Cartagena: Safe Haven?

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 29, 2002

The sun is blazing in a crystal blue sky as I walk through the streets of Cartagena, weaving around hundreds of brown, black and tan pedestrians. These people are gorgeous, with perfect skin in shades out of a chocolate box -- caramel, nougat and rich dark cocoa. Figures are svelte, for the most part, apparently chiseled from so much walking and made smooth by the city's blast-furnace humidity.

Staring can be dangerous in this resort town on Colombia's northeast coast, although not for the reasons the U.S. Department of State warns about: trigger-happy cocaine dealers from the cartels and murderous guerillas who've audaciously kidnapped victims by the church and airplane full. Here in the tranquil Old City, I am more worried about stepping off the narrow sidewalks and getting clipped by a speeding, bug-shaped yellow cab. Drivers here don't stop for pedestrians.

It's easy to get distracted. Vendors shout "Aguacate!" and I turn to see avocados half the size of my head. Others shout "Mango," proffering slices of sweet fruit colored like a Florida sunset.

My Colombian girlfriend, Karla, who is walking beside me, warned me that I would fall in love with Cartagena. It is a place where tropical heat drenches you but is eased by a constant breeze that blows through your hair, up your sleeves, down your shorts, like God's oscillating fan.

On the phone before our journey, Karla put it this way, with her strong Spanish accent: "Baby, your eyes are going to pop out of your head."

But the eye-popping sights turn out to be a little different than I expected.

Colombia, lying at the bottom of an umbilical-cord-like stretch of land that connects North, Central and South America, has a warm coastal climate and a landscape of jungle and beaches as inviting as any in Venezuela or Brazil. But drug dealers and revolutionary guerillas have given the country a decidedly nasty reputation. Colombia is the world's largest producer of cocaine. Kidnappings of foreigners are common -- outlaws set traps along the highways between cities. An American working for a multinational corporation such as an oil company is worth a lot of money to the guerillas.

President Alvaro Uribe Velez has vowed to restore Colombia's good name. He has his work cut out for him. The country is widely considered to be one of the most violent in the world. Last February, guerillas kidnapped politician Ingrid Betancourt, adding to their collection of abducted dignitaries. A bomb detonated in Bogota during Uribe's inauguration in August, killing a dozen people.

Unfortunately, these acts overshadow Colombia's worth as a tourist destination. Cartagena is a favorite vacation spot for hip young Colombians from Bogota, Cali and Medellin. You can find them playing and kissing in El Parque Nacional Tayrona, where the flora is lush and the beaches pristine.

Canadians and Europeans, especially Germans, also flock to Cartagena. They are more adventurous than Americans, traveling through a country with a dense jungle, deep emerald mines and hundreds of miles of warm-water beaches. The government protects Cartagena, its main tourist destination, with patrolling soldiers, military outposts and a naval base.

Cartagena de Indias was founded by Spain in 1533 and served as a major port for the trade of slaves, gold and shipping cargo. As an African American, I want to know more about the city's history as a first stop for hundreds of thousands of slaves entering Latin America. I want to see first-hand what the slaves built here, to learn how they were treated by the Spanish during the Inquisition, and how they became an integral part of Colombian society. I want to see the Inquisition Museum, with its exhibits on the history of torture, including the instruments that carried it out. Then there is the Hotel Santa Clara, formerly a monastery, that served as the seat of the Inquisition Tribunal for Spain when it was built around 1770. Decisions on how to convert African slaves to Catholicism, sometimes under the threat of torment, were made there.

But things change. Last year, for the first time ever, a dark-complexioned, drop-dead gorgeous descendant of those slaves was named Miss Colombia. I saw dozens of women in the streets, chatting with friends, darting into storefronts and typing in Internet cafes, who could have replaced her in an emergency.

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