A Caribbean city in Colombia
by Laura Gelder | 21 September 2016
Slipping into Cartagena at night by boat, my first view of the city was of the Miami-style high-rises of Bocagrande. Ahead glowed the pink dome of the Cathedral, the beacon at its colonial heart.
Cartagena de Indias was founded in 1533 by the Spanish and became an important port for storing gold looted from the continent. It was attacked by Sir Francis Drake but recovered and went on to be a centre of the slave trade. Today it is Colombia’s biggest tourist attraction and its colonial buildings are protected by UNESCO.
Inside the thick city walls are a labyrinth of streets lined with houses painted candy colours: mint green, cornflower blue, coral orange. Hot-pink bouganvillea tumbles from every balcony and around each corner is a new plaza, hiding a crumbling church, boutique shop, or a pavement cafe perfect for watching the world go by.
Cartagena has been discovered by the cruise ships. But the day tourists land in Old Town and, by-and-large, stick there. If you get tired of dodging the cruise crowds and their umbrella-wielding tour guides then head to the more edgy Getsemaní. Once a district plagued by drugs and prostitution, it’s now packed with cool bars, fusion food cafes and Banksy-style street art and it's just outside the walls of Old Town.
Best of the Plazas
Getsemaní's Plaza la Trinidad is dominated by a yellow church and a group of curiously animated statues which depict the veterans of Colombia’s War of Independence from Spain. At night the square comes alive with food stalls selling greasy arepas (a fried corn snack filled with cheese) and fruit cocktails laced with lethal Aguardiente; old men play dominos and the young sit sipping cans of Aguila beer.
Back in old town, Plaza de Bolivar is next to the Palacio de la Inquisicion. The little park at the centre of the square is shaded by cool trees and locals eat lunch around the tinkling fountain under the gaze of revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar, whose statue depicts him on horseback.
Dominated by the distressed ochre walls of the church of Santo Domingo, Plaza de Santo Domingo is packed with cafe tables that are great for people watching. Look out for Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s sculpture of a rather fat-bottomed girl.
Swirls of pigeons flutter outside the imposing church that dominates Plaza de San Pedro Claver, but it's the wrought-iron street sculptures depicting street sellers and artisans that are the most interesting feature.
Sofitel Legend Santa Clara was originally built as a convent in 1621 but its terracotta cloisters are now a refuge for weary tourists. The hotel has an oasis-like pool surrounded by palms and two restaurants serving Old World and French cuisine in distressed New World surroundings. There’s also a spa.
Boutique options are abundent in Cartagena. Hotel LM has just seven rooms and mixes minimalist style with colonial features. Its pool terrace has stunning views of the Cathedral dome.
Eating and drinking
Ceviche stands are all over the city selling portable pots of prawns, octopus and snails with finely-chopped onions, chilli and lime juice. Alternatively, the restaurant La Cevichería does a more upscale langosta ceviche.
Gelateria Paradiso sells fresh homemade ice cream in classic Italian and strange local flavours, like the citrusy lulo fruit, with a decor that's pure English tea room, with clashing florals and wicker armchairs.
Sit atop the city’s ancient ramparts and take a sundowner at Café del Mar while you watch the lights from the modern beachfront hotels of Bocagrande coruscate across the water.
Getsemaní’s Demente on Plaza La Trinidad has rough brick walls, rocking chairs and monochrome mirror portraits of famous figures ranging from Karl Marx to Michael Jackson. Tapas, mojitos and cigars are on the menu while the local patrons break out into spontaneous salsa dancing as the night goes on.
Outside the city
Just a half-hour boat ride from the city, Islas del Rosario are a welcome respite from the sticky streets. Framed by turquoise waters, the white crescent of Playa Blanca is stuffed full of partying Colombians with cool boxes and 80s ghetto blasters by day, but walk left and you’ll find it's quieter and hammock hotels sway in the breeze. Stay the night and you might be just as surprised as me to see herds of cows wander past the rustic candle-lit restaurants.
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