BY: ALEX SHOUMATOFF
The Mogollons, leading citizens of Cartegena, have asked us to dinner. Lucho was the administrator of the port for many years. He went to Exeter and speaks flawless American English. Yolanda, his stylish wife, runs the modern art museum. Their daughter Pia is in charge of restoring the extraordinary fortifications of this picturesque old colonial city, the best-preserved in Latin America, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
To keep pirates at bay, it was surrounded by sixteen miles of wall, fifty feet high and forty feet thick at the base, with impressive bastions at regular intervals, and bristling cannon now straddled by young couples after dark. Cartegena is a global cultural heritage site, on a par with Mexico’s Tasco and Brazil’s Ouro Preto. It belongs on the short list of the world’s most architecturally important cities— Venice, Florence, St. Petersburg, Kyoto, and Samarkand.
Coffee is served postprandial— the real stuff that doesn’t get to the States– “sweet as love, black as sin, and hot as hell,” as Lucho describes it. We talk about Colombia’s image problem. How is it that the government is permeated with drug money and guerillas are kidnapping expatriates and tourists in the interior, and we’ve been meeting nothing but decent, civilized, incredibly sweet people? I ask. “Everybody gets tarred by the same brush,” Lucho laments.
The Mogollons are dear friends of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They are among the first people Gabo, as the literary giant is known to his intimates, calls when he comes to Cartagena, the setting of many of his novels. He was born in nearby Magdalena and has a mansion in the old walled part of town. But unfortunately Gabo isn’t in town; he’s at one his other residences, in Mexico City, Havana, or Barcelona. Hoping some of it might rub off, I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about the habits of this towering man of letters, said to be the most widely read novelist of the late twentieth century. So far, I’ve learned that Gabo works incommunicado from seven to one five mornings a week. At parties he gravitates to the women, because the men talk about business and are boring.
His brother is a good writer, too, but the brother doesn’t have a wife like Mercedes, who was, it is rumored, Gabo’s first love. Behind every great man is a great wife.
Gabo began as a journalist, and his fiction is based largely on what he picked up in the streets of this sleepy, steamy, seamy Caribbean port. His “magic realism” is basically a perfectly reasonable and accurate response to what is out there. The tropics possess a hallucinogenic quality, especially at sunset, when the leaves turn iridescent blue for an incandescent moment. “Gabo rarely commits an error of fact,” Lucho tells me. “Once he wrote that some divers descended to the ocean floor with oxygen tanks and his loyal readers pounced on the mistake. Oxygen is toxic below sixty meters. The tanks contain compressed air.”
I’ve been reading Love in the Time of Cholera, set in turn-of-the-century Cartagena, which Gabo fleshes out in these pungent paragraphs. “The city… stood unchanging on the edge of time…where flowers and salt corroded, where nothing had happened for four centuries except a slow aging among withered laurels and putrefying swamps. In winter sudden devastating downpours flooded the latrines and turned the streets into sickening bogs. In summer an invisible dust as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into even the best protected corners of the imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the houses and carried away children through the air. On Saturdays the poor mulattoes, along with their domestic animals and kitchen utensils, tumultuously abandoned their hovels of cardboard and tin on the edges of the swamps and in jubilant assault took over the rocky beaches of the colonial district…. During the weekend they danced without mercy, drank themselves blind on home-brewed alcohol, made wild love among the icaco plants….
“Independence from Spain and then the abolition of slavery precipitated… conditions of honorable decadence…” explains Gabo. “The great old families sank into their ruined palaces in silence. Along the rough cobbled streets… weeds hung from the balconies and opened cracks in the whitewashed walls of even the best-kept mansions, and the only signs of life at two o’clock in the afternoon were languid piano exercises played in the dim light of siesta.”
That era began to die out in the forties, Ricardo Sanchez, Cartegena’s most prominent architect, explained as we bounced in an open Land Rover through the narrow, high-walled streets with their overhanging second-story wooden balconies. Ricardo explained that the little lightning-rod-like points at the ends of their roofs served to ward off witches. We glimpsed interior patios with radiant flowers. This reminds me of Seville, I observed, and Ricardo said. “It’s also a lot like Havana. The costeño [coastal] culture of Colombia’s is very compatible with Cuba’s. The music, the dances, the cuisine, the way of speaking is almost the same.”
Cartagena also has the decadent charm of New Orleans.
Such picturesqueness could not go unexploited, and inevitably, in the forties, Ricardo went on, “a bunch of people decided to do tourism in Cartagena. There was no indoor plumbing and most of the roads were dirt. They put in a modern infrastructure and built four models of California and Florida style bungalows in the Bocagrande district and the Hotel Caribe on the beach, which was followed by the Hilton and Las Americas.”
Now Cartegena resembles Santa Fe in the sixties: it is starting to become a quaint replica of itself, ersatz colonial town. Rich families from Bogota who only come for the high season have bought up the best houses. Children no longer play soccer in the plazas; long-time tenants have been evicted as the real estate values soar. A typical house now fetches $250,000. “The city is starting to lose its life,” Ricardo lamented. “It’s only a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Miami. A lot of gringos could buy houses here, but are put off by the guerillas and the narcos and the kidnapping, which have a positive side. It has bought time for people with an architectural conscience to preserve and safeguard the city. Otherwise, it would have been destroyed like San Juan [Puerto Rico, which has lost its old colonial flavor almost entirely]. Here the women selling fruit on their heads, singing and screaming in a high-pitched voice, sapote, manga, papaya, still provide a vital service, they aren’t not just doing it to be photographed.” The fruit vendors come from Palenque, and outlying community of escaped slaves who have preserved their language and culture so well that they are plus Africain que les Africans.Their husbands stay home drinking aguardiente, raw, fiery rum, and playing dominoes.
Ricardo points out la casa de Gabo, then the walled palace of Julio Mario Santo Domingo, the richest man in Colombia, which takes up a whole block and is guarded by his private army, who wear their own uniforms. The house was Ricard’s first commission. He got it at the age of 26 and hasn’t looked back. The source of the Santo Domingo fortune is beer. After the war Julio Mario’s father acquired the beer factories confiscated from German brewers and after a massive disinformation campaign to wean the campesinos off chicha, the indigenous corn hooch, he had a gold mine. Julio Mario spends most of his time in New York City.
We stayed the Hotel Santa Clara: my wife and our three boys, 4, 3, and 6 months. The hotel used to be a hospital. Before that it was a convent, then an orphanage. Almost in ruins, it was at sold public auction in l987 and splendidly restored by its present owners, Sofitel, the French chain. We stayed luxurious two-floor suites in the former convent’s columned, four-story cloister. A toucan burbled from the top of a tree in the patio, and at the cocktail hour a flute player wandered around in the arcade below from which otherworldly tunes like Virgins of the Sun, from Lake Titicaca, wafted up. The Santa Clara Hospital is the setting of one of Gabo’s most haunting novellas, Of Love and Other Demons, based on the life a girl who grew up in Cartagena with slaves in the century before. By the time she was nine she had become so much like them that her parents committed her to Santa Clara as a mental patient, and there she died. Decorous French couples lounged around the pool. The Sunday brunch at the pool is one of Cartagena’s gastronomic extravaganzas and brings out the city’s smart set. A New York socialite visiting friends was impressed. “I know a lot of women in New York who have run out of places to go and would love this,” she enthused.
The haut French cuisine of the Santa Clara’s Refectory, which has a hacienda-like atmosphere, was up to snuff, especially washed down with a bottle of the Lafitte Rotschilde’s excellent Chilean red; but the in place is La Vitrola– the Rick’s, the Elaine’s, of Cartegana. La Vitrola is the creation of David Hennessy, a 39-year-old American expatriate married to a lovely young (and very pregnant) Cartagenera. A former child actor whose parents were friends of Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan, Hennessy did three restaurants in New York before moving here four years ago. Ricardo Sanchez’s decor was inspired by Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky. In the evening there is live cumbia music, and the menu features four dishes cooked with cocoanut milk. The rice, a local specialty, is especially scrumptious. Here we were introduced to the mojito— the Colombian version of mint juleps, made from ierba buena, white Baccardi, mint, and sugar— and real Colombian coffee— sweet as love, black as sin, and hot as hell, as Lucho Mogollon describes it.
Cartegena’s plazas, into which the narrow streets debouch unpredictably, are oddshaped; there are rectangular and even triangular ones. The Plaza Bolivar is the nicest. The Palace of Inquisition takes up one side. Cartegena’s inquisition lasted two hundred years, until the country won independence from Spain in l811. It was relatively benign because of what Moises Alvarez, who is in charge of the city’s historical archives, which are housed in the palace, described as “a tradition of indulgence.” 676 were condemned but only 5 were put to death. Many were women. Witchcraft, bigamy, and solicitation were the main offenses. There were also limpiezas de sangre, pedigree checks to root out Jews pretending to be Catholics. Wracks, leg-irons, pillories, and other implements of torture are displayed in the Camara de Tormentos.
Alvarez agreed with my analysis that “the essential vocation of the port [and the unifying theme of Cartagena’s history] is traffic.” The first thing to be trafficked was Inca Gold. It was from here that that the Fleet of Galleons, laden with the treasure of Peru, which had come down from the Andes on the river Magdalena, set forth for Spain.
British, French, and Italian privateers lay in wait at the entrance to the port and sacked the city repeatedly. It was burnt to the ground by the buccaneer Roberto Baal in l544, 11 years after its founders wrested the spit of sand enclosing a perfectly sheltered harbour from the Calamari Indians (accent on the last syllable, nothing to do with the Italian word for). It was sacked again in l586 by Sir Francis Drake, whose threat to burn it to the ground once more produced ten million pesos and a huge emerald which he presented to Queen Elizabeth on New Year’s Day.
Weary of these attacks, the Cartagenans built a forty-foot wall, fifty-foot thick wall around the city’s 16-mile circumference and fortified it with impressive bastions bristling with cannon.
Completed in 1631, the fortifications survived eighteen assaults, including that of Admiral Edward Vernon, whose 27,000 troops were held off for 57 days by 2500 men with 3000 guns under the command of the one eyed, one armed, one-legged Don Blas de Lezo. Today the cannon are straddled by “insatiable lovers” (as Gabo describes young Cartegenan couple clinging to each other in the plazas at the turn of the century).
The next thing to be trafficked was “black gold.” Cartagena, Havana, and Vera Cruz were the only ports in Spain’s American empire that were licensed to import slaves, who were known as Ethiopes even though most of them came from Ghana. There was a shortage of manpower, the Calamari and other local tribes having preferring to poison or hang themselves than to spend their lives in shackles. Pedro Claver, a Spanish-born priest, ministered to the slaves and was the first saint to be canonized in the New World.
His remains rest in a glass case on the high altar of the church bearing his name.
There is another old church in the Plaza de Santo Domingo. The swordfight in Mission between Robert de Niro and his younger brother, played by Aidan Quinn, was shot before the church’s crumbling wall. The plaza is filled with wandering musicians, gamines, gypsies, pickpockets, and Sinu Indian shoeshines. We had a beer at an outdoor table in the plaza. Most of the women strolling in the plaza were a fetching mixture of African and Indian known as Zambo.
The Santa Clara has a small, very tranquil resort on Mahagua Island, in the Rosario chain. The property used to belong to an eccentric French painter named Daguet. The snorkeling was fantastic. A hundred yards from shore, behind the waves breaking over the reef, were lush coral thickets and mini-canyons of outrageous, inhuman beauty, in which barred and speckled fish running a gamut of sizes, colors and shapes were grazing and spatting. One species of coral, a Favia, whose emerald squares, latticed with frilly golden calcareous spicules, glittered like sunken treasure in the bright, shallow, brilliantly clear blue water.
After several days of the local lobster, shrimp and pargo roxa, red snapper, washed down with Mr. Santo Domingo’s excellent beer and Los Vascos, we our frenetic norteamericano biorhythms pace had unwound to LST, Latin Standard Time. One morning we took the boys to the oceanarium on a nearby island, whose net pens in an indentation of the shoreline contained copper-brown, whiskered cat sharks, aka Tiburon bobo, mackerel, a nervous school of pompano); green sea turtles, dolphin that leaped over the arm of their wet-suited trainer and with their noses deftly flipped her up from the water and on to the boardwalk.
A mid-level member of the oligarchy gave us a tour of the archipelago in his cabin cruiser. He pulled us up to raucous rookeries of pelicans, magnificent frigate birds, and brown boobies, one of who squirted a line of revolting green guano on my shoulder, which is supposed to be good luck. Colombia has more bird species than any other country in the world— 1813 (the much bigger United States has less than half that many). Our host gave us a running commentary on the ownership status of big cabanas we sped past; it was a telling window into post-Marquesian, post Medellin- and Cali-cartel Colombia.
“This is the house of a cattle rancher kidnaped by guerillas three years ago by FARC guerillas in the llano, the savannah. He is selling the island to pay the ransom.” Hard by the owner of Colombia’s Diners’ Club concession was the abandoned cabana of a narco corriendo, a drug dealer on the run. “60% of the cabanas belong to cochatos, people from the interior, places like Cali, and 60% of them are crooks,” he estimated. “They only come at Christmas, Holy week, and maybe in June.”
We passed a boat called a baianero for fishing red the pargo roxa; a huge whitewashed palazzo in front of the presidential island, belonging to the national accountant general, who was in jail for six years for skimming mucho dinhero ilicito; a big cabin cruiser with partying big shots, followed by a grey police boat. They weren’t taking any chances about being kidnapped at sea. The house of the narco Paco Herrera, who is in jail in the States.
“It really is a narcodemocracia,” I observed to my host, who disagreed. “You had Al Capone, and it was not a narcodemocracia,” he argued. “The day of the big, flamboyant drug bosses are over. They’re all in jail, on the lamm, or dead.” Many of the cabanas had roofs thatched with the local palm, and there were palapas thatched roofs on poles inspired by the large communal houses of the long-gone Calamari, harking back to an indigenous rustic tradition like the Adirondacks’ great camps.
We zipped over to the island of Baru, where the Santo Domingo and the Echavarias have guarded compounds, and the next day we returned to the hot, sandy island with Ricardo, putting the Land Rover on a ferry at a place called the Passarello, where horses used to cross on canoes. We passed through two villages of dirt-poor blacks. The children wiggled and shook their booties in the hope of being tossed a coin. It was just like Africa, except that, as my wife observed, “this is not their land. In Africa a black person can see rich Africans and can say, Wow, I can be like that. But where are the role models in this country, where the color of your skin identifies you with the poor illiterate servant class?”
In these villages, as in much of Colombia, the public education ends at seventh grade.
Ricardo dropped us off at a very well appointed private beach and tennis club called Punta Iguana. Three year old, it has 83 members and room for 200. A membership goes for 75 million pesos, $70,000 bucks, and then it’s $300 a month. All the members are Colombian. One of them is Gabo. Why would an ardent leftie want to be part of this blueblood criollo enclave? We asked ourselves. Could the man be a limousine liberal?”
There was a plan to turn Baru, the main town on the island, into a touristic city like Cancun.
It’s an old smuggling town with some picturesque colonial architecture. Gabo writes that at the turn of the century “all kinds of merchandise was smuggled in on European ships, from obscene postcards and aphrodisiac ointments to the famous Catalonian condoms with iguana crests that fluttered when circumstances required.”
After a few days here the boys had an impressive shell collection— whelks, olives, scallops, tellins. Even more descansado, we proceeded to Isla Palma, a beautiful 90-acre island in the San Bernardo chain, which had an interesting history. For forty-five years a man named Salamon Tous (The surname is French but pronounced toess; Tous is descended from the French who made the first attempt to dig the Panama Canal but gave up after being ravaged by malaria) lived alone on the island (except for his cook) harvesting its cocoanuts. His nickname was Robinson Crusoe. Now up in his eighties, he lives in Cartagena with his three maiden sisters. I called on them one morning. One tree can produce 200 nuts in a year, Salamon told me. The sisters sat in rocking chairs. Alicia complained how progress had brought insecurity in the city. They used to sit in the evening on their balcony, trading gossip with families on other balconies up and down the street. Then television and air-conditioning arrived, and everyone stayed inside, and with no one keeping an eye on the street any more, people began to lock their doors.
In 1988 Tous sold the island to Gabriel Aranha, who was from Medellin and was rumored to be an associate of and possibly even an intermediary for Pablo Escobar.
Aranha built the largest palapa in the world— four stories high and several hundred yards long— and under it a mansion with forty bedrooms. The bed in the master bedroom had room for twelve. All the faucets were gold. Human skeletons, some of them real, hung from the rafters, we had been hearing, and there were African mummies (wooden statues, it turned out) that leered at you.
Now the place was being leased to the Decameron Hotel, which ran tourists out to it in a high-speech launch. The trip takes two hours. Most of the tourists were honeymooning cachatos. As we debarked on to a dock “bigger than the Navy’s,” we were greeted with rum drinks and a band playing Alfa Blondie’s Coca de Rasta. Aranha’s hokey pirate decor was still around. None of the skeletons was real. The island is paradise-like. A long white beach stretches for a mile, tapering to a thin spit of coral sand, and the forested interior of the island is home to a menagerie of imported wildlife, including a flock of flamingos; huge macaws that fly over in disciplined, vociferous formations, pacas, tortoise, and deer. The island also boasts an aquarium, a small pirate theme park, and a labyrinthine mangrove swamp. The food was basic grub, served buffet-style by waiters in white gauze masks; apparently, to reassure guests worried about germs.
Lying on the sand, I savored Gabo’s prose nuggets: “The heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.” “Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mother give birth to them, but life obliges them over and over to give birth to themselves.” How nice it was to be in the company of a great writer.
Oliver, our four-year-old, spotted what appeared to be a stone bobbing in the surf—a chunk of light, porous volcanic pumice that was more buoyant than seawater and had drifted there from the main land. “A rock that floats,” Oliver said, picking up this natural bit of magic realism that Gabo would have appreciated. “You have to put that in your story. “
WHEN TO GO: Summer starts in December and there is no rain until March. There are two rainy seasons, from March to June, and then in July there is a “little summer,” the veranillo de San Juan. The second rainy season lasts from August through November. The rainy seasons are humid and full of mosquitos, not when you want to be there.
SECURITY: Just as we were leaving, FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia, the oldest guerilla group in South America) guerillas under the leadership of one Romania held up a thousand cars only thirty miles east of Bogota. There was a shootout. 9 were killed, 20 wounded, and 20 Colombians, one Italian, and four Americans, three of them birdwatchers on a shoestring budget, were kidnaped. One of the Americans escaped a few days later. The others were released at the end of April.
Since then the State Department has heightened its travel advisory, warning against all unnecessary to anywhere in Colombia. An official explained that while Cartegena and its outlying archipelagos are relatively safe, FARC has targeted all Americans wherever they are, whatever their age and occupation. Cali and its environs are particularly dangerous.
“With our policy of not paying ransom, we can be of limited help, so our job is to err on the side of caution,” the official went on. “The place where birdwatchers were grabbed was previously thought to be safe. 92 Americans, out of a total of more than 3000 sequestrados, have been kidnaped since l980, and they still have 5.” We had fabulous vacation. Would I return? At the drop of a hat, but you never know.
HOTELS: A couple might also enjoy the Pestagua, the elegant, former home of the Count of Pestagua. The Hotel Santa Teresa is another convent, but not as beautifully restored as the Santa Clara. If you skip the islands but still want beach, the Hilton is the place.
HOW TO GO: The kids were pampered by Avianca’s sweet stewardesses, and it already felt like Colombia before we even left JKF. Celia Cruz, the legendary Cuban salsa singer, was on board with a twelve-piece New York-based band called Los Canarios.
RESTAURANTS: La Virtola, first and foremost. Spanish: El Burlador de Sevilla, French: Chantilly on Manga Island (which has some heavily ginger breaded mansions from the century before.) Italian: Marcel, Olano, Fellini.
SHOPPING ETC: Beatrice Camacho’s Ego/Iste, near the Plaza Bolivar, has elegant women’s clothing. The Museum of Gold has fine crafts and reproductions of Pre-Columbian jewelry, Los Bobalos, near the Santa Clara, all kinds of curios and bric-a-brac in its former jail cells. A pilgrimage to the Federacion Nacional de Cefeteros, on the Calle Real del Cabrero, will delight coffee lovers. Also near the Hotel Santa Clara is the falling down wooden outdoor theater where bullfights are held in December. If you’re into blood sports, you could also try to take in a cockfight in one of the popular barrios, but you’d better have a guide. The modern art museum is worth visiting, and many stores sell emeralds from Boyaca, in the Andes’ central cordillera