Forget drugs wars and communist guerrillas, corrupt police and murderous cocaine barons. Colombia's darkness can still be found if you want to look, but Cartagena De Indias, on the country's northwest coast, is a sun-drenched riot of post-colonial colour and culture, party people and seriously good food. Tom Parker Bowles chows down in Latin America's most underappreciated tropical paradise.
They meant trouble, no doubt about that. Seven of them, sweating menace, tramping through the soft white sand. There was no banter or chatter, just a mass of well-muscled flesh, moving as one. Even before I could make out the tattoos, pale blue and faded, or the close-cropped hair, or the eyes, cruel and cool in the indolent tropical heat, I knew to look away. Pretend I'd seen nothing. Act as if they weren't there.
They had bulges in their pockets, too, threatening lumps that seemed too heavy for a nice day at the beach. Stopping a few feet in front of me, they glared into the shade where I was sitting. Suddenly, the half empty coffee cup before me became a lot more interesting. I sunk lower into the plastic chair and closed my eyes, in the childish hope that I'd render myself invisible. This was a situation you'd want to avoid in even the sleepiest of commuter belt towns. But here on this tiny Caribbean island, a few miles off the coast of Colombia, we were a long way from Cobham.
A few minutes back, this idyllic mound of sand had seemed the very vision of barefoot bliss. Now, it was a palm-fringed prison. The men were so close I could smell the beer on their breath, mixed with stale sweat and cheap cologne. I could see the muscles twitching in their cheeks, the sweat beaded on furrowed brows. Dammit. I was here to eat, not die.
Why hadn't I listened to all those folk who warned me about Colombia? About the drugs and the danger and the guns and the grief. Never mind that the nearest these naysayers had been to South America was a documentary about Pablo Escobar, watched from the comfort of their nice suburban home with a Waitrose ready meal and glass of Pinot Blanc. They were right.
One man, smaller than the rest stepped forward and looked around. The silence was deafening. This was it. I expected a deep Spanish bark, an order or demand. Instead, I heard a shrill Cockney accent, as incongruous here as full Latin Mass in the local Greggs. "A'right," he chirped. "Any chance of a beer? We're fucking parched.'"
My eyes stayed fixed to the floor. But the fear had long gone, replaced by a throbbing embarrassment that threatened to swallow me up. How could I have got it so wrong? The tattoos were proof enough. "Audere est Facere," proclaimed one; "West Ham Til I Die," announced another; "Mum" mumbled a third. And their skin, burned pink as cooked crayfish, was a uniquely British affliction. As for those sinister bulges, nothing more than iPhones, cameras and BlackBerrys, the unavoidable detritus of modern life.
Passing them on the streets of London, Manchester, Leeds or Bristol you wouldn't have looked twice. Well, not made eye contact, perhaps, but hardly cast them as revolutionary South American guerrillas, hellbent on slitting your throat. But I was so caught up in the Colombian clichés – in the errant belief this vast, varied and beautiful country, with its twin coasts and mountain ranges, thick jungles and rolling green hills, was a war zone – that I lost all sense of perspective. A week in and around Cartagena De Indias, Colombia's Caribbean colonial gem, and this was the nearest I'd come to danger. A chance encounter with a bunch of pissed footie fans in desperate need of a drink. Oh, the irony. And, oh, what a twat.
Truthfully, I don't think I've ever felt more safe than in Cartagena, a city that sprawls out along the northwest coast of Colombia. Not in London or Paris or New York. Not even in Chippenham or Calne, two towns close to where I grew up in Wiltshire. In fact, definitely not in Chippenham or Calne. Superman would need police protection passing Goldiggers at throwing out time. And a trip to Forward Video after dark meant taking your life into your own hands. Not even Weekend At Bernie's 2 was worth this West Country version of running the gauntlet.
No, Cartagena is impeccably safe, the sort of city you could take home to meet your granny. Thanks in part to the armies of police, respected and generally incorruptible, who are there to guard tourists from the less salubrious characters of this languid place, Cartagena is Colombia's scrubbed, smiling international face, the pulchritudinous temptress with the unblemished past. Untainted by the ceaseless cocaine-fuelled battles and bombs of Bogotá, Cali and Medellin, Cartagena is not just an international tourist hotspot but a national symbol of culture and non-stop good times, too.
But Cartagena's always been safe. That was the point, the precise reason Pedro de Heredia founded the old city, in 1533, in this naturally protected bay, surrounded by endless islands and lagoons. The most beautiful strongbox on earth, this became the glittering treasure trove of the mighty Spanish Empire, a place where all that plundered gold, all those stolen emeralds, could be securely stored, then transported back to Spain in heavily-armed armadas.
Such fabulous wealth, of course, attracted every pirate worth his eye patch and privateers, too, sailing under French and English flags. Most got no further than the mouth of the bay, where the twin forts of San Fernando and San Jose still stand guard. At the first whisper of attack, a mighty iron chain would be hoisted between the two, the 16th century equivalent of the spike strip.
Sir Francis Drake, pirate by royal decree, got as far as ravaging the port in 1586, before agreeing to withdraw for the small matter of 10 million pesos. No one breached the city again. Forts were built, monolithic monsters that stand firm to this day, like San Felipe, the greatest of them all, an impregnable symbol of pure Spanish might. Walls, too, snaking round the old city, seven miles long and up to 50ft thick. The arches, once used for cannons, now have a more amatory role; young lovers fill their space – "two in, three out," as the old saying goes.
From that very first breath of the thick, viscous tropical fug, the sort of air you chew, rather than breathe, it's impossible to avoid the romantic; in the old town at least. The outer town is miles removed from its perfumed neighbour, a sweat-stained, scruffy place where the real business of everyday life takes place. While Bocagrande, to the south, is all gleaming skyscrapers and air-conditioned cool, the expensive, condo-filled dream of a continent on the move, in the old town, with its multi-hued buildings, narrow winding lanes, bougainvillea-strewn balconies and tourist carts and horses, the sense of the theatrical is ever present, like the scent of evening jasmine. This is a place of exaggeration and excess, pleasure palaces and playgrounds.
Baroque, lyrical prose, too, as the spirit of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, known locally as Gabbo, hangs heavy on every corner. He lived here once, still has a house, loves the place. He's ill now, very ill, and hasn't been back for years. Yet, this is the backdrop for Of Love And Other Demons, and the inspiration for the unnamed city in Love In The Time Of Cholera. The Cartagena of Gabbo's fervent imagination, though, is "a ruined city with its moth-eaten glories…", a place where "the great old families sunk into their ruined palaces in silence…", where "weeds hung from balconies and opened cracks in the whitewashed walls of even the best-kept mansions and the only signs of life at two o'clock in the afternoon were languid piano exercises played in the dim light of siesta…."
Those pianos are still playing, but now they tinkle for the American tourist dollar. Still, it's all but impossible to wander the streets without glancing at those thick, brass-studded wooden doors, the gates to hidden convents within, and not wonder about skeletons sprouting full heads of hair. Or hearts, still beating, locked in jewelled wooden casks.
Everything moves slowly here, days, nights and intonations alike.
This great coastal port, the gateway to South America, has long been a repository for every race, creed and colour. African slave (Cartagena had a huge slave market), Spanish conquistador, Lebanese trader, indigenous Indian, all collide and combine to create a place that is at once utterly international and entirely insular.
As we wander from our hotel into the heart of the town, the cries of the hawkers pepper the air with insouciant allure. There are stalls where you can charge phones, or make calls or send texts. And there are sellers of fresh lime-water, pert and refreshing, and remote controls, sugar cane sweets, slabs of fried fish and plantain. Coffee vendors (the bean is Colombia's second most famous export) wander the streets, two thermos flasks strapped to their back. You stop them, and they pour you a weak, sweet brew.
The fruit-sellers too, are legion, handsome black maidens in gaudy dresses, sweet mango, bananas, guava, zapote and corozo piled high on their heads. Descended from slaves that escaped their shackles and fled into the surrounding jungle, they hail from Palenque de San Basilio, a few miles east of the city. They charge for photos, no freebies here. Everyone's got something to sell. This is a city with trade in her blood.
But it's hot, damned hot, and I'm sweating already. Every available patch of shade is covered by prostrate bodies. Even at noon, the atmosphere is sultry and languid, like Shakira in a steam room, naked save a come hither wink. We walk briskly through the plazas and squares, past cool churches with marble chequer board floors, and builders, transforming yet another old mansion into an upmarket boutique hotel.
"Slow down," chides Francisco Montoya, chef and restaurateur, our guide for the next few days. "We move slowly here." Originally from Bogotá, he came here with his wife and children 10 years ago and never got round to going back. We arrive at a small ceviche stand, no more than an icebox on wheels, and he orders chipi chipi (tiny clams), jaiba (crab), and camaron (fat prawns). I'm expecting lime-based zing that salsas across the tongue. Instead, I get a gloopy, over-rich mess thick with ketchup and mayonnaise. Not a good start.
"Cartagena is not really Colombia," says Francisco between bites. "It's everything. It's the mix of nations and cultures that makes the place so interesting, so different from the rest of the country. And the food, of course, is the food of the coast. Plantains replace potatoes, frying is the method of choice. Rice, fish, manioc [a root vegetable], fruit and a little meat if you're lucky. And Kola Roman, of course." He lifts up a bottle of neon-red liquid that's a dead ringer for Corona Cherryaid (Remember "Can you pass the Corona Fizzical?"). It tastes the same, too, and is a Cartagena classic. If the ceviche disappoints, then the soft drink utterly delights.
To be honest, I knew nothing of Colombian food until my friend Manoli, who spends two weeks a month in the country working in the gold trade, came back raving about the fish, and the chicarron ("like crackling, only better") and the coconut rice. And arepas – the national snack – a deep-fried pocket of maize filled with egg and meat. We stop at a stall, a boiling pan of oil taking up most of the space. They're cooked fresh, ready in moments. "It's a good one," says Francisco approvingly. The yolk bursts as I bite in, coating the content with a luscious, unctuous sheen.
"The arepa de huevo is absolutely fantastic, prehistoric," wrote Gabbo. "You bite into this corn cake and inside, miraculously, there's a fried egg!" They're addictive and ubiquitous, every food group in one beautiful bite.
As we stroll (or in my case, shuffle) towards lunch, licking the last drips of egg from my greasy fingers, I'm suddenly overwhelmed by colour. Streets are ablaze in every shade, pastel and primary. It's as if my daughter has grown 100 feet and been given the city as a play set, along with a box of paints the size of the Santa Barbara Bastion. And daubed each shop, mansion, house and home in mellow yellow, lurid pink, azure blue, screw you orange, bull's blood red and emerald green. Imagine a Farrow & Ball paint chart in the hand of Jeff Koons.
"When I was young, I was one of the first people who wanted to cook," says Francisco, as we step aside to let a yellow taxi cruise by. "My parents and friends would argue, saying it was for poor people, not a career. Twenty-five years back, the upper and middle classes wanted French, Italian or Spanish food, everything else was seen as peasant stuff. Now, real Colombian food is hugely popular."
We duck into a small building mere metres from our hotel. "The young cooks are now studying the past, the roots of our food," he continues. "The same is happening in Peru and Mexico. This is the future."
Cande, though, is all about the past. "It's 100 per cent Cartagena food," says Gaby, the small, smiling owner, somewhat of a hero in these parts. "We want to reclaim our heritage," she says, echoing Francesco's words. This is my first taste of coconut rice, sweet, brown and seductive, and fried yams and plantains, dense and chewy. At first, the food seems cloying and heavy, entirely unsuited to tropical climes. Heavy soups, sancocho, dominate the menu and are a staple across the land.
"We have hot soups even when it's close to 90 degrees," writes Patricia McCausland-Gallo in Secrets Of Columbian Cooking. "We love soups."
Egarete is made with liver, rich and offally. The sweetness is off-putting. But the mote de queso, literally cheese soup, is silken and utterly splendid. It's impossible to go wrong with melted cheese, yet this is lighter, more elegant than the sum of its parts.
There's posta negra (beef cooked in brown sugar and tomatoes), and deeply gamey rabbit shredded alongside avocados and tomatoes. "This is calorie-packed food," says Francisco, sipping a glass of Club Colombia, a wonderful local beer. "It was slave food, worker food, essential calories for a hard day's work." Seeing as the nearest I'm getting to hard graft is the short hop from lunch to hotel, it's ideal siesta food, too.
But it's not all wide smiles and tropical fruit. As Charles Nicholl writes in The Fruit Palace, a beautifully crafted tale of the Seventies' cocaine trade, "It [Cartagena] is beautiful, but sombre and inquisitional." Night falls quickly here, a black drape thrown suddenly across the sun. And the city takes on a different hue. It's romantic, sure, but tempered by a rather sinister edge, like Venice, Barcelona and New Orleans, three other great Catholic cities that manage to combine the prudish and debauched.
Each street and alley, back road and by-way, throbs with the memory of a million secret trysts, plots and poisoned cups. It's easy to get lost, too, endlessly circling the half-lit squares and plazas. One canary yellow street looks remarkably like another and the effect, especially after a skinful of decent rum, can be intensely discombobulating. There are the half-seen shadows too, that play in the corners of your imagination, fleeting figures moving in and out of sight.
"In the quiet parts," notes Nicholl, "it is like a spooky, run-down Seville." Add in the odd, inhuman cry, hacking cough or low, atonal moan, and the gay city of the day is but a distant memory.
"There is another, rougher quarter called Getsemani," continues Nicholl, "a warren of white one-storey houses, casa bajas, once inhabited by artisans and soldiers and street traders, the flotsam of the conquista." And this is where the real fun is to be found. We were warned to keep away but Noli, an old hand, just laughed. Streets are narrow and hookers loll on plastic chairs, half-heartedly offering good times and white powder. This was the only time we ever saw cocaine. The vast majority see the drug as nothing more than a national blight, on their reputation abroad, their economy, environment and pride.
Here, though, endless tiny doors, guarded by Titan-like figures, are opened on payment of the right fee, and reveal hidden vaults with salsa, the accordion-driven Vallenato, pounding reggaeton, techno and house shaking the foundations. The music spills onto, and floods, the streets. "The Colombians drink to get drunk, like you British,' Francisco had told me earlier. "We love to drink, to eat, to dance." Ah, dancing. Never my strongest suit. Here, everybody dances. Beautifully. Unlike me, who jerks about like a speed-crazed roach.
As we stumble back to our hotel, reeking of rum and aguardiente, the sickly aniseed spirit that fuels Colombia, it starts to rain. And being Cartagena, even the elements are theatrical. Just as the streets resemble a wildly expensive film set, so the rain is straight off the Warner Brothers back lot. The thunder Wagnerian, the lightning mid-period Hammer (Taste The Blood Of Dracula) and rain the intensity of which I've never seen before. You get drenched just thinking about it, great sheets of water pouring from the sky, turning pavements into torrents, roads into swirling Charybdis-like eddies. I collapse onto my bed, sodden with rain and rum. And pass out, to the gentle thuck-thuck of the fan above.
The next morning, all that's left of last night's storm are a few greasy puddles. "Cartagenans always go out to the islands at the weekend," says Jacamo, young and lean, the owner of Sport Barú Hotel, as we speed out, towards the jaws of the bay, through murky, brackish water, the colour of vending machine hot chocolate. We pass mangrove swamps and tiny islands, fishermen in one-oar canoes, next to great hulking warships, grey and sullen.
"In the past, the English came and took our gold and women," Jacamo laughs and looks at Noli. "Nothing much has changed."
We sit in silence for a moment, revelling in the breeze. "You know, Colombia is coming out of the dark days," he says. "Things are different here, you can feel it. With the worst of the drug wars behind us, we're coming through the other side. Everyone's talking about how it's changed. Not just the tourist board. Everyone.
"You know, I was in Italy a few weeks back – where a lot of my family live – and I got my wallet stolen in Milan. For fuck's sake! My uncle was so proud. An Italian stealing from a Colombian. He thought it was brilliant. It's never happened to me in Cartagena." He eases the throttle forward, and I lean back, eyes closed and the sun on my face.
If Cartagena is laidback, then the islands are prostrate. "This is a place where the rich have their weekend homes," says Jacamo. "The likes of the Santo Domingos [Colombia's famous billionaire dynasty]". A friend came out to stay with them 20 years back, and remembers waterskiing through these waters, a boat filled with M-16 toting bodyguards close behind.
"Things have changed, for the better," says Jacamo as we set off for another tiny island. "Look around you," says Francisco. "The drug dealers' houses are empty and expensive resorts are springing up. This is the new Colombia."
Ten minutes later and I'm floating in bath warm, gin clear water, a Coco Loco in my hand. Well, a coconut, its top chopped off and filled with rum. As soon as we alight, dozens of locals rush the boat, offering beer, scarves and carved wooden whatevers. We smile politely and wallow in the water, swimming out, to gaze upon the once great villa of a long imprisoned drug lord. Now, crabs scuttle over cracked marble floors. And elaborate, soaring arches sink into the sand.
A fisherman arrives, the bottom of his small wooden boat filled with crayfish, freshly caught and aggressive. We choose one and haggle, ineffectually. Seeing my Spanish starts with cervezas and ends with per favor, we know we're being taken for a ride. But $10 is agreed and off they go. They hew the beast in half with a blunt knife, then I help, adding lime juice and hot sauce and salt to its still quivering translucent flesh. I eat it with my finger, juice dripping down my chin. It's magnificent. Utterly magnificent.
Then we clamber back into the boat and head for a restaurant deep in the mangrove swamps. We disappear into a dim mass of thin, knarled roots, a tangle of petrified spaghetti. Small red crabs eye us warily as we pass, and plastic bags cling limply to the land. There's a warm fetid smell, a hint of rot and decay, the stench of the salt water swamp. Then as quickly as we entered, we exit, into a secluded bay and a small, scruffy town with an old colonial church.
It's after 1pm, and all is quiet. Lunch is at Las Palmas, a plain, two-storey concrete building, where Louisa and Norma, two handsome black ladies, are pounding plantains and octopus. We eat lunch on the roof, under a palm thatch, gazing out over the mass of mangrove and small islands, private estates of the glitterati, with helipads, and jetties, swimming pools and private beaches.
Las Palmas' food is simple but just right. Fried plantain fritters, perfectly crisp, are dipped in a punchy garlic sauce. A hint of a breeze, just enough to ripple the intense heat, offers scant relief. There's a hearty seafood soup, with half cobs of corn and cubes of yam, all starchy and soft, and white, delicate fish. "Levante morto," says Louisa. "It raises the dead." Then more crayfish, a touch over-grilled, and whole, deep-fried snapper, coconut rice and octopus, all washed down with beer, Kola Roman and passionfruit juice.
Our journey back has just one stop, at the beach club, where I mistake those good time lads for FARC terrorists. That gets the heart going but by the time we're halfway back to the city, sun-stained and sated, my pulse is back down to Cartagena speed. We pass the statue of the Virgin Mary, beseeching in the middle of the bay. You can't escape statues here – fat ladies, their bosoms rubbed shiny by a million hopeful gropes. And thin men, arms stretched towards the sky, moustachioed generals, giant crabs, heroes and old boots. There's no going out tonight. Just a beer or two, then bed, back between those blessed sheets.
And then there's breakfast. The Colombians are masters of a feast that makes the Full English look positively Continental. Narcobollo, meaning "Drug Food", sits in an old colonial school, and its name comes from the sort of story that Gabbo himself could have written. It was the home of a drug lord but when the police came to raid it, they found bolos, steamed maize pudding, instead of coke. The crook had long gone, replaced by a restaurant. In honour of the raid, the owners named it Narcobello.
It's here I had my first taste of chicarron, deep-fried pork belly, a mix of crackling, scratchings and great hunks of chewy meat, devoured among the yellow walls and marble pillars with small birds thieving scraps from beneath my feet. Crack, crunch, chew – salt, fat, meat – an international blockbuster of porcine brilliance, no doubt about that. I would come back to Colombia for just one bite. Not that I'd need any encouragement to return.
As if this weren't enough, there are eggs scrambled with chorizo, pork knuckle and coolly tart tamarind juice. "This is a treat," says Francisco, "as protein's expensive, so the poor eat lots of rice, plantains, very little meat." He takes another bite of pork and washes it down with a swig of Kola Roman. "Makes everything taste better," he smiles. I can only agree.
Lunch, if possible, is better still. La Cocina de Pepina is small, neat and, yup, colourful, run by Maria Josefina Yances Guerra, otherwise known as Pepina. Middle aged, with glasses and kind eyes, she specialises in the food of three neighbouring regions, Bolivar (home of Cartagena), Cordoba and Succria. It is a taste, not just of the region, but of the Arab influence here, too. Libyan, Iranian and Syrian traders have been here for centuries. Aubergines grilled with garlic until soft and charred. Cheese fritters, light as a smile, another velvety moti de queso, like melted joy, and salty, savoury coconut rice. Sopa de caribe, is a seafood broth as delicate as a mermaid's kiss, with fat, sweet prawns and still more coconut. "You can feel the love," says Francesco. And taste it, too. Every course is precise, generous and a paean to Colombian food and produce. It would take a palate of stone to be unmoved by Pepina.
And by Cartagena, too, "the very old and heroic city of Cartagena de Indias," in Gabbo's words, "the most beautiful in the world." OK, after a week, it can overwhelm with its heat, and relentless colour and torpid pace. And unlike the rest of Colombia, it has prices that would make London blush. For the unwary or uncaring, there's endless ersatz swill. To eat well here takes planning. But I was seduced, not just by the city but by the people, their kindness, charm and joy. It made me want more, a taste of Bogota, a soupçon of Cali, a mouthful of Medellin.
"Colombia," goes the tourist board's slogan, "the only risk is wanting to stay." And the only danger, an overwhelming urge to return.