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Cartagena, a Hidden Retreat

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Photo: David Nicolas

Like García Márquez, affectionately called Gabo. He set Love in the Time of Cholera in a fictionalized Cartagena (the movie version, starring Javier Bardem, was filmed on location here), and his house, Casa del Escritor, is the work of Rogelio Salmona, Colombia’s greatest architect. It’s all cubes and arches, Louis Kahn with palm trees and a view to the sea. There’s a guard posted by the house, but like a character from one of Gabo’s books, he’s too skinny for his pants, and while tourists snap pictures in front of the rust-colored walls he rocks on his feet and daydreams.

Casa del Escritor is in San Diego, the quietest of the old city’s four quarters. It’s also where I found the best arepas in town: on the advice of a friend in Bogotá, I went to the Plaza de San Diego after dark, where a family-run stand with a cult following sets up on the corner closest to the Escuela de Bellas Artes, yet another converted convent. Most visitors tour the neighborhood in one of the horse-drawn carriages that clop-clop past the bright-colored walls and overgrown balconies. But I prefer to explore the narrow streets on foot at dusk, after the day’s heat has faded. This offers a surprisingly intimate view of domestic life: the clatter of families eating dinner, children on a threadbare antique settee watching TV with the volume on too high. Then there are the houses that have been tastefully renovated and give glimpses of exposed beams and wall-size art through ornate window grates.

This is the private Cartagena of houseguests and weeklong parties, and my entrée to that world came courtesy of Chiqui de Echavarria, a legendary hostess whose home is a jasmine-scented pile by way of World of Interiors: instead of doing the expected thing and revamping a colonial mansion, she joined seven houses into a leafy labyrinth of landscaped terraces and half-ruined walls. It took three tours for me to get my bearings. There’s a dance floor on the roof, and the former cistern is a swimming pool. We spent the evening outside in the almost-too-humid night air, sitting under a brick vault 30 feet tall, enjoying a meal of lobsters bought off the boat that morning.

Echavarria shuttles between her houses in Geneva, Cartagena, and Bogotá, and our small party—a pair of best friends who live in New York and their appealing daughters, both in their second year at Princeton, and a landscape designer from Bogotá—traded stories about how well-traveled Colombians abroad are automatically suspect. “I don’t use Tumi luggage because it’s too strong,” Echavarria said, explaining that customs agents regularly pierce her bags to see if anything sifts out, and ballistic nylon would just make them try harder. “All my clothes have holes,” she said to peals of laughter.

At dessert, Andrés Pastrana Arango—the former president of Colombia—crashed the party

to show Ted Waitt, the billionaire philanthropist and founder of Gateway Computers, what everybody agreed is the most stunning house in Cartagena. A member of their group casually mentioned that she had just reserved a place on a private rocket that’s going to the moon, but then Pastrana Arango promised them a far more memorable sight, and holding a glass of lulo juice, made from a fruit that tastes like a cross between a passion fruit and a tart orange, he disappeared down a path to lead them on a tour of the gardens.

The busy Centro district revolves around the Plaza de Bolívar, an overgrown public square where teenage couples kiss and palenqueras—women who sell fruit from enameled tubs balanced on their heads—amble past old men playing chess on rickety card tables. Cartagena was a stronghold of the Inquisition, and one side of the square is dominated by the imposing Baroque façade of the Palacio de la Inquisición. It’s now a museum, with historical dioramas and crude 18th-century portraits of governors and generals upstairs; the first floor displays torture devices that illustrate how a little wrought iron might shape one’s faith.

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