Take a dash of faded colonial grandeur, then add a dose of sultry nightlife and an influx of cosmopolitan travelers seeking the next great Caribbean hot spot.
Cartagena de Indias is the undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast, a fairy-tale city of romance, legends and superbly preserved beauty lying within an impressive 13km of centuries-old colonial stone walls. Cartagena’s old town is a Unesco World Heritage site – a maze of cobbled alleys, balconies covered in bougainvillea, and massive churches that cast their shadows across plazas.
But then there is the outer town, full of traffic, the working class, and a chaotic nature that can leave you dazed and confused in minutes. It is here that Cartagena becomes a typical workhorse South American city. To the south, the peninsula of Bocagrande – Cartagena’s Miami Beach – is where fashionable cartagenos sip coffee in trendy cafes, dine in glossy restaurants and live in the upscale luxury condos that line the area like guardians to a New World.
The city was the first Spanish colony on the American continent and one of the first sanctuaries of freed African slaves in the Americas. It is currently populated by an ethnic mix representative of Colombia’s own variety.
Cartagena, located on Colombia’s northern coast and facing the Caribbean Sea, is the most visited city in the country by tourists. It gets extremely crowded in the December holidays and the holy week, when schools are out and most Colombians take their vacations. The city has basically two main parts where tourists go: the walled colonial city (“ciudad amurallada”), which is truly amazing and has many fancy restaurants, clubs and hotels; and a long strip of hotel towers and condos fronting onto the beach, known as Bocagrande which is the best part as one can travel to other parts of Colombia and ride jet skis. It is also nice to visit the exclusive neighborhood of Castillogrande, filled with recently built condos, places to jog, and a quiet beach to soak up some sun.
Situated on the northern coast of Colombia on a sheltered bay facing the Caribbean Sea, the city of Cartagena de Indias boasts the most extensive and one of the most complete systems of military fortifications in South America. Due to the city’s strategic location, this eminent example of the military architecture of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries was also one of the most important ports of the Caribbean. The port of Cartagena – together with Havana and San Juan, Puerto Rico – was an essential link in the route of the West Indies and thus an important chapter in the history of world exploration and the great commercial maritime routes. On the narrow streets of the colonial walled city can be found civil, religious and residential monuments of beauty and consequence.
Cartagena’s bayside location has also seen huge tourist development in recent years. Located on Colombia’s northern coast and facing the Caribbean Sea, it is the most visited city in the country by local and international tourists. It gets extremely crowded during December holidays as well as the holy week in March (Semana Santa / Easter), when schools are out and most Colombians take their vacations. The city has basically two main sectors where tourists gather: the walled colonial city (“Ciudad Amurallada”), which is truly amazing and has many upscale restaurants, clubs and hotels; and a long strip of hotel towers and condos fronting onto the beach, known as Bocagrande.
Cartagena was built on several islands located at the end of a bay on the Atlantic coast of Colombia, not far from the majestic Río Magdalena. The marshes that originally surrounded these islands were later filled, in order to link the land to the coast. The city, nestled in the bay, extends onto an L-shaped peninsula called Bocagrande. At the end of this stretch of land are two large islands that appear to be guarding the mouth of the bay: located at the entrance to the bay is Isla Tierrabomba, a natural one, while Isla Barú was created when the Canal Del Dique was dug. This gigantic waterway is 114 kilometers long, and was completed during the colonial era with the aim of linking the Río Magdalena to the sea.
The city is at its best from December through April, when daily temperatures range from the mid 70’s to the high 80’s and the humid days give way to breezy nights. Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter are especially busy, and hotels book up months in advance. Avianca offers a direct 2 1/2-hour flight to Cartagena from Miami. Continental has connections through Panama City, while other carriers connect through Bogotá.
Cartagena’s main attraction is its historic old town surrounded by the city wall. Main entrance is the Clock Tower building. The walled city includes the neighbourhoods Centro, San Diego, Getsemaní and the modern part La Matuna. The oldest part of Cartagena is around Plaza Trinidad in Getsemaní.
Aslo see The Castillo de San Felipe is a fortress designed by the Dutch engineer Richard Carr and built in 1657 by the Spanish for protection against pirates while shipping gold out to Europe. Open hours are 8am-6pm. Close to the San Felipe fortress is the 150m high La Popa hill, which offers great views over Cartagena and the harbour area. The 17th century Santa Cruz monastery is here, which has a beautifully restored courtyard and a fine image of the Virgin of La Candelaria. Entrance to La Popa is COP$8,000 for adults and a little less for children. Note that taking a taxi up and down the hill will cost you a shocking COP$50,000. This price includes the waiting time during the visit. Negotiate this with the driver before getting in, knowing that the oficial price for driving you to the hill (single way) is COP$12,000. It is advised that you do not walk up as it can be dangerous.
The bars by the Portal de los Dulces are always rowdy, and most nights out include a drink at one of the sidewalk tables set up at the Baluarte Santo Domingo fortress by Café del Mar, but skip the tourist traps on the Plaza de Santo Domingo.