Just go through the wall under the clock tower and cross the Plaza de los Coches to reach the Portal de los Dulces. Here, in the shade of the arches is a line of little stalls offering up a sweet treasure of pastries and cakes, succulent creations based on tropical fruits that simply exude sweetness. This bustling market, where you'll also find trinkets and lottery tickets for sale, is the setting for one of the key scenes in the love story of Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza told by the award-winning Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In the novel Love in the Time of Cholera, and later in the 2007 screen adaptation, the site is referred to as el Portal de los Escribanos – the Arcade of the Scribes – and it's the place where the protagonist writes hundreds of letters to his beloved, and the point where his long wait begins, a wait destined to last for 51 years, nine months and four days.
Garcia Marquez never names the city where the story unfolds, but the similarities are there: just tilt your head slightly, let your eyes re-focus and you'll find the map of the imagined city superimposed on the physical reality of Cartagena de Indias. You can explore the real city, but you will constantly come up against the scenes used as a backdrop for novel, and for the Mike Newell film starring Javier Bardem.
The real Cartagena has its own romantic tale as it was born from the search for a myth. In 1501, when the Spanish conquistador and explorer Rodrigo de Bastidas reached the Caribbean coast of what is now Colombia, he found an area abounding in swamps and where dangerous channels hid treacherous undercurrents. This would surely be the last place on earth to consider founding a city, except for the fact that the inhabitants wore ornaments of gold and emeralds of such splendour that the myth of El Dorado seemed to be a reality.
In the twenty-first century, Cartagena remains a city of solid buildings surrounded by a wall – the 'stone corral' – originally built to protect from attacks by the pirates and buccaneers who roamed the area in colonial times. There was plenty to tempt them, as through the city passed all the abundant riches that came down from the mountains, through the valley of the Magdalena River to the coast. Not all the wealth returned to Spain, and what remained gave rise to a profusion of mansions, private palaces and churches, monumental walls and fortresses.
You can walk along the ancient wall, treading a path that divides the urban centre from the sparkling Caribbean Sea, and feel like a tightrope walker balanced between natural glories and the man-made treasures of colonial culture. Down inside the city itself, though, you wander from square to square, discovering the unique appeal of each. There's the triangular Plaza de los Coches, with its arcades and clocktower, so unlike the Plaza de Santo Domingo where the oldest church in the city finds its counterpoint in the modern scultpure by Botero. The sheltered Plaza de Bolivar is a shady haven between the Gold Museum and the Palace of the Inquisition, while the broad, bright Plaza de la Aduana lies alongside the city wall. Each square that houses a church is a world of its own, from the monumental San Pedro Claver to the village-like atmosphere of the Santisima Trinidad.
The old part of Cartagena de Indias is a treasure chest brimming with history and art, a museum of architecture where you'll also find bustling markets that sell fruit, bric-a-brac and clothing and where dreams blossom free. The real people who pass through the city each have their own stories, but it's easy to imagine them as characters in a Garcia Marquez novel, living out their lives and their loves, even in times of cholera. Their names would be changed to protect the innocent, no doubt, much as the names of the city streets don't coincide with the places in the book. So, if you are seeking the home of Fermina Daza, the unattainable love of Florentino Ariza, in the Parquecito de los Evangelios – the Little Park of the Evangelists – you should head to Plaza Fernandez de Madrid, where the house of Don Benito stands, and where Florentino waits, hoping for a glimpse of his beloved.
Any walk in Cartegana leads eventually to the Plaza Bolivar, site of the Palace of the Inquisition, which served as a model for the Colegio de la Presentacion, the convent school attended by Fermina until her expulsion after being caught with a love letter. Florentino's house in the novel corresponds closely to the Casa de las Ventanas on calle Landrinal, while the boats in the book sail along the Magdalena, and you can picture them plying their way to Mompox, 250 kilometres upriver from Cartagena. The UNESCO World Heritage city of Mompox is an architectural jewel, frozen in time: in the real world, the river shifted and silted up and the city lost its commercial importance in the early twentieth century. Today, though, a walk through the streets is a journey back in time, not to the times of cholera, but to an age of tropical splendour, a splendour that, by a quirk of fate, remains intact on the banks of the river.
When to Visit
The climate is tropical, hot and humid, so you can visit at any time of year, although the highest rainfall is in spring and autumn.
The old town is small enought o be explored on foot, though it's fun to take a horse-drawn carriage ride. There are taxis that will take you to the beach.
Where to stay
For Garcia Marquez fans, the obvious choice is the Santa Clara Hotel, located in the seventeenth century convent which provides one of the main stages of another of his novels: Of Love and Other Demons. The building occupies a privileged position in the old town and overlooks the Caribbean Sea, while Marquez's house, built in the Nineties, is across the road. Two charming boutique alternatives are the Aquamarina Hotel and the Alfiz.
Where to eat
In the old town, the San Pedro restaurant boasts an unbeatable location on San Pedro Claver Square and offers dishes of all kinds, including Indonesian specialities. La Olla Cartagenera is located on the beach at Bocagrande and the menu of Criole, Arab and international cuisine includes delicious fish dishes.
Besides the historic tour inside the city walls and relaxation on the beach at Bocagrande, make time for a visit to the castle of San Felipe de Barajas, the Convent of la Popa and, farther off, the forts of San Sebastian del Pastelillo and San Fernando. A tour of Cartagena's La Manga district with its many nineteenth and twentieth century mansions adds an interesting change of tone, but the perfect complement to the colonial atmosphere is a day trip to the nearby islands of Rosario, where you can take time out and dive among the corals or simply enjoy a session on the beach.