Experience Transat

Cartagena, Old and New

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Culturally distinct from the rest of Colombia, Cartagena has long been a place apart, a city that drinks rum rather than aguardiente and listens to reggaeton like its Caribbean neighbours, that plays baseball and dances salsa, all night long. Built on seafaring wealth and with the multi-layered diversity befitting a major port, its squares and spires and rather ethereal charm have been poetically portrayed by Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, whose magical realism was inspired here. I’ve come to experience the richness of the Old City as well as of the new one, across the bay.

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

There was a time, just a few centuries ago, when pirates were something of a pestilence for this seaside city. As a way station for the riches of South America, silver from Peru and Bolivia, emeralds from here in Colombia, Cartagena de Indias quickly reflected the riches that passed through it, and those proved rather irresistible for swashbuckling seafarers, from Francis Drake to Henry Morgan. Which is why the Spanish built Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, one of the greatest forts of the Spanish colonial era, laying the foundations way back in 1536.

Even as a ruin, this massive, rambling structure, one built mostly of reclaimed coral, still dominates land and sea from its prominent spot atop the Hill of San Lázaro. I make my way toward the top, first exploring its labyrinthine network of tunnels and dark chambers some of which once held the booty then summiting outside, climbing up stairs scraped smooth by centuries of soldiers and privateers and tourists. Feeling the Caribbean humidity and wiping a wee bit of sweat from my forehead, I walk along a line of 63 cannons, all still pointed at invaders who will never arrive, taking in 360-degree views of the city. To one side sits the old heart of Cartagena, a place enshrined by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.

And on the other, a sweeping Latin skyline, one that reminds me of Miami or Panama City, a crescent-shaped shore lined with tall white skyscrapers, their steel and glass absorbing the sun and reflecting the sea. I see two worlds, one on either side of me, as I stand atop the city’s magnificent redoubt.

Plaza de Bolívar

I start inside the walls, in the heart of Centro Plaza de Bolívar, also known as Plaza Mayor. Here sits the square’s namesake, Simón Bolívar, memorialized as a statue, triumphantly astride a horse. At his feet, artists sell their wares and people feed the pigeons, and clip-clopping equine cabs make their way on the cobblestone streets, tourists snapping photos from the carriage as they trot through. But I’m here to see a bench. With four pesos in his pocket and the shirt on his back—the rest of his possessions lost in a hostel fire back in Bogota—then anonymous Gabriel García Márquez arrived here as a young man one night in 1948, bedding down on a hard bench. Before the night was through, police would arrest him for violating a city-wide curfew, hauled off to spend the rest of the night in jail.


This square—as with so many other romantic places in this city makes appearances in some of Márquez’s greatest works, including Love in the Time of Cholera. His words run through my head as I duck down shady back lanes and dine on fresh seafood on bougainvillea-scented squares. I sip rum watching the sun set from the Old City walls, mixing easily with a large crowd of locals gathered to bathe in the glow of a waning tropical sun. I shop at Las Bóvedas, browsing in a series of 23 former dungeons built by the Spanish back in the 18th century (now repurposed as boutiques), and learn about those condemned for practicing witchcraft at the Palace of the Inquisition, which, despite its dark history, stands as one of the city’s finest historic buildings.

And, still under the spell of the historic centre, I decide to go beyond the walls. The lure to do so is simple, the beach. Backed by those same white towers, Bocagrande Beach teems with sunbathers and swimmers whenever the sun’s out, which, in Cartagena, is almost always. Just a short 15-minute walk from the Old Town, it feels like I’m in a completely different city, one conceived in the era of Miami Vice.

After soaking up some sun on Bocagrande’s broad strip of sand, I grab a bit of ceviche at a simple seaside spot. Sitting there, salty breezes in my face, the sea before me, I know I’m in a paradisiacal destination, but one in the heart of a dynamic urban centre. With a spot by the sea, a rum on the rocks and some of the freshest fish in the Caribbean, I’m happy to sit here and reflect on the perfect intersection of old and new Colombia I’ve found in Cartagena. Later, I will salsa here in the city, at a string of clubs just outside the Clock Tower Gate. After that, I will pass back through the gate and walk the cobblestones again, then bed down in a small, historic hotel that dates back to the 17th century.

But for the moment, I feel like I can stay here forever.

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