The word Colombia doesn’t exactly mean “beach vacation” to most people — more like “war zone”. But things change, and travel authorities like the Lonely Planet say the country once known for guerrilla warfare is safe for travellers again. So when a great package deal to Cartagena came up last year, I decided to give it a try. After all, life’s an adventure, right?
Cartagena, as it turns out, is far from the more notorious parts of the country. It’s a Caribbean port city, sitting on the country’s north shoulder. That has given it a rich and colourful history, still on display in its beautiful old walled city. It’s also provided some decent beaches. So you can have your pick: the beach, the history, or a little of each.
I chose the last option, with a stay at an all-inclusive hotel on the beach that served as a handy base for excursions into the city centre. And as you might expect, I added a little side trip to do some birding.
My hotel, the Dorado Plaza, was located in the city’s answer to Miami Beach, a long peninsula called Bocagrande (“big mouth”, in Spanish) because it borders the bigger entrance into the city’s harbour. That entrance was blocked off long ago to stop enemy ships from entering the city — but more on that later.
The hotel was basic but agreeable, and the broad, sandy beach it fronted had the same Miami vibe as the Bocagrande itself: hot sun, lots of action and people everywhere. That included an army of hawkers who spent their days trying to sell you food, drinks, trinkets and massages. Not my scene. However, on a walk across the peninsula I found a calmer beach, with shaded areas for picnics and a slightly less annoying parade of hawkers.
You’ve never heard of the Dorado Plaza, I’m sure, but just up the street stood a better-known landmark, the first-class Hotel Caribe. That’s where U.S. Secret Service agents partied it up a few years ago while waiting for President Obama to attend the Summit of Americas, grabbing world headlines.
Cartagena’s real attraction, however, is a 20-minute cab ride downtown, where the original 16th-century walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, stands almost intact. As I approached, I could see the huge stone wall built to protect the city from English pirates. It still encircles most of the old town, and in some spots it’s 15 metres thick, with enough room to contain dungeons.
Entering the old quarter through the original arched doorway, I found myself walking back through time. Many, if not most of the buildings in the old town are still there, and in almost original shape. It’s an incredible feat of preservation, which is still going on. There were churches, shops, government buildings, palaces, houses — pretty much a whole working city.
The old city also has modern facilities, like hotels, museums, tourist shops and Colombia’s emblematic coffee shop, the Juan Valdez Cafe. But what captivated me the most were the streets lined with lovely old buildings painted a rainbow of bright colours.
Here and there you run into the inner side of the great defensive wall, which looks like this.
The rest of Cartagena is unexceptional, though there are some interesting bohemian areas full of funky bars and restaurants. But a 20-minute walk from the old city is Cartagena’s other major attraction (and second UNESCO site), the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. This is the biggest, strongest fort the Spanish ever built in one of their colonies, and it’s well worth a visit, even if you’re not a history buff.
The fort was situated to guard the harbour from ships entering through the Bocachica, or small mouth, which was the only entrance once the Spanish blocked the Bocagrande. And its massive form is an imposing sight, rising up on a big hill overlooking the city and harbour.
There are ramparts, lookouts, batteries with cannons, and underneath it all, an incredible system of tunnels. And they’re open so you can walk through them, stumbling along in the half-dark like a character from the Pirates of the Caribbean.
There’s also a room with a video that tells the story of the great battle fought here in 1741 during the War of Jenkins’ Ear (I swear I’m not making this up). It’s quite a story: a Spanish admiral called Blas de Lezo, missing an arm, a leg and an eye, leading an army of misfits, versus a powerful English naval assault that had them vastly outnumbered. Who won? Miraculously, the Spanish.
The best part is that the English admiral, Edward Vernon, was so confident that he sent news of a victory to England, and a medal was struck showing him accepting Blas de Lezo’s surrender. Not so fast, Eddie.
During my stay I also travelled to the small, pretty city of Santa Marta to go birding in the mountains with a local guide. Ironically, on my return I ended up getting better bird pictures in some marshland near the quiet beach I mentioned earlier. Here’s a lapwing, a bird I last saw in Puntarenas, Chile. So I’ve seen one at the bottom of South America and one at the top. Wonder if they have them in between …
Cartagena probably won’t displace Miami or Cancun as a travel capital, but the city’s best sights are worth a visit if you haven’t been. And there are other things to see and do, like taking a boat trip out to the Islas del Rosario, or visiting the Lodo El Totumo volcano, where you can take a bath in volcanic mud. The best part: the odds are you won’t see a guerrilla or a drug lord anywhere.