Colombia’s colourful coastal city Cartagena is calling.
The wall around Cartagena’s Old Town may have been built to keep greedy pirates out but today it’s the boundary marker of a year-round fiesta. “The vibe here is beautifully Caribbean,” says guide Tavo Reyes. “It’s relaxed, chaotic, joyful, anarchic and romantic.” Situated on Colombia’s north coast, the city was established in 1533 by Spanish conquistadors who, soon after arriving, built a hub for their gold-running galleons, enslaved people trade, Inquisition and war with the Brits. The Colombian spirit held strong and in 1811 Cartagena claimed its independence and earned the nickname “La Heroica”. It now wears its past like a technicolour poncho: a formidable fort looms over lolly-coloured colonial façades that house bars, eateries, emerald vendors and hotels – all flanked by the sparkly Caribbean sea. It adds up to an atmosphere where anything goes.
The World Heritage-listed Old Town has three districts. El Centro, San Diego and Getsemani are connected by cobbled streets and lively plazas. Reyes recommends going for a stroll at about 4pm and to “take your time so you can see the sunset light up the city’s colours”. As you wander through the vivid streets immortalised in Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novels, grab a fruit snack from the brightly dressed Palenquera women – descendants of enslaved Africans who founded the Americas’ first free town, San Basilio de Palenque, just outside the city. Explore the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and La Popa Convent then wet your whistle. “People love supporting Getsemani’s small bars as it helps the district avoid gentrification. In El Centro, everybody wants to go to Alquímico and the Movich’s rooftop bar,” says Reyes. Afterwards, check into the opulent Charleston Santa Teresa, which offers sprawling views of the historic districts, the coastline and the modern city, complimentary bicycles for adventurous guests as well as a stand-out day spa.
The Caribbean waters are a treasure-trove. They’re home to an untouched pirate shipwreck that’s said to contain $31 billion worth of gold and jewels. While the sunken booty remains tied up in a legal battle, you can experience the sea’s other gems, the laid-back Rosario Islands. Book a day cruise to Barú Island or gain exclusive access and transfers to private Acasí Beach when you stay at El Centro’s lavish Hotel Casa San Agustin. Back on the mainland, the jungle is just an hour out of town. “On a visit to Los Límites village we took a bushwalk with Proyecto Titi’s conservation team to find cotton-top tamarins,” says Kiwi Peter Pritchard, who travelled to the city with Adventure World. “There’s only 7500 of these tiny monkeys left in the world so seeing them bouncing around the jungle was unforgettable.”
Whatever you do, come to Cartagena hungry. There are about 400 eateries in the city, including the elegant Café Del Mar, queue-worthy La Cevicheria and Cafe del Mural (), where you can sample Colombia’s legendary coffee. “Cartagena’s cuisine is influenced by Indigenous, Caribbean, African and Spanish flavours, textures and traditions,” says chef Romario Acosta. “It comes from family recipes developed over generations, like the cóctel de camarones, our local prawn cocktail ceviche. For street food, the arepa con huevo is my favourite – it’s a soft egg inside crunchy double-fried dough, served with hot sauce.” Taste these specialties and more by taking a class with Acosta at SkyKitchen Cooking School or make your way through the rainbow of fresh tropical produce and seafood at the Bazurto Market to fully savour the local fare.