Paco's: a tourism success story

Plaza Santo Domingo, in Cartagena, is beautiful.
On some of its red brick cobbles you can still read the word "Glasgow", from where they were brought over as ships' ballast. The mediaeval square is steeped in history, most of it well known. But a lot of its recent history is just as interesting. In 1983 there was absolutely nothing in Santo Domingo in the way of bars and restaurants. Most of the buildings were run down or totally abandoned. But a gamble and hard work by an American called Paco and his British associate Nick Beeson changed everything, and started a renaissance that has propelled the Plaza to be Colombia's premier tourist attraction.

Nick was born in Italy to British parents who worked for the UN. After spending time wandering the globe in places as far flung as Alaska, the Congo and Singapore, he applied for a job as a Spanish-speaking engineer's assistant in New York, bluffing his interviewer with Italian to get the job. The job was in Cartagena, where he arrived as a 20 year old. After the engineering job finished he worked for Paco as a barman in a place called Paco's Seafood. Things went so well Paco planned to open another restaurant called Restaurante Paco's, and offered Nick a half share.

Around 400 years ago, Paco's was a colonial mansion, its second floor, with its very low ceiling, housed slaves. In the early 1980's, reminisced Nick,Santo Domingo was a poor residential district, few people owned cars, and the Plaza, (which used to be several yards wider before the Edificio Cuesta was built 50 years ago), saw action as a soccer field on Sundays. Nick, who rented the building when it was a corner store in 1983, said the locals laughed when Paco's opened for business. "Those gringo's are crazy. No-one will stay in that plaza at night" they scoffed, "its too dead for tourists". Business tottered on the brink for two or three years, while a lot of historic buildings in Centro were renovated and the area gradually became fashionable. Locals were booking the former upstairs slave's room for parties and weddings. Around this time Paco sold his half to Nick and Nick's wife Mercedes, and returned to the US.

Paco's clientel slowly grew and they started getting mentioned in international magazines from as far away as Japan. Their big break came when Paco's Restaurant and Tavern was featured with a full-page photograph in the National Geographic Magazine. Nick installed air-conditioning and hired a group of local musicians - Los Veteranos del Ritmo - who played live Cuban music to ever more enthusiastic customers. "We pre-dated Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club by some years" says Nick. Paco himself was deeply involved in the now-defunct Caribbean Music Festival. Nick says it was in Paco's where Cartagena's first Caipirinha was poured.

People like Fernando Botero started dropping in. That was the beginning of the good times. "Over the years we've had the Kennedy children, Robert de
Niro, Madeline Stowe and Latin American presidents galore come in for a meal or drink" said Nick, who recalled one President, who shall remain nameless, wandering off towards the Wall with a pretty TV presenter cuddling up to him while his bodyguards were drunkenly competing in karaoke.

People started driving to Paco's and other bars opened. Plaza Santo Domingo became a parking lot. With space inside Pacos now scarce, Nick successfully applied to the Municipality to be allowed to put tables and chairs in the plaza. Imitation is best form of flattery, they say, and now there is not a single shopfront facing the plaza that isn't a bar or restaurant, and the whole plaza is given over to tables and chairs. Recently Nick recieved even more recognition for his hard work in Santo Domingo: a group of journalists voted him "Tourism Personality of the Year", an accolade he shared along with the city's Doctor, Lawyer and Architect of the Year.

Nick has kept the menu simple yet different in order to retain his regular customers: seafood, pasta, salads and a set lunch all served on hand-made terra cotta plates. And although some of the members of the Veteranos del Ritmo have died of old age, you can still hear some of the original musicians playing such Caribbean classics as Guillermo Portables' El Carretero.

Paco's is open weekdays 12 midday to 2pm (or later!), Saturdays Sundays and Holidays from 6pm til 2pm. Bookings can be made on 664 4294.

Glen David Short is a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His new adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat' has just been published by Trafford Publishing.

- B A C K -

Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short