Caribbean calling – The scene replayed in my mind a thousand times as I left the Pacific and journeyed north-east towards the Caribbean, to Cartagena. The difference here, while not unexpected, was profound – not least because I seemed to have swapped humpbacks for a pot-bellied man in a blond wig and sequinned bra shaking his hips to the crowd on Plaza de la Aduana.
Once the venue of a gruesome slave market, the plaza is now part of the maze of colonial streets, squares and old churches that make up Cartagena’s atmospheric walled Old Town. I took in the view of ancient and modern Cartagena from the hilltop Santa Cruz monastery. Below was the island of La Manga, named for the mango trees that once stood there. They’ve long since been replaced by clusters of shiny skyscrapers, creating a slither of land that looks like a Manhattan in the tropics.
La Boquilla, a fishing village across town, seemed somewhat less 21st century. Empty rocking chairs sat outside homes with patchy paintwork and streetside barber stalls. One block away was the beach, largely deserted aside from flocks of pelicans nose-diving into the water, looking for lunch. Lunch was also being served at Marlene Gomez’s basic ocean-fronted restaurant. Hanging from the thatched roof were lights made from coconuts and seashells. Marlene was stationed at the stove, keeping a close eye on the red snapper sizzling in a pan filled with eye-watering chillies.
She wiped her hands on her faded zebra-print apron. “This was the very first restaurant on the beach,” she said, proud of her 40 years of feeding the village. “Things are very modern now. Before we had no lights or water so 1 cooked the fish on sticks over a fire.” “It’s very lively here at the weekend,” chimed another local. “People come to eat fish, drink rum and dance all night.” Now, that was more like it.