Without a doubt the Caribbean’s most beautiful city, CARTAGENA DE INDIAS offers stunning colonial architecture, gourmet dining, all-night partying and beaches. Cartagena literally embodies Colombia’s Caribbean coast, with many of the city’s colourful, weathered buildings built using coral from the surrounding reefs.
Founded in 1533, Cartagena was one of the first Spanish cities in the New World and served as the main port through which the continent’s riches were shipped off to the mother country. Not surprisingly, the city proved an appetizing target for English pirates prowling the Caribbean, and it suffered several dreadful sieges in the sixteenth century, the most infamous led by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, during which he held the town hostage for more than a hundred days. After “the Dragon” was paid a hefty ransom to withdraw, the Spaniards began constructing the elaborate fortifications that are now the city’s hallmark. Cartagena’s monopoly on the Caribbean slave trade in the early seventeenth century is evident in its diverse population, the rhythms of its music, its songs, dances and traditions.
Bursting with history, Cartagena’s supremely photogenic walled Old City is a colourful assault on the senses and where the bulk of the sightseeing is. The greatest pleasure here is wandering the narrow streets, lined with colonial buildings painted in bold colours with their wrought-iron detail, bougainvillea tumbling down from balconies, peddlers trying to sell you all manner of tat, and horse-drawn carriages passing by. You might get a little lost, but the city’s many plazas can guide you, acting not only as convenient landmarks but as distinct social hangouts. You can take in the city by strolling the 11km of stone ramparts that encircle it, though it’s best to avoid this late at night.
San Diego, home to a good number of mid-priced hostals and several hostels, offers a more mellow, though still lively, version of the Old City. Grittier Getsemaní, in pockets of which shirtless men play dominoes and cumbia music blasts out in the plazas, lacks some of the architectural grandeur of the walled city but offers a better taste of local life. The most raucous nightlife and nearly all budget accommodation are found here. South of the Old City is Bocagrande, Cartagena’s modern tourist sector, a thin isthmus dotted with high-rise hotels catering to Colombian holidaymakers.