The Casa de Rafael Núñez

Just a short walk from the centre of Cartagena is an historic house so entwined with the history of Colombia that no visitor should miss it. The house underwent a thorough restoration completed just last month. It is the former residence of Rafael Núñez: poet, journalist, author of Colombia's National Anthem, creator of the Banco Nacional, mastermind of its Constitution, and the only President of Colombia to be elected four times. Situated just outside the city wall in Cabrero, it is easy to find: a grand old two storey, Antillian Caribbean-style wooden mansion painted white with green trim. Núñez made it his home for 17 years, and his wife Soledad Román Núñez lived here for a further 30 years after his death.

The building was originally built as a single storey house by Soledad's father Manuel Román in 1858, the second floor being added after Núñez married Soledad. Passing through the entrance corridor, the visitor usually joins a guided tour which begins on the second floor in a beautiful octagonal raised patio. This was the dining room, and was open to the sea breeze and affords a nice view of the garden, which today is home to a period horse coach and some caged macaws. The patio has louvers to blunt the afternoon sun, and in Núñez' time this gave a view of the ocean, a handy lookout since he was wary of possible enemies coming from any direction.
Moving towards the front of the house you come upon his ornate desk, where he wrote poetry and his political thoughts. Photos of his time in Panama - then a part of Colombia - are displayed along with an extensive library pertaining to the Delegates Council of 1886, the basis for the Colombian Constitution which ended an intense period of civil strife. There is also a bust sculpted from life, his Will and Testament and photos of his funeral.

Skirting around the veranda in front of the living room, filled with beautiful antique furniture, one comes to a dining room with plates and bowls monogrammed SRN, his wife's initials. On the ground floor there is a rustic kitchen with a piedra de moler or grinding stones for milling grain by hand, and a wall inscribed with a memorial poem by his contemporary Rúben Dario,Que Se Je?(Who Am I?). At the front of the house is a collection of books and papers about Núñez and Colombian history, and a small office that houses the non-profit organization which maintains the house.

Núñez' administration is remembered for ending the bloody period of chaos and internal wars which plagued Colombia from 1863-1886, a time which saw no less than 34 different Presidents. Núñez was born in 1825, and was an elected Congressman by 1853. He spent some time in Europe as a consul in Liverpool and Le Havre before returning to Colombia in 1875. He aligned with the Independent faction of the Liberals, and after signing a shaky coalition with the Conservatives, he defeated the Radical faction both at the ballot box and on the battlefield: under his command, Cartagena repelled Gaitán Obeso who laid siege to Cartagena in 1885 with 3,000 rebels. His famous motto, now painted above the entrance to his residence, Regeneration or Catastrophe, could not have been better with hindsight. He made peace with the Catholic Church, ending a destabilizing anti-clerical campaign. Soledad and Rafael were both born in Cartagena, Soledad being the oldest of 17 children, from a strict Catholic family. He raised eyebrows living with her, because the Church did not recognise his divorce from his first wife, Dolores Gallego. After his fourth term, he handed power to his Vice President, Miguel Antonio Cano.

Rafael Núñez died in Cartagena on the 18th of September 1894, and is buried alongside his wife, in the Ermita de Cabrero, a quaint little church opposite his house.

Note: no photography is allowed inside the house.

Photo and story copyright of Glen David Short. Posted 8th May 2002. His adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat through Mexico and Central America' is available from Trafford Publishing.

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short