This Caribbean port city boasts some of the finest Spanish colonial buildings in the world and has morphed into a cosmopolitan it destination, with the requisite top-notch restaurants, hip hotels and sometimes sky-high prices to match.
Cartagena, more formally known as Cartagena de Indias, is really a tale of two cities: an entirely walled-in, picturesque "old city" (a UNESCO World Heritage site) from the Spanish colonial era, when the city was one of three ports of call for the treasure fleets; and a neighboring modern beach resort—Bocagrande—that bears little resemblance to, and almost none of the charm of, its predecessor. The "new" Cartagena can be explored in an afternoon, or skipped altogether; it's the old colonial city that fascinates visitors, and with good reason. Beyond these two zones lies a sprawling and relatively impoverished metropolis of little touristic appeal.
The Cartagena city walls stand as a romantic reminder of its glorious past. Las murallas, as the walls are known, were the city's main defense against pirates in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. They attest to the stubbornness and resolution that Cartagena's inhabitants exhibited in defending themselves from the assaults of countless fleets and armies, and during the wars of independence from Spain at the beginning of the 19th century. The city has been spared from the social, political and drug-related violence that has afflicted the rest of the country. Hence, Cartagena has long been considered the safest, as well as the most attractive, of Colombian cities.
The Old City's narrow cobblestoned streets are enchanting. Emerald and leather shops fill restored and brightly painted colonial buildings, whose overhanging wooden balconies are festooned with flowering plants. Ornate churches with golden altars open onto grand public squares reminiscent of ancient Spanish cities. And if you climb las murallas, you'll be treated to wonderful views of the city's famous harbor, protected by numerous fortresses. You can also glimpse the high-rise hotels and condominiums of Bocagrande.
Cartagena is Colombia's No. 1 tourist destination and attracts a diverse group of international travelers, especially conference and convention types, and many others arrive by cruise ship. Cartagena is also a popular vacation destination for middle-class and wealthy Colombians, many of whom have invested in the city in recent years, adding to its panoply of boutique-hotels, fine restaurants and nightclubs.
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