Cartagena is one of the best-preserved colonial cities in the world – go to see it now, before the secret gets out that Colombia is not that dangerous
Mention the words cocaine-smuggling and kidnapping, and a couple of countries are likely to spring straight to mind. Throw in the common denominator of a guerrilla war that has been dragging on for more than 40 years and it has to be Colombia, hardly the most relaxing sounding of destinations.
Yet after all the turmoil of recent decades, terrorism has tumbled and Colombia is back on the tourism map. International visitor numbers have all but quadrupled in the past five years, partly thanks to the support of an almost tongue-in-cheek advertising slogan that pokes gentle fun at the country’s violent past: “The only risk is wanting to stay.”
The slogan certainly fits the country’s main seaside resort of Cartagena de Indias, a vibrant city that manages to combine all the vivacity of the tropics and a walled fortress city that looks as if it were built as a film set for the next instalment of Pirates of the Caribbean.
There are cities in Latin America where Spanish colonial architecture was stamped violently on top of ancient and advanced civilizations like the Incas and the Aztecs. But that’s not the case in Cartagena, a place where you almost find yourself listening out for the sound of swash and buckle from those good old/ bad old buccaneering days.
Sir Francis Drake himself was a pillager of the city. And we must be thankful that a Spanish commander managed in 1586 – just two years before the rout of the Spanish Armada – to buy him off and curtail his threat to raze the town. It may have been the effect of one too many rum and juices I sank at a bar below, but as I walked the ramparts I could have sworn I saw a task force of galleons heading for the port. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. It turned out to be a pair of yachts heading home in the gathering dusk.
In recent times, Cartagena never suffered from the acute violence of other parts of Colombia. But that didn’t stop it being blighted by the overall image of the country. The good news for visitors who make it there quick is that you will find a historic city that is among the best in the New World, without the crowds.
What I love about the old heart of Cartagena is the feel of stepping into a living museum. You are in the centre of a complete UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet wherever you walk, all of daily life goes on around you – in the shops, the bars, the houses and the schools. In one typical cobbled street, with purple and scarlet bougainvillea cascading from a garden wall, I came across a souvenir shop openly selling fake paintings of big fat ladies and big fat men, copies of the works of the country’s most internationally famous artist, Fernando Botero.
The country’s other great icon of the arts, writer Gabriel García Márquez, has a summerhouse nearby. My friend Ute rang his doorbell. But it seemed nobody was at home. Or perhaps he didn’t fancy visitors that day! On the next corner a man was squeezing the last drops of juice out of a shredded sugar cane, while behind him a smiling girl was waving at us to come and check out the emeralds, opals and other semi-precious stone jewellery in the store where she worked. Colombians like to smile. And the people of Cartagena perhaps more than any, given their balmy seaside climate.
The main beach strip, just to the west of the old town, is fine for bathing, if far from being the most picturesque strand in the Caribbean. But if you want Robinson Crusoe beaches you can always take a 35 km cruise by launch out to the nearby Rosario Islands. Whichever you choose, as evening falls, it’s time to step through the city gates yet again, to pick a terrace bar in one of the many squares before moving on to eat, dance or just tap your feet and shake your maracas to the local Vallenato beat.
You can pick up a map if you want to find key buildings like the cathedral or the gold museum. But the best thing to do in old Cartagena is to saunter slowly through the streets until you find a bar or restaurant that takes your fancy. I swear even the most disorientated tourist cannot get lost. Walk 200 metres straight in any direction and you are back at the city wall.
Hotel rooms in the old centre are at a premium. But if you have to ‘slum it’ at a beach hotel, there’s always a horse and buggy waiting at the gate to take you the mile or so back to your bed.
Hotel: Santa Clara, a former convent, is the place to stay in the old town.
Nightspot: Music Bar Pavia is a disco where locals and tourists mix.
Sightseeing: Cartagena Gold Museum also includes Amerindian crafts.