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City life: Cartagena

Step into Colombia’s walled city and coastal melting pot to discover a lively culture in the colourful neighbourhoods of Getsemaní and Centro

City life: Cartagena
Fruit vender pushes a cart in Cartagena. Image: Getty

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I worried before my visit to officially on-the-map Cartagena de Indias. Who hasn’t ‘done’ — doesn’t want to do — it by now; even cruise ships are stopping in. How would that mesh with the sultry, heady mix of high and low, the grand and squalid port I’d loved on sight, years ago? Too much movement in either direction might break the spell.

But then I’d enter a lush, verdant courtyard through some ancient, studded doorway. Overhear a fusillade of wild street gossip in Creole Spanish. Or revel in golden sunlight, amid birdsong, flowers and brightly hued arcades. The new seduction was immediate and complete. Simply put, there can be few places in Latin America more beautiful and romantic, so venerably urbane, as the walled city of Cartagena at the midpoint on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. If you’ve done it, no worries — do it again.

Compact bordering on tiny (at least the two neighbourhoods of most interest to visitors, the Centro and gentrifying Getsemaní), you could probably ‘see it all’ in a day or two. There are museums and landmarks, plus a rich history of marauding corsairs, yellow fever, slave trading and the Holy Inquisition. A fusion of European, African and native Colombian influences, the city is supremely cultural. Not so much for relics as for the way you live it, along narrow streets en route to lively, well-kept public gardens; past shops and hotels, from down-at-heel to soigné; or in awe of countless palaces, smothered in bougainvillea. Make time to sit in plazas, bursting with colour, energy, music, life.

Plus not all change is bad. The design hotel, restaurant and nightlife scenes are burgeoning. In-your-face vice-peddling is no longer an every-block affair.

Only the stroppiest visitor won’t make friends. In contrast to the more formal vibe in highland cities, Colombia’s coastal melting pot more recalls Havana or New Orleans. Everyone from store clerks to cab drivers has time for a chat. Someone always wanted to talk, even when I dined at tables for one. Maybe no one can really be alone in Cartagena.

What to see & do

Walk: Every lane promises vivid street life and marvellous architecture. People-watching (vociferous locals and a brace of terribly sexy, terribly chic flâneurs) reaches a zenith around plazas like Bolívar and Santo Domingo or nights at Getsemaní’s newly hip Plaza Santísima Trinidad. Sunset strolls atop city walls, overlooking the Caribbean, are kicky, romantic or philosophical, depending on company and mood.

Museums: Surprisingly good for a city this small. The Museo de Arte Moderno always intrigues; the stately Palacio de la Inquisición conjures spectres of the city’s swashbuckling, slave-trading past (skip the cheesy audio). The Convento e Iglesia San Pedro Claver, though somewhat dusty, features an impressive, jungly cloister and a peek into the ascetic life of its namesake saint, canonised for his ministry to Cartagena’s black population. Just outside the city walls lies Casa Rafael Núñez, once home to a 19th-century Colombian president, with an open-air dining room whose mix of luxe and rustic is true realismo mágico. The petite Museo del Oro Zenú glistens, indeed, with a special focus on arts by the region’s pre-Hispanic peoples.

Fortress: Pirate attacks led the Spanish to construct imposing Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, with great city and ocean views. Poke around its ghostly (if not downright claustrophobic) tunnels.

Food tour: Foodies’ enthusiastic guides lead participants on strolls to insider holes-in-the-wall for tasty street treats — or on a tour of the food-related settings that figure in novelist Gabriel García Márquez’s works.

Kite-surfing: Cartagena’s waterfront offers neither turquoise seas nor white sands. But kitesurfers love the windy coves above the city. Multilingual lessons at purekitesurf.com.

Botanical gardens: Thirty minutes out but worth the trip (negotiate hourly rates with cabbies) is the Jardín Botánico Guillermo Piñeres. A former private estate, it’s now a compelling window onto the region’s awe-inspiring trees, exotic flowers and mineral springs, plus home to monkeys galore. Post-tour, try lunch at adjacent Selva Negra or family-friendly Los Lagos, complete with gardens and swimming pools.

Restaurante María. Image: Restaurante María

Restaurante María. Image: Restaurante María

Where to eat

Food in Cartagena reflects the city’s indigenous, African and European roots, with emphasis on seafood and tropical fruits, corn and cassava. Posh, coruscating dining rooms have mushroomed in recent years — but don’t forget the street-level fare, also delicious (and gloriously caloric).

Donde Magola: This down-home spot adds a dose of the real when gentrification starts to cloy. Take your pick of meat or cheese carimañolas (cassava-flour dumplings), the full arepa portfolio and sundry other deep-fried fancies. T: 00 57 5 6453710.

Restaurante María: A madly colourful, altogether splendid dining room that shares a kitchen with famed sister restaurant Don Juan. Regional surf-and-turf based on the freshest local ingredients attracts a chatty, table-hopping crowd.

Marea: Meanwhile, the high-end dining scene is on fire. Dramatic, impeccable salons abound, but this time I loved Marea for top-notch fin-fare, with mid-century chic and romantic harbour views.

Shopping

Downtown: Cartagena’s good-looking, well-scrubbed gentry puts even the tight-fisted in a mood to shop and there are beguiling, if pricey, boutiques on every street downtown. Keep eyes peeled for swank leather goods and gorgeous, tropical threads in every imaginable hue, especially at St Dom and at Silvia Tcherassi’s mind-blowing couture shop.

Colombia Artesanal: Brightly coloured, duffle-style handbags, hand-woven by Wayuu artisans, are on offer in tourist-heavy plazas. But their higher-class cousins at Colombia Artesanal evince a breathtaking refinement that justifies higher tariffs. The shop also features a selection of jewellery, objêts d’art and books celebrating the city and its culture.

Kolora: Gents may consider snapping up a guayabera shirt in crisp linen and in shades from sober to flaming. The winsome seamstresses at Kolora will prepare a bespoke number at surprisingly reasonable prices if you’ve got a day or two to spare.

Like a local

Nice & slow: Cartagena’s climate can be brutally hot and humid, so take things slow; hustling to gobble up sight after sight will leave you drained, drenched and peevish. Hit destinations early mornings and late afternoons (many shops, museums, etc. shutter-up for an hour or two at midday anyway); plan on leisurely lunches and consider a siesta or some pool time when the sun is high — at that hour you’ll miss nothing on rarely trod, sun-baked streets.

Arepas: The starch-bombs known as an arepa (griddled, white-cornmeal patties buttered and filled with cheese and other, never healthy, ingredients, topped by a variety of sauces) are not only delicious but seemingly available on every corner. But not all arepas are created equal. Look for purveyors who’ve added cheese to the dough (rather than sprinkling it into a sliced specimen); get to know the best vendors’ corners. A cluster of hometown aficionados around the vendor is usually an excellent sign.

Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara. Image: Sofitel Santa Clara

Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara. Image: Sofitel Santa Clara

Where to sleep

Few cities of Cartagena’s size could offer such a variety of charming, often gorgeous hotels. Well worth the splurge, most lie in the city centre and include some dazzling high-end cribs occupying old mansions and convents. Getsemaní is also witnessing a rapid hostel-to-boutique transition.

Friends to Be: This rustic-chic hotel is cheap(ish) and very cheerful. The essence of still-sexy Getsemaní, it’s also close to nightlife. Big rooms and a pool add value. Calle del Espiritu Santo.

Alfiz Hotel BoutiqueTucked away in a stately townhouse, this intimate hotel is a refined oasis whose staff are as helpful and chop-chop as at any five-star joint.

Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara: If you’re itching to get your grand hotel on, the Sofitel Santa Clara is still the reigning queen. Arrayed around a magnificent 17th-century cloister, the cocktail lounge and spectacular 1621 restaurant are citywide destinations.

Nightlife

After-dark choices have expanded recently to reflect more sophisticated tastes. Meanwhile, earnestly trashy and no less diverting pubs and gin joints thump away every night. Weekends start late and go late, often till sunrise.

Dance: Everyone (natives, visitors, hippies, hipsters, Hillary Clinton) loves sweaty stalwart Café Havana for riotous Cuban music and dancing. Its once-dodgy district is newly awash in fashionable boîtes like clever-cool Demente.

LGBT: The LGBT set parties nightly at Le Petit and at the Ibiza club — with its straight-gay-otherwise crowd, it’s unstoppable for boogie and flirt.

Cocktails: Haute mixology (twee ingredients, oh-la-la decor) has hit; dress up and bring money. Cosy and maybe smartest of all is El Barón; Alquímico is friendly and great for pre-dinner drinks. Cartagena’s highest-karat jeunesse dorée currently adores vintage-to-a-fault La Jugada. 

Essentials

Getting there
Fly from Heathrow with Avianca via Bogotá; British Airways and Virgin Atlantic connect with Copa Airlines in Orlando and Panama City. 

More info
colombia.travel
cartagenadeindias.travel

How to do it
Journey Latin America offers an 11-day trip to Bogotá and Cartagena from £1,679 per person, B&B, including excursions, domestic flights and transfers.

Published in the South America 2016 guide, distributed with the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)