Love, sans cholera, in a Caribbean port town
It was a place that “stood unchanging at the edge of time . . . where flowers rusted and salt corroded, where nothing had happened for four centuries except a slow aging among withered laurels.”
That was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s rich description of a town very much like this Caribbean port in “Love in the Time of Cholera,” the Nobel laureate’s sultry saga of lust and decay.
Cartagena’s distinctive character and its postcolonial decline may have provided late-20th century inspiration, but this is no longer a cholera-plagued, half-abandoned metaphor for elegant decadence. Far from it.
Today, this gem of a walled city of 1 million and sometime home of Garcia Marquez is enjoying a tourist boom and a wave of tropical cool, emerging as a chic destination with a literary pedigree in a country better known for cartels, car bombs and coke.
Once a principal port in the slave trade and terminus for gold, silver and rum, besieged by pirates and soldiers of fortune, Cartagena has joined the global “A list” of must-see sites. Frightened off for years, cruise ships are back, daily disgorging souvenir-hunting, camera-pointing visitors in shorts and sandals. Cartagena de Indias, as it is officially known, has become an offbeat convention site and arts festival mecca.
Now Cartagena is ready for its close-up.
November marks the premiere of “Love in the Time of Cholera,” the film adaptation of Garcia Marquez’s evocative 1985 novel, an epic tale of pent-up passion and moldering charm set in an unnamed city very much like Cartagena during its period of 19th century degeneration. The novelist held back for years on selling the movie rights.
Residents seem to appreciate the economic possibilities and Hollywood attention. Some happily boast about their town’s newfound upward mobility and star power.
“I hear Bill Clinton bought a house in the Old Town,” said taxi driver Camilo Ramos, 42, a lifelong resident, as his cab buzzed beneath the bougainvillea-dripping balconies of the colonial Old Town. “People are coming to Cartagena from all over the world.”
But even as longtime residents sell their homes to developers opening boutique hotels and upscale eateries, the colonial theme-park motif has not obliterated authenticity in the town, on the United Nations’ World Heritage list.
Indigenous people still make the trek from isolated villages to sell woven baskets and pots shaped from gourds, wandering about the twisting lanes of the Old Town like callers from another era. Female Afro-Colombian hawkers known as palenqueras balance bountiful fruit baskets on their heads, a reminder of the city’s deep African roots. Street vendors sell phone time by the minute.
Salsa and cumbia music blare from steamy, dimly lighted bars where couples chug Aguila beer and get sweaty on the dance floor. Young lovers hold hands atop the turreted, cannon-bedecked city walls. Imposing doors conceal shaded courtyards, respites from the unyielding heat and humidity.
Around the edges, in districts such as the sublimely named Getsemani, there’s still the somewhat seedy hint of an old port town, a place where you can have a good time for cheap, but you need to be careful about the company you keep.
Shacks on the city’s outskirts, many housing people displaced in civil conflict, attest to a better-known Colombian reality.
Garcia Marquez, who recently turned 80, is an almost metaphysical presence here where he keeps a home, though he is often away. Most everyone likes to drop his name, typically using his nickname, Gabo. When in town, he likes to remain anonymous, people say, the better to be able to hear the good stories. Cab drivers and tour guides point out his walled compound, which fronts the Spanish-built fortifications that once fended off pirates and other plunder-seekers.
A seaside plaque celebrates the 1955 shipwreck victim whose saga, chronicled by a young Garcia Marquez, became a breakthrough success for the talented reporter toiling at a Bogota newspaper.
Just down the street is the luxurious Sofitel Santa Clara hotel, an ex-convent where the crypt that inspired Garcia Marquez’s novel features its own magical, neo-realist moment: Jazz tunes filter from above as nattily clad patrons with chilled drinks examine the musty catacombs that once held the remains of the cloistered sisters.
The making of “Love in the Time of Cholera” here was a decisive moment for the city’s comeback image, reportedly only accomplished after Vice President Franciso Santos Calderon promised augmented security and met with the filmmakers, who were eyeing Brazil. Santos, a former newspaper editor, was no stranger to violence: He was one of the victims whose ordeals were chronicled in Garcia Marquez’s nonfiction work “News of a Kidnapping.”
“There is this tremendous sense of authenticity,” director Mike Newell told The Times earlier this year. “You wander around and you realize that he actually was writing about this place, the place that you are shooting in, which is a very strange feeling indeed.”
But the city’s coming-out is tinged with loss. Literary Cartagena this month mourned the death of German Espinosa, 69, a novelist, poet and essayist who mined his hometown’s ornate history for his dense, intricate historical portraits. He was often called “Gabo sin Nobel” -- Garcia Marquez without the prize.
Espinosa’s 1982 masterwork, “La Tejedora de Coronas” (The Weaver of Crowns), is a rambling epic set largely in Cartagena in the 17th century, following the wanderings of a free-thinking woman, Genoveva Alcocer.
The novel, released the same year Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature, begins: “As night fell, the lightning began to zigzag above the ocean, the devoted made the sign of the cross before the harsh sound of the thunder . . . those who lived near the beach saw the black horizon tear apart into balls of flame, twisting in threads of light that were like sudden, sinister caverns in a surface of burnished jet-black.”
Espinosa exulted in the city’s varied population and extravagant past. He wrote of pirates, corsairs, slaves, witches and the Spanish Inquisition, whose former headquarters here have been converted into a museum, complete with torture instruments.
Espinosa once labeled Cartagena “a city of legends,” adding: “Perhaps the legends that arose in my city were the product of the inactivity of the people, since, for so long, almost the entire 19th century . . . there was nothing much to do other than invent, speak, read and remember.”