Flying into Cartagena from Bogota, I made sure to sit on the left side of the plane so I could get some first glimpses of Colombia’s Caribbean jewel from the air. I couldn’t wait to see the old colonial port with my own eyes, a place many had told me was one of the most beautiful places in South America to take a walk. And of course, I was ready to just kick back on a beautiful beach and listen to the lapping of the waves!
The town had always existed as an important port for the ancient people who once lived there as long as 4,000 B.C., but it wasn’t until 1533 when the Spanish came along that it began to prosper as a strategic military point and trading center. Today, Cartagena is one of the top beach destinations on the continent, not to mention a most beautiful center for admiring the elaborately detailed and vibrantly colorful architectures that the Spanish left behind.
Upon stepping foot off the airplane, the first thing I felt was the thick coastal heat that hit me like a sack of flour. Not only was it hot, it was extremely humid! What else did I expect from a Caribbean destination? Nevertheless, the heat didn’t deter me from exploring as much as I could of Cartagena on foot in the next 2 days. Most of the city’s more modern hotels can be found in the chic Bocagrande district, but I did not regret staying in the old walled city center where all the colonial neighborhoods can be found, of which many today are homes to luxury boutiques, eateries, and small hotels.
I spent most of my daytimes trying Colombia’s coastal fare as well as various international delicacies. One particular favorite was the smooth Italian gelato at the charming Panderia y Pasteleria Mila pastry shop, a place that is never empty until the “Closed” sign is hung up at night. What’s fun is that their extensive range of flavors include the traditional (mango, vanilla, chocolate) as well as those that are purely Colombian (arequipe, guanabana). Coconut rice was another delight, commonly served as the starch portion of a meal this part of the Caribbean. The coconut taste gave a wonderful kick to my taste buds in the steamy weather.
As for its beaches, the ones in the city itself can be quite crowded. A better choice would be to take one of the daily boats to Rosario Island and Playa Blanca (White Beach) on Baru Peninsula where the sparkling blue waters are really like the ones you see on exotic travel television programs. I can’t say that I did much while laying out in the sun, but that’s exactly what one comes to experience in Cartagena.
Throughout it all, my camera didn’t get a wink of sleep. Between the endless streets of colorful colonial buildings (note the fish motif details on the oldest door knockers, alluding to the city’s modest marine history), constant activity (Afro-Colombian dancing in front of the Puerta del Reloj (Clock Tower Gate), traditional weddings in one of the many delicate churches), stunning sunsets seen from the walkway stretching the top of the city’s old walls, and the ocean waters in the bluest blue hues I’ve ever seen, it would be hard to tire of Cartagena’s beauty. And since the old city center is subtly illuminated at night, a carriage ride through the original cobblestone streets is a perfect way to close out a day and feel the energy of the Spanish era long gone by.
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