Cartagena is an enormous, sprawling city of just under 1 million people located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. While it has always been well visited by cruise clientele, it is certainly worth staying more than a few hours and experiencing this city once the cruise passengers leave for the night.
Cartagena really is a tropical paradise disguised as a city. The pedestrian-only walled historic city is straight out of every pirate movie you have ever seen. There are flowers cascading from every window, brightly coloured buildings with balconies overhanging the street, cobblestones, tropical fruit on sale from ‘fruit specialists’ wearing bright Caribbean dress, blazing sunshine and heat during the days, then warm sultry nights with music always playing in the background… talk about romantic!
It is a city of contrasts. During the day, you will see the sober, solid, grey walls of the Old Town, the monasteries, the huge battlements protecting the town from the historical danger of attack by sea, and the civic statues of past heroes. You can walk over the fort and investigate the view of the entire city from the monastery on top of the hill, shop in designer outlets or local markets, and then stroll along the beach or swim in your hotel pool. Then, watch the sun setting silently over the Caribbean Sea from any number of bars set on top of the massive stone city walls while the city changes completely. The coloured buildings glow in the muted lamplight, the cafes hum with the sounds of music, clinking glasses and soft chatter. The soft aroma of the many flowers transports you to a past time, and it is no surprise when a horse-drawn carriage clip-clops past you on the cobblestones.
The accommodation on offer inside the Old Town is fabulous, with magnificent former private houses turned into luxurious small hotels with indoor gardens, discreet places for sitting quietly, fabulous service, and really good air-conditioning to help you survive the heat!
The Sofitel Santa Clara is the local Virtuoso property and it is a perfect combination of vintage and contemporary. If you are after something smaller but just as luxurious, the gorgeous Alfiz Hotel Boutique is a heritage property dating back to the 17th Century which offers 8 beautiful rooms, all with different themed decorations, or the Hotel Quadrifolio which offers elegance, privacy, service and comfort, all in a delightfully renovated historic building.
And then there is the food! You expect the seafood to be wonderful and of course it is… but what I didn’t expect was the amazing local fruits such as ‘lulo’ and ‘guanabana’ – strange varieties which are all tasty and exotic. Fruit juices are served everywhere and with every meal and you just have to try as many as you can – every concoction is wonderful and you are left wondering how to find it again...
With so many assaults on the senses, from delicious smells and tastes to stunning scenery, Cartagena is almost like being in a dream… I say, surrender to the romance!