Colombia’s biggest tourism magnet, Cartagena de Indias, tends to provoke a big reaction in visitors. They’re beguiled by the old quarter’s multihued colonial façades, its cobblestone lanes and plazas – some crowded and boisterous, other tranquil and out of the way, its music, its street stands. Visitors from Bogota are particularly taken aback – this is nothing like the country’s sometimes frantic big-city capital. Here in Cartagena you don’t need to be in a rush – indeed, sometimes it seems you can’t be in a rush. This, you see, is the laid-back Caribbean.
A perfect starting point for a stroll through the coral-stone Casco Viejo (Old Town) is the Torre del Reloj, the iconic 17th-century clock tower and gate to the old city. Here the ballet of plazas begins, starting with the Plaza de los Coches (bet you won’t be able to resist the confections sold here every night in the Portal de los Dulces, the Gallery of Sweets) and continuing farther in with others such as Santo Domingo Plaza (with the statue of “Fat Gertrudis” by Colombian sculptorFernando Botero). Aout those sweets, by the way – you almost don’t need to eat in restaurants, as the street food is so plentiful and tasty, from corn arepas to ceviche and much more.
Among this warren of picture-perfect lanes, top sites not to miss include the 17th-century cathedral, which apart from a gilded altar is fairly low-key as cathedrals go, as well as other ecclesiastical buildings such as San Pedro Claver Church (with a lovely cloister and altar) and the ItalianateSan Agustín Monastery (now the site of the university). Near the cathedral, you should also make a point to check out the Baroque-era Palace of the Inquisition, with some fine wooden balconies and interesting exhibits on the city’s history, the local branch of the Spanish Inquisition, and yes, some of its torture devices. Right outside, Bolívar Park is a very lively “outdoor living room” for locals and visitors alike, with street vendors and various cafés to wet your whistle.
And don’t forget to venture outside the walls, too, to one of old Cartagena’s most vibrant areas, the Getsemaní district. Once seedy and dodgy, it’s safer and more popular with visitors of late, but is still more of a locals’ neighbourhood than a tourist zone. As within the walls, the streets and architecture are evocative, with highlights including the churches of the Trinity and Third Order, the San Lázaro Lagoon, and the old port, the Muelle de los Pégasos, on the sea.
Speaking of the sea, don’t forget that here in Cartagena the sea has in fact always been all-important, and the best place to contemplate the immensity of the Caribbean is from the old city ramparts; a drink at sunset at one of the cafés up there is memorable indeed. For even more sweeping vistas, over both the old town and the newer residential and commercial towers of Bocagrande, head up the 150-metre (492-foot) hill just outside the city at the top of which stands the La Popa Monastery. You, too, will be beguiled!
- Cartagena de Indias has about 1 million inhabitants.
- Its climate is hot/dry tropical, with an anual average of 30° Celsius (86°F), a good deal of wind, and high humidity (in the neighbourhood of 80 percent).
- The currency is the Colombian peso.
- Iberia offers weekly flights to Cartagena, codeshared via Bogota. Best deals at www.iberia.com.
Photos | José Balido