These days Cartagena is often referred to as Latin America’s hippest secret. But true romantics have been traveling to this magical port city for centuries. Thanks to Colombia’s economic reawakening, the city is resurfacing as a playground for the bold and the beautiful. Attractions range from nearby beaches and offshore islands such as Islas del Rosario to endless fusion restaurants and trendy shops. Today’s Cartagena has something for everyone. It’s also one of Colombia’s safest cities to visit. Just be sure to pay attention to what the country’s current ad campaign warns: The only risk in going is wanting to stay.
Situated on Colombia’s northern coast, Cartagena de las Indias was among the Americas’ most important trading ports during its colonized period. Fortresses were built in the 16th century to protect the wealthy and ensure that Spanish ships carrying gold and silver away from the New World were kept safe. If you saw the film adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera (athough the novel wasn’t set there), you will remember being taken within Cartagena’s centuries-old colonial homes and down its narrow, cobblestone byways with balconies overflowing with exotic flora. Over time, the city began to crumble, and Cartagena’s aristocrats abandoned their mansions with colorful exterior walls and lavish doors, only to leave them decaying within. Today, the arrival of chic, boutique hotels have breathed new life into these structures; restoring them with traces of their former grandeur and plenty of vegetation (See boutique hotel recommendations below).
It’s true that life in the sultry tropics can be hard on the inexperienced. Cartagena’s heat and humidity is famous for making even the most high-maintenance woman toss her blow dryer and face powder, forcing her to go au tropical like every one else. The Cartageneros are early risers and run their errands in the mornings when it’s coolest. So be sure to get an early start on must-sees like the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, one of Colombia’s oldest structures, or the sordid Palacio de la Inquisición, where they once tortured suspected witches and heretics for kicks. And when your feet have had it, rent a horse-drawn buggy to sight-see the city’s perimeters.
In the late afternoon, seek shade on a bench beneath one of those glorious almond trees, and try a rasapo, the local Slush Puppie. After siesta, Cartagena slowly reawakens around dinner time and there’s a dizzying assortment of restaurants to choose from (see below). Typically, the Colombian rumba continues on into the wee hours of the morning at hot spots like La Casa de la Cerveza, an outdoor restaurant-bar with views of the inland lagoons and Castillo de San Felipe de Baraja, and at Cafe del Mar, an open-air club atop of the fortress with beds on which to lounge when the DJ takes a break. When you’re ready for a night cap, stroll the lively streets basked in yellow lamplight for continued adventure. If it’s Saturday night, you’re likely to spot a wedding overflowing into a local plaza, and where the Aguardiente will be flowing as freely as you will by then.
WHERE TO STAY
The Classic Hotel
Hotel Sofitel Cartagena Santa Clara—Originally built as a monastery in 1621, this decadent hotel in the heart of the city is viewed as the crème of Colombian crème.
Casa Blanca—Literally, a white house filled with plants, this design gem is so zen, you may not want to venture out of the den.
Casa Pestagua Hotel Boutique Spa—Once home to the 18th century Count of Pestagua, this restored mansion with impressive colonial architecture is even fit for a queen.
Ananda Boutique Hotel—Both rustic and modern, this place is roll-your-eyes gorgeous. Then there’s that swanky pool on the roof for escaping the heat and the street life.
More Affordable Hotels
Delirio—Trendy and deliriously well-priced.
Hotel Monterrey—Not in Mexico, it’s functional, and not too far from everything.
WHERE TO EAT
La Vitrola, 2-01 Calle Baloco, El Centro; 664-8243—A high-end classic, so make reservations. Try the octopus carpaccio. Live music after 8pm.
El Bistro—This cute, affordable, and gourmet restaurant is a find. Don’t tell anyone.
Restaurante Don Juan, 34-60 Calle del Colegio, 664-3857—Chef Juan Felipe appeals to foodies. The lobster tail and coconut rice are sinful.
La Cocina de Socorro, Calle Larga #8-B34, 664-9062—Traditional cuisine from Cartagenera with a sancocho de pescado like no other.