From Romancing the Stone to the iconic, drug-laden “Smuggler’s Blues” episode of Miami Vice, Cartagena, Colombia’s edgier and downright dangerous-at-times nature has been widely celebrated. But it is perhaps as a setting for several Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels that the magical realism of the charming, historic waterfront city has been best fleshed out.
Officially, the U.S. State Department still warns citizens that Colombia can be perilous, particularly outside of tourist areas and in the countryside. Unofficially, though, tourism to the country from the U.S. and elsewhere has expanded exponentially in recent years with relatively few incidents.
Cartagena is a Caribbean beach resort on Colombia’s north coast and for centuries a trading and economic powerhouse. Several walls and fortresses in the city that stand to this day led to it being dubbed, “The Walled City.”
The sea is a prime attraction here for many visitors, and beautiful beaches, warm clear Caribbean water, fishing and countless watersports abound, as do eco-walks and tours.
Those who can tear themselves away from the natural splendor can explore the city’s rich history and architecture and capture the city’s essence on foot, strolling the old city (generally the most interesting area for visitors and within ancient walls), and enjoying public squares and cafes. Among the most popular sites is the Palace of the Inquisition, an historic park with a statue of Simon Bolivar, popular plaza and the nearby 16th century Cathedral of Cartagena. The Santo Domingo Church is home to the sculpture Mujer Reclinada (“Reclining Woman”), by the renowned Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Other architectural and social highlights include the Clock Tower, Castle of San Felipe de Barajas and the Plaza of Santa Teresa. History buffs can’t miss Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, considered the strongest fortress ever constructed by the Spaniards in any of their colonies.
The fascinating Cartagena Gold Museum displays gold and pottery of the Sinu people who inhabited the region centuries ago. The worthy Museum of Modern Art is located in part of the 17th century former Royal Customs House.
Nightlife and dining in Cartagena abound, with some hot spots being the see-and-be-seen Café del Mar, clubby Mister Babilla and the extremely well regarded restaurant, La Vitriola. Still, many things change fast in Cartagena and new dining, nightlife and shopping sites can quickly spring to life – an accomplishment for a romantic city with such a colorful past.
Accommodations range the spectrum in Cartagena, including many exquisite hotels.
Sofitel Santa Clara has a long history but really took off after conversion to a luxurious hotel featuring 162 rooms, 18 suites, a bar worth visiting even if you’re staying elsewhere and outstanding service. www.sofitel.com
Santa Teresa Cartagena, a Charleston hotel, pairs luxury with convenience. Located near many of Cartagena’s significant sites, the luxurious hotel integrates traditional elements of Cartagena with contemporary luxuries including a well-regarded spa, gym and fine concierge service in a stunning environment. www.hotelcharlestonsantateresa.com
Casa Pestagua Hotel Boutique Spa was originally a home to a powerful aristocrat and its colonial architecture bears witness to that today. Eleven exquisite rooms are accentuated with personalized service, beautiful pool, grounds and courtyard that all reflect historic charm. Spa services and modern amenities add to the experience. www.casapestagua.com
Cartagena sits on Colombia’s northern coast and is more aligned as part of the Caribbean than other Colombian cities.
Access: Rafael Nunez International Airport is easily accessible from most international airports with most flights connecting in-country through Bogota.
Population: Approx. 950,000
Climate: Tropical with frequent high humidity with rainy seasons typically in April – May and October – November.
Main Attractions: Beaches and watersports, historical sites and architecture driven by a long, storied past, a handful of well regarded museums.
Eat: Opting for set menus for lunch or dinner can cost as little as $2-$3 and offers a chance to sample the many influences in Colombian cuisine.
Negotiate: Taxis are plentiful in Cartagena, but listed fares are more akin to minimums or suggestions. Always negotiate a price before getting into a Cartagena cab.
Explore: The truly adventurous and brave can explore the colorful and eclectic Mercado Bazurto, Cartagena’s labyrinthine central market to experience a day in the life of a local. It’s essential to take precautions because of the press of humanity carrying currency.