Cultural soul of Colombia

IN the old days, this was a swell place to be a pirate and a terrible place to be a witch. That was back when this wind-scoured Caribbean port was a hub of the Inquisition and the Spanish Empire's gold trade in the New World.

Between 1610 and 1811, hundreds of sorcerers, blasphemers and other hapless heretics met gruesome fates here. During the same period, bulging Spanish coffers helped pay for the elegant private homes, imposing churches and massive stone walls that make up this bustling city's historic core.

Today, you don't need black magic to fall under the spell of Cartagena's charms. This is one of the hemisphere's best-preserved Spanish Colonial cities, earning a place on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.

But the country's history of drug crime dissuades many U.S. tourists from visiting. So does the U.S. State Department, which in May reissued a travel warning for Colombia, citing a high kidnapping rate.

Cartagena, geographically isolated from the rest of the nation, has escaped some of the crime that affects other areas. A city of great beauty, it draws art and music aficionados, architecture and history savants, and connoisseurs of fine dining.

But it is Cartagena's hothouse mix of humanity that is the city's true treasure: the chatty old women selling homemade candy in the Portal de los Dulces; the handsome young men playing soccer on the sandy fields below the fortress walls; the street musicians tapping out cumbia rhythms when the sun goes down and the torrid heat begins to slacken. It reminded me of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, minus the fast-food signage and the monster cruise liners disgorging day-trippers.

Set along an isthmus separating the Caribbean from a narrow bay, Cartagena fans out from the centro, its old city center, to the beaches of Bocagrande and the picturesque middle-class residential district of Getsemaní. Tourists spend most of their time in the centro, which is safe for strolling, day or night. Just be sure to carry bottled water; except for the occasional shower, Cartagena has two seasons, hot and hotter, with humidity averaging 90%.

A different side of Colombia

LONG separated by topography and tradition from the country's Andean midsection, Cartagena, with a population of 820,000, has kept some distance from the tragic internecine violence that has plagued Colombia in recent decades.

Even so, visitors to the region should be careful if planning excursions beyond the city and its inviting offshore islands. Be especially wary if you're tempted to venture farther inland, past the military checkpoints that remind you a civil war is still going on here.

Cartagena's friendly Creole-Afro-Caribbean ambience is in stark contrast to the martial mood in other parts of Colombia. I noticed the difference while passing through customs at Cartagena's international airport, after connecting on a one-hour direct flight from Panama City on Panama-based Copa Airlines, via Mexico City, where I live. (Visitors from Los Angeles can fly Copa nonstop or direct from LAX to Panama City.)

At Bogotá's airport you have to claw your way through a phalanx of soldiers packing automatic weapons. In Cartagena, the smattering of airport guards joked with me in Spanish while briefly checking my bags, then pointed me toward the exit.

Soon the warm ocean air was blasting through the windows as our taxi rattled along the esplanade, past the walls of the old city and the rocky oceanfront, toward our hotel in the Bocagrande district. A sort of Colombian Miami Beach, Bocagrande is a swath of high-rise hotels and casinos built to take advantage of Cartagena's longest stretch of sandy beach. Though still fashionable, the area looks a bit worn at the heels, but its funky informality grows on you.

My colleague Chris and I had chosen to stay in Bocagrande at the Hotel Caribe in March because it was headquarters for the 45th annual Cartagena Film Festival, which we were reporting on for The Times. Cartagena boasts a long, varied cinematic heritage. Among the nearly three dozen feature films that have been made here are "Burn!" starring Marlon Brando, and "The Mission," with Robert De Niro as a slave hunter and Jeremy Irons as a compassionate priest — the dark and light forces of New World colonization.

Both influences can still be felt in old Cartagena, which was founded in 1533 by Spanish soldier of fortune Pedro de Heredia on the site of a Carib Indian settlement. Today, an imposing statue of him glowers over the Plaza de los Coches, a triangular venue that was formerly a slave-trading market. It's the first thing most tourists glimpse as they enter the centro through the wide portals beneath the Puerta del Reloj, also called the Torre del Reloj, the mustard-colored clock tower gateway that stands sentinel at the southeastern end of the centro. The plaza, bordered by brightly colored three- and four-story buildings filled with bars and restaurants, makes a great people-watching spot, especially in early evening when dancers and drummers often perform.

Gold and pirates

DURING Spanish colonization, Cartagena was the empire's Ft. Knox, where gold plundered from the native civilizations was stored before being shipped back to Europe. Soon, pirates and 16th century state-sponsored terrorists such as England's Sir Francis Drake were laying siege to the town. The Spanish responded by constructing a series of forts and defensive walls, turning Cartagena into the most heavily guarded city in the New World. The greatest of these fortifications, the massive Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, is worth a visit.

The other great figure in Cartagena history is St. Peter Claver (1580-1654), a Spanish monk who devoted his life to ministering to the local slaves. The 17th century Jesuit convent where he lived and died was renamed in his honor and still stands. Part of it is open to the public as a museum.

Across from it, on the Plaza de San Pedro Claver, is the new Museo de Arte Moderno (Modern Art Museum), in a former customhouse. Its collection focuses on Colombian artists, among them Alejandro Obregón and the late Enrique Grau.

On the Sunday morning when we visited the neighborhood, the Church of St. Peter Claver, next door to the convent, was filled with parishioners attending Mass. Light streamed through the striking stained-glass windows and into the white Doric-columned interior. On one altar, a statute of a black Madonna with a gold halo cradled a black infant Jesus. Huddled on the church steps, a middle-aged woman begged with a plastic cup. Like the barefoot young men we occasionally passed sleeping in doorways at night, her presence served notice that, despite Cartagena's many attractions, this is a society riven by deep ethnic and class divisions.

But it is not totally defeated by them. Outside the church, two young male performance artists, one dressed as a poor fisherman and the other as a slave, explained that they were raising money for the local cultural foundation that works to promote peace and culture. On a good day, Roberto Carlos Perez Zeña and Walter Hernandez Marquéz said, they collected about 1,500 pesos — slightly more than half a U.S. dollar. The men explained that their costumes were meant to depict an important aspect of the region's history.

That's Cartagena: Turn a corner anywhere in this city's maze of streets and your perspective can shift dramatically.

By this time the afternoon heat was building and the streets were chockablock with vendors selling a variety of foodstuffs to fill you up or cool you down. Fifty cents will buy you a cold coconut off the street; just stick in a straw and slurp out the juice. Deep-fried cheese sticks and arepas de huevo (an egg wrapped in fried corn dough) are big movers too. But the chilled fruit drinks are an absolute must. Besides the usual flavors — banana and pineapple — there are spectacular local fruit varieties featuring flavors such as guanábana. It can't be described, only experienced.

We also encountered our first money changers, who offer to trade Colombian pesos for U.S. dollars (or euros) at fantastic rates. Beware these swift-fingered hustlers, who are skilled at short-changing the greedy and the gullible.

Needing a break from the stifling streets, we climbed a section of the old fortress wall where we caught the ocean breeze. From a section studded with parapets and lined with rusty cannons we had a great view of the choppy ocean and Bocagrande's distant skyline. During sunset and early-evening hours, we later discovered, this section is a favorite rendezvous for amorous couples.

During the next few days we explored more of the city, starting with the Palacio de la Inquisición, now a museum. From the outside, this meticulously restored Colonial building looks harmless enough, and it's on the small, shady Plaza de Bolívar, one of the city's loveliest venues. Inside, we found wooden stocks, a reproduction of a torture rack, ludicrous pseudo-scientific devices for proving an accused person's guilt or innocence and the small courtyard where 757 human beings were burned alive.

We also found a museum guide who proved to be a fount of interesting facts and grim anecdotes about the Inquisition's theological reign of terror here. Its first victims were Caribbean Jewish merchants who had emigrated from Portugal and were so commercially successful that they threatened to upset Spain's mercantilist economic policies. Later, the inquisitors turned their brutal ministrations to Protestants, homosexuals and witches. But its most intriguing feature was the Ventana de la Denuncia, the Window of Denunciation, a small aperture on the side of the building where pious folk could drop off anonymous missives denouncing their neighbors as Satan's spawn. Only the Inquisition's torturers would be the wiser.

Dungeons and dining

ON the other side of the Plaza de Bolívar sits the Museo del Oro y Arqueología (Museum of Gold and Archeology) in a restored Colonial mansion. The building is laid out around a courtyard graced with a sweet apple tree and has Arabic, Spanish Colonial and Baroque elements. The gold museum, one of six owned by Banco de la República in Colombia, contains about 200 pieces, including a magnificent gold toucan. An informative exhibition sheds light on the culture of the Zenú (also known as Sinú) Indians, whose fine craftsmanship dazzled the Spaniards.

Several churches in the centro are being revived through a costly restoration effort. Two of the worthiest beneficiaries are the hulking cathedral, which dates from 1575 and was pounded by British artillery during Drake's raid, and the elegant Santo Domingo Church, the city's oldest.

Back strolling along the fortifications, we wound our way to Las Bóvedas, one of the city's most intriguing architectural sites. These 23 deep, narrow dungeons were built into the city walls in the late 18th century. Later, they were stables for the horses of Simón Bolívar's army, and today they are shopping stalls selling jewelry, clothes and other tourist items.

Dinner at Café del Santísimo that night was a culinary high point. House specialties include chango, a Caribbean fish soup with coconut milk, and the dish called Perdón del Señor, sauteed shrimp in a fantastic mango sauce with ginger, garlic and coconut milk. Techno-ambient music offset the beautifully decorated courtyard dining area, which was filled with religious icons and dozens of small candles.

Stopping by our table to chat, chef-owner Federico Vegas said that most of Cartagena's non-Colombian tourists come from Europe. Yes, he said, the "negative impression" of the country scares off most U.S. travelers. "But I think little by little they're coming," he said.

In the months since our return, most of the news coming out of Colombia has been of yet more bloodshed and waste. They are part of this marvelous country's discouraging reality. But in Cartagena we found another side of Colombia: a city that has endured much suffering and darkness but where warmth and creativity burn brightly.



Coastal Colombia


From LAX,
connecting service (change of plane) to Cartagena is available on American, Copa, United and Mexicana. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $653.


To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 57 (country code for Colombia) and the local number.


Hotel Caribe Cartagena, 2 87 Bocagrande Carera 1a, 5-665-0155, . Beautiful gardens and beachside location are big pluses. Poolside restaurant with live music many nights. Standards with king bed or twin doubles begin at $134.

Hotel Charleston Cartagena, Plaza Santa Teresa, Plaza Santa Teresa, 31--23 Carera 3a; 5-664-9494, . The former Convento de Santa Teresa is built around two historic courtyards in the old colonial center. Standard $203.

Hotel Tres Banderas, 38-66 Calle Cochera del Hobo; 5-660-0160, , Clean, pleasant family-run hotel in a central location. Doubles from $48. No children.


La Bodeguita del Medio, 33-81 Calle Santo Domingo; 5-660-1993. Authentic and modestly priced Cuban fare, including garlicky pork and good mojitos. Entrees $8-$15.

Café del Santísimo, 8-19 Calle del Santísimo; 5-664-3316. Excellent seafood entrees, inventive salads and luscious desserts served in a beautiful candlelighted courtyard. Pricey and worth it. Entrees from about $15.

El Mar de Juan, El Mar de Juan Centro, Plaza San Diego, Calle del Torno; 5-664-2782. Atmospheric, reasonably priced seafood restaurant with live music. Entrees $10-$19.


Consulate of Colombia, 8383 Wilshire, Suite 420, Beverly Hills, CA 90211; (323) 653-9863, .

— Reed Johnson