Heidi Kingstone

HEIDI KINGSTONE reports from La Posada del Mar near Cartagena

The house in Cartagena has a tough description to live up to. Built by one of Colombia’s finest architects, it is the most beautiful in the city according to my Colombian friend Neyla who spent much of her youth partying and visiting there. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brilliant novel Love in the Time of Cholera is steeped in the lush sensuous sleepiness of this place.

From the moment you pass through the iron gates, the house of Dona Blanca oozes the magical realism Marquez writes about. Marquez and Raul Escobar Lince, the late owner of the house, drank together in the room at the top where Raul displayed his magnificent private Pre-Colombian art collection, once the most stunning in the land. In Raul’s guestbook Marquez wrote in 1973 about the house “que maravilla carajo”. Bloody brilliant.

The house faces the Caribbean Sea and you can hear the crashing of the waves but cross the threshold and you enter another world. The dining table sits on top of a turquoise blue-tiled pond. The water used to run down the walls and through fountains. Blanca, Raul’s late wife, had a passion for plants and La Posada del Mar is built around a jungle of green. Palms and tropical trees tower above the terracotta sloping roofs in the centre of the house. The orchids she loved – and for which Colombia is famed – are no longer here.

The room I stayed in – granddaughter Marisol’s favorite – is virtually in the trees, and the best view is from the hammock on the terrace. In my personal coffee index that I am compiling from travels around the world, the one housekeeper Petro makes in the old fashioned Colombian style, is worth the trip halfway across the world. Cartagena is not the easiest place to access.

In 1967 Marlon Brando, who was making Queimada – the first Hollywood movie shot in Cartagena – refused to stay anywhere else in the city although it was not for rent. He also refused to make the movie unless he could stay in the house, and finally the family agreed to move out for a year. He invited them for dinner and spoke flawless Spanish with them. He also kept his monkeys in the closets. When the family moved back in, the stench in the wood remained for a very long time. Brando walked around naked – to the delight of the staff, no doubt – drank vast quantities of vodka while playing the bongo drums, partied hard, and flew back to Los Angeles every week for sessions with his psychiatrist.

In those days high-rise buildings didn’t surround the house. Modernisation has hit Colombia, like everywhere else. The Colonial mansions that sprawl for blocks in the Manga district, are still privately owned, but are slowly being sold off as the upkeep becomes exorbitant. Most are gone. That’s why rooms are for rent in this Cartagena house while Olga – Raul and Blanca’s daughter – looks for a buyer.

Years ago Raul bought the plot from an Italian gem dealer and engaged the architect Manuel Delgado to build the complex. In traditional Colombian style it has many levels. The second floor – where the hammock hangs – was built for Olga’s sister Gloria, who designed gardens for New York’s rich and famous and also did the film set of The Mission in the late 1980s. The house in Cartagena is well off the beaten track but within a few minutes of the old city by cab. There you can find beautiful boutique hotels and it is also where Marquez has his house when he stays in Cartagena.

The house of Dona Blanca is a national treasure and should have a preservation order but as yet its future is uncertain.