The magic of Cartagena, Colombia

LA Times | Travel

If it isn't the bright bougainvillea tumbling from the colonial balconies or the quiet shimmer of the Caribbean Sea, then maybe it's the impromptu dance parties in the town plazas, or the joyful din of guitars, bongos and maracas that drifts through the city with the evening breeze. Just what ...

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz // 11.25.08

If it isn't the bright bougainvillea tumbling from the colonial balconies or the quiet shimmer of the Caribbean Sea, then maybe it's the impromptu dance parties in the town plazas, or the joyful din of guitars, bongos and maracas that drifts through the city with the evening breeze.

Just what it is that hooks you, no one knows for sure. But soon enough, you begin to understand what the locals keep saying.

Cartagena is magic.

"There's something mystical in the air," says Valentino Cortazar, a Colombian painter who lives within the old walled portion of the city in a one-bedroom, two-hammock apartment.

Cortazar, originally from Bogota, said he was splitting time between Miami and New York when he visited Cartagena eight years ago for an art exhibition--and never left.

That happens here, from time to time, that people get sucked in. Musicians Davis Pineda and Elizabeth Salaazar, who roam the streets with a guitar and bongo drums singing Latin American ballads, said they visited Cartagena from nearby Barranquilla five years ago and found a "strange energy" they couldn't resist. The people were warmer, happier, different from the rest of Colombia. They live here now, struggling to make ends meet, staying for the music, for the beaches, for reasons they can't explain.

No wonder Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia's king of magical realism, set several of his novels in Cartagena.

"Beautiful landscape, beautiful people, beautiful colors," Cortazar muses one night over wine and fish, which you'll get your fill of here. "For an artist, it's perfect."

It's perfect for a tourist too.

The fifth-largest city in Colombia, Cartagena (pronounced car-ta-HAY-na) has long been a choice vacation spot and convention hub for Colombians both for its beauty and reputation for safety in a land notorious for drug-trafficking and kidnappings. Some European tourists have discovered it, but you don't find many Americans unless they're coming off of cruise ships.

Now, security throughout the country has improved under the tough policies of President Alvaro Uribe, with the high-profile rescue in July of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, held by FARC guerrillas for more than six years, serving as a dramatic example of the weakened state of narco-terrorist groups.

Seeing renewed potential as a tourist destination, the Colombian government has launched a campaign to shed its violent image to attract more foreign visitors.

The slogan: "Colombia, The only risk is wanting to stay."

For Cartagena, at least, that rings very true.

Its history is rich and romantic, and some say the ghosts of its past give the city its mystique. Once the largest slave port in the New World, Cartagena fended off pirate attacks, went on witch hunts and sentenced hundreds to die in the name of the Inquisition.

More on that in a moment.

First, you need to hear about the cheap massages.

There's nothing like lying on the beach, wandering Spanish-Afro cumbia band playing nearby, while a woman with a bottle of green gunk and a beach pail full of sea water kneads the knots out of your body.

We're talking a full-body massage, lasting anywhere from half an hour to an hour and costing you only 10,000 to 30,000 pesos ($4 to $13 at current exchange rates), depending on how busy the masseuse has been that day and how good you are at haggling. This is no formal service; the roving masseuses are locals trying to make a living with their green aloe-and-algae concoction. But my masseuse Kari tells me they've gone through training, and as she diligently works out the kinks in my back, I believe her (and love her).

You'll get a lot of that in Cartagena, people trying to sell you things that you don't want, until you realize that you really do.

On the beach and in the streets, women carrying baskets of tropical fruit on their heads offer you mango slices with lime and salt. Men pushing wheelbarrows full of coconuts hack them open with machetes and stick a straw inside for you to sip. Everywhere you turn, vendors are hawking sweets, bracelets, maracas, fruit juices, ice cream, sunglasses, kitchen utensils and buckets full of freshly caught crabs, oysters and fish.

A little orientation:

The heart of Cartagena is the old walled city, known as "el Centro," where colorful colonial houses sit along a maze of narrow streets that change names at every block, and where you'll find the aforementioned bougainvillea and impromptu music and dancing. Within these stone walls, built to protect the city from greedy invaders, lived the noble, merchant and religious classes when it was a Spanish colony. Several of the grand houses and convents have been converted to hotels.

The best way to see it is to walk, though for about $14 you can have an informal guided tour in a horse-drawn carriage. Pass through the Plaza de Aduanas and Plaza de Los Coches, former slave markets, and see the Puerta del Reloj, a big clock tower that once was the only way into the walled city. Stop by the Portal de Dulces and buy a typical sweet from one of the rows of identical stands. I recommend the cocada de panela (a coconut-y thing), 30 cents each.

There's lots to see here, including The Palace of the Inquisition, where a tribunal announced the sentences of those found to have engaged in magic, blasphemy and witchcraft. The court here condemned about 800 people to die. Overlooking the Plaza Bolivar (as in the great liberator, Simon Bolivar), the palace has a creepy little museum of torture devices used during the Inquisition.

Outside the walls is the rest of the city--some of it colonial, much of it a modern commercial district, most of it very poor--with some important historical sites and all the beaches.

A popular area is Bocagrande, where high-rise hotels and apartment buildings overlook a long stretch of beach dotted with stands selling pina coladas and other beverages that come with small umbrellas. The beaches are generally dirty, and the grayish color of the water looks more like the Atlantic than the Caribbean, though it's calm and warm like bath water. The most beautiful beaches, with white sand and turquoise water and coral reefs, require a boat ride from Cartagena to the nearby Islas del Rosario, an archipelago about 45 minutes away.

Some worthwhile sights outside of the old city:

•La Popa, a convent that sits at the highest point in Cartagena, about 750 feet up. According to the literature inside the convent, a Spanish priest founded La Popa in 1606 after having a vision instructing him to do so.

The view of the city from La Popa is spectacular, and on the winding road up the hill you can see how many locals live. Once you're at the top, you can hear how they live; the festive music rises. Go in the evening, just before the convent closes at 5:30, so you don't suffocate from the heat. It costs about $2 to enter.

•Lots of fortresses. In addition to being an important port, Cartagena served as a storage point for merchandise bound for the Americas and treasures bound for Spain, so it was often attacked by pirates, including the likes of Sir Francis Drake, a hero to the English, a pirate to the Spanish.

Castillo San Felipe may be the best fortress to visit and costs $4.25 to enter. It has a series of tunnels where the defending soldiers would run when being attacked. They would hide in nooks built in such a way that they could see the shadows of the intruders approaching, but the intruders couldn't see them. Bayonet at the ready, they would stab as the intruders passed.

It was an important advantage for the Spanish colonists to have, our guide said, as they were generally much shorter than their French and English attackers. Clever folk.

•The volcanic mud bath at the Totumo volcano, a 50-minute drive from Cartagena. Formed by gases in the earth that push the mud up, the volcano bath is supposed to have healing minerals that are as good for your skin as your arthritis.

At first sight, the small volcano is underwhelming. But taking a dip ($2) is not.

Stripped down to your bathing suit, with a couple of kids guarding your belongings, you gingerly descend a slippery wooden ladder into a sulfurous caldron of mud said to extend some 6,000 feet deep. It feels like being suspended in a vat of warm gray pudding, or, as my companion put it, like being in the Le Brea tar pits that trapped so many prehistoric animals.

Though your body will be strangely buoyant, it's hard to stay upright, and you knock unwittingly into strangers. You can get a massage here, too, for tips.

Caked in mud, you rinse off in the nearby sea with the assistance of women who scrub you down--down to the point where they ask you to take off your swimsuit. It's awkward, but just do it. And be sure not to wear a swimsuit you care about, because the mud lingers.

Tours to the volcano leave from various Cartagena hotels, or you can take a local bus for a few bucks. We took a cab, which cost about $50 round trip, including the time the cabby waited for us at the volcano.

For all its romance, this is a poor city that relies heavily on tourists patronizing unofficial businesses.

As our cab pulled up to the beach near the hotel Las Americas, where we went to avoid the large crowds in Bocagrande, a group of boys rushed the car, jumping on its trunk and riding along to claim their next customers. Even before we got out of the cab, the boys were setting up beach chairs and shade tarps. They became informal waiters, bringing the group bottles of beer, rum, sunblock, ice, water--for which they charged marked-up prices, plus collected tips.

Very resourceful of them. And convenient for tourists, who may prefer not to leave the shade.

Cartagena is a steady 88 degrees year-round. It is oppressively hot in the city during the day, though it's pleasant at the beaches. Then at dusk, a breeze ripples through town, and the real magic begins.

Music spills from the bars surrounding Plaza Santo Domingo in the old city, which is filled with people having cocktails (rum and Scotch tend to be the drinks of choice) and dancing occasionally to the music of the roaming musicians. Sometimes men and women dressed in costume perform cumbias and sambas.

There are many good restaurants to choose from, many good bars to party at late into the night, lots of good strolling to be had. There's no rushing here. It is the Caribbean, after all.

Cortazar, the painter with the two-hammock apartment, sums up the ethic: "Don't leave for tomorrow what you could do the day after tomorrow."

Might as well. You kind of feel like staying anyway.

Where you should and shouldn't go

--Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz

November 23, 2008

The U.S. government continues to issue travel warnings for Colombia, citing violence from narco-terrorist groups, including the threat of kidnapping. In its most recent warning in August, the State Department warned that violence remains high in some small towns and rural areas, plus the port city of Buenaventura.

But since 2005, the U.S. advisories have noted a marked decrease in violence in many urban areas, including Cartagena, Bogota, Medellin and Barranquilla.

Kidnappings in Colombia have dropped steadily from a peak of 3,572 in 2000 to 521 last year, according to the Free Country Foundation, a group that assists kidnapping victims and their families. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a rightist who took office in 2002, has been credited with decimating the guerrilla ranks.

Two leftist revolutionary groups have been responsible for most of the kidnappings. Those groups claim to represent the rural poor against Colombia's wealthy classes and fund their activities with ransoms and the drug trade.

Violence also has come from right-wing paramilitary groups, which were formed to protect land and business interests from the leftist guerrillas but also became involved in drug trafficking, killings and kidnappings. An umbrella paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, signed a controversial peace deal with the Colombian government in 2003.

While the vast majority of kidnapping victims have been Colombian, some 324 foreigners were kidnapped from 1996 through 2007, 32 of them North Americans, according to the Free Country Foundation. In July, the Colombian government rescued 15 hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans, who had been held for more than five years.

While U.S. government employees in Colombia and their families are permitted to travel to major cities by air, they are not permitted to travel by bus or by road outside of urban areas at night. The State Department urges American visitors to take the same precautions.



--Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz

November 23, 2008


There are no direct flights between Chicago and Cartagena's Rafael Nunez International Airport, which accepts international flights only from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Panama City. The flight from Miami to Cartagena takes 21/2 hours.

Airfares from Chicago range from $620 to $1,182 round trip for a Friday-Sunday trip in early December, according to a recent check. Spirit Airlines flies O'Hare-Ft. Lauderdale-Cartagena for as little as $525 round trip, according to a recent check for Saturday-Sunday in early December (it doesn't fly Fridays or Mondays). Most other airlines require a couple of stops, including in Bogota or Medellin. I flew American Airlines from O'Hare to Miami, then Avianca from Miami to Cartagena ($750 round trip Chicago to Cartagena).


The old city is meant for walking, or you can take a pretty horse-drawn carriage or hail a cab. Cabs are plentiful, reasonably priced and the easiest way to get around. Ask the driver how much the ride will be when you first get in the cab. From the airport, a cab to the old city is 10,000 pesos (about $4). There's a special window at the airport where you can get a ticket that states the price. If you don't have the ticket, the cabby could overcharge you.


The old city has beautiful, romantic hotels, many of them converted 17th Century colonial structures. They'll cost you. One of the grandest is the Sofitel's Hotel Santa Clara, housed in a former convent and hospital. It has a spa and beautiful pool and terrace overlooking the sea and parts of the old wall. Its 119 rooms cost $300 to $1,000, depending on how full the hotel is (peak months are November to January and June and July). (011-57-5-6504700; Another luxury option is the Charleston, converted from the Santa Teresa convent. Some of the original convent still stands, and the church, complete with altar, serves as the ballroom. A plaza out front has live music most nights. The 90-some rooms feel more colonial than the Santa Clara, which is more modern. Rates start at $320. (011-57-5-6649494; cartagena). There are several interesting boutique hotels housed in 17th Century Spanish mansions. Agua Bed and Breakfast has a sleek, neocolonial feel. It has just six rooms and a stunning rooftop pool with a view of the cathedral (starting at $332). (011-57-5-6649479; A unique option is to rent an old colonial house, which is worthwhile if you have a big group. Some of these beautiful houses come with employees who cook and serve meals. Luxury travel site www.laheroica .com lists rental houses and apartments.


Good restaurants abound, some with live music. People dine late, around 9 p.m. I went to the Club de Pesca, an incredibly romantic restaurant with tables outside overlooking the bay and a live band playing everything from cumbia to flamenco to Sinatra. Situated in an old fort on the marina in Manga, the view and food were phenomenal. I recommend crab risotto ($21) and the king prawns ($22). (011-57-5-660-5863; If you get sick of seafood, La Bonga del Sinu on the party strip Calle Arsenal in Getsemani is an excellent steak restaurant, with filet mignon ranging from $7.50 to $15. It has a charming atmosphere, with outside tables in earshot of the salsa music playing at the bar across the street. (011-57-5-660-1649).


There's no shortage of night-life sizzle.

Inside the old city, Pablo's on the Plaza Santo Domingo is a casual joint with live music every night that brings patrons to their feet for a salsa or bachata. Just a few doors down is Comarca, a kitschy bar cluttered with nautical-themed junk and a band singing boleros (Latin American ballads). Another loungy option is Cafe del Mar, an outdoor bar on top of the old wall with a view of the sea and a scenester vibe. For dancing in true tropical style, head to bar Tu Candela in the Plaza de los Coches, where patrons dance a frenetic salsa and merengue while music videos play on the wall.

Elejalde-Ruiz is a Chicago Tribune staff writer.

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