Light at the End of the Tunnel

Posted: 19 Mar, 2020

We were surprised. Everybody was. Nobody, not even in their most remote predictions, would have imagined that at this point we would be under lock and key, on the run from Covid-19.

About three months have passed since the world learned about the first case of Coronavirus in Wuhan, China. Since then, we have gone from underestimating it to the collective delirium spread by the disinformation and the frightening tsunami of a pandemic that’s now spread to more than 150 countries.

Covid-19 arrived in Colombia just 12 days ago. Today, most of its cities have enacted a curfew as a measure to stop the spread of the disease. Cartagena de Indias is one of those cities. From 18:00-05:00 nobody’s allowed out on the streets and people are being encouraged to stay home during the day with the campaign #Quedateencasa. The city known in the world for its streets full of inhabitants from all over the world has been reduced to an empty, eerie ghost town.

Cartagena Empty / Photo by: Rainbow Nelsol

Cartagena and the effects of isolation

Closing the city has been a blow to everyone. Every year between 4 and 5 million tourists come to Cartagena, attracted by the history and some of the best beaches in Colombia and the lure of the local hospitality. While 1 in 10 people in the world depend on tourism for their livelihood the percentage is over 30% in Cartagena. 

Most of them won’t be receiving a pay cheque this month. Some of them have never received a pay cheque – the informal street sellers hawking hats to gringos, waiters, the palenqueras that line up at the entrance to the walled city to sell their fruit or traditional sweets, the taxi drivers, minivan muscle, moto-taxis, boat captains and guides. An army of freelancers that have nowhere to go to put food on the table tonight.

With the quarantine due to be extended until further notice and the borders closed to foreign flights, there’s little hope of any reactivation of the economy until May, at the earliest.

Like a hurricane blowing in from the Caribbean, the Coronavirus blew into Cartagena and prematurely brought down the curtain on the famous Cartagena de Indias International Film Festival (FICCI) held during the month of March. A Hollywood blockbuster disaster movie took its place and in a week, the city was shut down and on the brink of collapse.

You are not alone / Photo by: Rainbow Nelson

Believing, a necessary factor in times of crisis 

However the worst still hasn’t happened. The locals have understood that staying at home is more than necessary, not only because it’s the best way to prevent the terrible consequences of mass contagion, but because in some way, the planet has been showing us for a while that we should stop, that we need to stop.

Although shops, tour operators, street vendors and tourists are paying the price for the temporary closure of the city and the harsh economic consequences of the move, people are united that the “Heroic” city of Cartagena, the scene of half a dozen dramatic military attacks, needs to do whatever it takes. Even in this eerie, solitary state Cartagena exudes its magical resilience. 

The majestic walls that kept the city safe from pirates and that contained the cholera outbreak of the 19th century, perhaps the darkest moment in Cartagena’s history when it reached the brink of extinction, have always stood the test of time. The brave inhabitants who stood up to their Spanish conquerors stand united preparing to face another invisible and ominous challenge.

Trinidad Square / Photo by: Juan Londoño

Breathe Cartagena (through a medical face mask of course)

The calm that resonates in these pictures is what’s needed to weather the storm with responsibility, understanding and empathy. These are the values that can bring the city together and help overcome the emergency.

In addition, with this unwanted pause in our hectic lives we may start to look at Cartagena with different eyes. That we preserve its history with more resistance, that we take better care of its ecosystems and we respect the city that with love, has always opened its doors to us.

The emblematic Cartagena, the flagship of Colombia’s somewhat unlikely transformation into a tourist hotspot, today stands empty. No one walks its streets at night anymore. Everyone waits in their houses waiting for the day the sun once again rises through the gigantic coconut palms that flank its castles and beaches, and this invisible menace has passed. And it will.

Light at the en of the tunnel / Photo: Juan Londoño


Written by: Emilio Cabarcas
Photography by: Rainbow Nelson
Other credits: Other Photos by: Juan Londoño
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