Cartagena is Colombia's colonial jewel that sparkles
with charm, modern sophistication

on Sunday, 06.21.09

The day's swelter dissipates in twilight as a makeshift bar appears in the cobbled colonial plaza. Locals sidle up for a cup of espresso -- a cozy version of the café scene a few feet away, where out-of-towners sip daquiris and snack on gourmet pizza.

The mariachis start strumming, followed by a troop of cumbia dancers, and there's a sense of an evening shared. When a mime in whiteface opens a taxi door and slides out the opposite side behind the couple just exiting, everyone giggles -- even the locals who have seen it often before.

''This is the stuff I miss when I go back to the States -- the little plazas, the way people just hang out,'' says Vivian Gloria of Miami, sitting at the table next to ours. She and husband Eddie are visiting her parents, who have an apartment here.

I'm tempted to check my phone's GPS. Can this really be Colombia?

Sure, there's security at hotel entrances and here on the small Plaza San Diego. But the private guard hovering near our table is smiling as he eyes the scene -- more a matter of presence than gunpower. The most dangerous moment of my four-day Cartagena visit comes when an aggressive tout angles to get me into her pizza joint, nearly battering me with her plastic menu.

Common U.S. perceptions of Colombia are outdated, says Diana Rodriguez, who lived in the U.S. and Europe before returning last year to Cartagena, where she works for a hotel. ''The real Colombia is very warm people, not paramilitaries,'' she says. ''It's a land of contrasts,'' with both poverty and plenty of appeal.

Clearly you need to safeguard cameras and dodge dark streets in dicey neighborhoods -- just as in any city. But when The Husband slips away for a nap, I wander alone without hassle. Within the seven-mile ring of fortress walls that surround Cartagena's Old City, lawless drug lords and the violent FARC insurgency that once ruled other parts of the country seem light-years away.

Bubbling cafés, designer boutiques, emerald shops, pristinely clean streets and salsa tunes blasting late into the weekend night (where are my ear plugs?) are proof that crackdowns by President Alvaro Uribe's administration have worked. Once-grand 17th century houses have been transformed into smart hotels that give Manhattan and Miami a run for their money. As for the restaurants, the artful dishes at trendy haunts like 8-18 make you think Cartagena does just fine, thank you, without superstar U.S. chefs.


Beneath it all lies the historic charm of gracious architecture painstakingly restored. Domed churches edge stone squares; leafy parks offer respite from the searing sun. Pastel-painted houses, shops, offices and schools sit elbow-to-elbow, their thick walls forming protective shells for arabesque courtyards within. Bougainvillea drips from balconies overlooking the lanes, and you expect Benjamin Bratt's aristocratic character from Love in the Time of Cholera to roll down the street in a horse-drawn carriage.

Just then, a carriage does clatter by. The driver waves; I shake my head to say 'no thanks.' He smiles, nods and drives cheerily on. The hard sell is saved for tourist-heavy weekends and the menu-wielding touts at the Plaza San Domingo.

The same easy-going friendliness persists as we visit the city's top sights. ''Welcome to Cartagena,'' says a guide handling a cruise-ship group at La Popa, a hilltop convent with spectacular views across the city and Caribbean. ``Enjoy my city.''

And again, when we wander into a local restaurant. Our Spanish is rudimentary, but the courtly manager speaks a little English. This is a no-frills eatery, but the grilled chicken is fresh and tasty, the portion generous -- and the price under $10. Fresh juices are a staple; since we've already discovered the local specialty of limeade-with-coconut milk, the manager suggests avocado juice. Why not? The concoction -- sweetened with apple juice and laced with crushed ice -- is tasty and crisp.

We need it. The equatorial humidity is brutal at mid-day, when most shops close. We quickly find the time is best spent in a museum or church, or by a pool.

Or in the islands. An hour away by boat lies Islas del Rosario, a national park covering 27 islands with beaches far more appealing than those in town. We forego the less-expensive party boat excursion and plunk down about $70 each for a day trip with lunch at Majagua, a stylish, eco-savvy hotel with private beaches, cocktail service, snorkeling and diving.

Such serenity and sophistication are part of the reason Camilo Covelli, a young doctor from Bogota, takes an annual vacation in Cartagena.

``This is the one place in Colombia that has everything -- the water, the nightlife, the old city, the nature parks -- and the restaurants.''


For North Americans, the Old City is the draw. Founded in the 1500s, Cartagena's Caribbean perch and wide, sheltered harbor made it one of the New World's richest ports. Goods -- and slaves -- destined for cities throughout the region came here first, making Cartagena a target for both pirates and rival European powers.

The results -- both rich and dark -- are explained in museums, churches, tourist sites. The convent of San Pedro Claver is testament to the powerful legacy of a priest who ministered to slaves. The Palace of the Inquisition recalls the trials and tortures of some 800 accused heretics. Just outside the Old City wall, the never-conquered Castillo de San Felipe is still protected by 1,500-pound canons.

Still, siege by the Spaniards -- punishment for Cartagena's independent spirit -- led to the deaths of 6,000 from disease and poverty in the early 1800s. And though Cartagena rose to prominence after liberation, it suffered from cholera, plague, civic lethargy and economic malaise as the decades passed. And, then, for these past few years, renewal.

Nearly 80 percent of the 1.2 million visitors to Colombia put Cartagena on their itinerary.

''When people arrive, they imagine something small and well-restored, like Puerto Rico,'' says Carmen Otero de Millan, director of sales and marketing for the Sofitel Santa Clara hotel. ``But this is huge . . . and the city is alive.''

No matter that out-of-towners are paying $200 per square foot for houses in the historic center. In the early hours, the streets come alive with locals heading to university classes and offices. By midday the lanes are lined with carts hawking fresh fruits, icy juices, arepas filled with fried eggs, electrical gadgets, belts and cheap shoes. By evening the cafés fill, the bars open, and the air begins to sizzle with an energy that has nothing to do with the heat.

As you walk from your hotel to dinner, you may spy through the shutters an abuela watching TV in the same simple living room where she herself was raised. A man gets a haircut in the unairconditioned barber shop that might have served his father. Patrons spill into the streets from a neighborhood bar seething with champeta rhythms.

And at the trendy Café Havana, young and old who can afford the $2 entrance fee and the $7 cocktails crowd the tight aisles to dance until the wee hours to an eight-piece band. In Cartagena, the night is always young.

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