other side of the story
has a reputation for being mad, bad and dangerous. But it
can also be magical, enchanting - and safe. Just ask Gabriel
García Márquez, says Owen Sheers.
February 18, 2006
is home to international film festivals, beauty pageants
and regattas. Photograph: Corbis.
'The city, his city, stood unchanging on the edge of time:
the same burning dry city of his nocturnal terrors and the
solitary pleasures of puberty, where flowers rusted and
salt corroded, where nothing had happened for four centuries
except a slow ageing among withered laurels ..."
So Gabriel García Márquez describes Cartagena,
for much of his life his own adopted city, in his novel
Love in the Time of Cholera. The description largely stands
the test of time, just as the city itself. The 16th-century
colonial town still perches, walled and turreted, on the
Caribbean shore. The bougainvillea tumbling from the balconies
in the narrow streets still "rusts", the salt
still corrodes, the air is still full of solitary (and not
so solitary) pleasures and the less frequented streets may
still be witness to the odd nocturnal terror, although many
fewer than in other Colombian cities, and certainly no more
than streets in London or Manchester.
nothing happening? That's certainly no longer the case.
An awful lot happens in Cartagena: international film festivals,
regattas, bull-fighting seasons, a national beauty pageant
and from now, once a year, those withered laurels will be
dusted off for the Hay Festival of Literature.
in the Time of Cholera is the perfect companion for a visit
to Cartagena, and you could easily navigate the city by
following Márquez's fiction rather than a conventional
guide book. The novel is just as useful a barometer and
guide for the more abstract aspects of the city, too, for
negotiating its spirit, its soul. Ironically, however, you
might find that your experience of Cartagena will somewhat
diminish the imaginative power of Márquez's writing,
simply because in Cartagena so much apparent invention lives
before your eyes.
Márquez now lives mostly in Mexico, for the duration
of the festival the city and the novelist share some actual
territory once again. On the second day of the festival,
I'm lucky enough to spot the man himself as he sits down
in front of a giant plasma screen in the old chapel of the
elegant Charleston hotel to watch Vikram Seth speak at an
event held just down the road in the Claustro de Santo Domingo.
I nervously approach him with my copy of Love in the Time
of Cholera. He takes the book, notices the second-hand pencilled
"£3", raises an amused eyebrow and carefully
signs, "Para Owen, su amigo, Gabo."
touched. But then I remember that in Cartagena Gabo is everyone's
friend, or rather everyone is Gabo's friend. The whole city
seems to either reflect or be in dialogue with his writing.
Sometimes it can be hard to work out which way the influence
flows. Is the talk of love by the drinkers reclining on
cushions on the city's walls informed by the fact that Gabo's
books are on every school syllabus, or is their attraction
to the big abstract nouns of love, grief, anger, passion,
a genuinely Colombian trait?
bit of both I suspect, and it seems I'm not immune to it
either. For my whole time in Cartagena I can't help seeing
the close juxtaposition of the physical and the abstract,
the body and the spirit that constitutes so much of Márquez's
magic realism, echoed in the city about me again and again.
On the road up to the Convento de la Popa, the Catholic
festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria (the patroness
of the city) is advertised in an Aguila beer tent next to
a massive poster of the pneumatic and bikinied Aguila girls;
outside the city walls, a saddled horse stands patiently
tethered between some goalposts on a deserted football pitch;
boys sell time on street corners, their hands full of mobiles,
placards about their necks advertising "300 pesos for
5 minutes, 500 pesos for 10"; the narrow streets are
suddenly filled with a procession of young people wearing
gigantic letters of the alphabet; at two in the morning,
a painting apparently floats across an empty piazza, until
we see the bare-footed legs beneath. I could continue, but
I think I've made my point.
is one area in which ideas of the body obviously dominate
over ideas of the spirit, and that is in a certain class
of Colombian's fondness for surgical enhancement. Although
several men I spoke to wished to believe the contrary, a
vast number of Colombian breasts seem to be, well, a bit
"magically real". Combine this with the fact that
the size of T-shirt worn is nearly always in inverse proportion
to the size of enhancement, and you can't help wondering
what much of the female population are going to look like
in 50 years when the rest of their bodies have succumbed
to the ravages of time and just their cleavages are left
stubbornly defying gravity. If Márquez were writing
his novel now, Love in the Time of Silicon might be an apt
course dramatic enhancement is very much in Cartagena's
history, as is evidenced by Las Murallas, the 8km of impressive
walled defences that almost, but no longer quite, encircle
the old town. These were constructed over two centuries
to defend the city against marauding pirates.
attraction for these pirates lay in the huge stores of looted
native treasures that Cartagena held while waiting for the
twice-yearly visits of the Spanish galleons. In the 16th
century alone, the city endured five pirate sieges. In 1741,
a massive English sea assault by Edward Vernon, second in
size only to the D-Day landings, also failed to break the
defences. Combine this with Cartagena's early declaration
of independence in the 19th century, and you can see why
Simón Bolívar named the city La Heroica.
days the walls play host to young lovers and shots of a
different kind, served from a bar not a cannon. The role
of the walls in a modern Colombia also seems to be somewhat
reversed, in that nowadays they are as much about keeping
people (foreign tourists) in, as keeping others out. More
than once I was advised not to wander beyond the walls on
my own. This made me suspect the old town was something
of a theme park, which, given its perfect renovation after
achieving Unesco world heritage status, you could argue
it is. But only in El Centro. Take a stroll through some
of the further winding streets and you're left in no doubt
that the old town is still very much a living, breathing,
working society. Wanders outside of the walls are also fine,
through the stunning "Republican" and Moorish
architecture of La Manga, and around the harbour and down
the long Miami-like strip of the Bocagrande. Any further,
however, out towards the sprawling barrios, and you might
find yourself in trouble. I'd hoped to visit Nelson Mandela
barrio, an entire community of displaced people from the
interior of the country. The Hay Festival together with
Plan International ran a kids' poetry project here. I was
intrigued but it was made clear to me that without prior
planning and security, Nelson Mandela was strictly out of
internal troubles are hardly a well-kept secret. It's well
known that Spanish America's oldest democracy is still the
most dangerous place in the world to be a trade union leader,
and when you plan to visit, trouble is all you hear about.
The Foreign Office site will warn you off most of the country,
and your friends will tell you you'll be kidnapped. As ever,
these warnings are unspecific and, in Cartagena's case,
grossly unfair. OK, the town has its share of armed guards
and police on the streets, but it also feels totally safe.
There is a tremendous amount of good in Cartagena. I had
the real sense that Colombians I met wanted to change their
country's image in the eyes of the world, and that they
recognised this will only occur if real changes happen.
The festival was part of this, as Vikram Seth pointed out:
"It's actually going to make a difference in Colombia.
It's a vote of confidence by outsiders." Tourism can
play its part in a similar way, especially if directed at
the many small, sustainable projects that are currently
flourishing in the country.
such project is Cultura del Mar, a group of four friends
who have established an eco-tourism venture in the Islas
del Rosario off the coast of Cartagena. The accommodation
on their own "island" on Isla Grande (confusingly,
patches of land here are called islands despite not being
surrounded by water) is simple, a large open-walled thatched
hut. The view of the sunrise over the Caribbean is spectacular;
the food, wood-fire-grilled freshly caught fish, gorgeous
and plentiful; the alarm clock, a pre-pubescent falsetto
cockerel, funny, charming and then annoying.
Cultura del Mar really excels at, though, is transforming
snorkelling from the typical casual gazing experience into
a stunning, full-blown marine biology expedition. "The
butterfly fish", our guide Daniel tells us as we surface
above a reef, "is monogamous. When its partner dies,
it dies too, from instinct. Just like humans."
done a fair bit of diving but that night Daniel takes us
on a truly magical night snorkel through the mangroves of
the Enchanted Lagoon. Armed with torches and with a soundtrack
of Champeta music from a nearby party, we slip into the
still, black water to glide alongside the bizarrely alien
world of the mangroves. The bulbous, oyster- and coral-clad
roots play host to breeding fish and therefore attract larger
predators too. It's eerie, strange and brilliant. Daniel
catches a puffer fish which blows up in alarm before fluttering
off like a tennis ball crossed with a helicopter. The climax
comes, however, when we turn our torches off and find ourselves
swimming in a constellation of phosphorescent plankton.
A clap of the hands creates a galaxy. We dive down and watch
our fluid bodies light up in the dark, seemingly composed
entirely of brief, living sparks. When we surface we're
laughing like children.
we did when we swam in the crater of a mud volcano 50km
north-east of Cartagena. Legend has it that the Volcán
de Lodo El Totumo once spouted fire, but a local priest,
seeing the 15m mound as the work of the devil, sprinkled
it with holy water and turned the fire to mud. I for one
am very grateful that he did. Mud-dipping, it turns out,
is not only a great laugh, it also leaves you feeling wonderful.
Having climbed the rickety wooden stairs, three men guided
us into the thick, deep mud. Sinking isn't an option though,
even if you try. Which we didn't, preferring to lie back
and let ourselves be massaged and floated about the crater
like slow, gloopy bumper cars. Fully muddied, women from
local families then led us down to the shore of the nearby
lagoon where we were thoroughly washed in a way I haven't
been since I was three years old. If you fancy staying on
for food and drink, there are a few shack restaurants, and
you can even take some of the therapeutic mud home with
you in a range of recycled plastic bottles.
in town the festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria is
being celebrated with a Cabalgata, 2,000 ranch horses ridden
through the streets of the city. It's an impressive sight,
the wagons and carts of beauty queens and kids followed
by hundreds of high-stepping, arched-neck Paso Finos, ridden
by particularly stylish male and female rancheros. I've
never seen someone handle a highly strung horse in high-heels
the warnings, then, official and unofficial, Cartagena proved
to be one of the most fascinating and engaging travel experiences
I've ever had. Both the city and the surrounding area provide
more than enough distraction for a longer visit than our
nine days. The food is world-class, the people (enhanced
and unenhanced) gorgeous and fun, and the town's sense of
life and love infectious. We might not have been kidnapped,
but a part of us has definitely been held hostage by this
complex and beautiful city. I hope, come next year's Hay
Festival, we'll be back to haggle over the ransom price.