Mention a trip to Colombia to most people, and theyll 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 Americas 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 countrys 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 wasnt 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 thats reputedly the Spanish empires 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 citys 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 Hotels El Coro, one of Cartagenas swankiest bars, featuring a modern gentlemans club élan.
DONT MISS the al fresco old-town screenings during Februarys Cartagena International Film Festival.