Cartagena: Colombia's magical city rebounds

BFP Magazine

Spanish empire's most important Caribbean port

Cartagena: Colombia's magical city rebounds

By Jayne Clark, USA TODAY

Friday, October 12, 2007

CARTAGENA, Colombia — The fisherman serving the crab he just plucked from the sea for a couple of beachfront customers is relating a tale that in any other setting would be dismissed as just another big fish story.

His cousin, he says, was swallowed whole by a giant, toothless fish. To illustrate, he makes a slurping sound with such solemn intensity that for an instant, the story seems believable.

Moments like this abound in Cartagena (Carta-HAY-na), where the absurd and the profound play out against a heartbreakingly beautiful Spanish Colonial backdrop. International jetsetters sip caipirinhas in the elegant Sofitel Santa Clara bar, built around an open 17th-century stone crypt. A school group parades through the city's former slave market, hips twitching like rapid machine-gun fire, in a saucy display not witnessed in any U.S. curriculum. Graceful Carmen Mirandas ply the cobblestones proffering succulent fruits from bowls balanced on their heads. And music — salsa and the home-grown cumbia and vallenato — pulses ceaselessly through the narrow streets of the 16th-century walled city.

After years of neglect, Cartagena, once the Spanish empire's most important Caribbean port and now the region's loveliest city, is back with a vengeance. As Colombia's most popular tourist haunt, its change of fortune is at the forefront of an image makeover for a country that has been associated more with kidnappings, cartels and cocaine (with, perhaps, a passing nod to Juan Valdez and his donkey) than fun-filled getaways.


Getting there: Most flights require connections through Bogota though Avianca has daily non-stops from Miami. American Airlines begins service between Miami and Barranquilla (about an hour from Cartagena) four times weekly starting Dec. 13. A new agreement between the two countries allows for 42 additional weekly flights, which could be phased in between December and next October.

Where to stay: The two major Old City hotels are the 164-room Sofitel Santa Clara (011-575-650-4700; in a beautifully restored 400-year-old convent, with doubles starting at $320, and the 90-room Charleston Cartagena Hotel Santa Teresa, another revamped 19th-century convent (011-575-664-9494; hoteles-charles with starting rates at $320. Among elegant boutique hotels: The four-room Agua (011-575-664-9479; is both palatial and homey, at $280-$300; the new six-room Casa Quero in a light, airy 19th-century building (011-57-664-6168; starts at $283. La Heroica (011-57-316-5220630; arranges private home rentals for $500-$3,500 a day.

Where to eat: The city has dozens of good restaurants. Donde Olano serves prodigious portions of fresh seafood, also pastas. Specialties are $11-$23. Other good bets: La Vitrola is a popular spot with lively ambience and a Cuban vibe. Club de Pesca, on the ruins of a Spanish fort, serves seafood at waterside tables. Excursions: Day trips to the Rosario Islands, about an hour off shore, cost about $25 with lunch and depart from the tourist boat dock. Travel agency Aviatur ( can arrange tours such as trips to Tayrona National Park, four hours north of Cartagena. Guides in the fishing village of La Boquilla, four miles north of Cartagena, lead boat tours of the mangrove swamps for about $10.

Information: or (in Spanish).

A rhythmic school group takes to the streets of Cartagena, marching from the Plaza de los Coches, site of an early slave market, through the city's narrow Colonial streets.

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