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A few years ago, I was sitting in a restaurant in Cartagena de Indias with a couple of Colombian friends when the owner came to our table to chat. Leaning over, he whispered in my ear: "Very carefully, look over my shoulder. Do you see the couple sitting there?" At a table against the far wall, I saw a short, squat man with long sideburns, fiftyish, with a woman of indefinite middle age. She had long dark hair and was wearing an orange sundress. They sat cloaked in their own reverie, a bottle of wine on the table. He said, "Remind me to tell you about them when they leave." With a wink, he smiled and walked away. I was very intrigued. When the couple made their exit, a half hour or so later, the owner returned. "That was Jorge Luis Ochoa and his wife," he said.
It was like hearing that Al Capone had just left the room. Jorge Luis Ochoa, together with his two brothers, Juan David and Fabito, had run the notorious Medellín cartel in partnership with Pablo Escobar. Throughout the eighties and early nineties, their cartel had controlled most of the world's cocaine market and along the way corrupted scores of lawmakers, killed hundreds of people, and became fabulously wealthy. Escobar was assassinated in 1993, around the time Jorge Luis and his brothers struck deals with the Colombian government to serve a few years in prison in exchange for not being extradited to the States.
Seeing my shocked expression, the restaurateur said proudly, "That's nothing. A few months ago I had the whole clan there, including their father, Don Fabio, at that table. And over here"—he pointed to a table by the door—"I had Andrés Pastrana and Vernon Jordan." Andrés Pastrana was Colombia's president at the time and Vernon Jordan, of course, was Bill Clinton's longtime friend and advisor. "Everyone comes here," he added. "Gabo comes here, too, whenever he's in town."
Gabo, as everyone knows him in his native country, is the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez, Cartagena's most illustrious adoptive son.
"Hey, this is Colombia," the restaurateur exclaimed, laughing, as if no further explanation were necessary. Cartagena is probably the only place on earth where you can sit in the same restaurant as an infamous drug lord and still enjoy your meal.
Cartagena is Colombia's Tangier. In a country that has been at war with itself in one way or another since the forties, when the established political system broke down and guerrilla violence began, and where criminality and political violence have become intermingled and endemic to a gothic degree, the city is the sole oasis of relative security. Anybody who is anybody in Colombia has a home in Cartagena or takes holidays here, and by and large does so safely. Along with the Ochoas and García Márquez, the billionaire industrialist Julio Mario Santo Domingo, who is the country's wealthiest man (according to Forbes he is worth $4.5 billion), owns a huge home here. La Casa de Huéspedes Ilustres, Colombia's answer to Camp David, is in Cartagena, hidden from view amid landscaped trees on a secluded neck of land belonging to a naval base, which pokes out into the bay just beyond the port.
The city seems to have a special lure for those who have already seen plenty of the world. García Márquez—who was born and raised a hundred miles away, in the small plantation town of Aracataca—has lived in Mexico City since the sixties and has at least six other homes, in Bogotá, Barranquilla, Cuer-navaca, Havana, Barcelona, and Paris. But he remains devoted to Cartagena and still spends every New Year here with his extended family, in a grand house he built some years ago, just inside the city's ramparts, with a view out to the open sea. The house was designed by one of the country's most cele-brated architects, Rogelio Salmona, and is known as La Casa del Escritor—the House of the Writer. A great jumble of cinnamon-colored geometry with a bleak and forbidding look, it sits next door to the 17th-century Convento de Santa Clara, which features heavily in García Márquez's 1994 novella Of Love and Other Demons. It is now a luxury hotel run by the Sofitel chain, and much to Gabo's irritation the guests at the hotel can peer right into his garden.
In a tone of mock complaint, García Márquez once told me that his celebrity protected him everywhere he went, except on "la costa," Colombia's coast, where the people are brash and friendly and informal. He said they called him nicknames, teased him about how he dressed, and generally took it upon themselves to remind him that he was, after all, still a costeño, just like them.
Other people come to Cartagena from abroad and never leave. Jane Chaplin, a daughter of the late actor, arrived for a visit four years ago after getting divorced in the United States, fell in love with the city and with a Colombian man, and stayed on. Another familiar figure is Salvo Basile, an Italian actor in his sixties who came to Cartagena for the filming of Queimada! (Gillo Pontecorvo's 1969 movie starring Marlon Brando), married a local girl from a good family, and has remained ever since.
Straddling a large natural bay with a very small outlet to the open sea, Cartagena de Indias was an ideal location for a coastal garrison town for the early Spanish conquistadores, who founded it in 1533. The city soon became the key way station for the galleons transporting Peru's gold and silver back to Spain. French and English corsairs and privateers started ambushing the flotillas of treasure-laden galleons, and after Sir Francis Drake attacked in 1586, King Felipe II ordered Cartagena to be massively fortified. At a huge cost to his treasury, the city was walled and several outlying fortresses were built, including two adjacent stone forts at the mouth of the bay, where chains could be pulled across to halt the passage of enemy vessels. The fortifications were the most extensive Spain ever built in the Americas, and they served their purpose. In 1741 the city repelled a major assault by the British admiral Edward Vernon, who arrived with a fleet of 186 ships.
Colombians are proud of their city, and they romantically refer to her as Cartagena la Heroica—the heroic. In 1811 Cartagena was the first colonial city in the land then known as Nueva Granada to rise up against the Spanish crown, and by the time royalist troops reconquered it after a brutal siege three years later, a third of the population had died. In the wars of independence that followed, Simón Bolívar repeatedly used Cartagena as a staging ground for his epic and exceedingly bloody campaigns against the Spaniards.
Today the old walled city of Cartagena—which unesco declared a World Heritage site in 1984—is an atmospheric labyrinth of cobblestoned lanes and churches and little squares with great shade trees and old homes with terracotta roofs and carved wooden balconies. On the streets children play, dogs trot, and people sit on their stoops. Washing lines dangle from ornately grilled windows and horse taxis, called huelepedos, or farties, clatter around the streets. Amid the welter of hammock and curio shops, clothing boutiques, and bars and restaurants, there is a real city at work and at play. Mingling with the wandering tourists and policemen and nuns are schoolchildren in uniform, old women carrying enameled bowls of fresh pineapple on their heads, men in straw hats pushing carts selling ice cream. There are street touts and homeless adolescents covered with grime and clad in rags who sleep on the stoops of homes at night, and there are shoeshine boys and pickpockets and whores, too. There are teenage girls dressed in skintight Lycra shorts and high-heel sandals, rich men's mistresses with silicone breasts, and there is always music playing somewhere: fast-paced Colombian cumbia, salsa, and the cowboy-polka-sounding vallenato. In the Plaza de Bolívar—the central square in front of the mayor's office, where the sidewalks are adorned with Spanish cannons—people congregate. Mostly they're old men and young lovers and lottery-ticket vendors, but every day around noon a street preacher comes to shout about mortal sin and hellfire before wandering away again. The people of Cartagena are tolerant; they sit silently, observing, and let the preacher shout until he is done.
Rodrigo "Rocky" Valdez, a true local hero, the former world champion middleweight boxer, now retired and in his late fifties, is another ubiquitous figure. He makes a circuit every day from his home outside the city walls to a fruit stand in an open-air market where he knows everyone, and finally, to sit with the shoeshine men near the ramparts of the walls. Local wags say Rocky is a loan shark, but he denies the rumors.
In the last several decades Cartagena has sprawled beyond its walls, acquiring an uncertain shape and population; some say the number is around a million. It splays out along the coastal road heading northeast to the city of Barranquilla, an hour's drive away, and in shantytowns that extend for several miles into the subtropical bush and marshlands of the interior, including the barrio Nelson Mandela, where some 60,000 war-displaced people live in varying degrees of squalor. The city also extends for a distance westward along the bay before giving way to a series of unlovely industrial complexes. Adjacent to the walled city, which overlooks the Caribbean coast on one side and the bay on the other, is the thumb-shaped peninsula of Bocagrande, where older residential villas are surrendering to sleek new high-rise apartments in a construction boom that is being fueled, says everyone, by drug traffickers laundering their money.
The first time I visited Cartagena, nearly 30 years ago, I was leading a small group of American students around the continent on an extended field-study expedition. Cocaine was just beginning to replace marijuana in the drug boom, but Colombia was already a corrupt and violent place. Then as now, Cartagena was considered a sanctuary of sorts, but even so, within days of our arrival bad things began to happen. One of my charges, a boy of 16, wandered off and was promptly arrested in a casino for possessing a counterfeit $50 bill and taken away to jail. After a night in custody he was escorted to our hotel by a platoon of uniformed soldiers, looking scared but otherwise unharmed. A couple of days later two of the girls in my group were nearly raped and murdered after being invited on a boating day-trip to the outlying Islas del Rosario by a local restaurant owner and a group of his friends. After searching for the assailants, the police captain explained that he had established their identities as very powerful local men. "They own this town," he said shamefacedly. "They are untouchable."
It was 22 years before I returned to Cartagena, as part of my research for a story I was writing about García Márquez. Despite everything that had occurred during my first trip, I fell immediately back under the city's spell. In the past seven years I have visited a half-dozen times, usually to give workshops at the New Journalism Foundation, which García Márquez set up in 1995.
In 2002, having spent six months in Afghanistan during the war against the Taliban, I came back at the invitation of Gabo's amiable brother, Jaime García Márquez, who oversees the foundation, and Jaime Abello Banfi, its executive director. The two had arranged for me to give a workshop that coincided with Carnaval in Barranquilla. At the end of three days of laughing and dancing and drinking rum in costume, Abello Banfi turned to me and said, "You look yourself again. You were so dry when you came." To be dry, in costeño argot, means that your soul and body have become arid, and that, on la costa, is a tragic way to be.
This spring I was in Cartagena as a juror for a new Latin American nonfiction literary prize. Afterward I stayed on for several days in the company of a friend, Gonzalo Córdoba. Córdoba could be described as Colombia's Graydon Carter. A handsome, sociable man in his mid-forties with a good head of chestnut-colored hair, Córdoba operates the media group owned by the magnate Julio Mario Santo Domingo. It publishes the weekly El Espectador, one of the country's most venerable newspapers, as well as Cromos, its oldest newsweekly. In 1986 the editor of El Espectador, Guillermo Cano, was murdered on Pablo Escobar's orders, and three years later the drug lord sent a truck bomb to destroy the newspaper's offices. A nephew of Cano's, Fidel Cano, still runs the publication from an office just down the hall from Córdoba's.
Córdoba has a good pedigree; he descends from Colombian patrician stock. One relative, Manuel María Mallarino, was president. (But, as he says with mock dismay, his social inheritance has not made him rich.) Córdoba lives and works in Bogotá, but he had come to Cartagena with his wife and some friends to attend a society wedding. It was the event of the season—the bride was the daughter of friends and the granddaughter of another Colombian president. Córdoba and his wife invited me to join them.
In Bogotá Córdoba goes everywhere with a hulking chauffeur, but I noticed that he had not brought one to Cartagena. He and his wife are no strangers to Colombia's violence. Several years ago her elderly parents were kidnapped for ransom and then murdered by a unit of the country's Marxist guerrilla army, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, known as the FARC. Córdoba had told me the story one night last year when we were out drinking in a bolero club in Bogotá, but he eschewed sentimental displays of grief or anger, pointing out that almost every-one in his social circle had had a close relative murdered or kidnapped.
While we were in Cartagena, Córdoba heard a rumor that the suspect in his in-laws' murders was about to be transferred from a maximum-security prison to one renowned for its arranged "escapes." Córdoba made a few calls on his cell phone, and in the course of the next few days the transfer was halted.
Within the walled city, there are two very distinct Cartagenas. There is the life of the street and then there is another, much more exclusive reality behind the wooden doors of the colonial mansions. This was the world Córdoba frequented and which he introduced me to. One evening, the night before the big wedding—which hundreds of people had flown in from Bogotá and elsewhere to attend— he and I dropped in on Juan Carlos Pastrana, the son of former president Misael Pastrana and the brother of Colombia's last president, Andrés Pastrana.
From the exterior, Pastrana's house looked like any other in Cartagena, an attractive, high-walled expanse of ocher-colored plaster and a great studded wooden door. Inside there was not just one but several houses, part of a rambling compound. The buildings were set around a large interior courtyard that had been converted to a forest of palm and shade trees wreathed with lianas. We joined Pastrana at a table by a swimming pool and drank vodka with lime into the night. He turned out to be an entertaining raconteur, regaling us with stories about his meetings with Bill Clinton, who had become friends with his brother and with García Márquez and has visited Cartagena several times.
Córdoba and I skipped the wedding, but we went to the reception, which was held at the stunning house of a woman called Chiqui, the widow of a wealthy industrialist. Under stone colonnades and in the open-air garden lit with huge white candles, hundreds of guests, dressed mostly in white linen—costeño style—were milling about. Servants padded around with trays of Champagne. Water sprayed from stone fountains. Here and there stood tall wrought-iron baskets filled with pure white ostrich eggs. The guests sat on Moroccan-style divans and cushions between the columns that ran the length of a 50-foot pool. Córdoba explained that Chiqui's husband had gone on a buying spree and purchased the five houses adjacent to his big colonial mansion, then joined them together. It was by far the most fabulous residence in town.
On the terrace overlooking the old city and the ocean, one of Cartagena's best cumbia bands was playing, surrounded by atria garlanded with purple bougainvillea and sweet-smelling hibiscus. Córdoba guided me to a table and sat me down next to a pleasant-faced man in his late thirties who introduced himself as Andrés Peñate, an old friend of Córdoba's wife from their school days together. He was also the chief of Colombia's secret police, the DAS.
Peñate had been in the news a lot recently. A few days earlier he had also attended a funeral for ten of his agents, who had been ambushed during an antiguerrilla operation. The speculation was that the guerrillas had been tipped off from inside the DAS. I murmured my sympathies to Peñate and said something about the fact that he had not been having a very easy time of it lately. He smiled and nodded. He was trying to reform the DAS, a notoriously corrupt institution, he said, but he needed to go slowly. Hearing that I lived in Dor-set, England, he became animated and told me that he had studied at Oxford and been to Dorset many times to go sailing. He recalled with nostalgia his participation in a New York–to–Buenos Aires sailboat race, against the wind. He said it was his proudest achievement.
Later in the evening we met Chiqui, the radiant hostess, and her friend Diana, who boasted, a little bitterly, about how she had beaten off robbers in the street outside her home that very day. They had tried to grab her handbag, but she had resisted and shrieked for help until they ran off. All she had in her purse, she confessed, were little heart-shaped gold charms adorned with red ribbons that she had commissioned for Chiqui's party. There was one for each guest, to be placed by the dinner settings, each inscribed with a specially chosen verse by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. "I wasn't about to let them have the charms," Diana said with a laugh. "Not after all the work I did to have them made."
A few days after the party, Córdoba and I spent time with Gabriel Echavarría, a wealthy industrialist who, in partnership with Julio Mario Santo Domingo and a couple of other Colombian businessmen, owns a long strip of unspoiled beach on Barú, a peninsula west of Cartagena. After years of inactivity due mostly to Colombia's political violence, Echavarría and his partners hope to begin developing Barú, enticing luxury hoteliers to create a high-end resort area (they have looked to Careyes, on Mexico's Pacific coast, for inspiration). Echavarría has already built a members-only club on the part of Barú called Punta Iguana—a sprawl of private cabanas clustered among palms and sea grape trees around a small yacht harbor—and he has his own private getaway in an isolated cove a half hour away by speedboat. He sent a speedboat for Córdoba and me to join him and his wife, Cristina, an attractive and athletic blonde woman, for lunch of freshly caught fish. Afterward Echavarría, who is tall and good-looking with a deep outdoor tan and long silver hair, invited us to cool off with him in a little freshwater pool built next to an African-style cabana overlooking the cove. There in the shade he plied us with a local rum, newly distilled by a friend of his, and spoke about his ambitious plans for Barú. He had dreamed of turning it into a resort since his youth, he said, and lamented the way that Colombia's spiraling violence and el narcotráfico—the drug trade—had corrupted his country over the last 30 years and kept him from realizing his vision. "Isn't it beautiful?" he asked, waving a hand at the uninhabited shoreline, with its coral rock and spit of sand. The wind was up that day and the waves sparkled in the hot Caribbean sun. Echavarría sighed and said, "We love it here." Pointing to the west, he noted ruefully, "Until recently the Ochoas were our neighbors—their beach house was just up the coast here—but the government confiscated it." With a smile he added, "Finally."
An avid sailor and outdoorsman, Echavarría had just come back from a weeklong sailboat voyage with his family to the San Blas islands, off Panama's Caribbean coast. His other great passion is bow hunting, and he regularly hunts for red deer in Chile. He said he was planning a trip to Africa to attempt his most challenging hunt ever: to kill a Cape buffalo, the most dangerous of Africa's Big Five, with a bow and arrow. When I expressed surprise that a Cape buffalo could be killed with an arrow, Echavarría shook his head stubbornly. "It can be done," he insisted. Killing one, he explained, would nonetheless require great skill. He would need to put his arrow directly into the buffalo's brain and the only access to that was a tiny area about the size of a quarter between the great boss of the animal's horns. The danger, he said, would come if he missed his shot and the buffalo charged—or worse, if he merely wounded it. Cape buffalos are vengeful, he explained. "If you are on foot, they will hunt you down." He spoke with the same tone of serious resolve he had used when outlining his plans for Barú.
In the late afternoon Echavarría used a walkie-talkie to call some of his men, telling them to bring him a speedboat. After a stop at Punta Iguana, where we picked up his and Córdoba's children, who'd been left together with a nanny and three discreetly armed bodyguards, Echavarría took the wheel and drove us at high speed, bouncing and banging through the chop and swell, back to Cartagena.
The best way to get to Cartagena is by connecting through Bogotá (on Continental or Delta) or Miami (on American). Avianca flies direct from both cities.
Where to Stay
The 115-room Hotel Santa Clara ($370–$975; 57-5/664-6070; hotelsantaclara.com) is run by Sofitel and occupies the 17th- century convent that features prominently in Gabriel García Marquéz's Of Love and Other Demons. It is right next door to the writer's house in the old city.
The Hotel Charleston Cartagena ($230–$1,500; 57-5/664- 9494) is another converted 17th-century convent in the historic center. It has 90 rooms, two restaurants, and a very nice spa.
Outside the old city, Hotel Las Américas ($315–$675; 57-5/ 656-7222) is a sprawling Caribbean-style resort with 250 rooms and suites right on the beach.
El Santísimo (dinner, $40; 8-19 Calle del Santísimo; 57-5/ 664-3316) is a romantic spot downtown that serves sophisticated Caribbean fare with a French twist.
L'Enoteca (dinner, $85; 3-39 Calle San Juan de Dios; 57-5/ 664-3806) serves the best Italian cooking in the city.
San Pedro (dinner, $45; 30-11 Plaza de San Pedro Claver; 57-5/664-5121) is on a popular square and does every kind of cuisine, from burritos to pad thai.
La Vitrola (dinner, $50; 2-01 Calle Baloco; 57-5/664-8243) has a casual, bohemian vibe. Cuban-fusion food is its specialty, and there's often a Cuban band playing.