The sunset looked familiar as the sea finally sucked down the last hint of redness from the sky.
DJ José Padilla’s ambience harmonized playfully with the lapping waves and cool breezes as I drained another concoction of fruit juice, alcohol, and coconut. I could see the lights of nearby high rises twinkling in relief above the wooden remains of an old bullfighting ring. An extensive array of fairy lights illuminated the name of my location – Café del Mar. But I wasn't anywhere near Ibiza. I was, at last, in Colombia. Despite including the odd drug baron among my close friends and having once been charged with importing 15 tons of Colombian marijuana into Scotland, this was my first visit.
In Colombia, the only South American country with coasts on both the Pacific and the Caribbean, the Andes chain splits into three massive ranges and after flattening out for a while, sprouts up again as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain range in the world. Arid deserts, savannas, a fair chunk of the Amazon, and thick rain-drenched jungles make up the rest of the terrain. Colombia’s fauna ranges from the keen-sighted praying mantis to the rare spectacled bear and includes more species of birds than the whole of Europe and North America combined. Atmospheres of ancient Amerindian myth, shamanic magic, Catholic devotion, and African mysticism pervade the entire nation.
Cartagena began as a warehouse of gold, silver, emeralds, and other native treasures looted from the interior by the Spanish colonists. Word of Cartagena’s wealth spread, and legendary pirates such as John Hawkins (1568), Sir Francis Drake (1585), and Jean-Baptiste Ducasse (1697) attacked, besieged, ransomed, and humiliated the city. The Spanish responded by constructing eight kilometres of impressive walled defences presided over by the most impregnable Spanish fortress in the New World.
Although the city’s most conspicuous characteristic remains its warlike profile, the splendidly daunting and encircling fortifications now attract rather than repel visitors. Even the nearby anchored Colombian fleet is simply a feature of a visually pleasing background. The cannon-covered ramparts, however, are not mere static and picturesque reminders of bygone days; they ooze out auras of piracy and swashbuckling with far greater impact than any theme park.
I walked with a new found friend - a stranger, who had recognised me - along the massive defence walls. The Caribbean Sea was foaming and pounding to our left, while to our right a warren of streets in various phases of grandiose decay and renovation throbbed with activity. Colours slowly seeped into the landscape. Bougainvillea tumbled from delicate iron balconies into narrow cobbled lanes that wound their way around a thousand ancient multicoloured colonial homes, extravagant churches, handsome plazas and manicured parks. Ornate, baroque iron-studded gates topped by stone coats of arms led to hidden Moroccan riad-style courtyards. Old dungeons buried inside the walls sold straw cowboy hats, gold, emeralds and postcards. Horse-drawn taxis trotted up and down. This magnificent and most friendly city plays host to international film festivals, regattas, bullfighting seasons, national beauty pageants and the Hay Festival of Literature (Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia’s living Shakespeare and a Cartagenian resident, declined an invitation to go to the Welsh black mountains, so the mountains went to Márquez). Cartagena has become the perfect symbol of the independence of culture and politics.
We ate at El Mar de Juan, where adventurous young chefs apply Cordon Bleu techniques to Caribbean ingredients. Crawfish was offered in ten different preparations. I chose one of them and some cheese wrapped in banana leaves. Pedro, already late for an appointment, excused himself and advised me to spend the rest of the evening meandering around more squares and bars on my own. There was no better way to know Cartagena.
The cool onshore Caribbean winds and lively tropical rhythms guided me to Plaza Santo Domingo, where Botero’s Fat Gertrudis lay on her side, naked, looking at the church. Life not Puritanism dominates this square. I sat down for a beer as musicians strolled by proudly playing the latest hits of Colombian superstars Shakira and Juanes. Colourfully dressed women fried egg arepas and other local culinary delights at their street stands.
Within a couple of hours I was well oiled, chatting away and laughing with more new friends. Dizzily meandering back to my hotel through a blinding labyrinth of alleyways, I was grateful to be helped back on track by courteous passers by. I felt a million miles from any kind of danger. That could have been the beer, of course, but I was certainly safer than I would be performing similar antics in any European city.
The sun rose and shone over the forts and ramparts, revealing fishing boats returning from a night’s work and groups of happy people winding down their revelry. Dawn is not a beginning in Cartagena; it’s an ending. As Márquez wrote in his memoir 'Living to Tell the Tale': “the world changes in Cartagena… this solitude without sorrow, this incessant ocean, this immense sensation of having arrived.”
Howard Marks, whose book, 'Señor Nice – Straight Life from Wales to South America', was published by Harvill Secker in 2006.
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