Behind the decorated iron gates of a prison yard in Cartagena's walled Old City, diners enjoy gourmet cuisine prepared and served by inmates under the guidance of celebrity chefs
Just outside the walls, the Getsemani neighborhood that was once a hotbed of drugs and prostitution has been transformed into one of the Colombian city's hippest neighborhoods, with colorful street murals, art galleries, mojito bars and food stands.
And just five minutes away, in the more modern, exclusive Bocagrande neighborhood, Western-branded high-rise hotels are multiplying, joining the country's transformation from cartel center to growing global tourist hot spot.
It's been more than two decades since Colombia dismantled the powerful Medellin cartel, and more than a decade since Western hotel and travel companies began eyeing the country for tourism development.
The process has been slow, as tourism officials continue to battle perception problems. But international visitor arrivals have grown 250% over the last decade, and the list of airlines flying into and new hotels opening continues to grow across the country.
The InterContinental Cartagena de Indias opened last year in the Bocagrande neighborhood, five minutes from the Old City.
My visit to Cartagena was sponsored by the InterContinental Cartagena de Indias, a modern luxury high-rise in Bocagrande overlooking one of the city's most popular beaches.
Just a year old, the hotel highlights one of Cartagena's greatest charms: its delightful mix of old and new.
The hotel has large, modern rooms decorated in a chic blue and white, with all the modern amenities one would expect from the brand. But it hasn't forgotten to include tasteful nods to the local culture, like the authentic hand-carved wooden canoe decorating a hallway area outside of my room.
It also offers the proper mix of business and leisure, with a whole floor of modern meeting rooms and business services as well as a large, resort-style infinty pool that overlooks the Bocagrande beach and the Old City, while also offering nightly sunset views.
It's also just five minutes away from Cartagena's main tourist attraction, the walled Old City built by the Spanish at the beginning of the 16th century to protect what was South America's most important port city from pirates and other hostile forces.
Vendors in Cartagena’s Old City, which was built by the Spanish in the early 1500s to protect the port from pirates and other hostilities. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
Visitors can easily spend all day and night wandering or riding horse-drawn carriages through its cobblestone streets filled with colorful colonial buildings that house museums, hip new restaurants and boutiques, traditional Colombian food stands and boutique hotels.
One of its trendiest and newest attractions, the Interno restaurant opened in December in a gated courtyard of the San Diego women's prison. Behind the iron gates decorated with tassels, inmates in colorful headdresses prepare and serve gourmet meals while a few prison guards linger quietly out front.
The prisoners, many of whom are former cartel workers serving time for everything from murder to extortion, have been trained by Michelin-rated chefs such as Henry Sasson and Koldo Miranda as part of a rehabilitation program founded by Teatro Interno, a Colombian foundation.
The menu includes things like ceviche and, of course, a Colombian (and my) favorite, coconut rice.
In the trendy Getsemani neighborhood, things really come to life at night, with food trucks and stands popping up to supplement the bar scene.
While the beauty and history alone makes this a destination for anyone seeking out the authentic, there is one thing that really makes Cartagena stand out: the people.
Because of its history as a gateway to South America, it was a center of the slave trade and attracted a mix of races from around the world, creating a melting pot of friendly, happy and welcoming residents.
And then of course there is the beach. Although there are plenty of beaches in Cartagena proper, you can go from big city to quiet Caribbean retreat with a quick boat ride to the Rosario Islands, a string of 27 mostly private islands that offer a mix of private homes and small inns on white, sandy beaches and the more customary clear blue of Caribbean waters than those along the darker lava sands of Cartagena.
We spent our final day on the private beaches of San Pedro de Majagua, an ecotourism hotel developed on the property where French painter Pierre Daguet built a home in the 1950s.
Nightly rates at the InterContinental Cartagena de Indias begin at $137.