Cartagena: Colombia’s jewel in the crown
A violinist stands on a corner, playing a Piazzola tango. Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop through narrow streets, with their cargo of courting couples. Locals and tourists begin to fill the bars in front of the Church of Santo Domingo where, in the soft light of dusk, the bronze buttocks of a Botero nude shine golden, burnished by the hands of the faithful.
There is no sign during my visit to Cartagena de Indias that it is only five days until the city hosts the historic signing of a peace treaty between the Colombian government and FARC rebels, intended to end 50 years of civil war. No fanfare, no visible security. And despite Colombians subsequently voting against the deal that earned President Santos the Nobel Peace Prize, both sides continue to negotiate, the ceasefire heralding the safest period in the country’s recent history.
Colombia’s second-oldest city, founded in 1533, remains serene and confident within its 17th-century walls, overlooked by impressive forts and batteries that saw off the British Navy during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, in 1741. As an administrative centre and stronghold for Spain’s plundered New World treasure, Cartagena teems with historical significance. Churches, convents and monasteries dominate this colonial town, many of them — such as the fabulous Casa San Agust?n, my temporary home — converted into plush hotels.
Regal manors, meanwhile, sit behind coral-cased, bronze-studded wooden doors. They too have been reborn, since the city’s Unesco listing in 1984, as smart restaurants. Unsurprisingly, given the extent of Spain’s interests, the Inquisition was present here.
The Dominicans set up shop in 1610, building the most beautiful secular structure in the city: the Palace of the Inquisition. Located on one side of Bol?var Square, it displaces the cathedral from its traditional site. Now a museum, the palace displays implements of torture — though, perhaps, none quite as chilling as the “Window of Denunciations”.
This sanctified snitch-hole, set on a side street beneath a crucifix, was a great way of settling scores. An accusation of heresy would quickly seal your adversary’s fate.
Cartagena’s Church of San Pedro Claver (Getty Images)
But Cartagena is one of those cities whose historical interest yields to its sheer sense of place. I walked the city walls, watching pelicans and frigatebirds wheel above the Caribbean.
I stumbled across the Teatro Heredia, with its interior of delicately fretted gilt woodwork and chandeliers, redolent of another world. And I marvelled at ancient brass doorknockers, wrought into the shape of geckos, fish, mermaids, lions, octopi — all of which, apparently, once related to the inhabitant’s status. Colour is everywhere, from the painted houses with their wooden balconies festooned with flowers, to the fruit vendors dressed in livid reds and purples.
I pay an extortionate amount for a loquat — the only way to secure photographic rights to its owner. She smiles suspiciously: “You’ll make a fortune from that picture,” she says.
Tayrona National Park (Alamy Stock Photo)
On the streets you’ll find purveyors of fake Cohiba cigars and watercolour copies of voluptuous Botero figures, wares lining the pavements alongside genuine mochilas — the ubiquitous, colourful bags hand-woven by Wayuu Indians. Panama hats are two-a-penny, made in Colombia from the same paja toquilla that is shipped to Ecuador for their manufacture.
The hatters teeter beneath six-foot towers of headgear as they make their way to their patch. I reach Portal de los Dulces, where eager children clamour around stalls of panela sweetmeats and bitter-sweet confections of tamarind. This was once the slave market but all ghosts have now been exorcised.
Hotel Casa San Agustin
My favourite lunch spot is the Club de Pesca — not only for the best snow crab and tuna I have ever tasted but for its breezy waterfront location.
In the distance, launches chug to the beaches of the Rosario Islands, near which the Spanish flagship galleon, the San Jos?, was sunk in 1708 with 200 tons of gold, silver and emeralds on board. A beach, in the searing heat, holds no small appeal. And some of the loveliest on this coast are found in Tayrona National Park, four and a half hours’ drive along a road flanked by ocean, swamps and migratory birds.
Along the way, signs warn of caymans, serpents and anteaters crossing. “I saw a jaguar here last week,” says my guide, indicating a hollow and showing me a video taken with a trembling hand, lest I have any doubt. We are walking through the dry and humid forests of Tayrona, which covers 40,000 acres between the ocean and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada.
But no jaguars today. Instead, we spot titi and howler monkeys high in the canopy, a family of fearless agoutis and toucans, preceded by their exuberantly-painted bills. A choir of birdsong accompanies our eight-hour walk through undergrowth and over smooth granite boulders that are sacred to the local Kogi Indians, accompanied by the sound of ocean waves.
Fine dining at Casa San Agustin
Here and there, inviting beaches hove into view, full of false promise. “100 people drowned here,” warns one sign.
So when we reach a beach called Piscina, the reward is all the greater. Calm, cerulean waters and white sands, framed by palms and lush vegetation. Then I see him: a Kogi chief, down from his mountain pueblo, on a mission to somewhere.
Diminutive, barefoot, long-haired, dressed all in white, he is a descendant of the famed Tayrona goldsmiths whose glittering creations lured the Conquistadors to this land. He glances at me, cavorting in the water, and continues on his way, unimpressed.
A basket seller with his wares (Getty Images)
The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3051 8098; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) can tailor-make an eight-day trip to Colombia from ?2,848pp. Includes accommodation at the Four Seasons Hotel Bogota, Casa San Agustin in Cartagena and Ecohabs, Tayrona National Park.
Plus Avianca flights from Heathrow to Bogota, domestic flights, private guiding and some meals.
- ^ theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk (www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk)
- ^ colombia.travel (www.colombia.travel)
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