Overview

This Caribbean port city boasts some of the finest Spanish colonial buildings in the world and has morphed into a cosmopolitan it destination, with the requisite top-notch restaurants, hip hotels and sometimes sky-high prices to match.

Cartagena, more formally known as Cartagena de Indias, is really a tale of two cities: an entirely walled-in, picturesque "old city" (a UNESCO World Heritage site) from the Spanish colonial era, when the city was one of three ports of call for the treasure fleets; and a neighboring modern beach resort—Bocagrande—that bears little resemblance to, and almost none of the charm of, its predecessor. The "new" Cartagena can be explored in an afternoon, or skipped altogether; it's the old colonial city that fascinates visitors, and with good reason. Beyond these two zones lies a sprawling and relatively impoverished metropolis of little touristic appeal.

The Cartagena city walls stand as a romantic reminder of its glorious past. Las murallas, as the walls are known, were the city's main defense against pirates in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. They attest to the stubbornness and resolution that Cartagena's inhabitants exhibited in defending themselves from the assaults of countless fleets and armies, and during the wars of independence from Spain at the beginning of the 19th century. The city has been spared from the social, political and drug-related violence that has afflicted the rest of the country. Hence, Cartagena has long been considered the safest, as well as the most attractive, of Colombian cities.

The Old City's narrow cobblestoned streets are enchanting. Emerald and leather shops fill restored and brightly painted colonial buildings, whose overhanging wooden balconies are festooned with flowering plants. Ornate churches with golden altars open onto grand public squares reminiscent of ancient Spanish cities. And if you climb las murallas, you'll be treated to wonderful views of the city's famous harbor, protected by numerous fortresses. You can also glimpse the high-rise hotels and condominiums of Bocagrande.

Cartagena is Colombia's No. 1 tourist destination and attracts a diverse group of international travelers, especially conference and convention types, and many others arrive by cruise ship. Cartagena is also a popular vacation destination for middle-class and wealthy Colombians, many of whom have invested in the city in recent years, adding to its panoply of boutique-hotels, fine restaurants and nightclubs.

Geography

Cartagena is located in Colombia's northernmost region: the coast on the Caribbean Sea. The inhabitants of this region consider themselves costenos (coastlanders), regardless of their distance from the seashore. The walled city is nearly surrounded by water: the Caribbean Sea to the west and north, Cartagena Bay to the south and the lagoons of El Cabrero, Chambacu and San Lazaro to the east. The most important historic landmarks are located in the neighborhoods El Centro (north) and San Diego (south), which comprise the heart of the old walled city.

To the southeast, across Avenida Venezuela and immediately beyond what remains of the city walls, is the neighborhood of Getsemani, another colonial quarter today undergoing gentrification. Beyond, to the southwest of the old city, the shorefront district of Bocagrande is Cartagena's upper-class quarter, where towering modern structures rise along a 2-mi-/3-km-long, pencil-thin peninsula framed by the Caribbean Sea to the north and a large lagoon and bay to the south.

History

Long before its location on the Caribbean Sea made it an important trading city, the area was inhabited by several indigenous tribes. The Spanish explorers who began arriving in the early 1500s were drawn by the superb harbor. Cartagena was established in 1533 as the storehouse for gold and jewels before they were convoyed to Havana, Cuba, and thence to Spain. The city thus became the primary port of call in South America for the annual treasure fleets. It also served as a major slave-trading port.

Crammed full of loot, the city quickly became a favorite target for pirates—including Sir Francis Drake, who captured Cartagena in 1586. He agreed to leave the city standing after he was paid a ransom of 107,000 gold ducats and other treasure. (Drake presented an emerald "the size of a child's fist" to England's Queen Elizabeth I as a New Year's gift.) After Drake's assault, the Spanish began the construction of the mighty fortresses and thick walls around Cartagena. The period of construction extended throughout the 17th century, and many of the city's majestic churches and colonial mansions date from this time.

Besides its fortifications and status as one of the main trading ports in the New World, colonial-era Cartagena was a major slave-trading port and the Caribbean headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, which operated there between 1610 and 1811. Today, visitors can see antique instruments of torture in a museum at the Palacio de la Inquisicion located on Plaza de Bolivar.

By the 19th century, Barranquilla surpassed Cartagena as Colombia's principal port. A period of decline ensued, and by the 20th century, the wealthy who inhabited the Old City began to move to the newer beachfront district of Bocagrande. The colonial core became decayed and seedy for a time, but a tourist boom in recent decades has reversed the trend, giving Cartagena a new lease on life.

Sightseeing

Even if you're not an early riser, make an exception when you're in Cartagena. The sunlight at daybreak casts an enchanting spell over this sprawling city. The contrast between the imposing Fortress of San Felipe and the glass-and-steel high-rise hotels along the Bocagrande Peninsula presents a striking vision of the city.

Start your tour at the Fortress of San Felipe de Barajas. (Get there as early as possible—the tropical sun beating down on this immense pile of rock can be staggering—use plenty of sunscreen—and keep in mind that cruise ship tour groups descend en masse by mid-morning.) The fort, which is northeast of the Old City, is one of the largest and strongest fortifications the Spanish ever built in the colonies. The Old City is nearly encircled by walls that stand 12 ft/4 m tall and are as thick as 60 ft/18 m in some places. Las murallas can be explored as well as admired—you can stroll atop the wall, which still forms a perimeter around three-quarters of the city.

You should prioritize strolling through the narrow shaded streets of the old walled city, where flowers cascade from overhanging wooden balconies. You'll find a photo opportunity at every corner. Peek into doorways to see the cool tiled patios hidden from other passersby. Make sure you explore Plaza de Bolivar, a lovely, leafy plaza that contains an impressive statue of the liberator himself on horseback. Also don't miss Plaza de San Diego and Plaza de Santo Domingo. Be careful not to go too far, though—the southeastern part of the old city, called Getsemani, is not entirely safe, although it has impoved in recent years with gentrification.

Nightlife

After dark, have a quiet, relaxing evening, or carouse until dawn. Be prepared for the night spots to not really get going until midnight. You can also take a ride through the narrow streets of the Old City in a horse-drawn carriage. Empty carriages ply the streets and also await customers in Plaza de los Coches.

A different kind of nocturnal tour is a chiva trip through Cartagena. These open-air buses painted in gaudy colors are native to Colombia. Onboard is a trio of musicians and—just as important to the experience—an open bar with rum drinks. You'll party onboard while making the rounds of the old city and Bocagrande, typically ending with a stop at a disco in Getsemani. The chiva trip costs about Col$32,500 and can be arranged at any hotel tour desk.

Dining

Food is a Cartagena calling card. The town's proximity to the ocean makes it a seafood haven, with innovative mango- and coconut-infused variations on ceviche populating almost every menu.

Although Cartagena is best-known for its elegant seafood restaurants, it also offers odd and outstanding little eateries: outdoor stands selling strings of cooked iguana eggs; empanada stands; fresh-air diners specializing in smoked meats; and hip fusion restaurants.

Just walk around the city—you'll find something wonderful to eat. Plaza Santo Domingo and Plaza Santa Clara both have a number of good restaurants to choose from. Wherever you dine, look for Tres Esquinas, a local white rum, and aguardiente, a licorice-flavored rum drink that literally means "firewater." (Be careful: It lives up to its name.)

Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than Col$25,000; $$ = Col$25,000-$50,000; $$$ = Col$50,000-$125,000; and $$$$ = more than Col$125,000.

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