Travel: Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena. Picture: Neil Geraghty
Cartagena. Picture: Neil Geraghty
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MUGGERS come in all shapes and sizes but the last thing I expected was to be robbed in a luxury resort.

I’d arrived at the elegant Sofitel Santa Clara in Cartagena the evening before and following a gruelling 18-hour flight via Paris and Bogota had crashed out for ten hours straight. With the five-hour time difference I’d woken up before dawn and was the first guest down to breakfast.

Built within the walls of a 17th-century convent overlooking the Caribbean, the Santa Clara has one of the loveliest settings in Cartagena. The breakfast room is by the cloisters which surround a lush flower-filled tropical garden thick with palm trees. Having missed dinner I was starving and at the breakfast buffet, I piled my plate high with a mouth-watering selection of tropical fruit. After the freezing January weather back home I was eager to enjoy the sublime Caribbean warmth and so I took a table outside in the garden. The “pink pink” calls of night-time frogs were still resonating in the undergrowth, while up above me, early morning birds were squawking and squabbling in the treetops.

Suddenly, hopping like a kangaroo from table to table, my assailant Mateo appeared and with a theatrical flutter landed on the seat next to me. The hotel’s pet toucan has a long, curved, rainbow bill and mean little eyes that would put any local bandito to shame.

Entranced by my unexpected breakfast companion, I threw him a piece of paw paw, which he delicately picked up with his oversized bill. This, however, was just a ruse and I should have realised why. The Sofitel is French through and through and behind me a waitress appeared with an overflowing basket of freshly baked croissants and pains au chocolat. As she placed the basket on my table, Mateo wasted no time. Tossing the paw paw ungratefully to the ground, he lunged for the basket, grabbed a croissant, flew to another table and in a few seconds had gobbled the whole thing. With an evil glint in his eye he flew off in a triumphant whoosh.

Cartagena de Indias, to give the city its full name, was once the most important port in Spanish South America. It was here that gold and silver from Peru was transported across the Isthmus of Panama to be collected by well-armed convoys of Spanish galleons. During its heyday in the 18th century, the city also gained notoriety for hosting the largest slave market in the Americas. Following Colombian independence from Spain in 1821, the treasure convoys stopped and Cartagena slipped into a long sleepy decline, a period beautifully evoked in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The colonial walled city was frozen in time and after a rolling restoration project begun in the 1950s, it is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the most beautiful cities in South America.

Coming straight from a gloomy British winter, I was dazzled by the colours as I walked out of the hotel for an after-breakfast stroll. Early morning is the perfect time to explore the city, as the mellow sunlight beautifully illuminates the facades of grand aristocratic mansions and ornate Baroque churches. In the morning breeze, cheerful fluttering red, blue and gold Colombian flags mirrored the terracotta and ochre-coloured colonial buildings set against peacock blue Caribbean skies. Many of the houses have wooden balconies with balustrades shaped like elongated pepper pots. In an inspired scheme thought up by the city authorities, a prize of a year’s tax break goes to the best-kept balconies, which are beautifully adorned with cascades of bougainvillea, hibiscus and jasmine.

Many of the characters you encounter on the streets could be straight out of a Garcia Marquez novel. All roads in the old city lead to the palatial Plaza de las Coches, which is overlooked by a whimsical marzipan-coloured clock tower.

On one side of the Plaza an elegant Doric arcade runs beneath the houses and is famous for its sweet stalls. It was now 8am and the stallholders were busy filling large sweet jars with glistening homemade guava jellies and coconut biscuits. In amongst them a rotund, pompous-looking businessman sat imperiously on a high chair reading a newspaper while a shoeshine boy polished his shoes. From the plaza, I wandered up to the city ramparts that once protected the city from relentless pirate attacks. Dotted with domed bastions and cannon, the walls offer spectacular views across to Cartagena’s modern city, where a forest of gleaming white skyscrapers curve out into the Caribbean on a boomerang-shaped spit of land. In a breathtaking display of vanity a male tourist nonchalantly stripped down to his Speedos and made his girlfriend take photos of him posing in front the cannons.

During my visit, the Cartagena Music Festival was in full swing and to escape the sultry heat I wandered over to the old university where a Brazilian jazz singer, Monica Salmaso, was giving an afternoon concert. The mellow sambas and bossa novas sung in a deep husky voice were the perfect music for a lazy Caribbean siesta and before I knew it, I nodded off in a contented doze, along with a good proportion of the audience.

In the late afternoon, after a refreshing swim in the Santa Clara’s beautiful outdoor pool, I joined the locals for a sunset walk on the city ramparts. Dozens of young couples had arrived early and were already sitting arm in arm in prime spots on the battlements. A brisk wind had sprung up and the city’s famous fruit sellers were anxiously clutching baskets of fruit balanced precariously on their heads.

Known as Palenqueras, these women wander around the city streets dressed in bright frilly Carmen Miranda frocks and headscarves. They do a brisk trade in refreshing slices of pineapple and paw paw and are the much-loved photogenic icons of Cartagena.

In the evening, the old city springs to life with a plethora of atmospheric bars and restaurants. Many have live music and as you wander around, the mellow rhythms of cumbia, bolero and salsa drift out into the streets. In a Bohemian-style courtyard restaurant I sat down under palms to a relaxed meal of fried sea bass, fragrant coconut rice and plantain chips.

Listening to the lullaby rhythms of maracas and gentle guitars, I felt completely relaxed. I’d been in Cartagena for little more than 24 hours but had already fallen under the city’s soporific spell. The next morning I couldn’t wait to explore in more depth and as Mateo hopped onto my breakfast table, I resisted shooing him away with my book. Instead I picked up a croissant and threw it over to him. He may have been a thieving rascal but I couldn’t think of a better way to start the day than sharing my breakfast with a toucan.

The Facts: Journey Latin America specialise in tailor-made holidays and group tours to Latin America and Antarctica. Their seven-day stay at the Santa Clara in Cartagena costs from £2,131 per person. This includes flights from Edinburgh or Glasgow, transfers and breakfast daily. For further information contact Journey Latin America (tel: 0208 747 8315, For more information on Colombia, see