Legend – well, his autobiography at least – has it that when Gabriel García Márquez arrived in Cartagena, he took one look at the beautiful city walls around him and was instantly reborn.
(For those not familiar with the author’s life story, he arrived in the city in 1948 with little more than the clothes he was wearing, having fled a hideous outbreak of violence and rioting in Bogotá. He’d lost everything)
The story he tells is a nice one; alone and destitute he befriended some police officers who, after initially approaching him for breach of curfew, treated him to dinner before allowing him to spend the night in the cells.
That aside, it does seems cheeky for Cartagena to try and claim the nation’s favourite son as its own – after all, he was born in Aracataca; he is part of the ‘Barranquilla group’, he lives in Mexico. He’s hardly a true Cartagenero – even if he does own a house here.
And yet I couldn’t resist the city’s García Márquez audio tour. The headsets can be rented from the Santo Domingo church in the old city. They’re pricey; we paid 68,000 pesos each (£24).
But you get your money’s worth. It was – without doubt – the most thorough explanation and tour of the old city I’ve experienced in the nearly two months I’ve been here.
It’s supposed to take three hours but, despite our perfect navigation and with just one whirlwind coffee break, we needed five.
(If you pull a face at the cost of the tour, a nice vendor may suggest you share one headset between two. I don’t recommend this; imagine 10 hours of wilting under the Caribbean sun. They may find you dying of heat exhaustion in a colonial doorway)
It was a lovely five hours though; leaning against the wall outside the aforementioned police cell, imagining the press whirring at García Márquez’s old newspaper offices, sitting in the park where he almost spent his first night.
There’s plenty of non-García Márquez trivia too. I loved hearing the story behind the Noli Me Tangere statue on the city’s Camellón de los Mártires, a plaza dedicated to its martyrs. It’s a woman holding her hand defensively towards the waves. The statue was installed by the women of Cartagena and inscribed with the Latin words Don’t Touch Me – a fierce warning to any would-be invader.
I also loved ending up under the huge rubber tree just outside the city walls, where exhausted traders still seek the shade to recover from touting their goods in the sun (I wouldn’t go there alone though; the ancient tree fosters a distinctly macho atmosphere and they get started pretty early on the beers)
García Márquez geeks (I am one) may find strange gaps in such a thorough tale too. The story waxes lyrical about Love In The Time of Cholera, yet never mentions that the story has its roots in his parents’ romance (his dad worked in the telegraph operator’s office, the violin gathered dust in the family’s attic for years)
But it’s excellent at conjuring an atmosphere – the story places you at the very spot where the author defiantly told his father he was never going to be a lawyer and it shares his frustration at the publisher who told him literature would never be his world.
The tour will show you secret landmarks you would otherwise have ignored and will ensure you explore every corner of this enchanting realm. So go ahead. Be reborn.