Tanning lotion? Packed. Sunglasses? In my purse. Linen dress? Carry on. All I need now are some sandals and my favorite floral print bikini. The list, no matter how seemingly endless, gets checked item by item. One can never pack too carefully for a long weekend in Cartagena, especially if one has been summoned to a wedding.
In the five centuries of Cartagena’s existence, there is one rite of passage through which many have passed. And I’m not referring to the yellow Clock Tower. I am referring to marriage, the “tying of the knot,” the definitive words of “I do.” As I am at still at stage of “I’m not sure” I took the “let’s get married in Cartagena” motif as a way to look at the city, to explore the inner courtyards of colonial boutique hotels and enjoy mint infused mojitos on a sunlit terrace.
The soft Caribbean breeze which sweeps through Cartagena during the winter months is an important consideration when planning a wedding on the coast. This is probably why the opening months of the year are preferred when having to fly in guests from the four corners of the world. In my case, Cartagena is only a 50-minute hop from the Colombian capital, and with plenty of direct flights, I made my reservation with time, and on an airline which allowed me a fully packed suitcase.
I left work early giving myself time to deal with Bogotá’s exasperating rush hour and land in Cartagena late that same day. Thankfully, the parents of the bride had made reservations at various hotels within the walled city. I found out that reservations were done at least six months in advance to guarantee better rates during this so-called “low season”: the months after the December rush and before the Holy Week holidays.
Checking in at the Hotel Bantú, near the corner of one of Cartagena’s less visited squares, the Plaza Fernández de Madrid, I headed out for the opening “let’s greet and meet” reception at the lounge bar of the Sofitel Santa Clara. As many introductions which started off as “Hello, my name is Sarah, I am a friend of…” everyone seemed relaxed and jovial. Everyone paid their way with drinks and the breaded shrimp canapés did wonders for starting conversations about the dreary weather back “home” in Vancouver. For those who had made it to Cartagena, the night’s dress code was informal. Many of the gents wore white guayaberas, while I picked out my favorite black DKNY dress.
For the first night of a wedding weekend, we were pretty much left to come up with our own turn of events. After polishing off the last Bombay Sapphire and tonic and greeting the toucans in the lobby of this beautiful restored former monastery, we organized cabs in the Plaza San Diego to take us to the closest and most authentic Cuban bar this side of Havana, Café Havana.
At 9 p.m., Café Havana is still slowly kicking into gear. On the corner of Calle Media Luna and Calle del Guerrero, in the Getsemaní district – a area of Cartagena outside the walled city where “anything goes” – a crowd has formed to enter a nightspot where photos of legendary Cuban singers deck the walls. At the same watering hole where former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enjoyed her beer, we order a bottle of rum.
We polish off the evening around midnight as Saturday is the big event, the day the bride and groom have been waiting for all their lives. The reason we have come to Cartagena in the first place. Although getting married in Cartagena can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, especially if one considers international air travel, there are affordable ways of getting to the altar. In our case, the wedding party tried to live up to its objective. Give plenty of free time for guests to explore the city on their own time. While many chose to lounge by the pool, several trips were organized with a chartered mini van to take the group to some of the city’s most famous landmarks.
After a late start on Saturday, we had a midday rendezvous on the steps of the domed Dan Pedro Claver Cathedral to visit the San Felipe fort south of the walled city. Under a glaring sun and from a higher vantage point than any other in the colonial city, the San Felipe Fort made for memorable afternoon excursion. As the sun cast long shadows we were ready to freshen up in our hotels and get dressed for an early religious ceremony in the beautiful Santo Toribio Church. Far less imposing than the Santo Domingo Church or the city’s salmon spire cathedral, the Santo Toribio is also slightly removed from the busy Santo Domingo Plaza with its bustling cafes catering to cruise ship tourists.
When the last confetti hit the cobble stones and the happy couple rode away in their obligatory carriage ride through the dimly lit streets of the old city, the reception was held in a private house, rented for the occasion, facing the stone ramparts. Instead of a large catered event, my hosts organized a lobster dinner, prepared and cooked by Cartageneras, and with all the produce bought freshly that same morning in the Bazurto market. With coconut rice and trays of champagne, the evening could not have been more special and memorable.
One of the lessons learned during this wedding trip to Cartagena is that in a city that has seen it all, one can be creative when preparing (and budgeting) for a special occasion. Keep your invite list small. Show kindness to the locals and tasks get accomplished: from hiring a boat to the Rosary islands or finding that talented wedding photographer. In conclusion, every wedding in Cartagena is different than the one that started in the carriage ahead of you. But one thing is for sure: saying “I do” in Cartagena lasts a lifetime even if you have to do it again.