Touts beckoned passersby into gleaming boutiques, while stray dogs, hoping for table scraps, competed with street musicians for the diners' attention.
The plaza encapsulates the contrasts in this historic Colombian seaport on the Caribbean: Old World versus New, sunny leisure in the shadow of evil spirits, palpable hunger in the face of abundance.
It was also a fitting starting point for "The Cartagena of Gabriel García Márquez," an audio tour released this year and the first of its kind to explore the Nobel Prize-winning author's strong ties to the city.
García Márquez, a native of Aracataca on Colombia's north coast, portrayed Cartagena's many charms and complexities in novels set here, most notably "Love in the Time of Cholera" and "Of Love and Other Demons." I had come to Cartagena for a monthlong stay, lured, in part, by the author's seductive depiction of the city — a place of "amethyst afternoons and nights of antic breezes."
After I slipped on my headphones and began the audio guide, I learned that García Márquez's stay was relatively brief; he arrived in 1948 and remained only a year (he eventually returned and buit a home here in the 1990s). The audio tour began with the assumption, however, that the period was extremely influential.
As I started down a narrow street off the Plaza Santo Domingo lined with upscale restaurants, boutiques and luxury hotels, I found it hard to imagine — as the audio guide told me — that in 1948 these brightly painted colonial façades were in ruins, many of them abandoned. It was also surprising to learn that García Márquez arrived here with only 4 pesos in his pocket.
He had fled to Cartagena from Bogotá, Colombia, where he'd been a law student with literary aspirations, when riots swept the capital. The university was closed, and García Márquez was among the thousands who hastily departed, leaving behind most of his belongings (including several of his earliest story manuscripts). He landed in Cartagena, which had been spared the civil strife, with the prospect of transferring to the local law school.
The audio guide reminded me that even as Cartagena had weathered this political storm, the broader history of the city was far from peaceful. The storybook lanes and bougainvillea-draped balconies conceal a tumultuous and bitter colonial past. As I retraced the author's steps on what is now Calle Santa Teresa, I was told that beneath the pavement is a cemetery of the native Calamarí people, conquered by the Spanish in 1533.
Just around the corner is the Palace of the Inquisition, where heretics were tortured. In nearby Plaza de los Coches, Africans slaves were auctioned. Such brutalities would come to haunt the margins of García Márquez's literature. In his novels set here, the purest of passions exist side by side with the most wrenching afflictions of body and soul. It is a place where love is confused with cholera.
The audio guide directed me past the former site of El Universal newspaper, where García Márquez apprenticed as a journalist (his law studies had grown tiresome). While writing a column chronicling the city's daily life, he soaked up local lore, much of it infused with seemingly supernatural occurrences, such as the church tower supposedly twisted by the devil.
Later, he would draw on this blurring of fact and fiction in his distinctive literary style of magical realism, as with the tale of child protagonist Sierva María in "Of Love and Other Demons." In the book's preface, he spins a story of being sent on assignment in 1949 to the old Santa Clara Convent to cover the excavation of the burial crypts. He describes the exhumed skeleton of a girl whose copper hair continued to grow 200 years after her death — the supposed inspiration for Sierva María's character — and leaves the reader wondering whether it is journalistic truth or literary device.
When night falls in Cartagena, the city seems to rewind two centuries. The narrow streets are lighted only by antique lanterns, and the breezes carry the eerie echoes of horses' hoofs on cobblestone. In the wee hours, it is not difficult to imagine the kinds of "dark magic" attributed to Sierva María, who was incarcerated in the convent after being bitten by a rabid dog and accused of demonic possession.
But in Cartagena the night's sinister whispers are often drowned out by romance — or at least by the soul-stirring percussion of sultry nightclubs (García Márquez, my audio guide informed me, was inclined to binge on rum and vallenato, a type of folk music). The audio tour next led me into the funky Getsemaní neighborhood, which pulses after dark with salsa and reggae.
I had passed the statue in front of Quiebra-Canto, the city's liveliest salsa joint, dozens of times without paying attention to it. But as my audio guide instructed me to pause, I read for the first time the inscription — Noli Me Tangere (Don't Touch Me) — below the figure of a woman holding her hand open toward the sea. The statue was erected here, across from the old port, to warn off would-be invaders. Because Cartagena was the storehouse of the Spanish Empire's gold, a slew of 16th century pirates — Englishman Francis Drake included — had attacked and pillaged the city several times.
This is also the spot, I learned, where García Márquez told his father that he was done studying law (it had been his father's desire for him) and was going to devote himself full time to writing. His father replied, "You will eat paper!"
Houses in Cartagena figure prominently in García Márquez's novels as spaces that reveal a family's rise or decline, harmony or discord. I was guided to the shady Plaza Fernández de Madrid, where I was told that a white façade on the plaza's perimeter was the model for Fermina Daza's girlhood home in "Love in the Time of Cholera." I sat on a bench that could have been occupied by her obsessed suitor Florentino Ariza, who spied relentlessly on her comings and goings.
Unable to win her hand, Florentino becomes a public scribe who channels his unrequited desires into helping his illiterate customers carry on courtships through love notes.
I realized that García Márquez also is a kind of public scribe whose raw material has been the heart of Cartagena — both its passionate and painful chambers. With his forays into the city's dark magic and colonial splendor, he wrote "a reality not of paper," as he said in his Nobel address in 1982, "but one that lives within us…full of sorrow and beauty."
Back in Plaza Santo Domingo, patrons at the café settled in for sunset cocktails. They seemed unaware of the Calamarí skeletons in the ground below, of the devil's handiwork in the church blocking the last rays of the sun. As the sky blushed rose, Cartagena seemed nothing but enchanted.