Colombia Reborn - Writer Lisa Bonner discovers a captivating new Cartegena amidst the slave history of its storied past
I used to be a huge fan of HBO’s Entourage. One of my favorite arcs in the series was when Adrian Garnier transformed his otherwise sexy character into the overweight, sloven Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar for a movie role. I’m a 1980s child, so I vividly remember Colombia’s recent, notorious cartel days. That was Colombia to me… then. But one press trip to Medellin last year changed my mind. Actually, that’s an understatement. I instantly fell in love with it.
When I left, I wanted more, its charm resonating like a nostalgic siren. Bogota and Cartagena were on my “go to” list, so when a friend mentioned a birthday trip, my inner voice instantly screamed “Colombia!” Two months later, my heart skipped a beat when the same friend emailed me confirming his travel plans. After a little schedule finagling, I packed my bags and was off.
Bogota was wonderful, and perhaps I’ll write about that another time, but it was Cartagena that really stole my heart. The old Cartagena—reflective of the Inquisition, cholera and the horrific slave trade—has been carefully preserved and repaired like an aging Hollywood starlet. The new Cartagena has emerged, and like an aging starlet, its fresh, new façade is a gussied up version of days gone by, but better.
The heart of today’s Cartagena still lies behind its storied walls. Old town Cartagena, or the “Walled City” as it’s now called, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. If walls could talk, they would tell you how this former Spanish colony (named after Cartagena, Spain) and its constant struggle to defend itself against those seeking power in the New World came to be.
Cartagena’s strategic location on the Caribbean Sea, on the northern coast of South America, underscored the city’s importance to pirates, traders and conquerors alike. Known also as Cartagena de Indias, the Bolívar department capital has a huge Afro-Caribbean population (a fact not lost on me, since I’d seen literally zero people who remotely resembled me in Medellin or Bogota.)
After constant attacks by foreigners and the need for manual labor to unearth and transport the riches that lie beneath this city, the Spanish crown decided to fortify Cartagena with the help of enslaved Africans. (Which is interesting, since Spain wouldn’t allow the enslavement of Amerindians). But they eventually built a spectacular city, erecting what’s now (according to UNESCO) “the most extensive and one of the most complete systems of military fortifications in South America.”
Armed with a guidebook, we set off to explore. We strolled the cobblestoned streets to Plaza de Ferdinand de Madrid, a famous backdrop of many movie sets including Love in the Time of Cholera. (Author Gabriel García Márquez is a resident of Cartagena.) I sat in the square watching old men playing cards and checkers, people drinking local beer, hawking local fare.
We continued walking the narrow streets of the San Diego quarter, home to Cartagena’s former middle class, passing its colorful houses to our lunch destination, La Mulata. As we strolled from quarter to quarter, every step oozed with African Caribbean history. We wandered past the Plaza de la Aduana, which is nothing more now than a nondescript door facing a nondescript square. But that door belied its ugly past. This was the Customs Door. Once the slaves walked through that door into the Plaza, they were sold like chattel. My heart broke, as I stood in silence imagining all of the horrors of its past.
Around the corner, however, lay some salvation for enslaved Africans at the Church of St. Peter Claver. St. Peter, a Jesuit priest from Spain, dedicated his life to offering food, ministering, and in some instances baptizing them, and advocating for humane treatment by the ruthless overseers. I ambled through the prayer room, St. Peter’s bedroom and the “slave dormitory” (all perfectly preserved), and out into the courtyard, visiting the baptismal fountain.
As we scaled the walls of Old Town and explored its tiny streets, I was reminded why Cartagena is a place for everyone, not just Black folks. The weather is typically Caribbean, with an average temperature of 88 balmy degrees. World famous opera and ballet companies come to Cartagena to visit the Heredia Theatre—a former monastery converted into a state of the art theatre swathed in Portuguese wood, dotted with Italian marble statues throughout, and finished with a frescoed ceiling painted by the famous Colombian master Enrique Grau.
The hotels in Old Town, many housed in some of Cartagena’s grandest 17th century estates, have been transformed from homes formerly owned by noblemen, wealthy merchants and slave traders into glorious 21st century boutique hotels that are quintessentially Colombian.
Cartagena has quietly emerged as a major player on the food scene. The port town is famous for seafood, which fuses its Spanish, African and Colombian roots.
Restaurants like Don Juan, an authentic Colombian restaurant, sent me over the moon. La Vitrola, by all accounts the Holy Grail of Cartagena’s restaurants, is a jazz supper club that evokes old Havanna. El Santisimo pays homage to its former landlord, the church, by serving dishes with names such as The Sacrilege and The Creed. I never had a bad meal in Colombia, and the food is hands down some of the best I’ve eaten in all my travels.
Walking back to my hotel snapping photos, I listened to the sounds of Cartagena: the salsa that poured into the streets, the rhythm of horse-drawn carriages barreling over cobblestones. I reflected on how, in a 48-hour visit, Cartagena’s charm captivated me. Its people, food and culture each demonstrated one of life’s greatest lessons: how, with a constant strive for change and staying the course, you can transform yourself into something greater and better than your former self.