Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ is set in Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. I can now confirm, having visited Cartagena last month, that there can be few more romantic settings in which to base such a tale of enduring love (though I should add the proviso that, having been lucky enough to start reading the novel in Colombia, that literary voyage has been curtailed by my leaving the novel half-read on the plane to Lima).
Cartagena was the heady jewel in a rich and varied journey of discovery that took my dearest friend and I from Bogotá into the Zona Cafetera, through Medellín, up to the northwest coast of the Caribbean, in and out of Cartagena, along to the wild waves of Tayrona national park and the quiet harbours of hippy hangout Taganga, up into the hills of nearby Minca and back down in one long bus ride to Bogotá. Still hanging under a rather dark reputational cloud, Colombia has nonetheless become a major backpacker destination after the worst of the guerrilla vs government violence (greatly fuelled, as so often in Latin America, by narcotrafficking) has been pushed to the deep corners of the country’s southeast interior and border regions. The route we followed is a fairly established one now on the old gringo trail, though still mercifully underdeveloped as such in many places. While there have been a number of election-related killings in Colombia recently, and drug-related violence and social repression remains horribly prevalent in a country synonymous with cocaine production, perhaps the greater catastrophe which Colombia has been facing this autumn and winter is rains and flooding on a scale one might find in Macondo, adding climate change migrants to the huge numbers of internally displaced created by the nation’s long internal conflict. Juan Manuel Santos, President only since last year, faces a major challenge to repair the flood damage. He has, however, been winning support for his creation of a ‘Victim’s Law’, which seeks to compensate survivors of the conflict and restore land to thousands – in moves which include recognition of the State’s responsibility for violence and human rights abuses. Long a close ally of the USA, whose anti-drug money has gone towards much of Colombia’s impressive development, the country does nonetheless seem to be seeking to keep its options open, with new and friendlier dialogue opened up between Santos and his neighbour Chavez of Venezuela.
Colombia is a more ‘developed’ place than many I’ve spent time in out here. That means some excellent public transport as well as more McDonalds, massive supermarkets, and boutique bars in some places. Medellín in particular is lauded as a shining example of urban planning and modernisation; an impressive city, beautiful in its setting of mountainsides if not in its physical architecture, it should however be remembered that this feat was achieved in large part thanks to the illegal earnings of the late cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. A place of stark contrasts, from quiet highrise suburbs to hectic, hawker–filled innercity streets and parks, Medellín did open up its soul to us on our final day there, when a citywide music festival and the final day of the footie season coincided to produce one massive, happy party. Generally unimpressed by Botero, son of Medellín and a prolific and treasured Colombian painter and sculptor, the wrecked remains of one of his curvaceous birds, blown apart by a terrorist bomb in 1995 and left there at the artist’s request as a ‘monument to stupidity’, is a deeply haunting legacy.
After seven months of landlocked Bolivia, what a joy to reach the Caribbean. Not far from Panama, we were the only foreigners hanging out in little Arboletas, a busy, scruffy seaside town whose kids play in the gentle surf all day and where a municipal team is up at dawn clearing the driftwood from the sand. As the first of several beachside soundsystems gets cranked up some locals get their morning aerobics in while other more…laidback individuals enjoy their first cold bottle of Club Columbia for the day. But the most remarkable thing about Arboletas is the collapsed mud volcano that sits a few dozen metres back from the beach behind a screen of shrubs. Colombia’s coast has several such extinct volcanic peaks that now contain semi-solid, bubbling grey mud that you can slither into for a wholly singular experience of sludgy stasis, imagining yourself emerging for the first time from the primeval mire (with really nice, soft skin obviously).
And so to Cartagena, whose swimmable beaches we never even got round to exploring, the old heart of the city itself being so full of fascinating faces, facades, food and frivolity. A honeymoon city for the wanderlustful, Cartagena reminded me of Sevilla but with the rough edges and contradictions that come from being in a developing country. The streets and even the sweetsellers of Marquez’s novel are still there, the original colonial architecture has all been protected and preserved, horse-drawn carts are everywhere, along with emerald merchants and fancy clothes shops for the wealthy tourist, and reggae bars and cheap pizza for the backpacker. In the evenings the hat sellers with their cheap panamas are replaced by a gauntlet of young men hawking weed and coke, and the ladies of the night of whom Marquez is so fond are definitely not hard to spot. Cuban culture reached across the sea and found a home in the Havana Club just up the road from our hotel, where the funkiest dudes played the funkiest live salsa until 3am while the punters kicked their heels up, all to the tune of endless mojitos made with Cartagena’s own, delicious, Baluarte rum or, naturally, Havana Club. The perfect place to start off feeling fragile, Cartagena demands you do nothing more than wander aimlessly, perhaps sip a fresh coconut or eat a piping hot arepa, meander past second-hand books or along the four feet thick city walls, then sit and watch the people while the afternoon rain falls and stains the balustrades. It is the perfect place for a love story.
Next week: more tales from Colombia…
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