“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Cartagena, Colombia, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez went to school and spent some time, is a city full of history. It was the key port for the Spanish during colonial times when they looted and pillaged South and Central America of their gold. And it was this gold that attracted pirates from all over the world. It was also the scene of battles between the English and French with the Spanish. The surrounding seas are covered with shipwrecks from the past and the bays and inlets are surrounded by old Spanish forts.
Today, it is a beautiful seaport town that attracts international travelers (and cruise ships) as well as Colombian retirees and second-homers. It is a vibrant city with many different neighborhoods each with its own look and feel- there is the Old Town with its ancient stone walls, a mini-Miami neighborhood named Bocagrande with its high-rise condos and then there is Getsemani, a neighborhood in the middle of a renaissance and is just outside of Old Town away from the hawkers selling just about anything. Getsemani is an authentically charming neighborhood with traditional buildings. We stayed in one of these charming buildings in Getsemani that has been turned into a small hotel with a gorgeous rooftop deck and pool, Casa Canabal. Getsemani had the right mix of activity for travelers but also had a neighborhood feel and interesting vibe.
The week we spent in Cartagena was the completion of almost a month in Colombia, and the weather in Cartagena was torrid and humid. During our 6 am morning runs, the heat was so strong, we returned to the hotel dripping with sweat. So we mostly kicked back, hung by the pool and used the time for some planning and reading. It was the type of heat that sitting by the pool reading was the logical, smart thing to do. Also, the Old Town, which is beautiful, happens to be very touristy, and it is hard to stroll around without being accosted by touts selling their wares and services. And the beach scene notorious for its “spring-break” atmosphere, rowdy island bars and overcrowded ferries, although very popular, was not what interests us.
But we enjoyed our relaxed week here. We strolled the back streets admiring the colonial architecture, street art and door-knockers.
The Old Town has a small but beautiful modern art museum that we enjoyed for its architecture and variety. There was not a single Botero there. (Surprising for a Colombian art museum. Botero is prolific in Colombia and revered. We found his pieces all over Bogota and Medellin.)
And we did hop on some bikes for a day. We took a 6 hour tour around the city and its outlying neighborhoods in the searing, oppressive midday sun. Probably not the smartest thing to do, but it was a good way to see some of the forts and more of the city.
We also continued to enjoy the Colombian cuisine as well as the Italian and pizza joints that are actually pretty good and prevalent throughout South America. In a tourist town as large as Cartagena, dining can be hit or miss, but we had time to experiment and found some great restaurants in the neighborhood where we were staying. And we highly recommend eating outside the walls of the old city where there is better food and better value (although La Mulata is an exception). Two others that we enjoyed most are La Cocina de Pepina for local food (run by a super nice young guy), and Di Silvio Trattoria for excellent pizza. At the Cocina, we really enjoyed his soups including mote y queso (yam and cheese) and a Caribbean fish stew.
The town is filled with happy hour spots to watch the sunset so we made the obligatory stop at Cafe Del Mar as recommended by friends and to meet up a local friend-of-a-friend.