From Alabama to Colombia: Angry Birds and Other Wonders of Cartagena

Travel Features Alabama

The 283-year-old church needed repair. The parrots needed coffee.

Two loud green birds stomped along a cornice in front of a sculpture of Saint Toribio, giving him hell. Others quarreled from a metal scaffold in front of the church named for this saint, fussing and ruffling their feathers over his benign indifference.

Morning in Cartagena comes softly, unless you’re an angry bird.

The colonial houses and buildings in this lovely place take on dawn colors like Easter eggs, those famous Caribbean blues and pinks and chocolate browns. Coffee vendors help the city awaken, selling single shots of tinto, black coffee, for 1,000 pesos, about 35 cents.

Out of doorways step working cartageneros, some in suits, some in dramatic heels, some in service sector livery. At a lucky moment, one glimpses gardens or open atriums as they depart. The houses feel mysterious, enticing, the secrets behind a veil.

A man smokes, shirtless on a balcony, and his blue tobacco smoke disappears into blooms of coral bougainvillea that cover his house front … and the balcony of the next house … and the house next to that … and on down the street as far as the eye can see. A street of pink flowers.

Think of historic Cartagena as something like an always blooming New Orleans—surrounded by a centuries-old stone Spanish fort.

While you’re at it, think this too: Cartagena is one of those places you want to see before you die. Graceful. Elegant. Hot as a stovetop (the city has the same latitude as equatorial Africa), but saved (or salved) by constant ocean breezes from the restless Atlantic. The winds feel like alcohol on a fevered cheek.

Most Colombians consider Cartagena the great jewel of the nation, and it stands out among the country’s many jewels, natural and man-made.

The settlement’s location on the northern coast of South America destined it for a tumultuous and colorful history. In 1533, the Spanish arrived, and from that time on Cartagena was the golden door to South America. The sweep of world events in the city history sounds like pot-boiler fiction: Gold. Slaves. Pirates. Sieges. Inquisitions. Wars. A city burned to ashes. A city reborn to enchant and entertain about a million people.

Cartagena today trades on tourism, with some oil business thrown in for good measure. Outside the stone walls of the Spanish fort (the Colombians say the mortar holding the stones was mixed with the blood of slaves), Caribbean commerce wheels and deals.

Still, the world mostly knows Cartagena as a slower place of vine-tangled balconies and street-side café tables and red-tile roofs and music pouring from car and shop windows. Cartagena is more Monaco than Mobile or Motown.

The fantastic Hotel Santa Clara once operated as a convent (as did a surprising number of landmark buildings in Cartagena), and smack in the middle of the hotel bar a stone stairway leads down to a crypt where the abbesses were interred. Guests can sign a registry there and leave questionable notes: Three nuns walk into a bar. Now they lie under it.

At twilight three hotel staffers in black habits and cowls slowly pace the arched atrium, swinging a censer that perfumes the Santa Clara with incense. The mock-monks light all the first-floor candles, and their Gregorian chants echo off old walls and archways. Tree frogs trill back from palm trees and water features in the atrium garden.

I’m tempted to say that the Santa Clara is my favorite hotel ever. It has a great staff, classy and bilingual and sharply dressed in cream livery. Air-conditioned rooms overlook a tempting blue pool shaded by a score of soaring palm trees. From the Santa Clara’s front door, guests can walk to boutiques or bakeries or galleries in only minutes.

Strolling feels best after sunset, in the tolerable cool of the evening. Near the hotel lies the Sibaly, a tiny, eccentric combination art gallery (solely the owner’s sometimes provocative work) and beer bar. A cat welcomes guests, purring so loudly strings on guitars hung from the ceiling as ornamentation sympathetically vibrate.

La Casa del Habana sells what it bills as “the best mojitos in Cartagena.” Boxes of Cuban cigars, the real deal, fill a walk-in humidor, and smokers can stand in the balmy night and watch horse-drawn carriages jangle by filled with grinning gringos, excited kids, gentlemen in suits, and impossibly beautiful women. Some carriages carry balladeers with classical guitars.

At the edge of the next plaza (Cartagena, like Savannah, Georgia, has many green spaces, most with a statue hidden among shadowy trees) stands campy KGB, one of two interesting spots run by Gustavo Marzola, an Argentinian entrepreneur. The proprietor wears a black beret in his Russian-themed place, then goes bare-headed in his other, Marzola, a parilla (grill) that serves sizzling steaks with no long wait. While chewing, one can estimate just how many crushed beer-bottle tops it takes to cover every inner surface of the Argentinian-themed restaurant. (Twenty thousand? Fifty?) Or one can just relax to tangos that play on the excellent sound system. The night I visited, the orchestra of Alfredo de Angelis featured.

Outside KGB, attractive Cartagena chicas dressed in Russian army uniforms entice people from the streets to a cheerful bar filled with wall-to-wall Soviet-era iconography and artifacts. (I coveted a Russian fur hat on display—an item that will never, ever, be sold in steamy Cartagena.)

Cartagena runs famously late—or infamously early, depending on your view. Some of the dance clubs start to crank about 11 p.m and run their patrons out at 4:30 a.m. or so … just in time to reach home and sleep before sunrise dazzles sensitive retinas like a thermonuclear blast.

I had a late-night bite across the plaza from Hotel Santa Clara, at a lively seafood place called Juan del Mar. A salsa jazz band played their hearts out, and between bites of three kinds of cebiche and a refreshing mojito, I noticed a member of the restaurant staff climb onto the stage and take the microphone. He still wore his service apron. The staffer proceeded to croon a few songs, and I then noticed how many attractive women leaned forward on their tables to pay attention. The Juan del Mar had something going for it.

After a few tunes, the cantante stepped away from salsa rhythms and re-entered the rhythms of the restaurant. He passed me at the bar, and I complimented his singing in my best bad Spanish.

You can speak English, he told me. I went to school in Boston.

You’re a good musician, a good singer. What’s your name?

It’s easy to remember, he told me. I’m Juan del Mar. Like the restaurant.

Here’s a man, it seems to me, who has it made. He runs a popular restaurant in one of the great destination cities on earth. He fronts the house band in his own place, the way Desi Arnaz once did in the old I Love Lucy TV series.

On Friday nights, the ladies turn out to see him in droves, dressed more lavishly than any parrots on churches named for saints … and singing a whole different kind of tune.

Photo: Luz Adriana Villa, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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