School children stride by a homage to the Palenquera (fruit vendors) of Cartagena.

Putting the Art in Cartagena

Putting the Art in Cartagena

Colombia’s Caribbean coastline is home to a city that has seen the worst of history. Thankfully, as Cam Cope discovers, it now seems destined for a far more creative future.

Even from two blocks away I can tell it’s live salsa. I’m on Calle de Media Luna, the street where Africans in chains were once marched straight from the slave ships. Centuries later, it’s their conga-driven percussion that’s spilling onto the footpath and luring me inside Café Havana. I’ve officially entered the Cuban sphere of influence, even though I’m more than a thousand kilometres from the island Columbus once named Isla Juana. This is Cartagena de Indias, historic capital of Colombia’s Caribbean coast and a surreal tropical canvas for 500 years of conquistador invasion, slave rebellions, smuggling, piracy and several wars of independence.

At the bar I order my first mojito and take in the clave and contrabass. After my second I’m stepping on the one and pausing on the four. The origins of salsa – both the music and dance – are heavily disputed, but nobody denies it is a mix of transatlantic traditions that, once thrown together in the Americas, found an intoxicating new expression. Here, the percussion and full-body dances of West Africa met vibrantly with the brass, strings and implied movement of European ballroom. As I discover in the coming days, however, the broader narrative of music extends to all the arts in Cartagena.

Guiding me through the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage walled city is Rainbow Blue Nelson, a former journalist and local of more than 10 years. After signing up for a walking tour of Cartagena’s art scene, I’m thrown by the fact he’s British (his name, which he puts down to his parent’s hippie phase, doesn’t help), but sometimes it takes a bilingual expat to know what’s worth pointing out to foreign eyes. “When I first visited in 1996,” Nelson says, “I was blown away by how unlike Colombia is to other countries on the Latin American circuit.” He stayed for a girl and over the years has watched his adopted home emerge with new hope from the shadow of the drugs trade conflict.

I glimpse the shadows of young lovers stealing kisses between ancient cannons on the city wall and, at street level, mimes perform for crowds sipping cocktails.

The first theme of the tour is performance, and the first stop is Teatro Heredia at the seaside end of town. Built with a modest exterior in 1911, it secretly guards a beautifully chandelier-lit, oval-shaped interior and frescoed ceiling inspired by the Great Theatre of Havana in Cuba. In January it hosts the Cartagena International Music Festival, but each March the world’s film stars land in its three tiers, drawn by the city’s annual International Film Festival. And the notables don’t just fly in, fly out. On the street Nelson points out the private residences of Jagger, Bieber, Sheen and Gibson – alongside Colombia’s elite, such as the late literary great Gabriel García Márquez – who’ve chosen to acquire and immaculately restore the pastel-coloured Spanish Colonial and Republican-era buildings that typify the old city.

From the 11-kilometre-long city wall, we descend a staircase into a dim underground chamber that opens as a pop-up performance space and art gallery. In the past, however, it was prized for servicing the Castillo de San Felipe (city fortress) with fresh water during the many pirate sieges. All the most notorious pirates (and privateers) of the Caribbean featured on the roster. French Huguenot Robert Baal was the first to plunder Cartagena; he was followed by Englishman John Hawkins and, more notoriously, his nephew Francis ‘El Draque’ Drake, who took the town and held it to ransom for 107,000 pesos in 1586. Timber-shivering names like Henry Morgan, Bernard Desjean and Martin Cote followed El Draque – with varying degrees of terror and pillage – until the final and greatest siege saw Cartagena face an unprecedented combined British–American force of 186 warships and 27,000 soldiers. The year was 1741, but the ensuing Battle of Cartagena would stand as the largest amphibious attack in history until the Invasion of Normandy in 1944. Defending the town was maimed Spanish admiral Blas de Lezo (who had only one arm, one leg and one eye), and a local garrison of a mere 4000 men and six ships. It must have seemed a miracle from the Virgin when they sent the Anglos home vanquished, but the truth is a powerful ally stepped in to save the day: yellow fever.

The focus of Nelson’s tour is visual art, and it’s here he reveals a world invisible from the street. At the former personal residence of the Spanish Viceroy (now a university that hosts a gallery on the ground floor) we walk into the middle of a boisterous student concert, while at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara I meet Mateo, a resident toucan who lives in the restaurant garden. Nelson points out a huge piece by Olga de Amaral, an internationally acclaimed Colombian artist and one of the few Latin Americans with work in both the Met and MoMA in New York, as well as in a host of prestigious permanent collections worldwide. She paints real gold onto tapestry, and many of her works aim to communicate how mineral wealth has ripped apart the fabric of pre-Columbian society.

It’s a reminder that while the Spanish often played victim to pirates from other European powers, there was really no honour among thieves. After all, it was their vast, barbarically plundered riches from the Indigenous American civilisations that first put them in the crosshairs of corsairs.

Towards evening I glimpse the shadows of young lovers stealing kisses between ancient cannons on the city wall and, at street level, mimes perform for crowds sipping cocktails. We have just enough time to visit a contemporary gallery before close of business. At the newly opened NH Galería (sister institution to New York’s Nohra Haime Gallery), I’m captivated by local artist Ruby Rumie’s installation Hálito Divino. It’s a project she designed as catharsis for female victims of domestic violence, featuring 100 ornate ceramic vessels, each filled with a single experience recorded personally by interview. Downstairs, a pre-Columbian Bart Simpson by Nadín Ospina rests nervously on a plinth, stared at menacingly by Nicola Bolla’s crouching, anatomically perfect puma made from black Swarovski crystals. In different ways the work here reflects why international interest in contemporary Colombian art is surging. But my most unexpected find is one of Nelson’s favourites: Rafael Dussan, a former priest who now makes a living by painting ‘ecstatic’ nuns. “He gave up his vows and just went for it,” Nelson chuckles with a shake of the head.

On the final leg of the tour we walk to the guide’s own barrio (neighbourhood) for a taste of the street-art scene. Getsemaní is as old as the walled part of Cartagena, and from the scaffolds surrounding the more prominent buildings I can see it’s gentrifying, too. But Nelson insists that, for the moment at least, locals can still afford to live here, and its walls aren’t so historic they can’t feature contemporary artistic expression. In December 2013 they were the principal canvases for Cartagena’s inaugural Ciudad Mural, the International Festival of Urban Art. For six days and nights, an international team led by Colombian street-art crew Vertigo gifted the city more than 30 epic murals. One of them, Prisma Afro, is a 35-metre high, colour-splashed tribute to Afro-Colombian women that now stands as the tallest in Colombia.

Like Prisma Afro, most of the murals here champion local identity, but they also provide insight into Getsemaní’s remarkable place in Colombian history. At Plaza del Pozo, opposite D’Arte (a small restaurant owned by local sculptor Edgar Carmona), a funky, black-skinned astronaut is painted bearing a flame in an outstretched hand. The words “Here the insurgency of the people was born!” are written near it. The figure is a contemporary visualisation of Pedro Romero, a local who, in 1810 – as a person of mixed European–African descent during the era of slavery – formed a militia to expel the Spanish governor and declare Cartagena independent from Colonial rule. It was a move that would cost Romero his life, but it was the beginning of the eventually successful independence struggle that would see him remembered as a national hero.

Another Afro-Colombian hero depicted in Getsemaní is Joe Arroyo. He was a composer, songwriter and singer who rose to national fame as the frontman for Fruko y sus Tesos, one of the great salsa bands of the 1970s. He then became even more successful during a prolific solo career, eventually becoming one of the greatest Latin American performing artists of all time. One of the reasons he remains so popular at home is because his unique style paid tribute to the many genres in the Caribbean’s African diaspora and because his lyrics played on themes of the injustices they’ve faced. One particular phrase written on Joe Arroyo’s mural is one I’ve spotted all over town: “No le pegue a la negra!” It’s a line from his biggest hit, ‘La Rebelión’, which recounts the story of a slave in the 1600s who rebels after his wife is savagely beaten by their master. As the band at Café Havana rouses the crowd, I recognise the lyrics and realise they’re playing a rendition of the famous song. I can’t think of honouring Cartagena, its history and its artists in any way more fitting than by finishing my mojito and, one last time, stepping on the one and pausing on the four.

Get there

LAN Airlines operates seven flights a week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Cartagena.

Get Informed

Cartagena hosts arts events year round, but the calendar is particularly full from December to March when the weather is at its best. Rainbow Nelson is the co-founder and editor of online city guide, This is Cartagena, which features events and things to do around town.

Tour There

The South America Travel Centre organises holidays to Cartagena (as well as the rest of South America, Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean and Antarctica), including guides, transfers, sightseeing, hotels and activities.

Words Cam Cope

Photos Cam Cope

Tags: art, colombia, history, urbanites

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