FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Cartagena: Heart Of Cartagena

Jun 1, 2011
2011 / June 2011

The rhythmic clamor of salsa rings in your ears and almost stifles the soft sound of palm leaves stirring in the trade winds. In turn, this breeze brings a warm pungency of rum, sweat and cinnamon — the scent that represents the Caribbean — and you know that you are in Cartagena.

History and literature course through the colonial streets of the tranquil, sophisticated barrio of San Diego, where an evening stroll gives you a delicious sense of relaxation and dreamy repose. Drinks are tall, cool and spicy in the soft night as the Southern Cross hangs suspended above. In short, you are on the set of a movie.

Perhaps this image of Caribbean idyll is not one so readily associated with Colombia, but it exists, and it is Cartagena (untroubled by the warring found in the far-off countryside) that has led the nation’s charge as a tourist destination for the 21st century.

Spain’s first city on the South American mainland, founded in 1533 and the gateway to the rest of the continent, Cartagena is now attracting tourists in great numbers. They may be taking a break from business in Bogotá, jetting down from Miami to attend a wedding or conference, or disembarking for a few hours from the ubiquitous cruise ships now making this UNESCO World Heritage site a permanent fixture on their Caribbean circuit.

The first time I came to Cartagena in the late 1990s, as I reclined on the terrace of my hotel, cold drink in hand, I thought, “Why haven’t I been told about Cartagena before?”

And there you have it: La Heroica — as Cartagena is affectionately known for successfully repelling sustained and multiple attacks from European pirates in the 17th century — embodies the famous lure of the tropics. Financed by slavery and Peruvian gold and silver, beleaguered by cholera and the Inquisition, the city bears the impact of colonial-era violence and imperial design — all of which blend in a mélange so seductive that it endows Cartagena with a decadent and fiery romance.

Is it the brightly painted colonial architecture, the bougainvilleas tumbling from the wooden balconies or something more that makes Cartagena such a fairy-tale destination for couples? It’s as if the salty air acts as an aphrodisiac, for Cartagena is now very much the wedding destination for wealthy couples from Bogotá and a growing number of foreigners looking for an exotic yet stylish locale.

Even the casual visitor can feel this essence, one that inspires the Colombian Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Marquez, an erstwhile resident in this captivating city. Walk from the handsome Plaza de Santo Domingo to the Plaza de Bolívar and then stop around the corner in the Portal de los Dulces to enjoy the shade of the high archways — the very spot to which “Gabo” refers in his novel Love in the Time of Cholera where the letter writers sit to compose texts for the illiterate.

My advice is to remain in the suspended state of literary flux and avoid the terrifyingly sweet local delicacies offered in the Portal de los Dulces. Satisfy your afternoon hunger with a filling carimañola, made from pulped yucca and filled with cheese, and wash it down with a tropical fruit juice, perhaps lulo or corozo, typical of the Colombian Caribbean coast. And then head out to one of the city’s famed restaurants.

Just as a sunset walk along the ramparts of the city wall provides an invaluable insight into the history, a new walking tour designed to cover the Garciamarquian points of interest can give you a more literary vision. For those interested in the less erudite, more relaxing options, there are the soft adventure routes: day trips out to the Islas del Rosario to snorkel and dive along the coral outcrops of a marine national park, to the white sand beaches of nearby Playa Blanca or to El Totumo Mud Volcano to restore vital minerals to your body.

Most don’t make the journey, but for those who feel a little more adventurous, take a side trip to the colonial backwater of Mompós (five hours from Cartagena), a town forgotten in recent years that enjoys UNESCO status and whose history is directly linked with Cartagena’s. And for a reflection on the region’s slavery past, there is the town of San Basilio de Palenque, founded by escaped slaves in the 17th century. But if time and distance are an issue, stick to Cartagena and organize a local trip to La Boquilla, now boasting enormous apartment blocks but sheltering in a few precious corners some remnants of the old fishing communities that ply their trade in the nearby mangrove swamps.

If pounding the pavement is your preferred fix, then Cartagena is perfect. Stray from the elite barrio of San Diego and head out beyond the Torre de Reloj, past the Cartagena Convention Center and over to the more down-at-the-heel barrio of Getsemani. It housed artisans and slaves in the colonial era and today still harbors much of this original flavor. The woodwork is cracking, the buildings are at risk, yet nestled around the San Roque Church and beneath the gaze of the imposing San Felipe de Barajas Castle you can find the Cartagena of yesteryear, as it was before the cruise ships and boutique hotels made the destination their own. Perhaps you should err on the side of caution, but during daylight hours Getsemani will reveal secrets of Cartagena, and you will be rubbing shoulders with the locals, something perhaps lacking on the inside of the Ciudad Amurallada, or Walled City.


Info to Go

Cartagena’s Rafael Núñez Airport (CT G) is easily reached from all major Colombian cities and via direct flights from Fort Lauderdale (FLL ) and Miami (MIAIA). Flights from the capital, Bogotá, take about 75 minutes and cost about $70 one way, depending on the season. The airport is about two miles from the city center; a taxi (from the official taxi rank outside the terminal) takes 10 minutes (about $6). For more information, visit www.colombia.travel/en/.

Diversions

Since decadence and Cartagena seem to go hand in hand, no trip to Cartagena would be complete without a night out on the town sampling a little of what this city has to offer in the way of rum-soaked, salsa-infused locales.

Far and away the best place to get down and dirty — Romancing the Stone-style — is Café Havana (Calle Media Luna and Calle del Guerrero, tel 57 310 6102324). You will leave with a head pounding from the salsa music. If this doesn’t fit the bill, just over the way is Quiebracanto (Carrera 8B 25-110, Piso 2, Local 201, Edificio Puerta del Sol, tel 57 5 6641372), perhaps a little more subdued but certainly catering to a demanding clientele. For a tamer introduction to the genre, stay within the city walls and enjoy a cold one in the plazoleta laden with tables and chairs in front of the informal local favorite Donde Fidel (between the Plaza de los Coches and the Plaza de la Aduana). Here you can see how generations of Cartageneros have continued to foster a profound love for this type of rumba. For nothing more than an atmospheric sundowner on the city wall, head to Café del Mar (Baluarte de Santo Domingo, tel 57 5 664 2945).


Lodging

Anandá Hotel Boutique

Anandá has become the byword for luxury in Cartagena with its ample rooms, pool, rooftop Jacuzzi and Mediterranean restaurant. Calle del Cuartel 36-77, tel 57 1 520 1768 $$$$

Hotel Agua

This six-room boutique hotel in a restored 17th-century mansion boasts fine architecture, a designer store and a rooftop pool. Calle de Ayos 4-29, tel 57 5 664 9479 $$$$

Sofitel Cartagena Santa Clara

History blends with luxury in this converted 1621 monastery. You’ll find toucans in the internal garden and excellent mojitos in El Coro bar. Calle Del Torno 39-29, tel 57 5 650 4700 $$$

Dining

Juan del Mar Mesa Peruana

There’s no better place for ceviche in Cartagena; the food is delicious, and the setting — indoors or out — is wonderful. Plaza de San Diego 8-21, tel 57 5 664 2782 $$$

El Santísimo

Sink your teeth into some delicacies from the Colombian Caribbean at the newly refurbished restaurant. Try the traditional santísima trinidad. Calle del Torno 39-62, tel 57 5 660 1531 $$$

La Vitrola

Cartagena’s finest restaurant serves a Cuban/Colombian fusion with style and grace. The house band is right out of 1950s Cuba, and the ropa vieja gets high praise. Calle Baloco, Calle 33 2-01, tel 57 5 660 0711 $$$$

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FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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