Romancing the stones

In the seaside fortress Cartagena, Colombia saves its colonial history

By Angela Posada-Swafford, Globe Correspondent

CARTAGENA, Colombia -- Like a sweet reward at the end of a meal, Cartagena beckoned me every December as my family prepared for the journey to our beach apartment in this Colombian port laced with history and Spanish fortresses.

Once there, while my siblings removed the dust covers from the sofas, got the fans started, and turned the fridge on, I always ran straight to the living room window, swung it open, and looked nine floors down at the fruit vendors on the grayish beach. Strong, beautiful black women with bowls full of blood-red papayas, fat mangoes, and ripe watermelons on their heads announced their treasures in operatic calls as they walked gracefully among a crowd of bodies and rows of canvas tents facing an olive green sea. Tasting the artificial sweetness of a very cold Kola Romn, my favorite local beverage, I'd kick off my shoes and take in the raging heat, sea scents, and explosion of colors that Cartagena threw at us each time.

Not much has changed on that beach since my happy childhood winters, except that perhaps there are twice as many people selling sunglasses, seed necklaces, imported vodka, and canned pistachios. Without moving from your spot you can have a massage, get your nails done, your hair braided, and your hand read by a fortune-teller. Once someone even tried to sell me an endangered sloth.

That is why I now avoid most beaches here in favor of the more secluded ones at Rosario Islands archipelago -- a 45-minute boat ride -- or spend my time instead in Cartagena's true soul: the 470-year-old walled city. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city has managed to remain isolated from Colombia's political and military turmoil, and stay a safe tourism hot spot for decades.

Designed by Spaniards, built by slaves, besieged by pirates, coveted by kings, disputed by patriots, and terrorized by religion, Cartagena's history reads like an action movie script. The city was founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, against the wishes of the Calamar Indians, and named after Cartagena, Spain. A few years later, Spain's King Philip II learned the British were putting together a fleet of pirates to prey on his colonies in the Caribbean. So he summoned his star architect, Bautista Antonelli, and instructed him to fortify several port cities, paying special attention to Cartagena.

Because of its wide, secure bay, and strategic position at the top of South America, Cartagena became the exit point for immense riches plundered from the Indians and bound for Spain. In what must have been a sight to behold, a fleet of galleons, loaded with treasure accumulated over several months, would set sail twice a year protected by an armada of warships. It was clear this key commercial post had to be defended at all costs.

To wall a city and its surrounding islands, fortify them with castles, crisscross them with tunnels, and trick the enemy with underwater walls constituted a challenge to human ingenuity, to the sea, to military strategy, to construction materials, to finances, to available workforce, and to the constraints of time. Yet it was done. Overall it took 200 years and 50 million gold pesos, a lot more than King Philip had initially allocated to the project. But the expense paid off. During its first phase of fortification, Cartagena was already being attacked by French corsairs and British buccaneers. And it held.

Walk through the narrow streets inside the walled district after 5 p.m., when the sun has lost its murderous bite, and commercial activity is slowing down. It really doesn't matter where you start, you are bound to find a brightly colored plaza, church, or facade to admire. The district is small. You can stroll through it in one afternoon under the shade of wide, romantic balconies that almost touch each other. But you must revisit it at night, on foot or in a horse-drawn carriage.

If you are staying at the Santa Clara, a five-star hotel that used to be a convent and hospital, check it out first. This early 17th-century building was recently restored to all the magnificence of colonial architecture. Its thick walls are painted in deep salmons and oranges, and its arcades give way to courtyards embellished by lush vegetation and tame toucans. The Santa Clara, with its lovely chapel, is a luxury wedding destination for wealthy Colombians and a rising number of foreigners. The hotel has secret passages and wells where nuns used to hide in times of crisis, and from pirates' noses, because legend had it the men were able to smell their chastity.

Outside, turn right and head to Plaza de Santo Domingo. Keep walking until you reach San Pedro Claver Church, at the other end of the walled city. Many of the buildings you will see were mansions belonging to nobility or businessmen. A few of them are rented by the week and have their own swimming pools and staff. These mansions were built with chunks of coral and mortar, and covered with quicklime. Most were painted white until a decade ago, when historians discovered that underneath the white was an original array of hot oranges, yellows, and pinks, chosen because they would not blind the eye under the harsh sun. Now Cartagena looks as it did centuries ago.

Walking by the solid wooden doors, I always marvel at the huge iron knockers and latticed shutters, each a work of art, and like to imagine what went on in the daily lives of the men and women who once lived there. Because of the Moorish influence, Spanish homes tended to be isolated from the outside world and looked for intimacy around inner patios filled with bougainvillea and ferns.

Another alluring aspect of Cartagena is its street names. Calle de Las Damas (Street of the Ladies), Tumbamuertos (the dead fall down, a nickname that took hold in the late 1800s after several funeral processions for plague victims dropped their coffins on the poorly maintained street), Callejn de los Estribos (Street of the Stirrups), Portal de los Dulces (Gate of the Candies), all conjure images of the joys and sorrows of everyday life in a city that longed to mirror Mother Spain.

But it is at night when the old city is at its best and most romantic. Yellow streetlights bathe the stone walls in a supernatural glow. In the quiet, the echo of horses' hoofs on the pavement transports you back in time. After dusk, anything seems possible, and one understands why there are so many legends about this city. Who would dare to doubt the veracity of tales that speak of a headless monk in deep sorrow, or the devil crouched on a gargoyle waiting to make eye contact with an unfortunate mortal? My favorite story describes noblewomen wearing nets over their hair that served as cages for fireflies, the ultimate party hairdo.

Among the must-sees in Old Cartagena are the San Pedro Claver Church; the cathedral; the city's main gate, Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower Plaza); Plaza de Bolvar; and the Inquisition Museum, whose magnificent Baroque stonework is being restored. The Gold Museum's collections include fine pieces of Pre-Colombian pottery and metallurgy, and at the Naval Museum, pieces of Caribbean shipwrecks can be viewed.

Right before sunset, walk atop the stone walls (they are so wide that they are used like sidewalks) behind the Santa Clara (one access point is in front of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garca Mrquez's home). From there stroll to the ramparts, where the wall grows wide enough to support a couple of bars with sweeping views of San Pedro Claver and the ocean. After dusk, follow the walls to the Santa Teresa Hotel, another jewel, and stop to admire the striking religious artwork at the reception desk. You can have dinner at any of the great restaurants on this side of town. Then head to Clock Tower Plaza, where antique buildings with wrought-iron terraces house the hottest bars and discos in the city.

To please Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake, with 23 ships and an army of 2,000, sacked Cartagena in 1586. British Admiral Edward Vernon in 1741 was determined to repeat Drake's feat, with a fleet of 186 ships, some 2,000 cannons, and more than 23,000 men. The Spaniards, outnumbered seven to one but with 158 cannons and the formidable architecture of San Felipe de Barajas, its walls ingeniously slanted to counter the impact of iron bullets, held firm behind their fortresses.

All guides will tell you the story of how Spanish commander Don Blas de Lezo and his men resisted the attacks for months, eating the last rat in the castle to survive. But don't believe the story of the walls being put together with mortar and blood from slaves. Rather it was a powerful concoction of cement, seawater, sand, and beeswax. The complex of fortresses and walls of Cartagena was the greatest engineering achievement of its time, and is the most complete in the Americas. In the end, Vernon, who had had a medal struck commemorating victory so sure was he of it, retired in humiliation to Jamaica.

Today, you can follow a guide on a two-hour tour into the labyrinth of tunnels inside San Felipe's walls. A feat of engineering and strategy, the tunnels are a crisscross of escape routes and traps. Some start wide and then narrow unexpectedly, deliberately designed to frustrate invaders. Most function as echo chambers, so soldiers could relay urgent messages from hundreds of meters away without raising their voices much above a whisper. Visit in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is not too strong, bring a bottle of water, and be prepared for the army of vendors at the castle gates.

Cartagena reveres its past, yet its modern pirates are water pollution and unchecked development. And even though the city is safe, be alert for the occasional pickpocket. Don't expose your wallet too often, and carry your backpack in front. Carry only a few dollars each day, and leave documents in your hotel's safe -- just the same commonsense measures you would take in most countries.

Food here is among the best in the nation. Fresh local fish and seafood -- tarpon, snapper, sea bass, barracuda, oysters, and crab -- are prepared many ways, but the best is with sweet coconut rice (arroz con coco). Field sweet corn dough empanadas con huevo comfort with a tasty stuffing of ground meat and egg. An endless array of tropical fruits -- lulo, tamarind, nspero, mango, pineapple -- grow luscious in the equatorial sun. For sweets, don't miss the pistachio ice cream and pastel de coco (coconut pie).

Over 40 years, I have seen Cartagena evolve in many ways, and undergo changes good and bad. It has come of age again and, as it was centuries ago, is a place to see and be seen. I still get nostalgic every time I step off the plane into the thick salty breeze. And though I no longer stay at that ninth-floor apartment in El Laguito, I always look for a windowsill to lean over and gaze out at this wonderful city of 1,001 legends..

Angela Posada-Swafford is a writer based in Miami Beach.