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Cartagena: Safe Haven?
In a region torn by violence, the Colombian resort town offers a measure of peace.

By Darryl Fears, Washington Post Staff Writer, Sunday, December 29, 2002; Page E01

The sun is blazing in a crystal blue sky as I walk through the streets of Cartagena , weaving around hundreds of brown, black and tan pedestrians. These people are gorgeous, with perfect skin in shades.

Colombia , lying at the bottom of an umbilical-cord-like stretch of land that connects North, Central and South America, has a warm coastal climate and a landscape of jungle and beaches as
inviting as any in Venezuela or Brazil . But drug dealers and revolutionary guerillas have given the country a decidedly nasty reputation.

 

Colombia President Alvaro Uribe Velez has vowed to restore Colombia 's good name. Unfortunately, drug dealers actions, overshadow Colombia 's worth as a tourist destination. Cartagena is a favorite vacation spot for hip young Colombians from Bogota , Caliand Medellin. You can find them playing and kissing in El Parque Nacional Tayrona,where the flora is lush and the beaches pristine.

Canadians and Europeans, especially Germans, also flock to Cartagena . They are more adventurous than Americans, traveling through a country with a dense jungle, deep emerald mines and hundreds of miles of warm-water beaches. The government protects Cartagena , its main tourist destination, with patrolling soldiers, military outposts and a naval base.

Cartagena de Indias was founded by Spain in 1533 and served as a major port for the trade of slaves, gold and shipping cargo. As an African American, I want to know more about the city's history as a first stop for hundreds of thousands of slaves entering Latin America . I want to see first-hand what the slaves built here, to learn how they were treated by the Spanish during the Inquisition, and how they became an integral part of Colombian society. I want to see the Inquisition Museum , with its exhibits on the history of torture, including

the instruments that carried it out. Then there is the Hotel Santa Clara, formerly a monastery, that served as the seat of the Inquisition Tribunal for Spain when it was built around 1770. Decisions on how to convert African slaves to Catholicism, sometimes under the threat of torment, were made there.

But things change. Last year, for the first time ever, a dark-complexioned, drop-dead gorgeous descendant of those slaves was named Miss Colombia . I saw dozens of women in the streets, chatting with friends, darting into storefronts and typing in Internet cafes, who could have replaced her in an emergency.

After I arrive in the city, my head is on a
swivel, looking for thedangers I'd read about. But what I find are smiling faces on men. Like many other Caribbean residents, most Cartagenans are dirt-poor

.

A short walk away is the city square, with its cheap fine dining, museums,grocery store and a Citibank branch with an ATM. A lone guard with a sidearmchecks my camera bag at the door. He is backed up by an intimidating military forcein and around the city: some 2,000 soldiers, sailors and police officers armed to theteeth with machine guns .

 

Early Saturday morning, Karla and I join her cousins, Lucena and Rene, on a trip to El Mercado de Bazurto, a local fish market run by black fishermen. Lucena wonders why Americans are so afraid of Cartagena . "It is beautiful and safe," she says. She's not so sure about the mountainous regions in other parts of the country, where Uribe has vowed to fight a civil war if needed, to oust the guerrillas.. Right now, terrorists couldn't be further from my mind.

 

We are on our way to Islas del Rosario, a chaotic stretch of rocks that are to Cartagena what the Florida Keys are to Miami . About two hours later, we are docking at the Hotel San Pedro de Majagua, the cheaper, less pretentious sister hotel of the Santa Clara , where we are greeted with smiles and fruit juice. Off-white huts with spacious rooms, king-size beds and stand-up showers are set against a jungle backdrop. Palm fronds billow in the breeze like living room curtains swaying in an open window.

Within minutes, Karla and I are about a mile out to sea, breathing through spouts. The vendor is our guide. Out of nowhere the ocean floor drops to a depth of about 40 feet. Colorful fish speed past me in enormous schools. My eyes are popping now.

As we eat, the rain returns, so we head back across the open sea to Cartagena . I want to visit the San Felipe de Barajas castle, one of the oldest buildings in Colombia , with panoramic views of the city.

Standing on the castle walls, I look left toward the sea. On the right is Boca Grande, a miles-long stretch of beach lined with condos that, in spots, looks like Miami Beach . In the center of it all is the Old City , surrounded by a great stone wall that was built in the early 1600s to keep out a string of invaders.

Slaves built this castle. It was the scene of the largest-ever naval invasion before D-Day, when British Admiral Edward Vernon tried to take Cartagena . Vernon was smacked down by a one-eyed, one-handed, peg-legged castle defender named Don Blas de Lezo. Unfortunately, de Lezo was mortally wounded in the fighting in 1741and was buried in a place no one has managed to find for more than two centuries. He is honored with a statue in front of the castle, holding a sword and standing on his one good leg.

Cartagena was saved, but the slaves weren't freed until decades later. They mixed with indigenous Indians and Spaniards, following a trend that played out along the coasts of Honduras , Guatemala and Cuba .

Rene and Lucena are taking us on another outing, this time to La Playa Oro, we pass a major military checkpoint, dust flying behind us on a lonely road. "Tranquilo," Rene says, with a glance at my concerned face. Stay calm. The beach is no more than 10 steps away. A waiter brings a selection of fish, asks which one we want, fries it. We frolic and relax on the warm beach for hours. At the end of the day, the waiter washes the sand from our bare feet before we swivel them into the car.

Back in Cartagena , Karla and I return to our favorite restaurant, Cafe del Santisimo, in a neighborhood filled with shops and discos. As we walk, a stranger approaches us, wanting to chat.

"Where are you from?" he asks in Spanish. He pulls out a Florida driver's license. "I lived in Miami ," he says, "but I came back here. I love Cartagena ."

And so do I, my friend. So do I. "Darryl Fears is a reporter on The Post's national staff."

GETTING THERE: American Airlines flies to Miami , where you can pick up a direct connection to Cartagena on Colombian Aces Airlines. Round-trip flights start at about $700.

GETTING AROUND: Most points of interest in Cartagena 's Old City are within walking distance. If you can't get to your destination on foot, the area is swarmingwith cheap yellow cabs.

-- Darryl Fears © 2002 The Washington Post Company


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