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Connecting to Colorful Cartagena

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For travel writer and television host Jason Kessler, each destination is an opportunity to discover a new perspective and add a new stroke to his portrait of the world. He recently explored Cartagena, Colombia, with InterContinental® Hotels & Resorts and formed a special connection to the city’s technicolor spirit.

Traveling is a lifelong paint-by-number project. Every new destination exists as a blank space outlined in the map of your mind. Once you arrive, it’s your job to find the perfect colors to represent your experience by immersing yourself in the journey. Every step you take, every person you meet is a new shade to add to your mental palette as you color in that blank outline. When you look back at everywhere you’ve been, you should be able to close your eyes and see a globe filled with the hues of memory; the intense cocoa brown eyes of the elephant you helped bathe in Thailand or that particular shade of indigo when you dipped your hand into the Caribbean for the first time.

I have a rule that I won’t allow myself to spend too much time researching a trip because I think it spoils the sense of discovery that makes every new city special. Too much planning can leave you blind to the colors you’re going to come across. Before my very first trip to Colombia, I knew next to nothing about this beautiful country. As soon as I landed in Cartagena, I knew it was time to start painting.

There’s a rhythm to Cartagena that you start to feel as soon as the sun rises. Standing on the banks of the Bahía de Manga at 6am, you watch the sailboats bobbing gently as pelicans float over the water, diving occasionally for breakfast. As the sun starts to climb, the trails along the harbor fill with runners and the pace of the whole city picks up. The people of Cartagena are always on the move, whether it’s through the high-rise-lined streets of the modern Bocagrande district or the narrow alleys of the Old City. Walk through the Parque de Bolívar and you’ll see children chasing pigeons, street performers breaking into impromptu concerts, and the iconic Palenqueras (women selling fresh fruit) dressed as brightly as parrots to attract your attention. Some cities inspire a muted, neutral palette but there’s nothing quiet about the colors of Cartagena.

I find it helpful to step out of the tourism apparatus of any city I visit. If you really want to get an insiders’ view you need to talk to real people. That’s why I like to stop in for a quick haircut or a shave. In Cartagena, that means meeting a barber named Orlando in a tiny shop amongst the side streets of the fortified Old City. He’s a compact, smiley man just past 70 and he’s been cutting hair for the past 50 years. When I asked him where his favorite place in Cartagena was, he said it was right there in the barber shop. I think that says something true about the spirit of this city. In Cartagena, you can be happy exactly where you are. What an amazing new perspective for traveling in general: find the people who feel like they’re on vacation even when they’re at home. From now on, I’ll think of my time with Orlando as the glinting silver of his straight-razor and the gleaming white of his ever-present smile.

Leaving Cartagena, I marveled at the colors I picked up while I was there. Cartagena is the vibrant golden brown of an arepa sizzling on a street cart. It’s the ruddy darkness of a tamarind-tinged ceviche as you’re surrounded by new friends. It’s the vibrant green mint leaf in a fresh mojito and the shiny brass of a blaring trumpet at the Cafe Havana. These are the colors that will forever connect me to this city.

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