The world’s new hottest destinations for 2014

Cartagena: The charm of the walled city

A favorite destination amongst travelers…

Declared part of the UNESCO World Heritage in 1984, Cartagena encapsulates all the charm of Spanish colonial architecture, the republic period and today, the attractions of intense night-life, cultural festivals, exotic scenery, superb beaches, wonderful food and a wide offer of hotels and tourist infrastructure.

Cobblestone streets echo with the sound of horse-drawn carriages. Waiters at the many outdoor cafes are busy serving rounds of cold Club Colombia beer. Salsa music moves through the air raising the energy level just a bit higher on lazy, hot, humid days. Cartagena, on the northwest coast of Colombia, has reinvented itself as a new tourist hot spot with glorious colonial architecture, luxury hotels, sophisticated restaurants and international boutiques.

The magic of Cartagena lies in the warmth of the people, the richness of the architecture and the infinite range of cultural expression of a doughty and valiant people. The city is full of romance, and there is the setting for many a tale of times past in every street and square. On a sunny day vibrates with color along the facades of the buildings and the sea breeze refreshes the visitor on his way along the narrow streets of the old city.

Major hotels include Hilton, Holiday Inn, Hotel Dann, Hotel Caribe and Sonesta—all outside the walled city. The Four Seasons will open a new luxury hotel in Getsemani, the district adjacent to the old city, in the next two years. In early 2013, InterContinental, Sheraton, Radisson, Iberostar, Marriott, Hyatt and Melia Hotels all had properties either in final planning stages or under construction.

Inside the walled city the luxury Sofitel Legend Santa Clara is the grand dame of restored historic sites, once a 17th-century convent, now a Legend-category five-star property. With 123 rooms, including 19 suites, the hotel boasts a 1539 square foot Botero Suite, named for the celebrated Colombian artist. Built around a colonial courtyard with tropical gardens, the hotel has a state of the art spa, pool and resident toucan who hops to your table to greet you in the morning.

The Charleston Santa Teresa, once home to a Carmelite order, is another restored convent occupying a full city block with large interior courtyard and rooftop pool with spectacular views.

Within the walled city dozens of stylish boutique properties have been converted from colonial buildings, all with fifty rooms or less. The lovingly restored boutique hotel Bovedas de Santa Clara is across from the city wall and the luxury Sofitel Santa Clara.

Exploring Cartagena

The best way to see old Cartagena is to stroll through the city’s maze of cobbled alleys, where enormous balconies are shrouded in bougainvillea and colonial churches dominate the city’s leafy plazas. The largest, The Cathedral, started in 1575 and partially destroyed by the cannons of the pirate Francis Drake, has a domed tower that rises above the old city. The Iglesia de Santa Domingo is the oldest in the city with massive buttresses that were added to prevent the church from collapse, due to the miscalculation of a 16th-century engineer. But the most romantic is the 16th-century Church of San Pedro Claver. On any evening near sunset the church is alive with wedding preparation and filled with guests in finely pressed white linen attire or formal wear.

The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is the largest and strongest fort built by the Spaniards in their colonies. Constructed between 1639-1657 on top of a hill overlooking the city, it was never taken, despite many attempts. Its complex underground tunnel system is partially open to visitors—a walk not to be missed. The Convento de La Popa sits atop the highest point in the city, with a chapel and charming flower-filled courtyard. Views from its patio are spectacular. The Palacio de la Inquisicion is perhaps the finest building in the city with its late colonial architecture and notable long balconies along its facade. Once the seat of the Punishment Tribunal of the Holy Office—where heretics were found guilty for crimes of magic, witchcraft and blasphemy—it is now a museum not for the faint of heart. Rusty old instruments of torture are displayed along with historical objects from colonial times. The Museo del Oro y Arqueologia (The Cartagena Gold Museum) has an extensive collection of gold and pottery of the Sinu Indians who inhabited the region before the Spanish conquest.

Cartagena features a rich culinary palate, combining flavors and ingredients from the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and even Asia. Whether it’s a typical local street food snack of arepas de huevo (fried corn dough with an egg inside) or prawns in tamarind coconut sauce at one of Cartagena’s many sophisticated restaurants, this is a city that knows good food. Head for El Portal de los Dulces, where a row of confectionery stands on Plaza de los Coches offers local sweets or end your meal with La Envidia, a decadent mango mousse with a tangy grape sauce.

Night falls, and is bathed in a light of its own, coming to life and transforming itself. It is a unique atmosphere that captivates the visitor and takes him back to times past and forgotten, in a horse and carriage.

From the walls there is a beautiful view of the sea. Then, euphoria grows and the tireless fiesta dances on until the first rays of the sun sweep away the mysteries of the night.

Cartagena, don’t just see it, experience it.

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