''From the sky they could see, just as God saw them, the ruins of the very old and heroic city of Cartagena de Indias, the most beautiful in the world,” the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez wrote in Love in the Time of Cholera—with “walls, still intact…[and] the marble palaces and the golden altars and the viceroys rotting with plague inside their armor.”
There are no more viceroys now, and much less rotting. With its cobblestone streets and ornamented buildings, Cartagena has what is arguably the best-preserved colonial center in the Western Hemisphere.
Self-preservation preoccupied the city early on in its history. Founded in 1533 as a trading port for the treasure the Spanish were ruthlessly commandeering from native empires, the city enriched many merchants; it also tempted pirates. After one especially disastrous siege, in 1586, the Spanish resolved to fortify. The new walls—nearly 7 miles total—made Cartagena the most impenetrable European city in the New World.
These days, 200 years after Colombian independence, anyone can stroll the mighty ramparts. Visitors poke their heads through the cannon slots for picturesque views of the Caribbean. Cartagena was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, and remained remarkably undamaged during the drug wars that plagued Colombia in the eighties and nineties.
The city has invested in its heritage. Landmarks such as the Catedral and opera house, both recently restored, have regained some of their original sheen. Quiet courtyards lie hidden behind high gates. Renovation projects respect the age-old architectural elements, whether it is a Baroque cupola or the arched foyer known as a zaguán.
In place of the romance of the ruins, there is fresh paint on stucco and balconies bursting with bougainvillea. Tourists are coming, too, and so for the city’s inimitable atmosphere of magical realism the whole thing must be considered a mixed result. Now in preservation mode, Cartagena has become a bejeweled stronghold of a different sort.