Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Cartagena and the Delights of New World Colonial Cities

For me, one of the great recipes for bliss is to just wander around a beautiful, unfamiliar place, with no fixed agenda, all cares and woes on the back burner.  I'm doing just that in Cartagena.  I've even left my camera home in Brooklyn.  But you'll find plenty of Cartagena photos online if you wish.

After years of travel in Asia and Europe, I started catching up on Latin America in recent years, visiting a number of UNESCO-designated world heritage colonial cities. Cartagena centro is stunningly beautiful, the proverbial jewel box, but it's also very touristy.  It reminds me of a more spectacuar version of Old San Juan, without the U.S. connection. There are plenty of restaurants of good repute, but few are Colombian. Frankly, Colombian isn't one of the world's, or even Latin America's great cuisines (I give top honors to the regional wonders of Mexico and the unique fusion that comprises Peruvian cuisine). Cartagena is also known for its jet-set nightlife, but I'm not known for mine.

Other great colonial cities I've visited include Antigua, Guatemala, once a ghost town and now a major tourist draw with fabulous restaurants of all varieties at amazingly reasonable prices. Cusco was wonderful, as much for the warmth of the Andean people as for the architecture. Ouro Preto, in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, is a living museum of baroque architecture, mostly churches, and a university town, but it's a sleepy place, and it seemed like a day trip was quite sufficient. Guanajuato, Mexico is a fascinating, hilly city to get lost in, but I didn't love the vibe of the place, perhaps because it's the most resolutely Catholic and right-wing place in Mexico?

As of now, my three favorite colonial cities have been Salvador, Havana and Puebla. I fell in love with the Pelourinho district of Salvador (Bahia, Brazil), for the nonstop Afro-Brazilian music, the African-influenced cuisine, and the overall vibe.  In the Spanish-speaking countries, Puebla was a surprise favorite, perhaps because the historic center is part of a large, bustling city, the only tourists you'll see will likely be Mexicans, and the food is perhaps the best in all of Mexico. It's a stunningly beautiful, vibrant city, and it's a shame more Americans don't make it a destination (granted most Americans go to Mexico for sanitized beach resorts). And then there's Old Havana, dilapidated, with lousy food unless you eat at paladars (small restaurants in private homes), and constant surveillance of anybody who speaks with you, and yes those old American cars, but with some of the world's greatest music everywhere you turn, and some of the most amazingly warm people you'll ever meet, despite their tribulations.