I awoke to the sound of bicycle bells, horses clip-clopping down the narrow streets, the shouts and whistles of street vendors and the general commotion of the Old City coming to life, which meant I had to come to life as well. I didn’t mind – I didn’t want to waste time in bed in such a beautiful city. It was a gloriously sunny day – again. Beautiful clear blue skies above a lovely contrast to the soft pastel colours of the historic buildings below, the neighing of horses and the other sounds around drifting through the city and into each other like wispy smoke rather than cutting through harshly, and it was an altogether magical feel. On mornings like this I take a moment and think I’m lucky to be alive.
Vero was arriving later, so I had breakfast on the terrace, packed, said farewell to the cheerful chap at reception, then headed to my new magnificent hotel, Hotel Cartagena de Indias, just a couple of streets away. I checked in, dumped my bags, and headed up to the roof terrace to enjoy the incredible views over the Old City. Soon it was time to head to the airport to pick up the missus. I was very glad to see her – I was getting a little bored stepping through the ancient city on my own, and anyway, Cartagena was possibly the most romantic place I’d ever been, and I wanted to share this special place with my my special someone. Picked Vero up, who was looking absolutely dazzling as always – and we headed back to the hotel. Vero gasped as we drove into the walled city, and I started explaining some of the places to her, like an old hand. We got to the hotel. Vero’s reaction was just what I’d hoped for – she was over the moon – and within 15 minutes we were sitting in the infinity pool supping margaritas. We spent some time up here – Vero was in no hurry to leave the terrace, though I would have been chomping at the bit to go and explore. No, Latin people take their time over such things like sightseeing, drinking, food. A leisurely pace which I wish I could adopt more.
I took Vero on a long walk all around the Old City, a city which I felt I knew so well now. In this part of the world, panama hats and white linen shirts are the order of the day. I already had a Panama hat from Ecuador, now I just needed the shirt, so I went into a boutique that seemed to sell exclusively those. I wore it immediately, and realised it probably made me look more like a gringo trying to be a local than a local, but it didn’t matter – I felt the part at least. We walked on Las Murallas – the thick walls surrounding the old city, which afforded great views over the city at one side, the ocean the other, and would guarantee a broken neck were you to slip. For lunch, we headed to the impressive Sofitel Santa Clara hotel, built in 1621, a magnificent building of colonial balconies and republican structures, evoking the splendour of days gone by. Author Gabriel Gracia Marquez has a house next door, apparently. The building has a rustic orange facade, and upon stepping inside, you are treated to a beautiful, leafy courtyard, full of birds. Toucans call this patch of Cartagena home, and one came and sat on the top of a chair, watching us down its ridiculously colourful bright green beak with flashes of orange and red-tipped. Here, in the luxurious surrounds, we ordered lunch – caesar salad for me, a pasta dish for Vero, which came to roughly the price of my hotel room the night before. Still, it was well worth it, and the food was actually pretty good.
The rest of the day was spent wandering around, drifting lazily from plaza to plaza, stopping for cerveca michelada style here and there to quench our thirsts. We decided to go and spend some time on the beach at Bocagrande. Not a spectacular beach by any means, and it’s setting in front of high rise hotels and condominiums reminded me of the Copacabana in Rio, except from here there was no view of Sugarloaf mountain. Still, it was full of people enjoying themselves, playing football, splashing around in the sea. There were security guards stationed all over the beach, which seemed excessive and made me feel uneasy rather than safe. Why were so many security guards needed? Vero and I sat down and ordered an Aguila light michelada style, and a big Caribbean woman dressed like a pineapple came over and gave us a slice of the sweet fruit, slicing it right in front of us. Then she gave us almost a kilo of it. It was delicious. The little stalls selling beer and snacks were pumping out Latin music and Caribbean rhythms, the sun was setting, and a deeper, more beautiful orange sunset I hadn’t seen for a long time. The sun seemed huge as it began to fall into the sky slowly like an orange drop of life falling from the sky, it hung pregnant with fire for a time, then sank for another day.
Vero and I took a stroll around Bocagrande. I was glad I was staying in the much more atmospheric Old City. This area was full of shops, fast-food joints, hotels – like any other beachfront city. I wanted to get back to hotel to change and get ready to go out, so Vero and I decided to travel back in style – by horse and carriage. We bargained hard and eventually got an acceptable price. Or rather, Vero did. Now my Spanish-speaking girlfriend was here, I hadn’t used Spanish at all – perhaps I was shy. But I felt at least my listening was improving. So we jumped into the royal carriage, pulled by a lovely dark brown horse, and set off with a gentle clucking sound from the man driving. The initial ride wasn’t too nice, being on the busy road, but as soon as we turned into the walled Old City, we were transported back in time, into the Love in a Time of Cholera era, and we were about to pay a visit to Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza to tell them to hurry up and and accept that they’re in love. It was a wonderful feeling, clip-clopping through the narrow, cobbled, dimly-lit streets, which I had been walking through not only in reality but also in my dreams too – the magical power of the place had evidently left a deep impression on me.
Vero and I got back to our luxurious little hideaway, changed and headed up to the roof to kick back with a cocktail whilst admiring the views. It was windy tonight, and a little chilly, but it could have been minus 10 and it wouldn’t have taken away any of the warmth I was feeling right then.
We went to Plaza Santa Domingo, the place I’d eaten on the first night, and we soaked up the atmosphere and enjoyed some decent food, served after an hour of ordering – pretty quick in Cartagena. Then we headed to Cafe del Mar for a drink, then another bar in the Old City, before hitting a club in Getsmani, which was playing a lot of Shakira songs along with the music videos for those songs displayed on a huge screen behind the dancefloor. More people were gawping at Shakira then their girlfriends dancing in front of them. It was quiet, but it was a cavernous club that would take many people to fill it. We had a good dance anyway. We walked back to the hotel, where I’d arranged a little surprise for Vero.
When we got to the room and opened the door, Vero was greeted by the sight of candles placed all around the bed, with a bouquet of flowers, rose petals spread over the bed, and a note declaring my love. I’m sparing with romantic gestures, but it was a combination of being in romantic Cartagena, the Caribbean air in my lungs, the minstrels in the plazas serenading couples, the lovely Venezuelan lady by my side that had prompted me into romantic action. Perhaps I was becoming more Latin, more able to express my love and feelings. Vero certainly appreciated it I think. Cartagena had cast a spell over us both.