and a vital present.
When you step into the city, you immediately sense the hand of 16th-century Spain. It is visibly a Spain tempered by the long presence of Arabic culture; Cartagena's settlers came from the south, from Seville and Granada. An austerity and reserve, a grace and elegance, are pervasive. They are intangible but as real as the spare white buildings. They are as present in the carriage of fisherwomen on the beach as in the cultured accents of an aristocratic old man discussing Colombia's first books. This is the land in which a woman is still addressed as "misia," a very conservative and deferential equivalent of senora. But there is also an exuberance, a riot of color, and an embracing of life. Black heritage.
Cartagena has a unique character, the result of minimal immigration into Colombia since the colonial era. The culture one encounters today is an almost pure blending of the three groups that lived in the colony: Spanish conqueror, African slave, and native Indian. Since slavery was an important institution of the northern coast and Cartagena a principal slave market, the city has received a major infusion of black African heritage and bounty.
The richness of the black admixture in contemporary Cartagena is symbolized by the fast and seductive Cumbia,m a folk dance in which the participants move only one leg. Slaves had one foot chained. But the spirit refused submission, and the other foot danced free.
You can see the vitality of Cartagena from the high floors of your hotel: the heavy tanker and naval traffic, small dugouts bringing in fish from the sea. The Hilton is Cartagena's newest and only five-star hotel. It has all the amenities one would expect, and it has in addition a policy of hiring only a local people as staff. The system gives guests a genuine taste of the city, and the hotel has a warmth not generally associated with establishments providing sophisticated international service.
The wonder is that you can fly to Cartagena nonstop from New York in just five hours. You can step into a totally different world in little more time than it takes to fly to Los Angeles. And there is no time change from the Eastern United States, no jet lag. Avianca, the airline of Colombia and second-oldest in the world, has flights several times a week nonstop from New York and Miami.