What's it all about?
Cartagena de Indias is a Colombian city on the Caribbean coast. The historic walled Old Town is a UNESCO world Heritage site where crumbling colonial casas have been lovingly restored alongside modern neighbourhoods like Bocagrande, with its Miami-style high-rises.
Cartagena was founded in 1533 by the Spanish and became an important port for storing looted gold. It was attacked by Sir Francis Drake but recovered and went on to be the centre of the slave trade. You can dip into the city’s dark past at the Palace of the Inquisition, a beautiful building which was used to stamp out resistance to catholicism and now displays the instruments of torture used to do it alongside pre-Colombian pottery and other artefacts which shed light on the city’s past. A must-visit is Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the impressive Spanish fortress which still looms over the city. Explore the impregnable tunnels and enjoy the commanding views of both old and new Cartagena from its battlements.
Eat, drink, dance
Eat at one of the city’s many ceviche stands, selling pots of prawns, octopus, or snails with piquant onions, chilli, and lime juice. Have a mojito atop the city’s ancient ramparts at Café del Mar and watch the lights from Bocagrande coruscate across the water. Then head out of Old Town to edgy Getsemani’s Plaza de la Trinidad, where young locals gather to sip fruit cocktails laced with lethal Aguardiente, old men play dominos and bars host spontaneous salsa dancing until late.
Hip Getsmaní was once a hot bed of drugs and prostitution but now houses cool bars and street art
About a 45 minute boat ride from the humid city is the attractive sandy beach of Playa Blanca. It can be lively, with partying Colombians carrying cool boxes and ghetto blasters, so walk away from the entry points to find topical bliss and a gently swaying hammock. Further out are the Rosario Islands, an archipelago within a national marine park. Here, popular activities, aside from relaxing, include kayaking through mangroves.
Rainbow hues in Old Town
Inside the thick city walls of Cartagena’s Old Town are a labyrinth of streets lined with houses painted candy colours: mint green, cornflower blue, coral orange, and many more. Hot-pink bourganvillea tumbles from every balcony and around each corner is a new plaza, hiding a crumbling church, boutique shop, or a pavement café perfect for watching the world go by. There are too many plaza’s to mention but don’t miss Plaza de Santo Domingo. Dominated by the distressed ochre walls of its eponymous church, it’s packed with café tables that are great for people watching and home to Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s sculpture of a rather fat-bottomed girl. Swirls of pigeons flutter outside the imposing church that dominated Plaza de San Pedro Claver, but it’s the wrought-iron street scultpures depcting street sellers and artisans that are the most interesting feature. Wherever you go you’ll find colour and character, not least in the city’s Palenqueras, the vibrantly dressed women selling fruit on every street corner.
Mud, glorious mud
A popular day trip from Cartagena is the El Totumo mud volcano. Admittedly, it’s a tourist trap, but no less fun for it. About 15 metres high, the cone is reached via a slippery staircase and a ladder down into the dense, warm, mineral-rich sludge. Afterwards, you head to a lake to be scrubbed vigorously clean by local women.
And another thing...
Need somewhere to stay? Try these…
Sofitel Legend Santa Clara
This hotel was originally built as a convent in 1621 but its terracotta cloisters are now a refuge for weary tourists. The hotel has an oasis-like pool surrounded by palms and two restaurants serving Old World and French cuisine in distressed New World surroundings.
Boutique options are abundant in Cartagena and Hotel LM is one of the best. With just seven rooms, it feels exclusive and mixes minimalist style with the building’s classic colonial features. Best of all, the pool terrace has stunning views of the cathedral dome.
This is a feature from Issue 4 of Charitable Traveller. Click to read more from this issue.