Cartagena’s is a swashbuckling story of pirates and booty, survival and prosperity, riches and poverty, slavery and freedom worthy of its finest novelist. Just ask Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose Love in the Time of Cholera is a sly love-letter to this magical place. Long impenetrable, its venerable walls have finally been breached by an eager army of tourists, who are warmly welcomed to participate in its tale with the sass and enthusiasm characteristic of Colombia’s Caribbean jewel.
It’s fairly obvious what has made Cartagena Colombia’s number one tourist destination. It is a city with an air of fantasy that is palpably real, and a history that is firmly ensconced in the present day. Its is truly a fantastically rich story: featuring a conquistador claiming Karib territory; fire claiming the conquistador’s burgeoning town; a cocky Sir Francis Drake putting a rebuilt, fire-proof port to a hefty ransom; an untold amount of stolen indigenous riches leaving the port for Spain; and enormous amounts of Kingdom money spent in making the city impenetrable. It has seen slave-trading; dearly bought independence; brisk commerce; waves of new-comers; and, now, after so many twists and turns, the former capital of New Granada is more than ready to share its steamy, intoxicating charm with the world.
Built to ward off an endless pack of ravenous pirates and centuries in the making, the Old Town’s walls and other imposing fortifications are the most extensive and important in the New World, a fact UNESCO didn’t fail to point out when giving them World Heritage status. The lynchpin of the 11 kilometres of walls is the San Felipe Castle, a hilltop bastion oft-times tested, but never bested. This masterpiece of engineering is just outside the Old Town – make sure you inspect the part of the network of ingenious tunnels open to the public. The best view of the city, however, is at the top of La Popa, where the beautiful old convent perches, Cartagena’s panorama sweeping beneath it. In the Old Town, the Wall is impressive in itself, encircling the beautiful colonial architecture within which you will find gorgeous accommodation, cafes and restaurants. Dungeons intended for military use at the Wall now offer quality souvenirs to much more welcome visitors.
A baffling array of the freshest of fresh fruit, vegetables and fish is offered up by the Caribbean climate, and the Cartagenans take up the offer with much gusto. The multiplicity of cultures which come together to make up the city are also represented in its cuisine: a heady mix of African, Spanish, Indigenous, Creole, and Arab tastes and styles. Different tastes and styles abound also when it comes to the choice of bars and clubs around Cartagena: from the more refined and relaxed bars in the old city, to the more boisterous Arsenal street in Gethsemani, and the class of Bocagrande.
If you’re feeling a little dissipated from the intense carousing on offer at night, earn some cultural brownie points by visiting one of the many fine museums and points of interest clustered within the Old Town. The Museum of Modern Art showcases an impressive collection of the best that contemporary Colombian artists have to offer, while the Gold Museum demonstrates the richness and glory of the region’s indigenous peoples. A little gorier, perhaps, but also glorious and oddly fascinating, is the seventeenth-century Inquisition Palace, where the instruments of the feared Court of the Holy Office are still on display. Cartagena is also the jumping-off point for the best the Caribbean has to offer. An hour-long boat ride away will get you to the Rosario Islands, with their pristine, coral-filled waters and beaches. Not far, also, is the beautiful Baru Island, with its virgin mangroves. You can also get nice and muddy at the Totumo Volcana, which spits out the muddy stuff instead of magma.
The beautiful women of Colombia congregate for the national beauty pageant that culminates in a crowning on November 11th, which also just happens to be Cartagena’s independence day. The city also shows off its cerebral side, with international literature and arts, film, and music festivals. The city’s people, from the poorest of poor to the outrageously rich; from different heritages including freed African slaves; Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese, and Chinese immigrants; and people from around Colombia, join together to make this a city – just like its country – of massive contrasts, vibrancy, and optimism. It is their turn to write their story, and it’s guaranteed to be one well worth participating in.