Cartagena & the Magical Catalyst of Mid-Life

This world, after all our science and sciences,
is still a miracle;
wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more,
to whosoever will think of it.

Thomas Dekker, 1570-1632

 Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia


In Cartagena, this avid collector acquired the ultimate souvenir–a magic formula with life-altering properties.

Such a piece of ancient wisdom being revealed to me in a Colombian city associated with alchemy seemed especially apt. The key ingredient in this mystical recipe is actually an intuitive truth accessible to us all—sort of a secret hidden in plain sight. This brand of practical wizardry befits Cartagena, considered the birthplace of a literary style known as magical realism. And I had a rendezvous with a native who was willing to channel her knowledge to me.

Leaving our apartment on Calle del Campos Santos, just inside the massive fortified walls that enclose Cartegena’s ciudad amurallada or old city, my husband Tom and I were immediately enveloped by the thick, sticky humidity of the Caribbean coast. Accustomed to walking fast in a colder climate, the heavy air slowed our Yankee stride. It was a welcome change of pace, allowing us to absorb the everyday details of a city where the ordinary proved to be extraordinary.

Our accommodations were in Cartagena’s San Diego neighborhood, named for a convent that is now the Beaux Arts School Building. Nearing it, we heard the student orchestra tuning up, and as we walked by, the opening strains of Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers from “The Nutcracker Suite” wafted through the immense open windows above us. Tom and I grinned at each other and I thought “Let the magic begin!”

Nestled on the perimeter of San Diego Plaza is the Sofitel Santa Clara, a former 17th convent. Tom and I had a late lunch looking out at a courtyard where middle-aged clientele lounged around a pool; a toucan made the rounds, alighting on each deck chair to personally greet each guest. While the Santa Clara’s colonial architecture landed it on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, many Gabriel Garcia Marquez fans know the convent as the setting for one of his novels, “Of Love and Other Demons.” n the book, a rabid dog bites the ankle of 12-year-old Sierva María, whose father sends her to a Santa Clara cell to be exorcised.  The priest entrusted to save her soul falls in love with her, and a tale of intrigue, passion and religion ensues. Garcia Marquez credits the book’s inspiration to his stint as a cub reporter in Cartagena in 1949–in reporting on the excavation of the convent’s crypts, he witnesses the opening of a tomb in which the skeleton is wrapped in long copper tresses of living hair.

Continuing our exploration, we turned down Calle del Santisimo, a narrow crooked street lined with buildings painted in tropical colors, the peeling patina of their walls revealing smudges of past lives. Spilling street-ward from the structures’ second story balconies were luxuriant swaths of bougainvillea, dropping soft petals on the pavement and adding texture and an aromatic scent to the scene’s rich palette. The buildings’ facades featured massive wooden doors embellished with brass knockers in the shapes of slithering salamanders, open-mouthed fish and roaring lions.

In Plaza Santa Domingo, black women with wide smiles sold fruits I didn’t even know existed–bitter tree tomatoes, sweet green feijoas, tangy orange lulos, juicy white soursops, the deep purple mangostino. Known as palenqueras after their native town of Palenque, these entrepreneurs wear costumes even more colorful than their wares, which they transport in big bowls balanced on their heads.

Across the street, a big-bottomed Botero statue lounged on her side, her chubby cheeks mooning passers-by. Fernando Botero Angulo is a Colombian figurative artist whose style, called by some “Boterismo”, gives his pieces an unmistakable identity. Botero depicts his subjects with exaggerated and disproportionate voluptuousness that he himself simply referred to as “fat.” The over-the-top, larger-than-life imagery created by this self-proclaimed “most Colombian of Colombian artists” seemed perfectly in place oogling a cathedral from her horizontal perch across the street.

Tom and I walked atop the ramparts surrounding Cartagena–from our vantage point it appeared the ancient defensive walls demarcated two worlds—on the left, the fortifications seemed to contain a riot of colors and shapes, as if restraining the teeming huddle of gaudy buildings crowded together. On the right, the horizon line was strung with evenly-spaced modern spires of tall, cool glass along the strip of beach known as Bocagrande, a stretch of hi-rise developments originally constructed for foreign oil workers.

While with its sleek skyscrapers, Bocagrande is Cartagena’s newest neighborhood, Getsemani is its oldest. Just beyond the city walls and the Torre de Reloj (Clock Tower) Gate, past Teatro Cartagena and the Teatro Colon, sprawls the ancient streets of Getsemani. This area was one of the first sanctuaries of freed African slaves in the Americas. Plaza Trinidad is where Cartagena’s independence from Spain was declared on November 11, 1811. Today, homage is paid to heroes of the revolution with life-sized statues. We returned to this colorful enclave the next night for dinner at La Plaza de Macondo, a restaurant with fabulous food and vivid murals that depict scenes from Garcia Marquez’ book “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

After our enchanting stroll around Cartagena’s ancient heart, we approached Ábaco Libros y Café, where I was to meet Iliana Restrepo Hernandez, Director of the Internationalization Office at Universidad Tecnológica de Bolívar. A native of Cartagena, Iliana has an affinity for all things literary and a special fondness for the Nobel Prize winner whose name is so often linked with the city. While I considered the venue for our conversation a fitting one, I found it was a practical choice for Iliana—she meets with her book club here every Wednesday evening.

Magical Encounter with a Cartagena Native

The book store cafe had an air of intimacy despite its high ceilings; the rows upon rows of books lining the walls muffled the conversations of patrons pouring over pages together. Iliana had ensured me she would be able to find me; I supposed my gringa heritage would make me easy to spot. Soon enough, a smiling woman made a beeline for me, greeting me with a kiss on my cheek, the warmth of her personality palpable.

“Our book club is a diverse group of about 30 people–different professions, different ages, women and men,” she told me as we settled in at a cozy table. “The only thing that unites us is literature. We are passionate about reading and writing. Every week we decide what to read for the next session.  One of us makes the presentation of the novel or poems and we discuss it. There are no obligations, if you didn’t have time to read you can still go and participate of the conversations.  It`s a very interesting way of getting together to talk about what we most love: literature. We say it is very well-organized chaos.”
Iliana began to tell me about the Cartagena she and García Márquez know and love.

“Cartagena is a very contradictory city with amazing contrasts but it’s magical,” she exclaimed. “And that’s why I think García Márquez got involved with this city. You know, he only lived here one year and in that year the city became part of his soul; he says that every one of his novels has threads of Cartagena in it. And it’s true–a character, a place, an anecdote, something. Two of his books occur here, “Love in the Times of Cholera,” and “Love and Other Demons.” In those novels Cartagena is everywhere.”

I asked Iliana what defined the literary genre García Márquez was credited with creating.

2 thoughts on “Cartagena & the Magical Catalyst of Mid-Life”

  1. “poignant sensation when loss and love coalesce, and the magical alchemy of the heart transforms pain into peace.” BEAUTIFULLY ARTICULATED!!!! And, dear friend, I wish you continued peace and growth as well! (You know…. what emerges when we open ourselves to those “fucking opportunities”).

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