In the New Cartagena, Night Life Trumps Strife

The School of Fine Arts is indeed a school, but the works on display give it the feel of a modern art gallery.
The School of Fine Arts is indeed a school, but the works on display give it the feel of a modern art gallery. (By Tommy Nguyen)
By Tommy Nguyen
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Taking a break from the open-air sauna of the late afternoon, a young American leftist found herself sitting next to me in one of the more modern cafes in Cartagena's Old Town, a place called Crepes and Waffles. She spoke Spanish to the waitress, but I know a Californian when I hear one. She eventually told me she was from the Bay Area and that she was on the second month of her soul-searching Latin American walkabout, apparently the thing to do when law school looms in the months ahead.

"I was in Oaxaca last month, and I met some really cool Zapatista rebels," she said. But her grin slowly faded when, moments later, a server arrived at her table with an outrageous tower of ice cream, fudge and whipped topping, fortified by chocolate wafers in a glass chalice. She stared at the dessert with her jaws slightly open, perhaps appalled by her momentary lapse into bourgeois prerogatives.

"What the hell am I doing in Cartagena?" she asked. Then she picked up her spoon and dug in.

Alas, warring rebels were nowhere to be seen in this stunning port city on the Caribbean, founded by the Spanish in 1533. If my new left-wing friend wanted to witness any political or military turmoil in Colombia these days, she'd have to leave behind these flower-pot balconies, cobbled streets and hot-fudge decadences and venture deep into the interior brushes and jungles, where the U.S. State Department's travel warning concerning Colombia is probably something to consider. (Technically, the country is still in a civil war.)

But with the country's changing profile under the right-fisted government of President Alvaro Uribe, Cartagena has undeniably become the port of entry for this new era of Colombian tourism, with its remarkably preserved New World architecture, world-class restaurants and sunset beaches lying just outside the walled Old Town.

When I visited Cartagena earlier in the year with my friend Lara, an American who lives in Panama, foreign tourist visits to Colombia (about 1.2 million visitors a year) had more than doubled from four years ago; Royal Caribbean cruise ships had made a splashy return to the city after a five-year absence; and director Mike Newell's "Love in the Time of Cholera," based on the novel by Colombia's literary hero, Gabriel Garc¿a M¿rquez, had just wrapped production, infusing the streets with a sense of pride and currency that was palpable in every scene. (The 1968 thriller "Burn," starring Marlon Brando, and the 1987 film "The Mission" were also filmed in Cartagena; it only looks as if the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies were shot here, too.)

One place I was happy to recognize when the Newell film opened last month was the Plaza de San Diego, my favorite town square in the city, where I spent most of my time during my short three-day visit. In the movie, it's the place where Florentino (played by Javier Bardem) picks up one of the last of the 622 women he sleeps with before reconnecting with his very first love; the building from which the young woman emerges -- with its bright, sun-chipped yellow facade and sky-blue trimming -- is really the School of Fine Arts. I spent a relaxing weekend afternoon at the school, walking through its cloisters and mistakenly thinking the place was a modern art gallery. Some of the pieces on display were very good, and it was the only place in Cartagena where I felt the presence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC (via an artsy photograph of the rebel group's acronym that someone had spray-painted on a wall).

The building used to be a 17th-century convent, named by Franciscans as the Convent de San Diego, and that's how the plaza got its name. Unlike the city's more touristy plazas in the El Centro area of Old Town -- the restaurant touts and loud Western bachelor parties can make the Plaza de Santo Domingo, for instance, an absolute nightmare -- Plaza de San Diego is smaller and has a more of a local, laid-back feel (despite being on the doorstep of Cartagena's most famous, beautiful and swanky hotel, the Sofitel Santa Clara, which also used to be a convent).

Lara and I first came upon the plaza by finding the seafood restaurant Juan del Mar, located right on the square, which a friend of ours had recommended. We waited more than an hour for a table, but there was more than enough room at the bar where we waited.

I ended up ordering the shrimp with passion fruit sauce -- delicious, but to be honest, I was in a hurry to get out of the restaurant. There was such a vibrant pulse beating in the plaza; only now do I recognize the rudeness of taking my Cuba Libre with me when I left the table to gaze out onto the plaza, my dress shirt slightly damp from the heat, while Lara was still finishing her fish.

Young Colombians lined every corner of the plaza -- playing music, talking about the day's events, making out. It looked as though they had just come back from a music festival and were in no mood to sleep, but the restaurant staff told me that this happens pretty much every evening.

I rolled up my sleeves and made my way outside. One group, led by a charismatic guitarist, was playing both Beatles covers and the songs of Nueva Trova, a style of folk music of political, leftie sentiment that grew in Cuba in the 1960s.

"The song is by Silvio Rodriguez," a young man named Jair told me in English while I was listening to his friends play and sing. "He's been very popular in Colombia since the '70s, so everyone knows the words."

"Where are you guys from?" I asked.

"Half of these kids are from the local art school. But he's from the interior, he's from Bolivia, I'm from Bogota, he's from Peru," Jair said, noting that many people -- not just Western tourists -- are descending on Cartagena.

"If we wanted to talk about this city before 10 years ago, nothing happened to this city -- nothing really good, nothing really bad. But right now, it's amazing. If you're talking about culture, this is the second city in Colombia, behind Bogota perhaps."

But a student at the art school named Luis said just the opposite. Since Cartagena is a port city -- and was once one of two slave ports in South America -- it has a far more diverse bloodline than Bogota: Africans, Italians, Jews, even Middle Easterners. "The city creates a fusion, a fusion of art," Luis said in Spanish, "and the end result is a new emotion."

While more than one Silvio Rodriguez song filled the plaza that night, I wanted to find my Californian friend from the other day and show her that this was probably the closest thing she'll hear to a leftie uprising these days in Cartagena. But in order to see a revolution taking place around here, she really only had to open her eyes.

Tommy Nguyen last wrote for Travel about Iceland.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company