Cartagena de Indias - Colombia - South America


If you believe everything you read in the newspapers, you may have a strange idea that Colombia, or 'Locombia' - the mad country - as the press like to call it, may not be the ideal place to visit. But don't be unduly discouraged; although the violence, cocaine cartels and guerrilla insurgency that dominate the headlines are very real, they do not necessarily impact on the personal safety of travelers who keep their wits about them.

The Colombia that you don't hear about in the newspapers is surprisingly relaxed and is inhabited by extremely personable and spirited people pursuing orderly lives. Its cities may be daunting, but it has some wonderful towns, Caribbean beaches, cordilleras, Andean valleys and Amazonian rainforest. Steeped in myth and mysticism, Colombia, when safe, is arguably the most underrated travel destination on the continent.


Cartagena & the Caribbean Coast

Cartagena de Indias is legendary both for its history and its beauty. It has been immortalized on countless canvases, glorified in hundreds of books and had its every detail photographed a zillion times - and, as Colombia's most fascinating city, it deserves every one of these tributes.

The walled old town of this fortified Spanish colonial port is a gem. It's packed with churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces and noble mansions with overhanging balconies and shady patios. It pays to just wander through the old town, but some of the highlights are the Palacio de la Inquisición; the colonial mansion Casa del Marqués de Valdehoyos; and the lovely old port of Cartagena on the Bahía de las Ánimas.

The less touristy Getsemaní, the outer walled town, also has charming pockets but is not so well-preserved. Nearby, there are a handful of impressive Spanish forts, including the 17th-century Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, undoubtedly the greatest and strongest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in their colonies. The Islas del Rosario, 30km (20mi) offshore southwest of Cartegena, have magnificent coral reefs and abundant marine life, making them popular with snorkelers and scuba divers. The L-shaped peninsula south of the old town contains the upmarket holiday resorts of Bocagrande and El Laguito. Most budget travelers stay in Getsemaní; there are mid-range options in the old town.

Other highlights of Colombia's Caribbean coast include the town of Mompós, which is an architectural showcase; the beaches of the Parque Nacional Tayrona; the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the tallest coastal mountain range in the world; the mud volcanoes of Arboletes; and, deep in the jungle, the ancient city of the Tayrona Indians, La Ciudad Perdida, which is the largest archaeological find in the Americas this century.