“Say goodbye,” the man in uniform smiled at me.
My heart skipped a beat, stereotypes of Colombia racing through my head, until I realised that the immigration officer was merely being friendly and polite and wishing me a pleasant stay; linguistic shortcomings had confused the issue.
I had allowed prejudice and preconception to get the better of me. Perceptions can linger for many years despite actual circumstances changing. Colombia is a case in point. The reality on the ground is very different from the headlines.
Some facts: Colombia is the size of France and Spain and has a greater variety of birds than North America and Europe combined. Its fauna varies from the keen sighted praying mantis to the rare spectacled bear. It is the only Latin American country with a coastline on two oceans – the Pacific and Atlantic.
Yet all that the majority of us know of Colombia is that it is the world’s largest producer of cocaine and beset by problems that one would associate with such a dubious honour.
It is an image not without justification but one that needs clarification and a little updating. The country and its people are not all about drugs. Yes there are parts of the country - as with many countries around the world, not least our own – that are not safe. But conversely there are many parts – and remember what I said in the previous paragraph in reference to its size – that are safe, friendly and welcoming.
Some of Colombia’s gems include Ciudad Perdida, San Augustin and the country's capital, Bogota, awash with buzzing markets, quality museums, forward-looking locals and visionary architecture. However the jewel in the crown must be Cartagena, arguably the most beautiful city in Latin America.
Cartagena began as a warehouse for gold, silver, emeralds and other local treasures looted from the interior by Spanish colonialists. Unsurprisingly word of Cartagena’s wealth quickly spread attracting legendary pirates such as Hawkins and Drake who attacked and besieged the city. The Spanish response was to build an eleven kilometre wall and the impressive fort of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas on San Lazaro hill. It took nineteen years and 44 million ounces of gold to build the fort and its imposing 150 metre high wall. The fort is masculine and brutish, its steeply angled, ramp-like paths take you up to the top of this bare, brutal edifice from which an outsize Colombian flag billows out. The fortifications now attract rather than repel visitors; but for me the real attraction of Cartagena is the feminine wiles and charms of the old town.
The best way to breathe in the atmosphere of the old town is to walk the massive defensive walls - Las Murallas - which takes a little over an hour. Cannons point out to sea between conical look-out towers. On one side of the walls, waves crash against the beach and palm trees tilt in the wind. On the other quiet, sunlit lanes twist and turn, sometimes opening into handsome plazas lined with mellow-stoned churches and ancient houses painted in soft hues, ochres and yellows, darkened and blackened over time bestowing a dignity of age. Large studded doors conceal charming cool courtyards decorated with ferns, fronds and fountains.
These narrow streets were deliberately laid out crooked to confuse marauding pirates. I wander around in a daze but not of confusion. I am enchanted by the faded facades, the ancient beauty and amble in reverie.
Mime artists with painted faces, horse and carriages, bougainvillea spilling from wooden balconies crowd together to remind me of New Orleans. But Cartagena is not as tacky and touristy. There are tourists but they are on the whole Colombian. There are shops but mainly chic boutique shops – the Colombians are smart, sassy dressers. There is a surprising sophistication to Cartagena.
I find a café in a quiet square and sit lulled by the gentle rhythms of rumba music. Around me, Colombians drink coffee (wow what coffee!), freshly squeezed fruit juices and crisp, clean wines. I sip in the atmosphere.
I force myself to get up and wander around the streets. They are strangely empty. I pass a small church, its doors wide open, fans spinning against the heat, a priest conducting the service and the congregation spilling out onto the street, families standing at the back, children in arms. In a nearby house, a glimpsed glance through an open window reveals an elderly woman rocking gently on her chair watching the world go by. The old city seems lovingly wrapped in a peaceful time warp; it is so unexpected and so enchanting.
I think of Garcia Marquez and his description of Cartagena, his adopted home, in his novel ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’:
“The city, his city, stood unchanging on the edge of time: the same burning dry city of his nocturnal terrors and the solitary pleasures of puberty, where flowers rusted and salt corroded, where nothing had happened for four centuries except a slow ageing among withered laurels ...”
The description largely stands the test of time, just as the city itself does. The bougainvillea tumbling from the balconies in the narrow streets still "rusts", the salt still corrodes, the air is still full of solitary (and not so solitary) pleasures. But nothing happening? Round the next corner Colombian music pumps out from behind a heavy wooden door. I almost bump into a busty young girl with ‘Look, Want, Guess’ emblazoned across her tight t-shirt. There is more to Cartagena than meets the eye.
Cartagena is changing and will undoubtedly change further. Your dilemma is whether you go there and in so doing contribute and hasten that change. Selfishly, the answer has to be yes.