Dreaming of Cartagena: A Guide to the New Hot Caribbean Destination

ORIGINAL ARTICLE: http://http://www.wsj.com/articles/dreaming-of-cartagena-a-guide-to-the-new-hot-caribbean-destination-1427484595?mod=trending_now_4

Dreaming of Cartagena: A Guide to the New Hot Caribbean Destination

A trip to Cartagena, in Colombia, is the ultimate antidote to the been-there-done-that Caribbean vacation. Here’s everything you need to know to get in on the action

La Vitrola restaurant

ON A RECENT WARM AND WINDY NIGHT in Cartagena’s Old City, Colombia’s glitterati assembled inside the walled garden of the perversely pretty Palace of Inquisition where, in colonial days, officers of the Spanish monarchy tried, and then executed, the nonbelievers. It was the opening-night party of Cartagena’s annual international film festival and an Afro-Colombian funk band performed by the gallows while movie stars from Bogotá, filmmakers from a dozen countries and hundreds of other partiers all clinked their glasses under the immense canopy of a Ceiba tree. Surveying the scene, I spied American director Darren Aronofsky (of “Black Swan” fame). Like me, it would turn out, he was visiting Colombia for the first time. Unlike me, Mr. Aronofsky was being honored with a retrospective of his films, but he confessed to using the invitation partly as an excuse to see Cartagena. “It’s bizarre how many people have been talking to me about Colombia lately,” Mr. Aronofsky said. “First a friend who lives in Brazil said we should meet here. Then Anthony Bourdain told me I had to go. And then my parents, at age 75, just came last month. So here I am!”

Nearly every Colombian will tell you—even if you don’t ask—that Cartagena de Indias, the official name of this seaport on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is the country’s favorite city. “Every time I walk out of my house, everything I see—every corner, every moment—is so cinematic,” said Bogotá-born painter Valentino Cortázar, who moved to the heart of the Old City from Miami 14 years ago. “Cartagena has so much history, fantastic light and wonderful energy,” he said. “That’s why great painters like Alejandro Obregón and Darío Morales lived here. And Gabriel García Márquez, too. For an artist, this is paradise.”

You’ll see exactly what he means if you visit the historic centro district in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun isn’t quite as determined and you can take your time walking through the elegant plazas and down the side streets, past block after block of candy-colored homes and grand colonial mansions with wooden balconies just wide enough for a hammock, many built around the time of Cervantes.

Maria restaurant


But it’s not all about history. “Cartagena’s like our Ibiza,” said Carolina Vallejo Iregui,director of Colombia’s GO city guides. She was taking me to another party (Cartagena seems to specialize in them), navigating the cobblestones admirably in her three-inch heels as she told me about the many rich and famous Colombians—including President Juan Manuel Santos—who have homes here or jet in for a sun-drenched weekend in the Old City or on the quiet islands just offshore. “But now it isn’t just Colombians who are coming here,” Ms. Vallejo Iregui explained. Though not exactly a neutral observer, she argued that Latin culture—from music to food to literature—is trending globally. And, she added immodestly, “Cartagena is one of the most culturally rich places in South America.”

While Cartagena has long been a favorite escape of moneyed Colombians, the civil and drug wars of the past few decades made the city a no-go zone for foreigners, even though it was largely removed from the violence. (The rumor I heard again and again was that the drug lords in Cali and Medellín made a pact to keep their war out of Cartagena—it was their shared playground.) But in 2002, newly elected President Álvaro Uribe went after the leftist-guerillas and cocaine cartels with a vengeance and by 2007 he announced that the country had moved from terrorism to tourism. The economy started heating up and those wealthy Colombians who had stayed away during those dark days came trickling back.

There are still some very dangerous corners of Colombia, to be sure, but crime in Cartagena’s popular precincts is limited mostly to pickpocketing and the like, as it is in most heavily touristed places. I spent much of my time walking around the city alone and was never once hassled or felt a hint of any danger.

Now, hotels are sprouting up all over the city and the number of foreigners arriving for a look has nearly doubled over the past five years. In Getsemaní, the once-rough, now hip barrio a short walk from the Old City, there’s talk of a Four Seasons and a Viceroy hotel opening in 2017. JetBlue began direct service to Cartagena from New York’s JFK in 2012, and from Fort Lauderdale last October, shuttling in all the Americans I see slurping up the (excellent) ceviche at the sliver of a restaurant El Boliche or shopping for big-print, tiny bikinis at the chic St. Dom boutique.

The appeal is easy enough to understand: My flight from New York took just 4½ hours; the sun shines year round; the dollar is strong; and as one traveler from Chicago pointed out, it still feels authentic: “There isn’t a Starbucks on every corner.”

The Cartagena of my imagination was a place of romance and ruin, informed by reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who kept a home here from the 1990s until he died last year. The city he describes in “Love In the Time of Cholera,” which is clearly inspired by Cartagena, is a “sleepy provincial capital” with haunted old slave quarters, crumbling palaces and narrow streets that smell of night jasmine.

But as so often happens, reality intruded and I spent my first few hours in town more alarmed than charmed. I quickly caught on that the city is now a popular destination for bachelor parties—rarely a good sign. I saw a large tour group fending off emerald dealers near Santo Domingo square. As we rounded a leafy little park named for an Independence hero, my guide, Nina Schlieper, a German transplant, pointed out her least favorite new arrival: a kitschy Russian-themed bar named KGB, where the waitresses’ outfits are modeled after Soviet-era military uniforms, only skintight, and photos of Stalin hang in the window.

The next morning, though, my doubts began to fade. By half past 8, I’d plunged into the “real Cartagena,” as Ms. Schlieper put it. She led me around the Mercado Bazurto, a sprawling web of butchers, fishmongers, fruit sellers and herbalists outside the Old City, in Cartagena’s throbbing, sweaty commercial center. There was not another tourist in sight and I was giddy at the spectacle, snapping photos of fruit like a lunatic and marveling at the mounds of fresh fish that sparkled like jewels. I saw half a dozen storks—as tall as toddlers—standing on the tin roof of the market, stared at piles of cow eyeballs that stared back at me (they make a tasty soup, I’m told) and bumped into a grocery cart stacked with cow heads. For breakfast, we headed to one of the tarp-covered, makeshift restaurants where the local vendors eat, and where I washed down a fried slab of sweet, fleshy mackerel and a thick wedge of yucca with chilled sugar cane juice.

By dusk, I had been seduced. Back in the Old City there was a delicious sea breeze and the city’s walls glowed like honeycombs in the waning light. The sound of the waves slapping against the shore echoed across the cobblestones along with the clip-clop of horses that pulled carriages with lighted lanterns mounted on their sides. The Palenque women, descendants of escaped slaves who sell fruit and wear ruffled, brightly colored dresses, were packing up their pineapples and mangoes and heading home.

Colonial Cartagena, it seems, can make a romantic of just about anyone. The next day I randomly met two poets—a record for me. One is an older, distinguished man, who practices family and penal law and has published two books of verse. When I commented that a lawyer-poet is an unusual combo, he countered, “Not in Cartagena.” Later, during dinner at La Vitrola (Cartagena’s answer to Los Angeles’s Ivy), I was introduced toFernando Gaitán, the creator of the “Ugly Betty” television series who told me, “The entire country dreams of Cartagena.”

Much of the credit for the restoration of Cartagena’s Old City goes to Gloria Zea, Colombia’s former minister of culture and the first wife of Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero. In 1976, Ms. Zea bought a 16th-century home on Calle Don Sancho, in what was then an almost entirely abandoned neighborhood. “She was the first one to say ‘We need to take care of Cartagena,’” said her daughter, interior designer Lina Botero, who now owns the house—an exquisitely restored 10-room villa—and recently began renting it to visitors. “The entire walled city was whitewashed as protection against the plague and when the restorers removed a century’s worth of paint they found all of the beautiful ocher and blue and salmon colors you see today,” Ms. Botero said.

The Getsemaní neighborhood, just outside the historic center, is now undergoing a renaissance of its own. Walls are covered in street art that’s auction-house worthy, and trendy little restaurants and bars are opening all over the quarter. The center of the action in Getsemaní is the Plaza de la Trinidad, a central square in front of a 17th-century, marigold-colored church where all of Cartagena seems to gather at night to enjoy the cooling tradewinds. I was planning to have dinner at Demente, a tapas place on the corner of the square, but never made it.

Instead, I wound up sitting in Plaza de la Trinidad, on a bench under the skinny palm trees, next to a little boy with a mango ice pop and his elegant granny. At a cart near the front of the church, a woman in leopard-printed leggings was making mojitos and Cuba Libres with fresh lime. The place was packed but it felt more festive than crowded—like a spontaneous block party, with champeta music spilling out of a nearby restaurant, and dozens of street-food stands. I hear there are salsa dancers on the plaza some evenings. For dinner, I happily settled on a 25-cent empanada and a cold Club Colombia beer and vowed to return for the arepas the following night.


Anyone coming to Cartagena expecting to head straight to the beach will be disappointed: The sand ringing the city is gray and the water is a cloudy blue. The best beaches are all in Rosario Islands National Park, an archipelago about an hour’s boat ride offshore that I found myself hurtling toward on a Sunday morning aboard a speedboat named Black Thunder. With me were a man named Rainbow, a dog named Pineapple and a three-year-old with a large water pistol. Rainbow Nelson, a British journalist, founded the tour company and online travel guide This is Cartagena three years ago and knows the best spots in the city.

Our first stop, the Gente de Mar beach club, is on Isla Grande. The sand was white as talc; the water pale green and clear as glass. There were other tourists on the beach, but not many. In between dips, I sat on a lounge in the shade and felt a little greedy for hoping that the rest of the world stays away.

Our next beach was Playa Blanca, a three-mile long crescent backed with thatch-roof bars, restaurants and backpacker huts for as far as I could see. Rainbow told me it was nearly empty just a few years ago; that day it was chockablock with boats bobbing in the emerald surf and sun-worshippers sprawled out all over the sand. Rainbow and I were drinking our coconut cocktails on one of the giant day beds set up on the beach, when I noticed a pack of mostly pasty people —maybe 40 or so—gathered a few feet from us and speaking English. Turns out it was a group of Google employees from around the world on a weekend jaunt in Cartagena.

A thatched-roof Starbucks can’t be far behind.

Top places to travel in 2015

Condé Nast Traveler
Published January 08, 2015

ORIGINAL ARTICLE: http://www.foxnews.com/travel/2015/01/08/top-places-to-travel-in-2015/
Holiday planning starts with a bit of inspiration, beyond the well-trodden territory of tropical beaches and European cities.

Looking for a different kind of vacation in 2015? It’s the year to hike the Southern Alps of New Zealand, head to the Bahamas, or visit Cuba for the first time. Here are Condé Nast Traveler editors’ top picks for where to go in 2015.

1. Cartagena, Colombia

Conde Nast Traveler

Cartagena, a perfectly preserved 17th-century port city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, has had a rough ride over the centuries. From pirates to prostitutes (aren’t they synonymous?) the city has weathered its fair share of drama—thanks to everything from Gabriel García Márquez’s remarkable novels of “magical realism” to the less-than-palatable shenanigans of U.S. Secret Service agents in 2012. Tips: Don’t take a carriage ride through town, and avoid very late night stumbles through San Diego and Centro. Do, however, explore the up-and-coming Getsemaní neighborhood for its raucous Wednesday-night parties and interesting graffiti art. The chic Viceroy hotel group may deliver a new bolt-hole soon in a converted convent.—David Jefferys

2. Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

Photo courtesy JTB Photos

New direct flights into Liberia, in Guanacaste (like JetBlue’s route from Boston), slash the drive time to this resort town, which has attracted the likes of Gisele Bündchen and Tom Brady. In Playa Hermosa, Koji’s serves the best sushi and Japanese food in Costa Rica at wooden tables under strings of fairy lights. The ginger pork and super-fresh sushi rolls are a light alterna- tive to plantains and gallo pinto in the heat (506-2640- 0815; entrées from $20).—Alice Newell-Hanson

3. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Conde Nast Traveler

The furnaces are long gone, but this city’s on fire. Pittsburgh reinvigorates my love of art every time I visit. The Carnegie Museum of Art, The Warhol, Mattress Factory, and Wood Street Galleries have been on a curatorial tear in recent years. The restaurant scene is also alight, led by Cure and Bar Marco, but hit the old school Primanti Brothers for the best sandwich of your life.—Brent Burket

4. Mexico City, Mexico

Conde Nast Traveler

Mexico City has had a hard time divesting itself of a reputation for being crime-ridden, traffic congested, and highly polluted. And though traffic and air quality are ongoing problems, this sprawling metropolis of over 20 million inhabitants has successfully transformed itself into a vibrant and relatively safe place to visit with a great restaurant scene, world-class museums, and a sophistication befitting its position as one of the world’s top cities. —Stephen Orr

5. Rwanda

Conde Nast Traveler

I’m very interested in going to Rwanda. The horrific inter-tribal genocide of the 1990s is a thing of the past but still remains the event most identified with this country in the mind of Americans. Instead, it should be more known for its beautiful high-altitude forests, its lakes, and Kigali, its capital city. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s highly effective if controversially autocratic president, is credited with putting the country’s economy on the rise. And most of all, I want to see the mountain gorillas in their home in the Virunga Mountains.—SO

6. Myanmar

Conde Nast Traveler

Myanmar is like Southeast Asia’s last frontier, where almost everything still feels undiscovered and off the beaten path after decades of military rule. But go now—luxury hotels are springing up in Yangon (the capital), and it probably won’t be long before tourist hordes descend on temple-studded Bagan, making it feel (unfortunately) like another Angkor Wat in terms of the insane crowds. —John Wogan
7. Nassau, The Bahamas

Photo courtesy Fallbrook

The islands’ busiest airport, Lynden Pindling International, in Nassau, completed a $410 million expansion last year, and the 988-acre Baha Mar resort opens on Nassau’s Cable Beach in 2015, just in time for spring break. Of the four hotels within the complex, we’re most excited about the Rosewood (1 Baha Mar Blvd.; 242-677- 9750; bahamar.com; doubles from $800). Play croquet on is U.S.– regulation lawns, then head to the hotel’s Riva Bar for a Dark ’n’ Stormy made with Bahamian rum. —ANH

Let’s all move to Medellín! How a once-terrifying drug city reinvented itself as a tech hub

Used to be that when you thought Medellín, you thought Escobar and cocaine. Now it’s a tourism and business hotspot

Let's all move to Medellín! How a once-terrifying drug city reinvented itself as a tech hub

Medellin, Colombia. (Credit: AndreyPS via iStock)

Excerpted from “The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong”

ORIGINAL ARTICLE: http://www.salon.com/2015/01/02/lets_all_move_to_medellin_how_a_once_terrifying_drug_city_reinvented_itself_as_a_tech_hub/


The process of getting a city like San Francisco ready for the known threat of earthquake seems quite different from getting a city like Medellin ready for the disruptions that come with urbanization and globalization—including crime and rapid growth—but, in fact, both involved structural actions.

Over the years, Medellin had tried to face its threats in many ways. To reduce the chronic stress of crime, they had staged military interventions against gangs. They had arrested and incarcerated drug traffickers and murderers until the jails were bulging, but the inmates kept right on doing business from behind bars.

Then Medellin focused on a single, specific vulnerability that, if addressed, might make the city more ready to manage further population growth and enable its citizens to pursue new livelihoods as businesses came in. The vulnerability was the lack of mobility, poor accessibility, and extreme isolation of the poorest and most vulnerable communities—the barrios—especially those that had sprung up on the steep hillsides. We know that fractured communities are vulnerable ones and that disruptions, such as violent crime, affect them more than others. Isolated people don’t know one another and are less likely to share information about what is happening or generate ideas about actions to take. Disconnected communities can’t pool resources and have a hard time coming together in groups and are thus more vulnerable to being threatened, bullied, terrorized, and taken over by gangs.

To address this vulnerability, Medellin’s solution was to design and build its extensive public transportation system. The Metro, which began operating on November 30, 1995, has two rail lines, two bus rapid transit routes, and three cable car lines—small in comparison to the transportation systems of cities like London or Buenos Aires or Tokyo, but a major infrastructural development for Medellin. Now the majority of residents have low-cost access to all areas of the city (one ticket, valid for ninety minutes, connects riders to all transport modes and costs around 1800 pesos, or ninety cents), so they can pursue opportunities that were previously out of reach.

The Medellin Metro is more than a transportation network, it’s a striking example of what is known as “transit-oriented development”—an area that integrates transportation lines and stations with commercial enterprises, private residences and public housing, institutions, and public spaces. The idea is that mobility is fundamental to city life and that transportation infrastructure should be as much a part of the designed cityscape as are buildings and streets. The Medellin Metro connects a wonderful sprawl of community centers, health clinics, and training and youth-oriented facilities, as well as popular libraries located at the main transfer stations of the cable car network.

With the Metro system in place, Medellin did increase its readiness for growth and expansion. Indeed, the Metro is a shining example of the resilience dividend: it raises the level of city life above the baseline that residents were accustomed to even a few years earlier. The characteristics of resilience are there: the assertive presence of the Metro demonstrates the city’s awareness of the importance of mobility. The elements of the system are diverse and integrated into the look and life of the place.

Yet, even these successful elements of the Medellin Metro system did not reduce the vulnerability of limited mobility and poor access in all the city’s neighborhoods. The San Javier barrio, for example, was still isolated. Yes, the residents had much greater ability to get around the city than ever before—once they walked down the hillside to the rail stations and bus stops in the city below. But the barrio itself remained disconnected. It is a huddle of close-set one- to three-story brick houses that seem almost to perch one on top of the other, their corrugated metal roofs held in place with stones. The narrow streets peter out and become footpaths when the hill gets too steep. Climbing one of the byways into the barrio is more like a mountain hike than a city stroll.

Its isolation had made San Javier particularly vulnerable to the disruptions of drug trafficking, crime, and gang warfare. For decades, San Javier had been known as one of the most violent neighborhoods in a violent district in one of the most violent cities in the world. Because of its position, San Javier had become a favored route for drug traffickers in and out of the city. The neighborhood is so densely built, so easy to get lost in, and so difficult to navigate, gangs were able to divide the area into private turfs marked by invisible borders that residents simply had to be aware of—but that police and outsiders usually were not. If you entered the wrong zone at the wrong moment, even with the most innocent of purposes, gang members saw that as trespass. Shoot-outs and street killings were commonplace. And there was very little to stop them. Police and emergency vehicles could not easily negotiate the streets.

So, although the city of Medellin was building its resilience through actions such as building the Metro, neighborhoods like San Javier were still vulnerable. As Medellin became more aware of such vulnerabilities and the disruptions they could bring, it became more evident that the threat had to be faced. It could no longer be tolerated as “just the way things are.” Something had to be done before the situation in San Javier exploded and affected the rest of the city’s advancement.

As it turned out, the capacity was right there, waiting to be developed. San Javier’s geography made it nearly impossible to bring light rail or bus rapid transit to the neighborhood, but people were used to walking—it was just that the distances were too great. It could take a half hour to get off the hillside. If you held a job across the valley, it might take three hours by foot.

How can you still walk but cut your travel time, especially on a steep hill? Escalators. There are a number of versions of the story of how Medellin’s escalators came to be—there are always many parents to a successful idea. The narrative, at various points along the way, involves the efforts of neighborhood residents, city officials, outside agencies, and others. Local mothers’ groups and a team of engineers in the city’s planning department—with nearly ten years of evidence demonstrating that public transit had improved the lives of people in many other parts of the city—figure prominently in the story, as does then Mayor Sergio Fajardo.

The idea seemed audacious. Build an escalator system into the hillside of San Javier that would turn a thirty-minute hike into a five-minute glide. Escalators would provide the hillside residents greater mobility, give official agencies much better access to the neighborhood, and better connect the community with the rest of the city, creating new opportunities, economic and otherwise. Like the other transportation solutions the city had built, it would reduce a persistent vulnerability.

The mayor, who had a penchant for expansive public architecture and infrastructure initiatives, agreed to an investment in the project that amounted to nearly $7 million.

The San Javier escalators, now considered the crown jewel of Medellin’s transportation system (although not actually a part of the Metro system itself ), opened in 2012 in a public ceremony that received international press coverage. Today the tangle of footpaths and lanes has been augmented by a series of six gleaming escalators of the kind you might find in any suburban mall, that climb 1,260 feet up the hillside. They are open to the air on both sides, shielded from the elements by glass and orange-painted metal roofs.

The escalators, along with a network of elevated lateral walkways, have dramatically reduced the isolation of San Javier’s residents and thus addressed an important vulnerability of the city as a whole. The barrio is now open to the rest of Medellin so people can easily get to jobs in the valley. The barrio is less vulnerable to gang activity and less attractive to drug traffickers who needed seclusion and counted on being several steps ahead of the authorities. Representatives of social programs are more regular visitors to San Javier now that access has improved. Community organizations, including the Red Cross, whose staffers and volunteers avoided such places, have been able to safely work with the people of Comuna 13. “Without the escalators, these groups and government agencies wouldn’t come here to work because they had no way in,” said one San Javier resident. “Now, with these institutions playing a role, we can organize and coordinate better social programs, which have been one of the main drivers of change in this neighborhood.”

Other forms of infrastructure, such as online connection, can also improve access and lead to better integration within a neighborhood or among groups. It is hard to imagine a world without the Internet or to accept that our hyperconnected wireless network could fail so catastrophically as to completely disconnect large networks. But, as we have seen, inundative flooding (as well as other hazards) can knock out the electricity that powers our networks. What’s more, cyber-breaches can disrupt the technologies involved in transmitting data around the Internet and sever our connections. (Sometimes the disruption is just an accident. In 2011, a woman digging for scrap copper severed a fiber-optic cable with her shovel and knocked out 90 percent of the connectivity for the entire country of Armenia for about five hours.)

We have become so reliant on the Internet as a method of communication, a source of information, and a way to create and maintain social connections that the loss of connectivity is hardly trivial in a crisis. What if we could achieve some degree of connectivity without relying on this global, distributed, open—and highly vulnerable—network? That is the intent of a “mesh network”—a local network of users connected by a series of routers and antennas installed on rooftops throughout a neighborhood, community, or even a small city. The network is driven by its own server and provides access to whatever information is stored there. A mesh network provided connectivity for residents in Red Hook—a neighborhood in Brooklyn—when Superstorm Sandy interrupted connectivity there.

The mesh platform also has the potential to be a powerful community-building and networking tool for areas in the developing world that lack connectivity or have limited or unreliable access. The routers (which cost between $50 and $80 each) are installed within view of each other throughout an area and automatically connect to one another and thus expand the network—so users can wirelessly access the mesh software and connect with one another.

Although in times of normalcy and in areas of good connectivity the mesh network has its particular advantages (it is a hyperlocal, private network, and thus avoids many of the security issues associated with connection to the World Wide Web), in times of crisis and disruption it could prove a vital lifeline—a backup communications and knowledge-sharing system—keeping community members in touch and facilitating communication that could help people marshal resources and direct first responders to community members most in need. Although it may not be feasible or beneficial to install mesh networks everywhere, those communities most vulnerable to systems breakdown and those with large gaps in connectivity (or those without access to the Internet at all) might consider such a network as an important element in improving readiness.

Excerpted from “The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong” by Judith Rodin.” Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs. All rights reserved.