Mention a trip to Colombia to most people, and they’ll raise their eyebrows and tell you to be careful. But safety and security have seriously improved here in recent years, triggering a rediscovery of what could become Latin America’s next vacation hot spot. While big city Bogotá lures many, the real undiscovered jewels are the palm-fringed Caribbean coastline and the bright-painted Spanish fort town of Cartagena.
A charming Unesco World Heritage Site with Havanaesque colonial buildings and bustling cobbled plazas, Cartagena and its labyrinthine old thoroughfares encourage map-free exploration. On my arrival in October, with temperatures guaranteed to add a film of perspiration to the proceedings, I quickly slipped on my linen shirt and hit the crowded streets. After a day of taste-free airline rations, I was hungry to test the country’s soul food credentials.
Ducking into a chatty hole-in-the-wall café, I found it staffed with shyly smiling young ladies and their fatherly middle-aged boss. My embarrassing lack of Spanish was no obstacle as I sidled up to the counter and pointed to a cheesy frito treat and some steaming soup overflowing with beef and veggies. Sitting at a sidewalk table, I rounded off my meal with a creamy passion fruit smoothie as smiling locals passed by in the heat.
While most Cartagenos live in a sprawling ramshackle area outside the historic district, many work in the old town, selling fresh fruit and homemade hawker grub. Back on the streets after lunch — pulling out my camera to capture the baroque merchant mansions and handsome domed churches — I was easily lured by the sidewalk smorgasbord of pastry empanadas, cheese-stuffed potato patties and little bags of fresh mango chunks sprinkled with salt and lemon.
Food wasn’t my only sustenance, though. The old-world neighborhoods here are steeped in history and boast 300-year-old restored colonial buildings, a must-see for visitors. I taxied to Castillo de San Felipe, a formidable rock-and-coral fort from the 17th century that’s reputedly the Spanish empire’s greatest citadel. Its dense gray walls hide dozens of ingenious, attack-thwarting features, including a confusing complex of narrow entry tunnels.
Next on the agenda was the Palacio de la Inquisición, a preserved mansion museum recalling the dark days of the Inquisition with gruesome racks, neck holds and assorted spike-tipped torture tools.
With the early evening sun now spilling golden hues across the cobbles, I scoped out dinner options. My guidebook insisted I try obatala: velvet-soft slices of slow-roasted beef rump served with sweet coconut rice. As I tucked into the delicious steamy dish at an upscale restaurant favored by some guests from the nearby Sofitel Hotel, the party atmosphere on the boulevards outside reached a carnival-like pitch.
On the streets again, in the comparatively cool part of the day, I rejoined the locals, who were now out in force and dressed for the city’s wide array of techno dance bars, sizzling nightclubs and romantic dinner destinations.
At Parque de Bolivar, a tree-lined square where a hyperkinetic dance troupe was busking, I perched on a park bench to absorb the action. Sipping a cup of sweet coffee purchased from a beaming young street vendor, I sat back and feasted on the energetic al fresco show, along with dozens of grinning locals and a large group of overseas visitors (the city attracts a steady stream of well-heeled Latin American and European tourists).
I had only a couple of days left in Cartagena, but I was already hungry for more.
STAY at Hotel Casa Pestagua, a preserved heritage mansion beautifully converted into a boutique sleepover, and conveniently located.
EAT at El Santisimo, a contemporary restaurant specializing in regional Colombian cuisine and featuring an exquisite wine list.
DRINK at Sofitel Santa Clara Hotel’s El Coro, one of Cartagena’s swankiest bars, featuring a modern gentleman’s club élan.
DON’T MISS the al fresco old-town screenings during February’s Cartagena International Film Festival.