For far too many years, Colombia was on the no-go list. War, drugs, and kidnappings made it a country to which most people were hesitant to travel. No surprise. But things have gotten better in the last few years, making the beautiful coastal city of Cartagena–which remained relatively removed from the confrontations, anyway–the place where tourists are testing out the Colombian waters again.
Named after the Spanish city of the same name, Cartagena is located on Colombia’s northern coast, along the Caribbean Sea. The city was once an important port for gold, silver, and slaves. Pirates loved it. Now it’s known for its colonial charm, sunshine, and nearby beaches. The historic center of the city is surrounded by 500-year-old coral stone forts. Inside the walls, there are churches and monasteries, palaces and mansions, plazas and open-air cafes, and horse-drawn carriages. Balconies overflow with bougainvillea. Acoustic guitar and salsa music drift through the maze of cobblestone alleyways. The smell of fish, cooking over a charcoal fire, fills the air.
Amid the colonial architecture, you’ll find a Moorish palace-style mansion that once belonged to the Count of Pestagua. Today it houses Casa Pestagua Hotel Boutique Spa. The huge, individually decorated rooms have frescoed ceilings and marble bathrooms. Restored statues from the 16th and 17th centuries. Palm trees, fountains, and Son cubano music fill the patio. Breakfast is served in the courtyard. The rooftop verandah overlooks the sea and the city. And you can walk to almost everything.
Start in one of the many squares. Proclamation, Bolivar, Trinity, or San Pedro Claver. Walk along the city walls, Las Muralias. Explore the underground tunnels of San Felipe Castle, the horrors of the Palace of the Inquisition, and romantic San Fernando Castle. Drink papaya juice. Go to La Popa for views of the city and the harbor. Search for treasures at the Gold Museum. Eat fried plantains, coconut rice, and fried grouper. And drink sangria at Cafe del Mar, a bar on top of the walls, as the sun sets. You haven’t even made it to the beaches yet.