Just like the lovely Canucks in that ad (you know the one I mean), I’ve often had the sensation that Cartagena is a city built on its stories. And these stories are worthy of the world’s greatest magical realist. If you don’t believe me, please read Love in the Time of Cholera. A 250-word book report on my desk in the morning, thanks.
Anyway, here are my favourites:
1. The Very Walls Tell Their Stories.
The Old Wall encompasses the Old Town in a warm embrace, and walking on it, you can feel its stories talking to the very soles of your thongs (“flip-flops” indeed!). Built after the Spaniards got sick of having their stolen gold re-stolen by buccaneers, and particularly after that rake, Sir Francis Drake put the city to ransom, and kindly left off destroying half of it, they only took a couple of hundred years – and untold amounts of gold – to complete. They were so expensive that when, so it’s said, the King of Spain asked how the Cartagena fortifications over the seas were going, he then craned his neck in their general direction, and said, “for their price, I should be able to see them from here!” What a card. The best way to enjoy such stories these days is to dance the night away – in thongs or otherwise – at Café del Mar.
2. La Popa.
Probably the wildest stories in Cartagena belong to this convent. It is said that at the dawning of the seventeenth century, Brother Alonso de La Cruz Paredes received a message from the heavens which instructed him to go and build an Augustine convent on top of the highest hill near Cartagena. After this fearless monk battled the horned devil who was presiding over the hill, and threw him down the slope; he convinced the local inhabitants to build a small wooden church. After a few brushes with less pious pirates, the more resilient – and beautiful – stone convent replaced the one made of wood. Years later, no less esteemed a personage than the Liberator himself, Simon Bolivar, would use the convent of La Popa as his independence headquarters; during which time a cannonball fired from San Felipe Castle two kilometres away whizzed just past El Liberator’s ears as he was looking out the window.
3. Holy Mud, Batman!
Spouting out infernal fire and smoke since time immemorial; it took a feisty local priest to vanquish the demon possessing the Totumo Volcano – less than an hour away from Cartagena by today’s transportation – with a handy vial of holy water. From that moment on, instead of raining brimstone, this volcano started calmly bubbling up beneficial, mineral-rich mud. Thanks to this priestly feat, all are now invited to miraculously float atop this bottomless pit of mud, and take advantage of its purportedly medicinal qualities. Try it, and you too can give your thanks to the Super Priest. Super Priest. He’s Super Priesty.
4. One Eye, One Arm, One Leg Kicks Some Arse.
Admiral Blaz de Lezo was a hard man to keep down. His story is possibly more reminiscent of a Monty Python movie than a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. But, totes whatevs, babes: that doesn’t fit in with the theme I’m trying to develop here. Who’s writing this thing, huh? Anyway, this guy lost an eye, then an arm, then a leg in some fairly mighty battles, but then somehow managed to repel a British force ten times the size of his. He was able to do that in good part due to the amazing, impenetrable structure of San Felipe Castle, along with the walls already mentioned above. It is said that this impossible feat (or foot) is the reason why most of South America speaks Spanish, and not English. So you’ve got old Lezo to thank for having to learn a bit of Spanish.
5. Plaza of the Judge, Plaza of Slaves, Plaza of Merchants, Plaza of Herbs, Plaza of Coaches, Ecuador Plaza, the Sweet Sweet Gates.
All those plazas in the title above all refer to the same place. This plaza, with more name-changes than the Artist Formerly Known as Good, is haunted by its history. It was here that the thousands of African slaves were forced to gather, Cartagena being the South American hub for this grim trade. Saint Pedro Claver, clad in his Cloak of Life-Long Health (anyone who bore it on their shoulders was blessed) walked through the anguished press of human chattel, anguished himself by their treatment. So anguished that he would catechize and baptise a lazy quarter of a million of them. It is at their gates, where the goods being sold these days are much less controversial (mmmmm…sweets), that you may be able to hear the cry of the handsome hero of Joe Arroyo’s anthemic story, “Rebelion” still echoing amongst the tourists scoffing lollies (“candy,” indeed!).
So, these are my top 5. I must have missed some amazing stories – which ones would you like to tell?