For years this gem of the Caribbean has mostly remained out of the attention of international tourists. Despite its iconic history as one of the most important cities of the Spanish colonial empire and its placement alongside sandy Caribbean beaches, until very recently it has barely registered interest outside of Colombia.
This lack of interest was largely due to Colombia’s image as a dangerous place, not only for its people but for foreigners. However, Colombia has witnessed a flourishing of its image abroad over the last decade. This has spurred a renewed boom for tourism and culture in the city. Cartagena is once again in the eye of the discerning world traveler looking for an experience of paradise.
Cartagena was an important port city for the Spanish empire, a byway for goods heading to Spain and for slaves coming from Africa. The English knew very well that this city was the key to South America, and tried on more than one occasion to capture the fort city.
The richness and power of this storied past is inscribed into Cartagena’s imposing fort, San Felipe, where you can get lost exploring dungeons and look out over its walls, imagining what an approaching English fleet would have looked like on the ocean horizon. History is also inscribed into the thick walls separating the old colonial city from the sea, on top of which you can catch the sun setting over the old city as the sea takes on a golden hue. History is finally inscribed into the Cartagena’s ornate churches, palaces and homes, its kaleidoscope of quaint colonial streets and plazas, an architectural panorama of pastel walls and enormous wooden doors.
The history of Cartagena is also manifest in its people, whose African heritage gives the city its unique rhythm. Cartagena sounds good: it sounds like an explosion of African rhythms collected from all over the Antilles. Salsa, champeta, cumbia, porro, soca, reggae: in the rhythms of Cartagena one can hear the unique attitude of its African heritage, as it has been transformed into something completely unique in the New World.
This African heritage is not only audible, it is visual: right outside of the walled city, in the neighborhood of Getsemaní, one finds elaborately drawn murals, whose blasts of color, movement, form, style, and culture, are the perfect accompaniment to Cartagena’s unique beats.
Cartagena also tastes good. Seafood is central to life in this port city. The old city and neighborhoods such as Bocagrande feature excellent dining options, including restaurants serving one of the classic dishes of the region: ceviche. Given the explosion in tourism in the city, Cartagena features everything for the discerning traveler: from classic street food options such as arepa e huevo (arepa stuffed with egg) to five star dining experiences of international cuisines with renowned local and international chefs.
For those looking to be lulled by the tides, wash in the blue waters of the Caribbean, and feel the warmth of the equatorial sun, there are plenty of mid to high end resorts in neighborhoods such as Bocagrande. Those who are a bit more adventurous can range out to several nearby island paradises with pristine beaches and crystalline waters, such as the Islas del Rosario.
Cartagena even has offerings for the cultural connoisseur. It has become a center for literature, art and film events, including an international film festival that takes place every March. The famed Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez had one of his former homes built in the old city, a fascinating design by the important Colombian architect, the late Rogelio Salmona.
In the evenings, with the lights of the old city casting their glow on the windswept palm trees, as the tides embark on their nocturnal psalms, one can get a sense of the essence of Cartagena, an essence perhaps best captured in the lines and stories of García Márquez, or in the rhythms of its people.
This post was written by Juan Pablo Melo, Co-Author and half of the traveling couple behind www.CoupleTakes.com.