Yellow. This is the word that comes to mind when I think of Cartagena, a port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Of course, Cartagena is more than yellow – its colours come in excess. The blues and pinks and oranges spill through windows and across pavements, a child’s painting before they’ve learnt to stay within the lines. But yellow is the primary colour – whole buildings have resigned themselves to this happy shade, a lifetime’s dedication to Yellow.
Amongst the colour is chaos. Street vendors sell everything – from freshly squeezed lime juice in broad, happy daylight, to grams of cocaine, sold in uncertain whispers in the dark corners of Cartagena’s nightlife. My favourite street delicacy was mango biche: sliced unripe mango topped with salt and lime – a strange combination I was opposed to at first. Performances erupt in street corners and on pavements – in Plaza de la Trinidad we found ourselves joining an impromptu aerobics class that had taken over the square, and attracted an audience of some 50 people. Heat adds to the commotion – colours melt and merge under the pounding sun, and sweaty tourists give in to overpriced iced water and coconut milk. At night, the chaos intensifies as Chiva buses wind round and round the city, blaring reggaeton and serving unlimited aguardiente (the local liquor – terrible) to groups of uncomfortable-looking tourists who self-consciously shake maracas in an attempt to be Part of the Spirit of Things.
In Cartagena, we spent our days wandering (a more fun word for being lost), as Frieke (travel-companion, childhood best friend, leggy blonde with an insistence on doing everything) recounted an uncle’s advice “never take the same road twice”. We did in fact walk many roads twice (constantly losing ourselves amongst the street art), but took the advice to heart as we set out to see as much of the city as possible. We wandered along the 7-mile wall that encloses Cartagena’s old town (built over 2 centuries in defence against pirates), around the old town itself (embossed with bougainvillea and balconies) and around the city to reach Playa Bocagrande (packed with paddlers and ceviche sellers).
Cartagena is like one enormous work of art, and everything within the city has been swept up to become part of the exhibition: locals leaning out turquoise window frames and purple vines crawling confidently up multi-coloured walls. The portrait lives and breathes, almost bursting at its rainbow seams in an effort to contain the explosion of heat and noise and so much colour.