Easy methods to Fake You’re in Cartagena In the present day
While your travel plans may be put on hold, you can pretend you’re in a new place for the night. Home Around the World invites you to channel the spirit of a new place each week with recommendations on how to explore the culture from the comfort of your home.
On a clear day, from the top of a 500-foot hill from the 17th-century La Popa Monastery, the view of Cartagena can make you dizzy. If you use the skyline as a signpost to the Colombian port city, you can slowly get your bearings. This unlikely cluster of skyscrapers is Bocagrande, a neighborhood where beachfront resorts divide space with shiny office towers. Next in the panorama is the walled old town, in which narrow streets connect churches from the colonial era with colorful shops and restaurants. There is another between the two districts: Getsemani, inconspicuous from afar, but on closer inspection a veritable street art gallery that explodes with creative energy.
From above it can be hard to tell, but this is a city full of magic that inspired entire books by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez. Even after he settled in Mexico City, he kept a house here. Perhaps that’s because Cartagena’s magic leaves an indelible mark on your memory even as it fires your imagination. I still remember my first visit over 20 years ago as part of a major trip to my mother’s home country. In my eyes, the blue of this sea under the brilliant Caribbean sun is bluer than anything I’ve seen since.
Cartagena has long been a top stop for international visitors to Colombia. The city has managed to escape the country’s worst drug-related violence, despite continuing to grapple with issues of police brutality and racial inequalities.
People come to town to take a look at its history. It was once one of Spain’s most lucrative (and extractive) global outposts. But in the end they fall in love with much more: the nightclubs, where musicians from all over the region play until the wee hours of the morning; the seafood and fried goodies; and the less tangible ways to unleash creativity. There will come a time when we can experience the city in person again, but in the meantime there are some approaches to channeling the magic of the city from the comfort of home.
Get a taste of magical realism
According to Cartagenera writer Margarita García Robayo, it is impossible not to make a connection between her hometown and the books of Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, who died in 2014. “If you’ve read García Márquez, there is no way you can go to Cartagena and not hear all the alarm bells of appreciation,” said Ms. García Robayo, whose fish soup collection contains explorations of life on the Colombian Caribbean coast.
Many people do not realize how influential the city of Cartagena, where Mr. Gárcia Márquez worked as a journalist for a while, was for his writing. Some of his most imaginative scenes – men with huge wings, blood that can climb stairs, ghosts more prone to conversation than spooky – seem less far-fetched after you’ve spent a day on the city’s sun-drenched cobblestone streets. And reading his books will take you right to these streets, magic and everything. So the author said he was more concerned with truth than imagination. “The problem is that Caribbean reality is like the wildest imagination,” García Márquez told The Paris Review in 1981. For something directly related to the city, start with one of the author’s most famous novels: “Love in the Time of Cholera”. “Despite the fact that the city is never mentioned in the book, you can find whispers of Cartagena everywhere.
Get an education in Champeta
“Cartagena is a city full of sound,” Ms. Gárcia Robayo told me. “People speak in screams, music booms at a deafening volume and there is always, always laughing in the background.” That’s a lot to recreate in your living room, but this is where you start: champeta, the Afro-Colombian dance music booming from picós, or colorful sound systems set up on street corners across the city. The lyrics are sung in Spanish and Palenquero, a Spanish-speaking Creole spoken in the nearby town of San Basilio de Palenque, the first free African settlement in America. The melodies were originally derived from the dance music of South Africa, the Congo and Ghana, which appeared in the hands of West African seafarers on the docks of Cartagena and Barranquilla in the 1970s and 1980s. After being stigmatized and linked to crime in recent years – a view that emerged from centuries of colonialism, racism and inequality – Champeta has begun to take its rightful place as a trademark of the Colombian Caribbean.
To feel like you are spending an evening in Cartagena, play the songs you would hear in nightclubs like the Bazurto Social Club or in pop-up pictures outside the walled city. Start with this bespoke playlist of some big names from Champeta and related genres. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, try the accompanying champeta dance moves.
Take a virtual music tour
Of course, Champeta isn’t the only style of music you’ll hear in Cartagena. So, if you want to be better immersed in the sounds of Colombia that converge on the city streets, sign up for a virtual tour. Impulse Travel, a Colombian travel agency that works with community organizations, is offering a virtual version of their Sounds of Colombia tour that combines the 8-day trip into a one-hour virtual experience that they offer upon request.
“We were fortunate to have captured a lot of footage and high quality audio recordings from the trips we had taken in the past,” said Rodrigo Atuesta, Managing Director of Impulse Travel. “So we put together a virtual experience to get people to travel through the soundscape of this unique journey.” You might not dance to the sound of an accordion at sunset or watch artisans carve traditional flutes, but instead blink (and drink enough Dictador rum to go with it) and think it’s you.
Dance while you cook
Cartagena is among the best places in the country to try Colombian cuisine, a hearty and delicious mix of African, Indigenous and Spanish culinary traditions. While the New York Times Cooking has a number of dishes to try, you can still cook with the help of a local to really feel like there. And because we’re talking about Cartagena here, this cooking class comes with music.
Foodies, a Colombian food tour company, offers an online Arepas and Dancing experience that teaches diners how to make arepas, a corn pancake-like treat, accompanied by a killer soundtrack. You’ll try Arepa de Huevo, a yellow arepa stuffed with egg and ground beef, and a white arepa with aniseed. In Cartagena, Arepas de Huevo (or Empanadas de Huevo, as they are sometimes confusingly called) can be found all over the city, including the Picós. To make you feel like you are really taking a break from the champeta booming from the sound systems, Foodies has a playlist that goes with the whole process.
Finish with something sweet
You’ve navigated the twists and turns of Cartagena through the written word, danced to the stomach-swirling bass of Champeta music, and tried your hand at a local specialty. Now it’s time to relax with a dessert. Cocadas are small coconut-based treats that can be found across Latin America. But for some of the best you have to go to Cartagena and see the Palenqueras, the Afro-Caribbean women from San Basilio de Palenque who make confectionery an art.
AfroLatinx Travel, a tour operator focused on the African heritage of Latin America, has an online presentation on making cocades with María Miranda, a Cartagena-based cocade master. In addition to an introduction to a rich culinary heritage, Ms. Miranda’s classes are a reminder of our responsibilities as virtual or other tourists, the need for respect as visitors, and the underlying trauma that permeates Cartagena’s history.
“In Cartagena we often see these women in their colorful clothes and their products for sale,” reads the description of the experience. “But do we see them beyond their colonial clothing and their products for sale? They are real women. These black women struggled to stay in rooms that despised their presence. These women are not tourist attractions. “