Traveling to Cartagena Colombia was one of the coolest freelance assignments I’ve ever gotten.
The airline whose magazine I wrote for flew me to the historic colonial city (also known as Cartagena de Indias) on their inaugural flight. They arranged for my buddy DeMarco and I (this was the year before I met Mary) to stay at the La Passion Hotel– a gorgeous 18th century Spanish mansion that had recently been renovated– and tour Cartagena with a private guide and driver. And, for the first time in my career, they also hired me to shoot photos for the cover of the magazine (which, coincidentally, is the shot above).
The funny thing is that the lovely model you see, Carolina Sanchez, was not a model at all. The Colombia Tourism Board had arranged for a model and for a local fashion designer to provide swimsuits for the photo shoots, which would take place over our 3 days in Cartagena. But the model they selected ultimately balked, saying she couldn’t appear in a swimsuit because it was prohibited by her contract as a Top 10 finalist in the Miss Colombia pageant! So Carolina– a friend of the designer who managed a local hotel owned by her parents– gamely agreed to step in, and we had a blast exploring the city.
Founded in 1533, the Spanish colonial city was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. We started our exploration at San Felipe Barajas Castle, the fortress whose construction began during the the 17th century and ultimately took over 200 years to complete. Today, the fortress and the 6.8 miles of fortified walls that surround the historic city remain Cartagena’s most prominent identifying features.
It was incredible to explore the fort (known locally as Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and named after King Philip IV), which had myriad tunnels filled with nooks and crannies where soldiers could lie in wait to kill the British and French soldiers and privateers who frequently tried to plunder the wealthy city. The massive stone structure looked even more magical at night, when the lights gave it an eerie glow.
Because the Spanish crown had gone to such great lengths to protect the Caribbean coastal city, which was crucial in the economic and political development of the region, many of the area’s historic buildings remain in amazing shape today. This impressive church was built to honor Saint Peter Claver, a Spanish Jesuit priest whose life’s work made him the patron saint of slaves, and the Republic of Colombia.
My assignment garnered us extraordinary access to some of Cartagena’s most historic sites: A mere word from our guide, Jose, convinced the employees of the Heredia Theatre to let us in, even though they were closed to the public.
Named after Pedro de Heredia, the founder of the city, and inspired by the Teatro Tacón of Havana, the theater originally opened its doors in 1911. After being abandoned for many years, it was rebuilt in the 1990s and is the cultural center of Cartagena today, hosting performances by a variety of local arts organizations.
Fortunately, you didn’t need such exclusive access to see the beauty of Cartagena’s colonial architecture. In the old walled city it was everywhere, from the colorful homes that lined the narrow streets to the Cathedral of Cartagena. Officially know as the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the church was built in 1612 and modeled after the basilicas of Andalusia, then remodeled in the early 20th century.
As we walked the streets near the Palace of the Inquisition, we stumbled across a Mapalé dance ensemble giving a public performance in the park. Set to the uptempo rhythms of Cumbia music, this Colombian dance style was originally brought over from Africa by slaves, with movements inspired by a fish out of water. Characterized by male and female dancers moving frenetically towards one another, it resembles a fiery, passionate erotic courtship.
The Afro-Caribbean cultural influence was stronger in Cartagena than just about any other Latin American city we’ve ever been to. Not just in the music and dance, but also in the dress of both the Mapalé dancers and these lovely ladies, who were selling their fresh fruits in the same park.
Having immersed ourselves in the Old Town, it was intriguing to head out to the Convento de la Popa, which is located at the top of a 150-meter hill on the outskirts of the city. Founded by Augustine fathers in 1607, the fortified convent now attracts flocks of the faithful, who parade up the steep hill on religious holidays. It also afforded exceptional views of Bocagrande, the more modern section of Cartagena where most tourists stay.
On our last day in Cartagena, we made our way about an hour by boat to the Rosario Islands (Islas del Rosario) to see a completely different side of Colombia. A relatively undiscovered gem, these 27 islands are one of the nation’s 46 Natural National Parks, created to protect the coral reef that lies off the country’s Caribbean coast. We spent a wonderful day exploring 3 of the islands, relaxing in hammocks by the beach, doing a few photo shoots and snorkeling in the crystal-clear aquamarine waters.
As we were doing a photo shoot in the shallow waters off one of the islands, this man and his son pulled up and offered us tastes of lobster and HUGE prawns they’d caught that morning. We’d just eaten lunch and politely declined, as were stuffed to the gills. But he insisted we at least sample his wares, onto which he squeezed fresh lime juice. It was the best lobster I ever had. One day I’d love to return and spent more time in the Rosarios.
Finally we made out way back to the city for one final photo shoot at La Passion Hotel’s rooftop pool. It was a bittersweet moment: I knew the photos we were getting were some of the finest of my career to that point, but DeMarco and I were both bummed that our short time in Cartagena Colombia was coming to a close. Five years later, this remains one of my favorite cities in the world, and one of the few I’d definitely return to if I had a chance. Though the U.S. government issues travel advisories to Colombia, Cartagena proved perfectly safe, and fond memories of the city’s rich culture and history still remain strong in my mind today. –Text & photos by Bret Love
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