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`Secret' Colombian city gets rediscovered

A building boom fueled by tourism is remaking Cartagena. Some worry the old Caribbean port's charm will suffer.

February 11, 2007|Andrea Alegria and Chris Kraul | Special to The Times

LA BOQUILLA, COLOMBIA — A few years ago, impoverished fisherman Marcial Ortega could barely afford to feed his 14 children, much less buy them shoes. But now his worries are over. A beneficiary of this region's building boom, he is selling his half-acre beachfront lot and cabanas this month for a cool $1 million.

The 63-year-old Ortega held out for years, impassively listening to fast-talking developers bid up the price of his seaside plot. But declining fish stocks, rising taxes and nonstop harassment by developers finally convinced him it was time to leave this tiny fishing community a few miles up the coast from the Spanish colonial city of Cartagena. He sold to Spanish developers who plan to build a high-rise apartment building.

"I had to find a way out of here," said Ortega, the concrete-block house he soon will vacate nearly overtaken by encroaching high-rises.

"Now I'll have peace of mind, buy my wife a nice house and give my children things I didn't have, like an education."

The price fetched by Ortega's property reflects the frenzied real estate market in Cartagena, an increasingly popular destination for foreign tourists and retirees. A decade ago, the charms of this fortress city were the well-kept secret of wealthy Colombians and venturesome foreigners who knew that Cartagena was relatively immune to the killings and kidnappings that elsewhere marked Colombia's civil war.

Construction frenzy

Colombia's security and economy have improved significantly since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002, and that has helped ignite a construction boom. Twenty luxury residential towers were built last year and more than 60 are on the drawing board, including what would be Colombia's tallest building. Seventeen projects are to be situated along the four-mile stretch of beach between the walled city and La Boquilla.

Two-thirds of the units being built or planned are marketed to foreign retirees and investors, who have begun to take up residence in this breezy Caribbean city. Long anathema to U.S. hotel chains because of Colombia's notorious violence, Cartagena is slated for new resort hotels bearing the Marriott and Donald Trump brands.

Fueling the construction is the increasing flow of tourists, who are feeding the pool of potential buyers. The number of international visitors to Colombia grew 12% last year over 2005, and Cartagena was their top destination.

International arrivals at Cartagena's airport have more than doubled since 2003, and cruise ship lines, which just a few years ago made only intermittent stops at the port, are back. Eight cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, will make a total of a dozen calls a month, on average, starting in August.

Colonial history

Founded in 1533, Cartagena was one of the most important colonial cities on the Spanish Main, where shipments of gold and emeralds embarked and where settlers and slaves arrived. To protect it, the Spanish monarchy spent a fortune on fortifications, including seven miles of walls and a dozen forts, many of which are still standing, lending the city its historical charm.

The old city within the walls, filled with architectural gems, is remarkably well preserved -- and in fact was largely abandoned until the redevelopment craze hit in the 1980s. Strollers there get a pleasant sensation of time warp.

Attracted by that charm are U.S. retirees such as Jim Pazynski of Madison, Wis. Last year he and his wife moved into a high-rise apartment just up the beach from Ortega's shack.

"This is going to be another Miami Beach someday," said Pazynski, a retired J.C. Penney salesman.

Pointing in the direction of Ortega's property, he said, "Probably if you took a picture up that way now and came back in 20 years, you are going to say, 'Oh my God, what happened?' "

Some residents and preservationists worry that growth is out of control or poorly planned, and jeopardizes Cartagena's character.

Roads and other infrastructure are woefully inadequate for the new development, critics say, and pollution in surrounding estuaries is slowly killing off the livelihoods of fishermen like Ortega.

"The growth has little to do with the resources of the city and people who live here. It has a lot more to do with globalization of tourism and the fact that most of the new housing is for foreigners," said Alberto Abello, an economist at Bolivar Technological University in Cartagena.

Growth is taking place so fast that city officials seem at a loss to quantify it.

Neither the chamber of commerce nor the mayor's office could provide statistics or estimates on 2006 construction. In 2005, the last year for which figures are available, residential construction grew 53% from the previous year, and observers doubt the pace has slowed.

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