Dostoevsky had Moscow, Dickens had London, and Neruda had Valparaiso. Many writers have painted beautiful (or beautifully depressing) snapshots of cities, making us feel like we’ve visited and walked the streets, tasted the food, and mingled with the people.
Gabriel García Márquez forced me into a love affair with Cartagena, Colombia four years before I even thought about traveling to Colombia when I read Love in the Time of Cholera (El amor en los tiempos del cólera).
Full of the magical realism the Noble Prize winner is famous for, the book captures the grit and charm of a city while following the twisted love story of Fermina Daza, Florentino Ariza, and Juvenal Urbino.
Márquez was not born in Cartagena nor did he live there for most of his life. He only lived there one year in 1948 while fulfilling his apprenticeship as a journalist, but speaks passionately about the city and has a home overlooking the sea which he visits a few times a year.
“All of my books have loose threads of Cartagena in them and, with time, when I have to call up memories, I always bring back an incident from Cartagena, a place in Cartagena, a character in Cartagena,” says Márquez.
I now see why he was greatly influenced by this place. I visited Cartagena for five days and can’t even begin to describe the magic Márquez wrote about.
Cartagena is nicely positioned on the Caribbean Sea (but unfortunately hosts the ugliest beaches around), and used to be the most important trading port in the Americas, with a rich history of pirate attacks and immense wealth peppered amongst dire poverty.
The great wall surrounding the old city and the Castille de San Felipe are the first thing one notices (easily seen from the airplane). We arrived with no plans and settled quickly into our charming “boutique hotel,” Casa Veranera.
Most of our days began with a relaxing breakfast and laying by the pool, followed by aimless wandering (the most important part of the trip) through the different neighborhoods.
Each neighborhood has a completely different feel to it, from Bocagrande (the rich, shiny part) to Getsemaní (the dirtier, rougher part) and there are plenty of cafés to stop in and sites to see.
The sounds of Cuban music and horse-drawn carriages are present throughout the day.
I took my camera with me only one day and stopped every three minutes because I was captivated by almost everything I saw, from the boys chasing a lone rat down the street to the battered colonial houses. Sadly, my camera didn’t do nearly as much justice as Márquez’s words.
In the city of magic, I ate my fill of ceviche, coconut rice, and drank my fill of mojitos- the best diet in Cartagena’s sweltering heat. The heat is slightly suffocating and radiates from all surfaces during the day, but you will never hear me complain about heat.
A siesta around 1 or 2pm was necessary for me everyday to escape from the heat and gear up for the inevitable party at night.
Costeños and the visiting tourists definitely know how to party, with many people starting at Café Del Mar, where you can find a (windy) spot on the city wall overlooking the sea while sipping your drink of choice and meeting people from around the world. A beautiful spot to drink (as long as you don’t mind wind-swept hair) before finding a place to dance late into the night.
Even though I experienced the slightly supernatural feelings Márquez described, only one aspect of Cartagena left me disappointed. Our search for the house of Gabriel García Márquez.
After some internet hunting, I found “the corner” his house is on. After fruitless walking, we realized that “corner” contains two streets that didn’t seem to intersect. After walking fruitlessly and asking locals that assured us we “were close” but didn’t seem to know an address, we almost gave up.
It started monsoon-style pouring rain and a young couple confidently jumped in a taxi with us to lead us to his house. After five minutes, they admit defeat. They did not know either.
I wish I could have seen the home of one of my favorite writers and one of the most influential Colombians, but we gave up the hunt. I guess my visit to Márquez’s favorite city and walking in his footsteps will have to be sufficient for now.
I’ve followed his lead and created my own snapshot of the city and the unfinished business of finding his home gives me one more reason to return to Cartagena.