Why Cartagena in Colombia is becoming a must-visit destination

Our tour guide, Fernando, smiles gently, his brown eyes squinting against the dazzling midday sun.

‘So, what’s your first thought when you think of Colombia?’ he asks, as we pause on a walk around Cartagena, on the country’s northern coast.

We are standing on a corner near the port city’s historic centre, surrounded by street stalls selling home-made trinkets and food stands where locals come for patacones (fried plantain).

Vibrant: Flowers cover the balconies in a street in Cartagena’s old town

‘Cocaine, kidnapping and drug barons?’ I suggest. ‘Pablo Escobar?’

My friends remain silent, staring hard at their shoes. To break the ice, one finally murmurs: ‘Coffee?’

Actually, ice would be welcome, as the temperatures hit 33c. Top tip: do your walking early in the day.

‘Yours is not a surprising thought,’ Fernando says. ‘But it’s not true now. And really, you know, never was true here in Cartagena. It has always been different from the rest of Colombia, in the same way New York is from the rest of America. It has always made its own path.’

He is right. This pretty little city on the Caribbean lies inside nearly seven miles of fortified walls, dominated by a forbidding fort that was built in the Spanish colonial era (which lasted for 275 years) and became a Unesco world heritage site in 1989.

Throughout Colombia’s more than turbulent history, Cartagena has been pretty good at standing up for itself and never witnessed the violent gun battles between drug cartels that ravaged the capital, Bogota.

In 1533, a Spanish privateer named Pedro de Heredia landed here in the abandoned village of Calamarí with his men. After success in battle against the indigenous tribes, he renamed his new settlement after the port of Cartagena in Murcia, South-eastern Spain.

A few years later, parts of the emerging city were destroyed in an attack by the English explorer Sir Francis Drake.

‘How do you see him [Drake]?’ Fernando asks. ‘To us, he is just a pirate.’

Cartagena went on to make a fortune from gold, much of it discovered in tombs of the Sinus Amerindian people.

It became an important, wealthy and fierce city, surviving pirates and a 105-day siege that reduced its citizens to starvation, though their resistance was so brave that the city was nicknamed ‘La Heroica’.

Fernando’s family fled Bogota to live here three decades ago. The historian-turned-tour guide enjoys showing a growing number of tourists how the city has changed and describing how it came to flourish since Colombia gained independence from Spanish rule in 1811. Today, in the historic centre, the streets are impeccably clean, bougainvillea flows over pretty wooden balconies, the stone buildings are full of vibrant bars and cafes and in the shimmering heat, the place has an air of old New Orleans.

Cartagena gained an aura of romance when the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez set his novel Love In The Time Of Cholera in the city (the film was shot here, too).

A traditional city fruit-seller

A traditional city fruit-seller

Now, ponies pulling tourists in open carriages clip-clop past concept stores and boutiques offering the best from Colombian designers.

The squares near the Palacio de la Inquisicion, where heretics were once tortured by the Spanish, are full of upmarket restaurants and shops selling emeralds (the national stone).

Nowhere is this regeneration more apparent than a ten-minute walk away in Getsemani, the hip barrio once home to slaves and artisans. Despite the heat, it’s hard not to love this tangled web of small streets.

Only a decade ago, this was a ‘no-go’ area for tourists. Then, adventurous backpackers began to brave the narrow, winding lanes in search of cheaper accommodation — and since then, artists have covered the walls with dozens of wonderful murals and locals have painted their little houses, once uniformly white, in energetic hues: bright orange, vibrant blue, hot pink, Day-Glo yellow.

The narrowest street in the quarter is festooned with a canopy of open, pastel-coloured umbrellas.

Fernando remembers living here as a young boy with his mother and brother, playing soccer on the street with his pals, running past locals drinking beer from the grocery shops.

We are not far from the lavish, 17th-century Casa San Agustin, an exquisite hotel in the city centre that was once three separate homes. It now has 20 bedrooms and 11 suites, all with marble floors and wooden beams. The largest has its own tiled terrace and outdoor spa bath with views of the city rooftops. The hotel also offers day trips to a private beach on the nearby island of Barú.

Towards the end of our two-hour tour, we gather in the Plaza de la Santisima Trinidad, a park built in 1643. In front of us is a mural by the Irish street artist Fin DAC, who painted India Catalina, the native woman who acted as interpreter for city founder Pedro de Heredia.

Near by, on another wall, is a giant black grackle, one of the hundreds of native birds whose song fills the city. And just in front of the 17th-century Church of the Holy Trinity are the statues of two men being led by a third: Pedro Romero, a local hero who fought for freedom from Spanish rule.

Getsemani welcomes visitors but residents are nervous about their charming neighbourhood changing. A Four Seasons Hotel is planned for this year and wealthy folk from Bogota are eyeing up the little coloured houses for development.

As we stop and drink the beer we bought from a grocery store, a little boy rides his bike in circles around the bronze statues. ‘That was me, 30 years ago,’ says Fernando, a touch wistfully.

Perhaps even he, who celebrates the city’s changes, hopes privately that children in the future will still be able to enjoy such freedom and beauty here.


Jo Knowsley travelled with Journey Latin America (020 3553 9647, journeylatinamerica.co.uk). A four-night stay at Casa San Agustin in Cartagena, Colombia, starts at £1,960 pp, B&B. The price includes flights with Avianca from Heathrow via Bogota, private transfers and excursions. A double room at Casa San Agustin starts at £387, B&B (hotelcasasanagustin.com).


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