Safe, seaside festival draws music lovers to Cartagena, Colombia
By Larry Katz
Thursday, December 6, 2007
Boston Herald Music Critic
CARTAGENA DE INDIAS, Colombia - "Are you nuts?"
That's the reaction you're guaranteed, in words or by look, when you mention that you're taking a trip to Colombia. After all, why would anyone in their right mind go to the most dangerous country in the Americas?
But you don't need to have a death wish or a craving for cocaine to make the journey to Colombia these days. The reason for my visit can be summed up in one word: Cartagena.
More than one South American friend in Boston had raved to me about the delights of vacationing in this magical city. Hot, sunny and located on the southern edge of the Caribbean, Cartagena de Indias, to give its full name, became one of the jewels of the Spanish empire after its founding in 1533. Today Cartagena's Old Town stands as the best-preserved colonial city in South America, which is to say, it's a gorgeous, atmospheric gem that understandably has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Old Town of Cartagena (pronounced car-ta-HAY-na) is still surrounded by seven miles of thick stone walls built to defend this once-vital trading port from plundering pirates, such as Sir Francis Drake, who sacked the city in 1586. Now the broad top of the wall serves as a kind of boardwalk which visitors and residents use for strolling and enjoying the sea view.
Below the wall are street after street of beautifully preserved buildings - churches, monasteries, theaters, palaces and brightly colored residences adorned by balconies filled with pots of flowers - which make the Old Town a walker's paradise. Hearing the clippety-clop of a horse-drawn carriage moving along the cobblestone streets, it's easy to envision yourself in the Cartagena of a century ago or imagine yourself a character in a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a former, now part-time resident (check out the new film version of his novel, "Love in the Time of Cholera," starring Javier Bardem, which was filmed in Cartagena).
But make no mistake, Cartagena is not some dowdy relic. It's a hip and happening destination for the international set. Savvy young tourists from South America and Europe flock there - though not many visitors from the United States, at least not yet. There are ample hotels, excellent restaurants and an abundance of lively night spots where the music and revelry extend into the wee hours every night of the week. Think New Orleans (before Katrina) with a Latin accent and you're on the right track.
Cartagena is a magnet for artists and intellectuals as well as hedonists. I traveled there last January to take in the first Cartagena International Festival of Music, a week-long series of classical music concerts under the artistic direction of pianist Charles Wadsworth, previously known for his work with the Spoleto festivals in Italy and South Carolina.
The second festival takes place January 5-12 and, judging from my experience, it's sure to be extraordinary. You could, of course, see nearly all of the participating artists - including pianist Jacques-Yves Thibaudet, flutist Paula Robison, the St. Lawrence String Quartet - in concert in Boston sooner or later, but the settings and circumstances of the concerts in Cartagena add immeasureably to the performances.
The main concert hall is the Teatro Heredia, an elegant antique built in the early part of the 20th century (and the scene of the poetry competition depicted in the film version of "Love in the Time of Cholera"). The cream of Cartagena society is sure to attend, as well as eager music students. Classical concerts of any kind are a rarity here - an entire festival of this kind is unprecedented in Colombia, resulting in the kind of rapt and enthusiastic audiences that are the stuff of musicians' dreams.
The other concert sites are equally extraordinary: the historic chapels located in Cartagena's finest two hotels - both former convents - the Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara and the Charleston Cartagena Santa Teresa (which has a public rooftop bar with a must-see view), as well as the still-active church of Santo Toribio.
But, really, the most exciting performance was outdoors on a stage erected in front of the church on Plaza San Pedro Claver. There, from 11 until well past midnight, the festival orchestra gave a free performance that attracted a couple of thousand instant classical converts. As vendors hawked beer, grilled corn cakes and fresh mango slices, the all-ages and all-classes-of-society crowd soaked in the sounds of Bartok and Mozart on a balmy tropical night.
For a visitor, the event also served as a reassuring measure of Cartagena's safety. I felt perfectly at ease wandering through this large throng of mostly local residents. And walking back to my hotel in the wee hours was no more threatening than, say, walking to the T station on a summer night after enjoying the Pops on the Esplanade.
This is not to say that all Colombia is trouble free. The U.S. State Department warns that left-wing revolutionary guerrillas, responsible for most of the country's kidnappings, are still active in certain jungle and mountain areas - though not anywhere in the vicinity of Cartagena. Colombia's other plagues, right-wing paramilitaries and drug gangs, are on the wane and pose little threat to tourists.
While it is probably prudent to avoid traveling on your own outside the city at night, most visitors will want to spend at least one day taking an easily arranged trip by boat or car to one of the fabulous coral island beaches that await an hour or two from Cartagena. One very popular spot, Playa Blanca on the Isla de Baru, is located about 12 miles from Cartagena and offers rustic to resort lodging nearby should you want to linger and enjoy a Colombian-style Caribbean idyll.
Round-trip flights from Boston to Cartagena require at least one stop and cost around $1,000, though you may be able to cut the cost nearly in half with a combination of luck and searching. The easiest route is flying to Miami and switching to the daily flight to Cartagena offered by Avianca, the national airline of Colombia.
Other routes to Cartagena require switching planes in Panama City, Panama, or Colombia's capital of Bogota. Consider the latter and take the opportunity to spend two or three nights in Bogota for a dramatically different Colombian experience.
While Cartagena is a hot and sunny tourist town, Bogota, high in the Andes, is cool and often cloudy, a crowded and sprawling metropolis of 8 million where you find both upscale shopping areas and sprawling slums. Arriving from Cartagena, my initial reaction was "Get me outta here!"
But give it a chance and Bogota reveals its big-city charms. It is worth a visit if only for the chance to see the Gold Museum, stuffed with eye-popping pre-Hispanic treasures, and the Botero art museum, devoted mainly to the roly-poly figures painted and sculpted by Fernando Botero, Colombia's most famous artist.
Colombia still may be a destination for adventurous travelers. But only slightly adventurous. With the number of visitors rising 50 percent from 2005 to 2006, going there doesn't make you crazy, just ahead of the herd.
For more information about the music festival, check out www.cartagenamusicfestival.com.