Cartagena is Colombia's eternal city of tourism. Despite being blighted by troubling poverty she has survived the turmoil that so damaged tourism in the rest of the country. With their blend of history and local color, the colonial centers of Getsemani, San Diego and El Centro are quickly becoming the hub for all international visitors to Cartagena. What perhaps shocks people most upon arrival is the sophistication and maturity of the city as a destination: it boasts world class restaurants, trendy nightclubs and dozens of high quality boutique hotels, as well as a healthy dose of the chaos that only Latin America knows how to dole out.
Now a city of more than a million inhabitants, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia founded what is current day Cartagena in 1533. Throughout its history the city has seen its fair share of drama and violence that possibly goes some way to explaining why it now feels so humidly romantic and shamelessly poetic at the same time. A testament to the aggression that was present in the Bay of Cartagena is the very symbol that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Walled City or Ciudad Amurallada, the San Felipe Castle and all the surrounding fortifications.
Tourists can enjoy Romancing the Stone-style evenings wandering the fortifications at sunset, enjoying a cocktail upon the ramparts without the fear of being harried by Drake or Hawkins, and admire the eroded, pocked-scarred coral constructions.
Horse-drawn carriages designed for couples trot the moneyed streets of San Diego, keeping you above the street vendors who tout anything from contraband cigars and cheap trinkets to Colombia's more illicit products. Keep your wits about you and allow yourself to be swept along in a dreamlike state through this city that has for so long been the muse for Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Gabo, as he is referred to locally, just like an old friend, maintains a home in Cartagena and speaks highly of the local cuisine in many of his journalistic offerings. Huge snapper laid out on a bed of coconut rice is a mainstay and the yucca-based carimanolas, perhaps more tasty purchased on a street corner for greater authenticity, make for an ideal snack when pounding the streets sightseeing.
On a massive spit of sand that runs out into the Caribbean from the colonial center is the modern yet somewhat decayed area known as Bocagrande. Once a millionaire's playground of Art Deco constructions and casinos, in recent years foreign money and interest has moved from here back to the Centro and Bocagrande's fortunes have waned. The once alluring architecture has been replaced with skyscrapers and narco-designs. The beaches here draw in the Colombian package holiday crowd but the international visitor is better advised to seek their beaches elsewhere, perhaps on the nearby islands of Baru, the Islas del Rosario or Playa Blanca.
Given that Cartagena receives international flights from destinations in South, Central and North America, it has become a holiday destination in its own right and for many people is the only place to visit in Colombia. The colonial center can be overwhelming with the number of tourists as the city is now firmly established on the cruise ship routes.
Ducking into the Museum of the Inquisition or the San Pedro Claver Cathedral allows for an escape from the hordes and an insight into the slave nature of Cartagena's history and goes a long way to explaining the city's current demographics. For a more in depth study, make a day trip to the town of Palenque where escaped slaves set up home in the 18th century or a bit further on to the riverside colonial backwater of Mompós.
Diagonal 21a Numero 47a 44 Bosque
Plaza de Bolívar
Cartagena - Cartagena De Indias (Distrito Turístico Y Cultural), Bolivar, Colombia
Carrera 2 35 1-69 - Cartagena De Indias (Distrito Turístico Y Cultural), Bolivar, Colombia