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Gabriel García Márquez said in 1976, "in Latin America there is a country that is not made of land, but water, which is the Caribbean." If that country had a capital, it would be Cartagena: the 'Heroic City'. Declared by Unesco to be a World Heritage Site, the city has 485 years of history and about one million people live there.
Adolfo Meisel, an authority on Caribbean issues (in addition to a well-known economist in Colombia), mentions three great reasons that make Cartagena special: first, it is the best example that has been preserved of what the fortified Spanish Caribbean of late 18th century used to be. That colonial charm was an inspiration for the Spanish poet Jorge Guillén, who speaks of the city in these terms: "ante el mar la ceñuda fortaleza que los tesoros guarda."
Second, an important part of Colombia's history has been defined in it. November 11th, the day of Cartagena's independence, is the only local commemoration that is a national holiday.
Third, there is its cultural vitality. The cultural program of the year includes the International Music Festival and the Hay Festival in January, the International Film Festival in March or the National Beauty Pageant in November. Business, entrepreneurship and creativity summits cover the whole season and around 350,000 people arrive by sea every year in approximately 200 cruises that dock at the port. Throughout the year, the city's agenda is constantly renewed.
Why does Cartagena de Indias commemorate its independence from Spain on November 11th, 1811, and not July 20th, 1810, like the rest of the country? The historian Germán Mejía Pavony reflects on this event.
Free from Spain, certainly, but also free from all ties: surprising as it may seem, this also has to do with Bogotá, a city once called Santafé and the head of the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada, which is currently the capital of Colombia.
It's also important to say that the independence movement was not aimed against the King's representatives stationed in the city, who had ceased to govern it months before, but against the Governing Junta that the Creoles of Cartagena installed on May 22nd, 1810. This call for freedom of the province was only possible by the actions of pardos and mestizos who, led by the momposinos, spoke out against the aristocracy of Cartagena.
What happened initially in Cartagena with the autonomous government boards also happened in Pamplona, Socorro, Cali, Medellín, Nóvita, Mariquita, Tame and many other cities head of their provinces. These meetings gave rise to several republics, with their corresponding minutes, constitutions and government institutions.
Then what happened in Cartagena? La Provincia, which at that time congregated about 78 populated sites, was composed of the departments of Cartagena, Mompós, San Benito Abad, Tolú and Simití. Its boundaries included the islands of San Andrés and Providencia, as well as the coasts of Mosquitia in what is now Nicaragua.
Cartagena, the city, ruled this territory for its benefit and was sure to make this clear when, in 1808, the Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula and the captivity of Ferdinand VII in Bayonne resulted not only in the independence war of Spain against France, but also in a vacuum of power that was used by the American provinces to claim sovereignty over their own nations and territories.
The elite, stationed in the port and represented by the cabildo, questioned the legitimacy of the Regency Council on May 22nd, 1810. They informed this to the governor, Francisco Montes, who accepted the new formula of government: fidelity to the king and an autonomous government assembly composed of him and two council members.
This arrangement lasted no more than a few weeks. The governor was reluctant to share his authority, and this led to the creation of a movement the following June 14th, which subsequently took away all of his power, then imprisoned and deported him to Havana.
José María García de Toledo, an aristocrat from Cartagena, was the one who commanded the rebellion, but his success was only possible due to the support he received from the people of the Getsemaní suburb, led by Pedro Romero and Joaquín Solano.
Shortly after, on August 14th, the "Supreme Provincial Junta of Cartagena de Indias" was organized: it was composed of the entire town council as well as six other deputies elected by the people and the delegates of Mompós, Simití, San Benito Abad and Tolú. Its first president was García de Toledo.
Mompós did not recognize the Junta. This river port knew before Cartagena did what had happened in Santafé (Bogotá). Filled with reasons to fight against the hegemony of Cartagena, and doubts before the Junta because they saw in it a convenient arrangement for the city's elite, on August 5th, 1810, the momposinos proclaimed their absolute independence both from Spain and from any other territory. Cartagena’s response was overwhelming: its armies ended the attempt of freedom and independence made by the momposinos between January and February 1811.
Despite this, dissatisfaction continued and gave rise to two factions: an autonomist one, who was satisfied with the Junta, and a radical one, who continued to seek the absolute independence of Spain.
Finally, the radicals led by the momposinos and accompanied by pardos and mestizos in the province would give rise to Cartagena's true proclamation of independence on November 11th, 1811. It was a revolution against the port's aristocracy, because at the time there was no Spanish government in the province.
Radicals controlled the Republic of Cartagena de Indias from that November 11th until December 17th, 1814. Bliss was set to last until December 1815, when 'La Heróica' was besieged by Pablo Murillo. By 1821, the Spaniards finally withdrew entirely and Cartagena was incorporated as a province to the nascent Republic of Colombia.
In Gabriel García Márquez's novels there are clues that hint his passage through the city. Books such as Love in the Time of Cholera and Of Love and Other Demons bring the streets through which the writer wandered to life, as well as the characters that strolled through them, leaving a mark in the Nobel Prize winner. A tour around a city about which Gabo said: "I really love being in Cartagena [...] There I have a nice simple cozy house, overlooking the sea and the old city. It's like it's my ecological medium."
Gabo arrived in Cartagena in 1948 and looked for his friends at the student residence Hotel Suiza, located in Calle de las Damas. Since he did not find them, he had to spend the night in Parque de Bolívar, where he was arrested for violating the curfew enforced in the country after the assassination of political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Bogotá, which devastated the capital.
In the novel Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabo called this place "El Portal de los Escribanos" (The Arcade of the Scribes): this was where Florentino Ariza first confessed his love for Fermina Daza. As the name suggests, el Portal de los Dulces (The Arcade of Sweets) is an ideal place to taste candy made from tamarind, coconut, sesame, guava and other flavors that the author described in his novel: "the sellers of sweets who shouted over the din of the crowd: pineapple sweets for your sweetie, coconut candy is dandy, brown sugar loaf for your sugar."
Located at the corner of Calle Zerrezuela, in front of the Hotel Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, Gabo's residence is the place where he spent a few months before leaving for Mexico City in 2014. It is a huge house with high coral walls, designed by the architect Rogelio Salmona.
Built in the 17th century and originally a convent, Santa Clara is now a hotel. Apart from being one of the settings of the novel Of Love and Other Demons, the Santa Clara convent used to be the place where the offices of Legal Medicine, the workshop of the School of Fine Arts and the headquarters of the Departmental League of Baseball were located. Only in 1994 was the convent restored and turned into the lodging site it is today.
Upon recommendation of author Manuel Zapata Olivella, here is where García Márquez began his journalistic career. For a year and a half, Gabo wrote more than forty articles and fell in love with journalism, which he called "the most beautiful job in the world."
485 years old and surrounded by 11 kilometers of walls, Cartagena is considered a Historical and Cultural Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO. The colonial churches, ancient palaces and portals have survived the passage of time, the elements of nature, the assault of pirates and the independence riots. This is a tour of the places that have marked the people of Cartagena.
Cartagena was vital for the Spanish Crown due to its privileged position in the Caribbean and its transatlantic trade. Therefore, to defend the city from possible attacks, this military complex was built. Despite what its name suggests, no royal members lived in the Castle. Like the rest of the structure, its main fort was built by African slaves during the 16th and 17th centuries, and was used to watch the sea, as it was set on an elevated site of the coast. The castle is an architectural milestone that took 120 years to be built and that hosts around 400,000 visitors every year.
When the Spaniards saw it for the first time, they thought it was the stern of a giant ship ('popa' in Spanish). Hence the name of the hill, which is the highest point of the city and the one with the most dazzling panoramic view of the coast. This was the place where the convent was built at the beginning of the 17th century. Today, the cloister belongs to the Augustinians and visitors can find there a museum of religious art. Its altar is adorned with gold lamellae and, every February 2nd at dawn, the place is visited by the devotees of the Virgin of La Candelaria de la Popa, patron saint of Cartagena.
The cathedral took 35 years to be built and its process had several missteps. Between 1577 and 1612, when it was erected, its structure was damaged by pirate attacks and by miscalculations in its design. However, from the beginning this Herrerian-style cathedral has been the religious epicenter of the city and is currently the seat of the archbishopric of Cartagena. Santa Catalina de Alejandría is the largest church in Cartagena. Its tower, which stands out in the skyline of the old town, was designed in 1921 by the French architect Gastón Lelarge when the temple was remodeled.
A colonial house with a baroque portal and wooden balconies was the seat of the Spanish Inquisition in the city for more than two hundred years. Its permanent exhibition shows the torture ponies, the shackles, whips and other tools with which this institution punished anyone who was accused of heresy through the Mailbox of Ignominy (a small window on one of the walls of the palace where anonymous accusations were placed). Furthermore, since 1984, the Palace also hosts the Historical Archive of Cartagena.
This national monument is named in honor of the Spanish saint who dedicated his life to alleviating the suffering of the African slaves of Cartagena in the 17th century. Because of his calling and his love of neighbor, he is also known as "the slave of slaves", and his remains rest on the altar. The Parish was built from 1580 to 1654 and, before reaching its current name–a tribute to the saint canonized in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII–, it was first called San Juan de Dios and then San Ignacio de Loyola.
Some used to refer to Getsemaní as 'el arrabal' ('the slum'), because it was one of the first neighborhoods to be built outside the urban layout of Cartagena in the 16th century. For others, it was where the "free from colors" lived: a place where neither race nor social class nor creed mattered. This is a walk through the neighborhood's diversity and everlasting cultural commitment.
On the streets and sidewalks of this square, eleven steel sculptures depict scenes from the popular neighborhoods of La Heróica: children playing, families and friends chatting or selling fruit. They are the work of the artist Edgardo Carmona and a tribute to this iconic Getsemaní site where at night you can have beers at the Black Parrot Bar or eat a tuna tartar at the restaurant Demente.
Also known as Plaza Libertad, this square is the meeting point of the Getsemaní neighborhood. In the evenings there are street art shows that can be enjoyed from the nearby bars and cafes. In recent years it has become a stage for live music.
With different techniques and styles, the images on the walls represent the mix of ethnic groups, cultural influences and iconic characters from Cartagena such as India Catalina or fruit vendors (called Palenqueras). This is an outdoor urban art gallery that has been a meeting point for Cartagena artists since 2013.
Guillermo Vega was born in Corozal (Sucre), a town located 168 kilometers (99 miles) from Cartagena. He is considered a 'naive' artist because of the ingenuity of the strokes with which he depicts street dogs, women on the beach and nocturnal spirits, and because of his completely self-taught background. His workshop is an exhibition site for the emerging artists of the city.
El Mural Coffee House and Café de las Novias, with its marvelous desserts, are some of the places that have opened in recent years near this road to recover its historical commercial vocation. In the past, Calle Larga was the meeting point for businessmen from different countries, called 'Turks' by the locals who weren't sure of their nationalities. Today, Calle Larga is located next to the Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala Convention Center of Cartagena de Indias, where events such as the National Beauty Pageant or the Cuchara de Palo Culinary Fair take place.
Gabriel García Márquez came to study law at the University of Cartagena. Here he became a journalist: his friend, writer and doctor Manuel Zapata Olivella, took him one day to the newspaper El Universal and introduced him to Clemente Manuel Zabala, editor in chief at the time. Since he had already read some of his stories published in El Espectador, Zabala told him to take a seat and write a piece.
Many years later (not as he faced the firing squad but as he stood in front of the wall), Gabo bought a house in the Historic Center and created the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism. His remains lie in the university where Literature stole him from Law and turned him into a Nobel Prize winner. Long live those thefts!
EIn the Fernando Botero Presidential Suite at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Hotel, you can fall asleep among paintings and photographs by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero. The World Travel Awards chose it as the best presidential suite in Latin America. It was decorated by the artist's daughter, Lina Botero, and aside from the many paintings decorating the walls, it has a private collection of books and photographs. In case you want your dreams to have a touch of art, one night at the suite costs 2,500 USD.
In the National Aviary of Colombia, located on the island of Barú, 40 minutes from the center of Cartagena, you can see 2,000 birds of 170 different species.
The visitors can take a tour in which they explore five categories: conservation, research, interaction, education and exhibition. In the Aviary, the species of birds are separated in the different ecosystems of the country: desert, mangroves, coastlines and jungle.
Cartagena was the place where Pedro Claver, a Spanish priest who defended the rights of African slaves and died here in 1654, became famous. On July 6th and 7th, 1986, Pope John Paul II came to La Heróica: he visited the Chambacú neighborhood, the San Pedro Claver Church and the Archdiocese. Today, both men are saints.
Furthermore, on his first visit to Colombia, Pope Francis chose this city as the last one in his tour around the country. During his time there, he visited neighborhoods such as San Francisco, Torices, Daniel Lemaitre and the Santa Rita sector. In his last homily he talked about respect for human rights and dignity, just as our ancestors did when they defended freedom.
"On September 8th, 1654, San Pedro Claver died here, after forty years of voluntary slavery; of tireless work in favor of the poorest. He did not stop; after the first step, many followed. His example makes us leave our own selves in search for our neighbor," said the Supreme Pontiff.
The forts in the town of Bocachica, on the island of Tierra Bomba, are 20 minutes by boat from Cartagena. The forts of San Fernando and San José, for example, are full of mythical stories of Spaniards who attacked and counterattacked enemy vessels.
These buildings, which annually receive about 8,000 visitors, also served as prisons due to their difficult accessibility and the great protection they offered. Here you can also find San Ángel, the highest point of the island, which offers the best view of the Caribbean Sea.
Champeta is not the only rhythm you can hear and dance in Cartagena. Salsa fever, a cultural movement that had its peak in New York during the sixties, is still a vibrant component of Cartagena's nightlife.
El negro bembón, Anacaona, Pedro Navaja, Sandra Mora and Gan Gan y Gan Gon are all timeless music characters who get together every night in emblematic bars such as Donde Fidel (Down Town), La Esquina Sandiegana (San Diego), El Platanal de Bartolo (El Bosque) and Café Havana Salsa Club (Getsemaní). This heritage is still very strong in the city and is not exclusive to any generation. Dancing brings people together.
When people started saying, "the party is at Fidel's", his owner had no choice but to change the name of the bar. "It was called La Lonchería del pollo because we sold chicken next door, but the people of Cartagena changed the name and I listened to them," says Fidel Leottau Hernández. His love for salsa began in 1968 when he opened his first two clubs (El Continuo and El Abacoa). The sailors who visited them brought him records from the salsa band El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico.
Located in a corner between Los Coches and Aduana squares, Donde Fidel has walls decorated with photographs of Rubén Blades, Andy Montañez, Óscar d'León, José Alberto 'El Canario', among others. They are all Fidel's favorite artists and their songs are a hit on the dance floor. The only thing Fidel asks of people who come to party is to follow his rules: no discrimination of any kind and no harassment of women. "I want my bar to be a meeting point where everyone can feel safe. Here, the customer is the boss," he says. The bar is best known for its live shows. Donde Fidel opens every day of the week, no exception.
Location: Portal de los Dulces, carrera 4.
As you walk through the streets of Cartagena you will find the largest offer of lodging and entertainment in the city in the old residences of viceroys and settlers. These buildings have one or two floors, large doors and windows, balconies, patios and gardens inspired by Arabic, Roman and Greek architecture. Most of them currently house haute cuisine restaurants, boutique hotels and sophisticated clothing and accessories stores.
The architectural wealth of Cartagena’s historic center, together with its tradition of being a high-level international destination, allowed the trend of boutique hotels to consolidate. These places merged their concept with that of an antique shop or gallery because there you can also buy decorative objects with a historical value.
Tcherassi Hotel+Spa, by Colombian designer Silvia Tcherassi, is one of the many options you can find. After a meticulous restoration of an 18th century colonial mansion, this hotel has seven spacious and luxurious rooms.
Among other alternatives that are positioning themselves in Cartagena's hotel scene you can find the Bantú Hotel By Faranda Boutique, the Ananda Hotel Boutique and Casa Pestagua Relais Châteaux. These hotels stand out due to the highly curated decoration and the personalized attention they offer.
In matters of fine cooking, Cartagena's cuisine is betting on rescuing the heritage left by afro, Arab, indigenous and Spanish cultures.
"Cartagena is beginning to understand that it is through its Caribbean cuisine and not through foreign cuisines that it can contribute to the gastronomic values of the country. A tourist is not searching for salmon or paella. On the contrary, he will want to fall in love with the local cuisine," said Carlos Gaviria, Colombian chef and culinary teacher, winner of the best cookbook award of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2017 with his work Técnicas profesionales de cocina colombiana (Professional Techniques of Colombian Cuisine).
Traditional restaurants such as El Club de Pesca, La Vitrola and Donde Olano remain loyal to the flavors that enshrined them, while the new culinary bets begin to gain recognition. This is the case of Proyecto Caribe: based on research, the restaurant has begun using ingredients such as sweet peppers and different types of corn in dishes, setting trends in contemporary cuisine around the ethnic plurality of the region.
Chef Gaviria recommends trying the street food stalls where the locals eat, like the restaurant owned by Arelys Rebolledo on the street in front of the Plaza de las Bóvedas.
When choosing a dish, the chef suggests the seafood variety, casseroles, ceviches, posta negra, arepa de huevo, carimañolas and Palenquero sweets. To drink, he recommends chicha de corozo.
The Historical Center and the area of Bocagrande are ideal places to try not only Cartagena's cuisine but also a variety of international restaurants. As for desserts, the Portal de los Dulces is the place to go: there you can taste traditional rice with milk, as well as the well known 'cocadas' made of different fruit flavors such as coconut, pineapple, papaya, tamarind, grapefruit, among others.
Eating at Alma is not only a gastronomic adventure; it is also an architectural and a historical experience. Its location in the colonial city allows diners to admire century-old streets and houses, including the one where the restaurant is located, which was built in the 17th century and which also works as a hotel. The dishes of its chef, Heberto Eljach, such as the Coco Woods ceviche (fish marinated with lemon, coconut milk, onion, chili and served with green plantain), the seafood casserole 'a la cartagenera' (with lobster, clams, fish, squid, octopus, mussels with coconut milk and lobster cream) or the sancocho made of the day's catch are a tribute to the traditional flavors of La Heróica.
Location: Calle de la Universidad # 36-44
This place aims for the fusion of typical flavors of Cartagena with traditional Asian cuisine. Some of its signature dishes are the tataki salmon, the spicy crab, the tempura shrimp, the chaufa lobster and the ramen. However, the most recommended experience is the omakase tasting menu: comprised of seven stages, it recreates a trip from the Caribbean Sea to Japan thanks to the synergy of its ingredients and recipes. A modern space in the heart of the historic city, which has an open-air lounge to enjoy the breeze of the coast and a sushi bar in which drinks such as the Moshi Moshi cocktails (sake, vodka, lychee liquor, basil, lemon and ginger) and the Vernita Green (tequila, kiwi, cilantro, yellow lemon, kaffir lime and mint) stand out.
Location: Calle 38 # 8-19
Better known as 'Leo', Leonor is the owner of two well-known restaurants in Bogotá: "Leo" and "Misia", the first of which was recognized as the best in Colombia and one of the 50 best restaurants in Latin America, according to the 50 Best count. This chef from Cartagena has devoted much of her life to creating proposals based on local cuisine, reinterpreting the most traditional dishes of Colombian popular food and working hand in hand with the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in the vindication of gastronomic traditions as a social and economic engine through her project: Funleo.
This type of yuca frying, similar to a croquette, can be made with meat or cheese and is usually accompanied by a sauce called suero costeño (similar to sour cream) or a bit of spicy sauce.
For 10 Carimañolas
750 grams of peeled yuca
6 finely chopped Creole peppers
1 finely chopped tomato
1 finely chopped onion
500 grams of ground beef
Salt and pepper
Cook the yucca in salted water until soft.
Drain it well and grind it into a puree.
Cook the ground meat in water, drain well and let it cool.
Heat a little oil in a pan and make a sauce with the chili, tomato, onion, salt and pepper. Add the meat, mix well and check the seasoning.
Take portions of the yuca dough, press its center with one finger and add a little meat mixture.
Heat the oil on high heat and fry the carimañolas until they are golden brown.
Place them on absorbent paper to remove excess fat and serve.
For the past three decades, during the Christmas season, the city pays tribute to the chefs of the traditional pasteles cartageneros (prepared with chicken, rice, pork and turkey). This dish can be purchased at the Parque de la Marina for around 10,000 COP (3.16 USD).
From December 16th to 25th
Parque de la Marina
A night of collective euphoria in which reggaeton, salsa and vallenato will make the audience dance. Carlos Vives, J Balvin, Maluma, Rubén Blades, Sebastián Yatra and Poncho Zuleta will perform some of their best-known hits at this year-end party in 2018. The tickets are available from 189,900 COP (59.94 USD).
Jaime Morón Stadium
The Festival’s thirteenth edition is dedicated to the exploration of the role of mathematics in music. Performances of artists such as Italian pianist and musicologist Giovanni Bietti; the Philharmonic Orchestra of England and Colombian soprano Julieth Lozano will revolve around ideas such as symmetry, proportions, numbers and geometry, which have inspired great composers like Johann Sebastian Bach throughout the centuries.
From January 4th to 13th
Adolfo Mejía Theater (inaugural concert)
This fair, known as Farex, is a showcase that allows the promotion of Colombian handicrafts in order to export them to international markets. For ten days, visitors will get to know how typical pieces are made, the materials used and the stories behind the works of more than 200 Colombian artisans.
From January 3d to 13th
After thirteen editions in the city, this event has positioned itself as one of the most important literary stages in Latin America. Cartagena's historical center has been the backdrop for talks by authors such as Nobel Prize winners Mario Vargas Llosa and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, as well as activist Jody Williams, 1997 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. The 2019 programme will be revealed in November.
January 31st – February 3rd
Adolfo Mejía Theater
The flight date is outside of our promotion.
Rafael Núñez International Airport
Monday to Friday: 5:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturdays: 5:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Sundays and Bank Holidays: 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Each ticket costs 2,300 COP (0.62 USD).
Minimum rate: 6,700 COP (2.10 USD). Rate to the airport: 11,000 COP (3.46 USD). Rate per hour: 26,000 COP (8,18 USD).
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