At the end of Calle de Tumbamuertos, a Cartagena street named after victims of a 1870s cholera epidemic whose bodies would tumble off carts on this cobbled stretch, there is a jewel of 17th century colonial architecture.
This former convent and home for church choirs is now a moody hotel bar called El Coro.
The mojitos are fresh but the real excitement lives in the bowels of this UNESCO heritage-listed spot. It’s where Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez found the inspiration for his novel Of Love and Other Demons, based on a fable his grandmother told of a rabies-infected 12-year-old girl who performed miracles and had long copper hair that grew even after her death.
Stairs in the middle of the bar lead down to an eerie crypt where Marquez supposedly witnessed the excavation of a tomb containing the skeleton of a girl with copper hair still attached. Convinced of the fable’s veracity, he immortalised it on the page.
It is these stories – often gruesome, often laced with spice and death and tropical heat – that seep out of every corner, door knocker and street name in Cartagena, a peculiar and utterly beguiling city on the Caribbean coast.
This is Colombia after all, the land of magical realism.
“They love a good story here,” says local tour operator and Australian expat Kristy Ellis. “And people have a gruesome sense of humour.”
For reasons that are hard to fathom, Cartagena and its magical stories remain relatively undiscovered by international tourists who seem to prefer Brazil or Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula for their South American sun and sand fix.
If only they knew what they were missing: a hidden gem that mixes the best of Caribbean, South American and Creole culture and serves it up alongside some superb dining, dancing and shopping.
Ellis, who never left Cartagena after discovering it on a six-month sabbatical across South America in 2012, lists just five Australians who live here: one owns a mezcal and coffee bar, two run a social enterprise cafe called Stepping Stones.
And, during a walk through Cartagena, she says she started one of the city’s few tourism companies, Cartagena Connections, after seeing a need for local-led food and culture tours.
“There has never been a boring day here,” she says. “I go dancing every day in some way, I bike everywhere, I feel a real sense of community here. I’ve fallen in love with the city.”
To get to the heart of Cartagena – both physically and metaphorically – you must start with the wall.
The colonial city is surrounded by a two-metre stone wall, once built by Cartagena’s Spanish conquistadors to keep out pirates and European invaders, and later retained to delineate the city’s upper and lower classes.
Now protected by UNESCO heritage listing, the wall and everything inside remains beautifully preserved in contrast to the adjacent historical suburb of Getsemani and the Bocagrande peninsula extending from the walled city to the north, straddled by the Caribbean ocean and the port of Cartagena.
Getsemani, where the poor, the minorities and even the single ladies were once consigned, has partially been incorporated into the walled city and has morphed into a Bohemian pocket of grimier streets with stacks of soul.
Bocagrande, however, is all modern-day bling. High-rise hotels and malls line grey sand beaches that are being eaten away by encroaching developments. (If you choose, as I did, to stay on Bocagrande instead of the expensive boutique hotels in the walled city or the hostels of Getsemani, the Hyatt Regency is the obvious pick. It’s just a few years old, stunningly designed and a $3 cab ride to the walled city).
The beaches along Bocagrande are not the draw card here and, if you’re after white sands, a day trip to the Rosario Islands or Playa Blanca is a must. Instead, Cartagena is about what’s inside – and on – that wall.
The Spanish word for wall is not just a noun but a verb too. As the sun sets, it’s a place to gather, just like the dozen-or-so public squares dotted throughout the walled city’s maze of narrow streets. Locals congregate on the the wall to canoodle with their date, share cheap beers with friends or splash out at Cafe del Mar, a bar built into the wall.
To walk between the colonial city districts of Centro, San Diego and Getsemani only takes an hour but several days can easily be consumed with food, music, history, architecture and Colombian life.
The difference between each district is stark. In rough-around-the-edges Getsemani, where homes were historically limited to one storey, graffiti murals tell stories of struggle and liberation and families line Plaza de la Santisima Trinidad to eat cheap (and very good) arepas.
In wealthy Centro, where buildings were allowed to be three storeys, the streets are picture-book perfect. Fairy lights frame rows of manicured Spanish mansions with balconies dripping in bougainvillea and gargantuan wooden doors. The magical realism creeps in again: most homes have door knockers that tell a story, perhaps a fish to bring good luck to a mariner or a lion to signify that military men lived inside.
A good place to start exploring is somewhat in the middle at the clock tower in Plaza del la Paz, once a slave market and transport hub that is now a buzzing focal point for locals.
Old men gather on plastic chairs to shoot the breeze, break dancers and capoeira groups refine their skills on the pavement, leather-skinned elders line the bar of famous salsa club Donde Fidel and vendors hawk tinto coffee or Caribbean sweets like sugary rocks of shredded coconut called cocada.
From there, head into the labyrinth of tiny streets housing gems like Abacus, a floor-to-ceiling book store and coffee shop, or Bar Alquimico, easily the city’s best bar with its red velvet trimmings, high ceilings and fabulous rooftop.
In nearby Plaza Bolivar, local dance groups perform traditional routines at 6pm each night, ranging from frenetic African-inspired mapolo to seductive bachata.
Moving through Centro is a louder, busier feast for the eyes, ears and wallet. Plaza Santa Domingo heaves with street performers, music blaring from Bourbon Bar, al fresco dining and the unmistakable touch of Colombia’s favourite artist, Fernando Botero, in a 650-kilogram bronze statue of a voluptuous woman.
The shopping in Centro is hard to resist. High-end boutique St. Dom sells tropical-hued clothes and accessories from Colombian designers, Silvia Tcherassi is a go-to for luxurious palazzo pants and maxi dresses, Agua sells bright turbans and great swimwear.
While the price is not as competitive as other cities, the quality of artisan souvenirs is among the best here too. Look for brightly-coloured ‘werrengue’ bowls and vases and painted platters made from shredded wheat. Just don’t forget to haggle.
Cartagena is doing more than its fair share to shake off Colombia’s reputation as a culinary wasteland and in Centro, the dining is outstanding. Within a block, you can feast on chimmichurri-soaked tiradito (raw fish) and charred octopus with buttery yuca mash at La Perla, artisan icecream at La Paleteria and work-of-art cocktails at El Baron.
In San Diego, a chilled district of eclectic restaurants and heritage buildings, the famed La Cevicheria serves up unbelievably fresh seafood soaked in coconut and lime or, for something different, there is the hot pink Interno restaurant attached to a jail and staffed by female inmates. Getsemani has also upped its game with Maria (Mexican food) and Demente (tapas).
Equally, though, some of the best food is on the street. Around Calle 36, where locals poor in and out of the city, vendors cook fritos (fried foods) in front of you like empanadas, buñuelos (salty, cheesy balls of dough) and carimañolas (yuca fritters stuffed with ground meat).
Wash it down with a coconut lemonade (local favourite La Mulata does a mean one) or kaleidoscope tropical fruit sold on trolley carts.
There are little gems to find everywhere in Cartagena; nuggets of New Orleans’ party spirit, Cuba’s ramshackle charm or the Caribbean’s tropical zest.
One second you’ve stumbled upon the lush atrium hidden inside Casa Museo, a former rum factory and girls’ school that houses an art gallery, hotel and coffee shop. The next, you wander across the most beautiful little scene in Plaza de San Diego, where musicians play salsa and jazz among pastel-painted homes and fairy-lit ficus trees. Or perhaps it might be the ghost of a copper-haired girl rising the stairs as you order another cocktail.
cartegenaconnections.com Cartagena Connections runs tours most days of the week covering street food, history, photography, street art, pirates, markets and local cooking.
There are no direct flights from Australia to Cartagena and most travellers will have to pass through one or two cities. The US cities of New York, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta run direct flights daily to Cartagena. Local airlines Copa, Avianca, VivaColombia and Latam run several flights daily between Cartagena and most major Colombian cities. See avianca.com; delta.com; latam.com.
The Hyatt Regency is a 15-minute walk or $3 taxi to the walled city and is well-priced for a luxury hotel with pools, top quality restaurants and water views on both sides of the hotel. Rooms start from about $170 a night. See cartagena.regency.hyatt.com.
Inside the walled city, Hotel Quadrifolio is spectacular boutique hotel made from the ruins of a 17th-century building and offering a pool, restaurant and rooftop spa. Rooms start from about $340 a night. See hotelquadrifolio.com.
Sofitel Legend Santa Clara is a 123-room hotel in a 17th century heritage-listed building in San Diego. It has beautiful architecture and facilities including a cocktail bar, El Choro, housing the infamous crypt from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel Of Love and Other Demons. Rooms start from about $400 a night. See sofitel.com
Rachel Olding travelled at her own expense.