7th Apr 2012 12:00pm | By Jennifer Carr
Head to Colombia's Cartagena for a never-ending street party, with sexy salsa and kitesurfing to boot
I can’t take my eyes off the machete. I’m not sure whether it’s the sight of the weapon that’s paralysing me, or the owner’s disarmingly beaming face. The only thing for certain is that I’m rooted to the spot. I watch as the woman working the knife deftly slices a pawpaw into 12 perfect pieces, which are placed on a platter alongside ruby-red watermelon and mango, then swiftly sold to a salivating bystander.
It’s all for show, of course, the fruit-seller drawing a crowd via her notable skills with the blade. But her smile is real and her sunny Colombian manner medicinal after months of grey UK. Heading out of the Plaza de Bolivar, away from the countless snack vendors, fruit carvers and Panama-hat-wearing shoe shiners, I begin the first of many wanderings around Cartagena, the tropical jewel in Colombia’s crown, and arguably the most enchanting city I’ve stumbled across on the gringo trail to date.
Light and dark
As Colombia’s fifth-largest settlement (and surely the prettiest), the city packs a high-definition assault of colour on the eye, from the fuchsia-hued bourgainvillea spilling from overhanging hacienda-style balconies, to the fluorescent greens, tangerines and lemons worn by the locals, and the candy-coloured facades of the houses. Monochrome doesn’t belong here. Nor does silence. Melodies and music echo through the streets, permeating the life and soul of a city that loves a good party. On my second day I take in an ear-clanging combination of beatboxes, wind-up radios, barber-shop quartets, humming waitresses and, most memorable of all, a makeshift disco around a car boot filled with speakers, a TV and a few gallons of rum, where men congregate on plastic chairs to swig local liquor and appreciate the sound of the two-step, and all before midday.
But beneath Cartagena’s dazzling, dizzying surface sits a darker past – one coloured by repeated invasions by the French and British. And the legacy lives on. From the romantic Andalucian architecture and grandiose Spanish cathedrals, to the many navalmonuments, the city’s troubled history is splayed out before you, ready to read between the deceptively pretty lines.
Underscoring this reality is the 11km walled fortress that surrounds the Old Town – a great place to catch a cool breeze and enjoy a birds-eye panorama of the city, old and new. After 200 years of French and English attacks, the Spanish Crown got fed up with greedy buccaneers (including Britain’s very own Sir Francis Drake) and in the 17th century commissioned the wall to better protect the city’s supply of gold, silver and silk. Drifting along the wall while drinking a fresh coconut water, I find it hard to relate the joggers, chess players and interlocked lovers to the violence that Cartagena once faced.