If you have been to Cartagena de Indias twice, as I now have, it’s easy to take for granted the aspects of Colombia’s most beautiful city that first took your breath away. Its civic pride and warm welcome mean that the repeat visitor will slip into feeling at home, and fail to remind herself that colonial buildings, horse-drawn carriages, brightly coloured fruit and tropical town squares are not the unique selling points of, say, Kentish Town.
In late January, when the Hay Festival takes place in Cartagena, there is something sultry about the air itself. I was struck, when I first arrived, by the city’s resemblance to Havana, except that Cartagena is – for reasons both political and historical – better-off and better preserved. The city was built by the Spanish in 1533, and many of its buildings – or, at least, many of its foundations – date from that time. There is even, rather less romantically, a Museum of the Inquisition.
Cartagena’s city walls, which at some edges dramatically skirt the sea, are the best-kept in all the Americas. Its cultural life is vibrant, its bookshops full, its academic activities thriving. And yet it is still a busy city with a street life, where you can buy a slice of watermelon on your way to pick up a newspaper, and get lost in the throngs of people stocking up on groceries or eyeing up cut-price fabrics. It’s a place where there’s always somewhere to stop for locally sourced coffee, where old-world barbers have their doors flung open to the street, where houses are painted electric blue or sunshine yellow, door knockers are shaped like lizards and decorative wooden balconies are covered in bougainvillea.