Cartagena is a dizzying Caribbean kaleidoscope of vibrant culture and history that will fully awaken all senses. First of all, the Old City of Cartagena is a Unesco World Heritage site, so the experts have already deemed it as a place of significance, a place where you might want to become fully present and keenly aware of it all. It is a mythic port city of treasures, pirates, and pillage. As a result, it is completely enclosed by a wall that was constructed after Sir Francis Drake attacked in 1586, the wall was the final straw after the Spanish endured too many pirate licks by many other miscreants before Drake. In addition to its historical clout as a premier destination in the big wide world, it’s also easy to make your way around inside the walled Old City of Cartagena. Traveling alone and being a bit directionally challenged, a girl can get completely lost walking the maze of sidewalks and streets without any worries since you are fully protected in every direction by fortified ruins. The only danger being the gaping holes along the sidewalk every other block or so.
It’s a good idea to glance down to the ground from time to time to prevent falling inside these sidewalks, but be sure to look up and around so as to soak up the scenery. And be ready to engage all five senses as you do. The Cartagena sensory experience begins with color. Walk just one block and every house along the way is painted a different hue like eggs in an Easter basket, which is the analogy that comes to mind since I landed in Colombia on Good Friday. After your eyeballs transmit a basket of light waves, get ready for even more color from above because all the balconies have climbing bougainvillea blooming delicate pastel paperlike flowers. And crisscrossing from one rooftop to another, a bright canopy of festive flags flap wildly in the sky, as if there is a birthday party every day on every block in this city. Another street is strewn with upside down iridescent umbrellas. Another with colorful bottles. It seems the possibilities are endless when it comes to reflecting light and color with random objects suspended high above all over the city.
And that is just what you will see. The rest of your senses will kick in shortly after sight. Smell the aroma of Colombian coffee along with exhaust fumes and smoked chorizo and fruit juices and fresh lobster and horse manure and cigar smoke and caramel and coconut candies. Listen late at night in the eerie space of another time to the faint clip-clop of horseshoes coming down the street as they gradually become louder and louder before a carriage dashes within inches in front of you. Or wake up on your morning stroll to an echo as street vendors sing their songs of fruit for sale from nature’s colorful bounty toppling over their old rickety carts. Buy something tropical that you cannot altogether identify to ignite new taste buds. Stop later for some street food at lunchtime where the local crowds are gathered and order the plate-sized triple fried plantain served with a spongy slab of salty fermented curd. Take a break from the sweltering humidity and heat and relax on a bench in a shady spot at one of the many plazas. Aggressive vendors will approach you within minutes, invade your personal space, and deliver a tactile sales pitch. Before you know it an assortment of bracelets will be strung over your wrist or possibly even your thigh. Another vendor will then apply a mess of lotion to your bare skin dispensed from a condiment bottle stored within her bosom. Seconds later, she will then begin vigorously massaging your calf before you can even process what is happening and tell her, “No, no quiero un masaje, gracias.”
Welcome to Cartagena! Your senses are now supercharged. So much so that you question if this is all reality or illusion? Is it no wonder that magical realism was born in this country? Gabriel García Márquez did not have to conjure up all the ideas for his stories using only his imagination. He probably just sat on a park bench and took note of what was all around him.
Rest at ease knowing that you can take a reprieve from this sensory overload by stepping inside one of the many cathedrals, which seem to be at every turn of the corner here. Then be prepared to be transported in your mind to Cartagena’s past, which is a labyrinth in narrative of epic proportion. Sitting inside this grandiose tranquil space, the traces of Cartagena’s history—very much alive today and swarming the city streets outside—spin about in your imagination as if you were rotating through images on the reel of a vintage View-Master.
In one slide, palenqueras in multicolored traditional dresses balance a bowl of tropical fruit on top of their heads. These women are descendants of the people of San Basilio de Palenque, a city established by runaway slaves and the very first free town in the Americas. The women of Palenque went to work shortly after its liberation making use of its natural resources and made their living by carrying fruit into town to sell. They still sell the fruit, but they may also pose for a picture as well these days since their semblance has become an iconic stamp of sorts to symbolize the city of Cartagena.
In another slide, The Kogi, an indigenous group who live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, are huddled together barefoot on the bustling city streets. Men, women, and children are dressed exactly alike, head to toe, in traditional white linen juxtaposed against their long straight raven locks. The only thing to convince you that you haven’t traveled in time to another period in history altogether is the cell phone they hold in their hand as they sell their basket wares. Their ancient ancestors, the Tayrona, made intricate works in gold and it is the lure of gold that brought the Spanish here to this very site where they created a portal in and out of a new world. Galleons of gold and silver were shipped out in one direction and millions of African slaves were shipped through in another.
The exquisite Colonial buildings also tell a story. They were built with the wealth that the Spanish acquired as a result of all that passed through this portal city. The Palace of the Inquisition is one of the most beautiful buildings in the entire city, but this palatial marvel of Baroque architecture houses a grim history of torture. Anyone suspected of heresy or witchcraft throughout all of the islands in the Caribbean would have been brought here by boat to confess their sins. A film playing on a continuous loop tells the true tale to museum-goers of a Haitian woman who used her traditional knowledge of medicinal herbs and magic to help a Spanish aristocratic to fend off the desires of a cheating husband and was brought to Cartagena to confess her sins to the inquisitors when the remedy did not work.
Another building, San Pedro Iglesia, is dedicated to San Pedro Claver who is the patron saint of slaves and seafarers. He was a Jesuit priest who dedicated his life trying to alleviate the suffering of all the slaves who entered Cartagena. He boarded each slave ship as it arrived at the port to administer medicine to those who had survived the journey. He would then carry a tote bag of provisions—filled with foods and fruits and medicines and brandy and tobacco—to slave auctions and hand these small items of comfort out to the slaves to ease their pain. When there were no slave ships in Cartagena, he traveled to the plantations to continue his mission where he lived amongst the slaves, even sleeping at night in the slave quarters.
In between all of these buildings with tales to tell are scenic plazas canopied by tropical trees and plants. The most verdant and famous of the plazas in the “Jewel of the Indies” is the Plaza de Bolívar. Simón Bolívar, El Libertador, is placed gallantly astride an enormous horse at the center of the plaza. It was Simón Bolívar who gave Cartagena the title of “Heroic City” after it was the first to claim independence from Spain. This plaza quickly became one of my favorites, along with Plaza Fernández Madrid. I later found out that both were spots were Gabriel García Márquez frequented and that Plaza Fernández Madrid may have been a place of inspiration for Love in the Time of Cholera. I discovered this plaza and instantly fell in love with it within the first few hours after my arrival when I stopped here for a traditional dish of bandeja paisa.
A friend who I worked with in Aruba and is now living in Bolivia met up with me those first few days after he spent some time in Bogotá. We hit all the big tourist sites such as San Felipe de Barajas, a big castle built on a hill to protect the city with a series of secret tunnels. We went for arepas, toured the Modern Art Museum, and sipped coffee inside coffee shops, my favorite being Abacus Books and Coffee. Every wall inside this coffee shops is floor to ceiling in books, a comprehensive collection of Latin American literature. We only had 48 hours together so we packed it full with a ton of sightseeing. He left Easter Sunday and then I was on my own for the rest of the week after that.
Cartagena is the perfect destination to fully experience this solo travel thing. With the realization that it is just you all alone far away in this foreign world, a spotlight beams down on each and every moment of the journey. Apart from the mindfulness aspect of solo travel, traveling alone also sets you free to do things at your own pace. Each day I would venture out with a specific destination in mind and then let the day unravel from there on my own time, which is slow and spontaneous.
The first thing I wanted to do was eat ceviche, and so I headed to La Cevicheria, which was featured on Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. The wait to be seated at this restaurant was one hour. Since I was on my own and free to make the decision to wait, I put myself as a party of one on the waiting list and took a stroll around the neighborhood. I returned after an hour and took a seat for lunch at a table outside on the sidewalk. I ordered up a plate fused with the local flavors of Colombia. The next thing I knew I was sipping a mojito and snacking on plantain chips served with a dipping sauce. Moments later, I was served up the largest and freshest platter of ceviche I have ever seen. The first bite was out of this world. Absolutely worth the wait!
The next day I penciled in a museum at the top of my agenda but then quickly wandered off on meandering paths as one boutique after another beckoned me inside. Colombia has quickly become a fashion destination and Cartagena is the perfect window in on Colombian designers. Whether borrowing from indigenous design and fabrics or incorporating bold tropical prints, these one-of-a-kind creations pop up in shop windows all over the city and seem to be an integral part of the landscape. I can’t imagine a trip to Colombia without purchasing a few items to hang inside your closet. Shortly after my shopping spree, more meandering paths led me outside the walled city to Getsemani. This neighborhood is quintessential Cartagena. The buildings are brightly painted with murals that tell the story of the city and its people. And all the people are out and about celebrating life, day and night.
And so I went at this pace for the rest of the week and basically let my itinerary create itself as I turned each corner. I took one afternoon for a spa day on a whim and spontaneously stopped at a restaurant jam-packed with locals—so the food must be good—for lunch on another afternoon. All of this wandering about fully present in the moment at your own pace and never knowing where the next step will lead made this trip feel a lot like a dream. And since Colombia is already a dreamlike destination, traveling it alone makes it even more magical.
And this, in my opinion, is the biggest benefit. It is like zooming with a lens on every moment of your journey. You pick up on details you may have missed otherwise lost in conversation with a friend or negotiating a decision about the next step of action. And something about zooming in on the details creates stronger memories of the whole experience.
This was my third trip to Colombia over Easter weekend over the last three years. Maybe I will be back next year and make Colombia an Easter tradition. There is definitely more to see.