STEPHEN CHRISANTHUS TAKES US THERE
Colombia has been a growing hot spot for international travelers from around the world, and its northern most city of Cartagena is booming. The number of foreign tourist visits is 5 times what they were 10 years ago in Colombia and this jewel on the water is continuing to draw people in. “Every year for the past 6 years since I moved here it’s getting harder and harder to tell the off-season from the peak season because of the constant increase in tourism,” says Donald Ives, owner of A Slice of Cartagena, a tourism services company.
The top ten visiting countries from highest to lowest are the United States, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Spain and Panama. “You never know where the next person you meet will be from, Colombia is a melting pot of tourists”, exclaims Ives. Being at the northern tip of South America you can get there is under 3 hours from Florida which makes it an easy trip for people from that region, and plane tickets are often lower priced
than domestic flights. Despite the increase of visitors it doesn’t feel overrun and you can still get an authentic experience.
Once you get there, Cartagena has a lot to offer no matter what you are looking for. It has a laid back Caribbean vibe in a city of just under a million people. You feel like you are on a Latin American adventure upon landing. The airport itself, with several houses that are right off the runway, gives you the sense you are in Colombia. The two most popular parts of the city, Old Town and Bocagrande, are both not far from the airport and offer a different feel from one another. Cab fare is cheap as the cost of living is low.
Old Town is by far the biggest attraction. Founded in 1533, it is surrounded by Las Murallas, thick walls constructed to protect the city. Construction began after an attack by Sir Francis Drake, and took 200 years to complete. The walled city and the fortress that accompany it are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The famous clock tower sits above the main entrance into the city. The architecture within is predominately colonial. Beautiful mansions with balconies, historic squares, churches and statues make it the perfect little town to wander around.
Walls that were once made to keep people out now serve to enclose a scene bolstering with fun, food and culture. Old Town is loaded with things to see, do and taste. If it’s culture you seek stop into the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Palace of the Inquisition or just stroll the streets. With its balconies and laid-back attitude it feels slightly like a 500-year-old Latin version of New Orleans.
If you are going to be walled in and hungry there is no tastier place to be trapped. There is nothing old about Old Town when it comes to dining. The food in Cartagena is fresh and delicious. Located on the water, the seafood dishes are a must. The ceviche at La Cevicheria, tossed in mandarin orange and lime juice, is so fresh it’s ridiculous. Even Anthony Bourdain made his way there to try it. Another great spot for seafood is Boliche. For steaks go to Marzola, Senor Toro and Quebracho; for sushi try Tabetai and Teriyaki; for cazuelas (a variety of South American dishes served in a pot) go to El Balcones. Regardless of your choice I’m positive you’ll be delighted.
The nightlife is electric in the walled city. The South American vibe, local flavor and mix of international visitors make for explosive evenings of dancing and drinks. There are cool indoor and rooftop clubs filled with pretty people. They even offer bottle service. For an upscale last stop try Café Havana, Mr. Babia, Tu Candela, La Movida or Babar. They are all solid choices that promise a fun time.
If bars are more your scene, check out the Clock Tower Pub, Caponera, Donde Fidel or Demente Bar. Café del Mar, positioned atop the Baluarte Santo Domingo, the westernmost point of Cartagena’s 17th century fort, is the king of sunset bars. The endless sea views and rejuvenating breeze attracts an international crowd that doesn’t mind paying higher prices for the opportunity to sip a Mojito and watch the sun dip into the sea.
Bocagrande offers a variety of great local food and fun as well, but with less of the action and history of Old Town. It is most known for its towering high rises and beaches. The beach sand is composed of volcanic rock so it often makes the water look grey but it is not. Here you can find small restaurants on the beach playing music and serving local drinks. It’s the perfect place to kick back and relax. Or you can take an eco-tour to Rosario Islands and enjoy diving, snorkeling, dolphins and more. Another original tour is to the Totumo Mud Volcano, one of the world’s smallest volcanos. There you can climb to the top and take a relaxing soak in the warm mud inside.
Colombia is a hot vacation spot in the world right now. It has everything you could want in a fun, adventurous South American getaway, and it hasn’t been commercialized yet. So I suggest you put Cartagena on your travel itinerary and try something new!
This is the largest and oldest square in the old town and was used as a parade ground. In colonial times, all the important governmental and administrative buildings were here. The old Royal Customs House was restored and is now the City Hall. A statue...