Sunday, September 6, 2009

Cartagena, like no other

Under the brightest of moons, with a cool breeze blowing through the plaza just outside the city's walls, the voice of Placido Domingo - live, in the flesh - rises up into the clear night. On the other side of the wall, just steps away, this magical sound is swallowed up by the heavy rhythms of salsa music pouring out of Donde Fidel Salsa Bar. Like you might find in any American sports bar, a large number of men fill the space in this legendary spot, staring intentedly at a big screen TV. Only tonight, they aren't watching any sort of big game, but rather videos of live salsa bands as turned by the resident Video Jockey. Swaying and rocking in their seats, they are enchanted by these native rhythms, completely oblivious to the famous tenor belting a tune just around the corner.

It must be Saturday night in Cartagena.

And lucky for me, I am here now, peering through the gates to catch a glimpse of Sr. Domingo, then strolling across Plaza de Los Coches and straight into Donde Fidel to join in the nightly rumba. There really is no where else I would rather be tonight, because in a matter of hours I have fallen completely in love with this city. Despite the overwhelming heat and the occasional nasty mosquito, Cartagena lives up to is reputation as the gem of Colombia. Hectic, hot and beautiful by day.... steamy, sultry and downright sexy by night. As far as cities go, Cartagena is everything and more.

I felt the city's charm the moment I arrived; it would be impossible not to. Imagine row after row of quaint colonial buildings in every color, old-world balconies draped with magnificent flowers, all overlooking a maze of narrow cobblestone streets that see surprisingly little traffic. Around every corner is a spacious plaza, or a lovely garden, or a bustling marketplace, or an ancient church, or a lone vendor selling plump avocados. A police officer stands vigil on every block, watching over the city as horse-drawn carriages trot by. An entire block of enticing candy stalls make up El Portal de los Dulces, adding more sugar to an already sweet atmosphere.

What makes it all so magical is that all of this life and ambience and beauty is trapped within the confines of an imposing stone wall that encircles the historic center, offering a striking reminder of the city's complicated past. As the LP guidebook points out, the city wall deterred pirate attacks and pillaging throughout the centuries, but in modern times it is no match for the tourist machine that flocks here daily. This may be true, but I haven't noticed the tramplings of tourism nearly as much as I thought I would. The crowds here feel much more authentically local than they do extranjero. Or maybe all the tourists are hiding out in internet cafes and coffee shops, wherever they can find air con and refuge from the sweltering afternoon heat.

I will admit that earlier tonight I was doing just that. In desperate need for a late-afternoon boost and some beloved cafe ambience, I broke down, made a beeline for the nearby Juan Valdez Cafe, and had my first cup of coffee in nearly 2 months. And damn was it good, right down to the very last drop of tinto. I must say, all that hype about the fabulousness of the Colombian roast isn't just hype... or maybe I was merely growing desperate. Regardless, it was worth the wait.

What's more, it seems my pattern of making new friends in cafes has followed me all the way to Cartagena: soon enough, a conversation was struck with a friendly father and son duo from Bogotá, and next thing I know this lovely family is inviting me to their beachfront apartment in the nearby town of La Boquilla. Happy to accept, I spent the afternoon lounging by their pool and completely enjoying the company. And, I was reminded that if making friends is what the cafe scene brings, then I need no other reason to start drinking coffee again.

And so here I am, totally at peace in Cartagena. After 10 exhausting days of traveling and constant movement, I have decided to stay put for awhile. I have completely settled in at a lovely little hotel in El Centro, and have no desire to leave. Why would I? For 20 USD per night, I have a large tiled room in a recently-renovated building, cable TV that includes English news channels, a private bathroom, access to a common kitchen, a huge living room area with free high speed internet, a wonderful staff with whom I have become friends, and a location in the historic center that could not be more safe or perfect for a lone traveler like me. I have groceries in the fridge and some photos on the public desktop. At least for the next few days, I am completely and happily at home.


Splendid balconies


Stunning architecture


Incredible interiors


Plaza de Los Coches


A city's fortress


Candy for sale along the Portal de Los Dulces



Ripe avocadoes for only 1 dollar!



A newfound friend (wearing my jaunty hat)


The central "courtyard" at my current home

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