On a clear day, from the 17th-century La Popa Convent on the crest of a 500-foot hill, the view of Cartagena can trigger mild vertigo. Slowly, using the skyline as your guidepost to the Colombian port city, you can begin to get your bearings. That improbable cluster of skyscrapers is Bocagrande, a neighborhood where beach resorts share space with gleaming office towers. Next in the panorama is the walled old city, where narrow alleyways connect colonial-era churches with brightly colored shops and restaurants. In between the two neighborhoods is another: Getsemani, unremarkable from afar but, on closer inspection, a veritable street art gallery exploding with creative energy.
From high up, it can be hard to tell, but this is a city so full of magic that it inspired entire books by Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez; even after he settled in Mexico City, he continued to keep a house here. Maybe that’s because Cartagena’s magic leaves an indelible mark in your memory, even as it fuels your imagination. I still remember my first visit, over 20 years ago, as part of a bigger trip to my mother’s home country. In my mind’s eye, the blue of that sea under the bright Caribbean sun is bluer than anything I’ve seen since.
Cartagena has long been a top stop for international visitors to Colombia. The city managed to escape the worst of the country’s drug-related violence, although it continues to struggle with issues of police brutality and racial inequities.
People come to the city for glimpses of its history; it was once one of Spain’s most lucrative (and extractive) global outposts. But they end up falling in love with much more: the nightclubs that buzz until the early hours of the morning with musicians from across the region, the seafood and fried treats, and the less tangible ways it unlocks creativity. There will come a time when we can experience the city on the ground again, but, in the meantime, there are a few approaches to channeling the city’s magic from the comfort of home.
Get a taste of magical realism
According to Cartagenera novelist Margarita Garcia Robayo, it is impossible not to draw connections between her hometown and the books of Garcia Marquez, who died in 2014. “If you have read Garcia Marquez, there is no way you can go to Cartagena and not hear all the alarm bells of recognition,” said Garcia Robayo, whose collection “Fish Soup” includes explorations of life on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
Many people don’t realize how influential the city of Cartagena, where Garcia Marquez worked for a time as a journalist, was to his writing. Some of his most imaginative scenes — men with giant wings, blood that can move up staircases, ghosts more prone to conversing than haunting — seem less far-fetched when you have spent a day lost in the city’s sun-dappled, cobblestone streets. And reading his books will bring you right into those streets, magic and all. It is why the author said he was more concerned with truth than fantasy. “The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination,” Garcia Marquez told The Paris Review in 1981. For something directly related to the city, start with one of the author’s most celebrated novels, “Love in the Time of Cholera.” Despite the fact that the city in the book is never named, you will find whispers of Cartagena throughout.
Get an education in champeta
“Cartagena is a city full of sound,” Garcia Robayo told me. “The people speak in shouts, music blares at deafening volumes and always, always there is laughter in the background.” That’s a lot to re-create in your living room, but here’s where to start: champeta, the Afro-Colombian dance music that blares from picos, or brightly colored sound systems set up on street corners across the city. The lyrics are sung in Spanish and Palenquero, a Spanish-based Creole spoken in the nearby town of San Basilio de Palenque, the first free African settlement in the Americas. Melodies were originally derived from the dance music of South Africa, Congo and Ghana, which showed up on the docks of Cartagena and Barranquilla in the hands of West African sailors in the 1970s and ’80s. Once stigmatized and associated with delinquency — an outlook born from centuries of colonialism, racism and inequality — in recent years, champeta has begun to take its rightful place as the trademark sound of the Colombian Caribbean.
To feel like you are having a night out in Cartagena, download some champeta songs — it’s the type of music you might hear at nightclubs like Bazurto Social Club or at pop-up picos away from the tourists, outside the walled city. If you are feeling particularly ambitious, you can turn to YouTube and try your hand at champeta dance moves.
A virtual music tour
Of course, champeta isn’t the only style of music you will hear in Cartagena, so, to get a fuller immersion into the sounds of Colombia that converge in the city’s streets, sign up for a virtual tour. Impulse Travel, a Colombian tour agency that works with community organizations, is offering a virtual version of its “Sounds of Colombia” tour, condensing the eight-day trip into an hourlong virtual experience, which they are offering on-demand.
“We were lucky to have captured a lot of footage and high-quality audio recordings from the trips we had made in the past,” Rodrigo Atuesta, Impulse Travel’s CEO told me. “So we put together a virtual experience to make people travel through the soundscape of this unique trip.” You might not be dancing at sunset to the sound of an accordion or watching craftspeople carve traditional flutes, but squint (and sip enough Dictador Rum as an accompaniment) and you might think you are.
Dance while you cook
Cartagena is among the best places in the country to try Colombian cuisine, a hearty and delicious fusion of African, Indigenous and Spanish culinary traditions. While there are a number of dishes over at New York Times Cooking to try, why not get cooking with the help of a local, to really feel like you are there? And, because we are talking about Cartagena here, this cooking class comes with music.
Foodies, a Colombian food tour company, is offering an online “Arepas and Dancing” experience, where guests will learn how to make arepas, a pancake-like delight made from corn, accompanied by a killer soundtrack. You will try your hand at arepa de huevo, a yellow arepa stuffed with egg and ground beef, and a white arepa with anise. In Cartagena, arepas de huevo (or empanadas de huevo, as they are sometimes confusingly called) are found everywhere across the city, including at the picos. So, to make you feel like you really are taking a break from the champeta blaring out of sound systems, Foodies has a playlist to accompany the whole process.
End with a sweet treat
You have navigated the twists of Cartagena through the written word, danced to the stomach-churning bass of champeta music, and tried your hand at a local specialty. Now it is time to wind down with some dessert. Cocadas are little coconut-based treats found throughout Latin America. But for some of the best, you have to go to Cartagena and seek out the palenqueras, the Afro-Caribbean women from San Basilio de Palenque who have the confections down to an art.
AfroLatinx Travel, a tour company that focuses on Latin America’s African heritage, is offering an online cocada-making presentation with Maria Miranda, a Cartagena-based cocada master. Along with an introduction to a rich culinary heritage, Miranda’s class offers a reminder of our responsibilities as tourists, virtual or otherwise, the need for respect as visitors and the underlying trauma that permeates Cartagena’s history.
“In Cartagena, we often see these women in their brightly colored dresses and their products for sale,” the experience’s description reads.
“However, do we see them beyond their colonial style dress and products for sale? These are real women. These Black women have fought to remain in spaces that have despised their presence. These women are not tourist attractions.”