Cartagena is like a hot tamale, it looks innocent but its flavor and wicked heat makes you dance when you bite it. We arrived in Cartagena still wearing jackets, which was a mistake. While Bogotá may be equatorial, the elevation keeps it cool. Cartagena on the other hand stays toasty, with an average temperature in the mid 80s all year round, usually with a 90% humidity. So the first lesson is, dress for it.
Winter home to Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez (with a surprisingly modest house), Cartagena has the trappings of your average Caribbean tourist city, but without the cliché–or the tourists for that matter. While it is still on the cruise circuit, it’s less of a destination than other island ports and when the ships are gone, there’s definitely a feeling of an undiscovered country.
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Founded in 1533, Cartagena’s Old Town (the compressed yet colorful district close to the port) is now listed proudly as one of Unesco’s World Heritage sites. And it shows. The ramparts that surround it are authentic and have been around since the city’s origins, allowing the neighborhood to keep its colonial look while losing none of its charm.
The beaches along the city’s shore are probably not the most beautiful you’ll find in the Caribbean, any pearly white sand replaced with volcanic gray and perforated with unsightly breakwaters, but one only needs to boat out a few miles to get a cleaner more pristine take on the Caribbean beach aesthetic.
For shoppers and diners, Cartagena is no slouch. Purveyors of high-end cuisine abound in town, with as much boutique shopping as needed to satisfy any upscale palate. For those without so much to spend, there’s great eats available from street carts and cafés and hawkers selling cheap but nostalgia-worthy goods.
There’s plenty of accommodation options, from the modern highrise to the rustic boutique hotel, many of which are historic, residences of period church elders and at least one former Convent (with confessionals still on display). But be warned, while beautiful, many of the upscale properties are not cheap, even by developed-country standards, so to keep the bank choose your stay based on budget as opposed to how amazing it looks. There are cheaper options outside the Old Town or the Bocagrande (where the bulk of the city’s 1 million inhabitants reside), or in hostels a little closer in.
For a great view of town push through the hawkers and visit the Castillo de San felipe de Barajas. It’s sloping walls contribute to the South American aesthetic but were also effective for keeping out invading forces—it’s known as the greatest fortress ever built by the Spanish colonials. For a haunting experience, explore the tunnels under the fort on your own.
For more on Cartagena’s rich history and things to do definitely look to the tourist board’s website or do some online research. There is a rich history here, complete with tales of piracy, Grand Inquisitors and gold and emerald treasure hunters.
My experience in Cartagena was profound, one seeped in hot weather and energy. As I strolled through ancient streets, with the population moving around me like the steel blue waters of the sea besides, I couldn’t help but imbibe the elixir of its past. But for all its beauty, it was the people I met that really completed the experience. Not to mention, they make great walls.
For more on Colombia see Part 1 of the series on Bogotá. Below is the tourist board’s official video of the city and its environs.