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For mature visitors, Cartagena is the number one place of interest within Colombia, just as New York is for the United States, or Paris is for France. It is not the capital, but it is the city that offers itself as both a seaside resort as well as a picturesque historic destination. For this reason, you will find no shortage of articles about its attractions, but I hope to give you a more practical guide to La Heroica (the Heroic), as Cartagena is known here.
For the tourist, there is really only two parts to Cartagena: Bocagrande and the old city. The former is an isthmus protruding into the Caribbean sea, crowded with big hotels and luxurious condominium buildings. Bocagrande is very similar to Cancun (Mexico) and is exceedingly popular with Colombians themselves. The beaches get dark with people during the most important Colombian holidays, such as Easter and Christmas / New Year's, and finding a room at any price can be nearly impossible. To be perfectly honest, although I have lived in several beach towns in other parts of the world and loved it, I totally skipped Bocagrande when I made my pilgrimage to Cartagena, and spent my entire time in the old city. This does not mean there is anything wrong with Bocagrande, just that I was looking for a different experience.
I do not have enough superlatives to describe how vast and well preserved the old city is. This is not like Panama city, whose old quarter I found in pitiful condition years ago. Old Cartagena's streets are narrow and cobble stoned, its buildings restored to the glory of the colonial period with the Spanish style wooden balconies jutting overhead. Unlike so many other historic districts in the world, you can walk in peace, minus hordes of hawkers dogging your every step, such as those who practically ruined my visit to Buga (Valle), where one of Colombia's most sacred shrines is located. Surrounding it all are the original fortress walls, canon included, which you can walk atop the length and breadth of. At this point I must warn you that the heat is intense all year long here, and drenching tropical rains can break out very suddenly, so bring along a wide brimmed hat, sunscreen, an umbrella and wear loose fitting clothes, because you will want to explore every corner of the old city! Interestingly, at high tide, the streets of some parts of the old city flood from seawater welling up through manholes and drains. There are fears that the rising oceans might one day claim this priceless city.
Within the old city, besides taking in the general beauty of the architecture, you will want to visit a couple of landmarks: the Padre Claver Cathedral and museum, and the Museo del Oro (gold museum). Saint Pedro Claver was a priest who in the 17th century took pity on African slaves as Cartagena de Indias was the major
entry port for slavers in the Spanish colonies of the Americas. He dubbed himself slave to the blacks. The museum housed in the cathedral not only recounts his life, but exposes the slave trade and curiously, even has an exhibit of torture instruments used by the inquisition (another import from the old country). The Museo del Oro is not very big, but you should see it for the exquisite gold leaf creations created by long lost civilizations such as the Sinu. If you saw its namesake in Bogota, you can skip this one.
Just outside the old city near a causeway is the statue honoring Catalina de Indias, symbol of Cartagena. She was a beautiful native 16th century woman who accompanied the Spanish explorer Pedro de Heredia on his expeditions. Of course, his people went on to exterminate her people. Down the causeway you can make the mandatory visit to the Castillo San Felipe, an imposing stone fort that defended the city for centuries. Deep within it are tunnels which you can also wander through. This is a World Heritage site and worthy of an article on its own, which I will deliver later on!
Lodging comes in three flavors in Cartagena: international modern in Bocagrande, either facing the beach or around the corner from it; hostels or bed and breakfasts in Getsemani; boutique hotels within the old city. Personally, I would spend the extra coin for the luxury, beauty and ideal location of the boutique hotels. Getsemani is also an old barrio, and its little hotels and hostels are very economical, but generally lack hot water and air conditioning. Ceiling fans just do not do much to keep you cool in 38 C (100 F) degree weather! The other thing is that the streets of Getsemani tend to be populated with unsavory characters, so if you do decide to stay there, you might consider taking a taxi rather than walking through the neighborhood after the sun sets! You will not go wrong with most hotels in Bocagrande, but it might actually cost you more than the boutique hotels of the old quarter!
The old city has elegant shops and restaurants here and there, but at the far eastern (nearer to Catalina's scupture) end there is the main shopping thoroughfare of the area. It's a bit less elegant here, but not seedy by any means. Nearer to the edge of the old city is the Cartagena outdoor market. Here you will get to see the other side of the coin, such as stands with meat hanging from hooks in the oppressive heat of the day, flies buzzing around! While on the topic of food, I always recommend arepa de huevo, a coastal specialty consisting of an arepa filled with a whole fried egg. This, and the best juice you will ever have in your life: chilled zapote juice mixed with milk. Zapote fruit comes in several varieties in Colombia, but the one that grows only on the Caribbean coast is by far the best!
Getting there: There are not many regularly scheduled direct flights to Cartagena from abroad. One notable exception is discount airline Spirit, which goes direct from its Fort Lauderdale hub. Typically, you fly into Bogota, Medellin or Cali, then on to Cartagena with a national airline such as Avianca. Enjoy!