December 30, 2006

The Comeback Story of Cartagena
A rebel crackdown in Colombia has led to a renaissance for the colonial beach city; the new Hollywood connection.

December 30, 2006; Page P1

CARTAGENA, Colombia -- Shortly before Colombian President Álvaro Uribe was inaugurated in 2002, Marxist rebels welcomed him by blowing up a small bomb in a government office in the Caribbean tourist center of Cartagena. It was about that time, amid a surge in violence throughout Colombia, that Royal Caribbean Cruises and other cruise lines stopped docking ships here due to safety concerns. It looked like Cartagena's future as a tourist town was bleak.

But four years later, the city is making a striking turnaround. Mr. Uribe has surprised nearly everyone by fulfilling his pledge to take an "iron fist" against the guerrillas. These days the rebels are on the run and the tourists are returning. The number of kidnappings by armed groups has fallen by 85% from its 2002 levels, to around 250, according to the Colombian government; the overwhelming majority of victims of violent crimes like kidnapping are Colombian citizens. Meanwhile, the number of visitors to the country has since 2002 almost doubled to around a million -- a quarter of them from the U.S.

Cartagena has become symbolic of broader progress in Colombia. In the past couple of years, a host of international notables, including Mick Jagger, Queen Sofía of Spain and Julio Iglesias, have come to Cartagena on vacation. The number of cruise ships docking this winter season is up 50% from its low point in 2002-2003. And there have been a number of elegant, yet intimate, new boutique hotels -- such as Quadrifolio, La Merced and Hotel Casa del Arzobispado -- opening up to cater to a growing number of tourists and conventioneers.

I've spent the past 20 years in Latin America reporting for The Wall Street Journal and have visited Cartagena -- with its unusual blend of colonial architecture, easily accessible beaches and wide variety of water sports -- three times in the past five years. I've always felt at ease here, and the other American visitors I've met while traveling have told me they felt the same way. Andrea Greenberg, who works at Fortune International, a Miami real-estate development company, has been to Cartagena twice in the past few years. "The first day you might have some worries, but then you just get caught up in all of the beautiful things there are to see," says Ms. Greenberg, who enjoys dining in the array of restaurants, from Caribbean to Italian, and sitting in a café watching all the movement on Cartagena's bustling plazas.

This is still a country at war, as it has been for four decades. The State Department warns that terrorist-related violence affects all parts of the country and U.S. citizens continue to be "victims of threats, kidnappings, and other criminal acts." But it says that urban areas like Cartagena have become markedly less violent.

The surge in tourists over the past several years has been a shot in the arm for the local economy. While the city still suffers from high unemployment, there has been a rise in investment and business startups. "There were some lean years when no one much was coming around to dance," says Tania Gomez, a pianist for a local music group. It's much easier getting gigs these days, she says.

In the walled Old Town, visitors can take in a concert or cultural event at the Heredia Theater or walk the leafy garden of the 18th-century San Pedro Claver Church. Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia's Nobel Prize-winning author, owns a newer house with a wall and watchtower that has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Just a short ferry ride away is Barú Island, with its white-sand beach, and the Rosario Islands, a coral reef archipelago that is popular for snorkeling, fishing and surfing.

In my trips around the region, I've seen classic colonial architecture in places as distinct as the venerable mining town of Guanajuato, Mexico, and bustling Old Havana. But what's unusual about Cartagena is the creative way it has taken the buildings that have won the city recognition as a United Nations World Heritage Site and adapted them for tourism.

Sofitel's Santa Clara Hotel, which occupies the site of a 17th-century convent, has a bar built into the choir and a restaurant in the refectory. Set on a parapet with canons pointing out to the sea, the Café del Mar bar is a romantic spot with drinks such as fiery aguardiente, a sugar-cane spirit and limonada de coco, a mix of coconut milk and lemon juice. The Palace of the Inquisition, where Roman Catholic tribunals persecuted alleged witches and heretics, is now a museum whose lawn is used for banquets; the diners at one recent event were unfazed by the replica gallows set up near the head table.

La Vitrola, a restaurant specializing in seafood, retains a spirit of Caribbean adventure. With its ceiling fans, intimate lighting and old photographs on the wall, the restaurant looks like a place where conspirators would go to plot a coup. And one night when I was there the restaurant was the scene of an uprising of sorts. A troupe of tipsy Spanish tourists commandeered the maracas from the Cuban house band and started a conga line snaking through the restaurant. "You never know how people will behave when they come to Cartagena," says manager Gregorio Herrera. "Some get very, very relaxed."

Despite the long bloodletting their country has endured, locals are genial and eager to cater to visitors. "Some visitors come here expecting to see sad people who are demoralized and beaten down by war," says Joan Mac Master de Gamarra, manager of La Merced hotel. "But instead they find that locals are light-hearted and very happy to meet them." I can vouch for that. When I asked a motorcycle cop for directions, he wasn't satisfied with simply telling me how to reach my destination. He insisted I hop on the back of his bike so he could take me himself.

Security experts say the Marxist guerrillas who have placed bombs on burros and canoes -- and who almost got away with reconstructing a Russian-style submarine -- are still a threat. Indeed, in recent months there has been an upsurge in guerrilla attacks, albeit mostly confined to isolated rural zones hundreds of miles from here. But even in the bloodiest years of the Colombian conflict, Cartagena was largely spared due to the presence of Colombia's largest naval base. And Mr. Uribe in May won a landslide re-election to a second four-year term, ensuring some continuity in security policy. Just to be safe, newcomers to Cartagena should probably make the tourist-friendly Old Town the hub of their activities. Beyond the walls lies a typically sprawling developing world urban area, parts of which are nice and parts of which aren't.

Perhaps the biggest sign of Cartagena's renaissance is that Hollywood is taking an interest. Director Mike Newell just finished shooting "Love in the Time of Cholera" in Cartagena, a $50 million production with an international cast featuring Spanish actor Javier Bardem. The film, based on a novel by Mr. García Márquez, is the first major Hollywood picture produced in Cartagena since "The Mission," starring Robert De Niro two decades ago.

"Cholera" producer Scott Steindorff was set to film in Brazil, where he'd made a previous picture. "Partners, family, friends, every single person, said, 'Do not go to Colombia,' " says Mr. Steindorff, in an interview in the colonial house he was staying at in the Old Town.

For Colombians, having the movie made in Cartagena is a point of national honor. Colombia's vice president, Francisco Santos, insisted on meeting Mr. Steindorff to sell Cartagena. "When I got here, I fell in love with the place and realized I couldn't film the movie anywhere else," Mr. Steindorff says.

The closest thing to a security scare during the three-month shoot came when actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno heard some odd hooting sounds coming from a closet in the old house where she was staying. It wasn't one of the moments of "magic realism" that Mr. García Márquez specializes in; it turned out to be a pair of owls, which the crew christened Florentino and Fermina, after the film's romantic protagonists.

• How to Get There: You can fly directly from Miami. But some tourists come through Bogotá, the capital, which is worth a visit in its own right.

• Where to Stay: In the Old Town, the two converted convents, the Santa Clara and the Charleston, have good reputations, with rates starting at about $300 and $270 respectively (, There are also several charming boutique hotels, including La Merced, where rates start at about $295 (

• What to do: The Gold Museum features pre-Colombian metal and ceramic treasures. Set above the Old Town is San Felipe Castle, which local historians tout as the most formidable Spanish military fortification in the New World. In the Palace of the Inquisition, there is a replica of the rack used during interrogations. Also, a 45-minute boat ride away is Barú Island, which offers crystal-clear water and one of Colombia's finest beaches.

• Where to Eat: The city has good restaurants featuring a variety of cuisines, including Italian, Spanish, Arab and Japanese. But seafood is what Cartagena's chefs do best. Stalwarts include La Vitrola (Tel: 575-664-8243) and the Club de Pesca (, where dishes start at just under $20. Try the cazuela, a steaming seafood stew. -- Matt Moffett

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