A Love Letter to Cartagena, Colombia
There are many types of loves you encounter while traveling. The most common is the love tied to expectations: you know what you wish to find, and your love for that city is conditional upon achieving these goals. Then, there is circumstantial love: you did not choose the city, nor necessarily want to see it, yet somehow – whether due to open-mindedness or resignation – you learn to appreciate it for what it has to offer. The harder to find, and consequently most gratifying love is the one that catches you off-guard: with no expectations, you couldn’t have guessed that this city would have swept you off your feet.
This is precisely the emotion that ignited within me when, five years ago, I saw Cartagena for the first time. Perhaps this is the fiercest way to love; a slow and steadily burning admiration, one that is fueled by distance and intensifies every time it is revisited. When I laid eyes on Cartagena, instantly I felt something in the depths of my chest flutter. I did not know it then, but soon I understood that, like Rome, this was a city that I would grow old with.
Cartagena unapologetically snatched a piece of my heart, yet I, too, stole a sliver back. Unbeknownst even to himself, Cartagena was starving for attention. I thus quietly listened to the ramblings of a city that was, at a time before tourism had taken off, quite oblivious to my presence. I learned that Cartagena’s character is composed of three soliloquies, each addressing a distinctive trait of the city.
First there is Bocagrande, the sparkly commercial neighborhood laden with glaring white skyscrapers, towering condominiums and international hotel chains. With boastful pride, Cartagena reassures himself that this is the city that any respectable, wealthy tourist would expect: luxurious, orderly, and barren of turbulence. But, pride often masks self-denial. Another side of the city hides in the hills, tucking away its poorest residents. After all the time Cartagena has spent building a pristine reputation, it would be shameful to blemish it by admitting that nearly half of the population lives in poverty. These hidden slums lie deceivingly close to a carefree paradise, a despicable dichotomy that the city has not yet learned to deal with.
Yet, it’s often our dark side that exacerbates the beauty and fascination housed in the good. In a soothing voice coated with honey and romance, Cartegena will seduce you with the immeasurably beautiful Old City. The most prized parts of our identity tend to be the most fragile, and Cartagena’s is protected by walls (11 km long at that – talk about trust issues). Old City, known as Centro Historico, is encased in a walled compound remnant of a fortress built during the 16th century Spanish conquest. Cartagena is well aware of the power that this charming, colonial town wields. Centro Historico is the connecting piece in Cartagena’s complicated personality and the city’s claim to fame. It has enabled Cartagena to become a fine gentleman whose poor, troubled past has been gracefully swept under the rug. Always dressed in a crisp white suit, he elegantly floats by, Martini in one hand and a cigar in the other. While something about Cartagena feels inherently scuffed and worn down, it is enrapturing all the same.
This is why, Cartagena, I keep coming back to you year after year:
Cartagena’s complexity is most magnetic – I long to understand the many juxtapositions that color the city’s character. On one hand, this city exudes luxury and affluence. Quaint, colonial houses line the cobbled streets, adorned with balconies crafted of rich, creamy wood and swathed in flowers of every splendid shade.
Blink away the initial awe, however, and you will see deficiencies in this beauty. Years of sea salt damage stain these seemingly meticulous buildings. Nestled between all the picturesque pastel mansions and high-end stores are decrepit local businesses struggling to get by. The stark contrasts of Cartagena’s nature, however, are what make the city so beautiful. There is a certain aesthetic allure in how puddles of fallen flower petals clutter the streets alongside litter; street vendors luring in tourists in traditional Colombian garb; the clack of horse hooves spliced with the distinctive whir of car on cobblestone. The pure, amusing irony that it could be so damn hot in paradise and the only element that can bring you relief – the salty breeze – is the very one that wears down the city.
Despite all these complexities, Cartagena will share himself with those willing to make the tough climb up his peak. Another gem is located on top of a 150m hill, at the highest point in the city: the Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria convent, founded by the Augustine fathers in 1607. Initially just a small wooden chapel, it was eventually replaced by a larger stone construction. The monastery, also known as “La Popa,” is graced by a lovely image of the patroness of the city, La Virgen de la Candelaria, and a statue of Padre Alonso García de Paredes, a murdered priest. Within, the church is beautifully decorated with gold and flowers filling an interior courtyard. From the top of this monastery, all the puzzle pieces reassemble. La Popa grants a holistic view of the city, including the Caribbean, a fishing village (La Boquilla), Old City, and Bocagrande. A moment of quiet intimacy overlooking this landscape will explain why Cartagena is so irresistible.
More so than Cartagena’s stunning appearance, I fell in love with the city’s soul. While beautiful by day, Cartagena truly comes alive at night. The streets radiate with dynamic energy, particularly within Old City. Everyone is clad in white and dancing, and even the most un-rhythmic body can’t resist moving to the sounds of salsa, rumba, and champeta infusing the air. The smooth Latin music, the click-clack of passing-by horse carriages, the rustle of the wind meddled with tinkles of laughter creates an intoxicating Colombian lullaby. It is almost impossible to escape the joy that marinates the air. This is why, in the end, it is so easy to overlook Cartagena’s flaws – because when something makes you feel this happy and fulfilled, even the most outright imperfections become virtues.