Magical Realism

Every Street Corner Has a Story in Cartagena, Colombia

Explore the city that inspired a Nobel Prize laureate.

By Laura Gomez Quintero June 21, 2019

Enchanting houses with cascading bougainvilleas can be found in every corner of the Walled City.

GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ, affectionately remembered by Colombians as “Gabo,” won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982 for his mystical novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. The city of Cartagena, located on the Atlantic coast of northern Colombia, was one of the cities that sparked García Márquez’s imagination and launched his writing career. After taking a magical stroll down the city’s 16th century cobblestone streets, there is simply no wondering why. This city is truly magical.

There is something about Cartagena that enchants everyone that comes here. Walking around the vibrant and colorful Ciudad Amurallada, you're bound to come across little snippets of life that transcend such buzzing energy. Kids whiz down the streets on bikes, their hair soaring up in the Caribbean wind. Horse carriages clatter rhythmically down the cobblestone streets. Luscious trees, bright pink flowers, and radiant Colombian flags sway from the wooden balconies above. In the distance, you can hear the contagious and energetic rhythms of Afro-Colombian champeta, along with the blaring laughter of people sitting at the many restaurants sprinkled along the streets. Every corner of this city emits such sparkling vitality—it’s breathtaking.

Electric blues and bright pinks are just a few of the vibrant colors you’ll come across in the Walled City.

To truly understand the essence of Cartagena, learning about its fascinating history is a must. The city was founded in 1533 by Spanish colonists, and it quickly became an important commercial port for the Spanish Empire. This is where they preserved gold, silver, and emeralds that they extracted from natives in South America, to then send off to the royalty back in Europe. Given that so much wealth was being kept in this port, Cartagena was constantly attacked and looted by pirates roaming around the Caribbean sea.

Since these pirate attacks only seemed to grow more and more throughout the years, fortifications such as the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas were built, as well as protective walls that safeguarded the central part of town, since it housed notable buildings like the Government Palace and the Cathedral of Cartagena. Remarkably, these same walls and fortifications protecting the Old Town are still standing up to this day, making the Walled City of Cartagena an enchanting UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Guanabana, lulo and maracuja are some of the tropical fruits you have to give a try.

One of the symbols of Cartagena are the beautiful palenqueras standing around the Old Town’s many streets and plazas. They can be seen wearing bright dresses and selling a wide array of tropical fruits to the people walking by. Most of these women come from the UNESCO recognized town of San Basilio de Palenque, the first freed settlement of African slaves in all of the Americas. During the day, many of these friendly palenqueras can be found in plazas like the Plaza San Pedro Claver, Plaza Bolívar and Plaza Santo Domingo.

If you ever find yourself in Cartagena, make sure you head to Café del Mar to catch one of the prettiest views of the city. This is a popular spot to grab a cold beer after a long day of walking and admire the beautiful view in front of you. Here, you can also try one of Colombia’s most refreshing and flavorful drinks: limonada de coco. This drink is bursting in flavor, as it combines refreshing citrus juice along with a creamy blend of tropical coconut.

As you sip on your drink and look down on the coastal avenue below, you may hear salsa, vallenato and reggaeton music pouring from some of the colorful buses driving down the avenue. These buses are called chivas, and can be found all over Colombia, from the smallest of rural towns, to big metropoles like Bogotá and Medellín. Traditionally, these colorful buses served as public transportation, as well as a means to transport commerce from city to city. Nowadays, however, many touristic cities like Cartagena offer fun guided tours in these radiant and exciting buses both during the day and night. At night, however, these chivas turn their colorful disco lights on and play the best Latin songs of the moment, as they turn into unforgettable mobile parties that drive you around the city.

Bocagrande, a neighborhood just minutes away by car from the 16th century Old Town.

While riding on a Cartagena chiva tour, you’ll be able to get a glimpse of the different neighborhoods surrounding the Old Town of Cartagena. One of them is Getsemaní, a trendy and bohemian neighborhood with cute and artsy cafés, as well as many hostels and lively plazas like Plaza Trinidad. After a short 10-minute drive, you’ll find yourself in the modern neighborhoods of Bocagrande and El Laguito. Here, you’ll see many residential high-rises and big chain hotels standing along the coastal avenue.

As you roam around the bus, you might notice that some of the beaches in the city are packed with both locals, tourists, and friendly but persistent street vendors.

Archipelago of the Islas del Rosario.

What most people tend to do is take a fun day trip on a boat to the beautiful, turquoise waters of the Rosario Islands. This magical archipelago consists of around 27 islands, with Playa Blanca in Isla Barú being one of the most famous spots to enjoy a fun day at the beach. If you prefer more of a calm and quiet environment, Isla Grande could also be a great alternative.

Also, you can’t leave Cartagena without stopping by the Convento de la Popa, located in the highest point of the city. After walking around the convent, you’ll be able to admire the captivating views of the 16th and 21st centuries coming together under one magical city.

As you relish the view from above, García Márquez’s poetic words might be able to sum up your thoughts perfectly: Some divine grace had to still remain in this city, because it was enough for me to take one step inside the walls to see them in all their grandeur in the mauve light of six in the afternoon—and I could not repress the feeling of having been born all over again.

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