Cartagena: Colombia’s Caribbean Gem

LEADcolombiaCartagenaImagine the high-rise skyline of the Australian Gold Coast. Imagine the bustling hive of activity of Thai beach resorts. Imagine the architecture of Andalusia. What do you get when you mix them altogether? Surprisingly, a Caribbean beachside city in Colombia.

Cartagena, also known as Cartagena de Indias (Cartagena of the West Indies), is a sun-drenched city in the north of Colombia with a history harking back to the era of pirates and Spanish colonialism, and a present that’s lively and diverse.

It is a combination of the laid-back South American mañana culture (everything will be done tomorrow, just you wait and see!) and the proud, fun-loving Colombian way of life.

Colombia as a travel destination isn’t everyone’s cup of coffee. South America’s second most-populous country, has a troubled past and a present plagued by bloody political conflicts, destabilizing guerrilla and paramilitary groups, mass kidnapping for ransom and powerful drug cartels.

It has an even worse reputation, and is perceived to offer only a few tourist attractions worth the risk. The United State’s Department of State warns of ongoing security concerns for travelers largely as a result of the illicit drug trade. However, it is also stated that “violence has continued to decrease markedly in most urban areas, including Bogotá, Medellin, Barranquilla and Cartagena.”

Boca Grande high rises, seen here in the distance, are a world apart from the lushness and relaxed pace of the Old City.
Boca Grande high rises, seen here in the distance, are a world apart from the lushness and relaxed pace of the Old City.

Since President Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002, his hardline approach called “democratic security” has notably increased Colombia’s stability and security by significantly boosting its military strength and police presence throughout the country. Due to the improved security, cruise ships are expected to return to the seaport of Cartagena in the fall of 2007.

Travelers to Colombia can experience summer, winter, autumn and spring at the same time, depending on their location. The Caribbean coastal lowlands in the tropical north are always hot.

The mountainous region of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, at an elevation of 18,700 feet (5,700 m) above sea level — and a mere 26 miles (42 km) from the coastline — boasts an alpine climate with cool temperatures, typically in the mid-50s or below.

At 8,661 feet (2640 m) above sea level, the capital and largest city, Bogotá (pop. 6.7 million), rarely heats up above a pleasant 68°F (20 C).

Stepping off the plane in tropical Cartagena though, the heat hits like the shots from colonial cannons as you wonder why you left the stable fall weather of Bogotá to be here.

It only takes the 10-minute drive from Rafael Núñez International Airport, in the neighborhood of Crespo, to the old part of the city, also called Walled City or Corralito de Piedra, to realize the answer: Mounted cannons on one side, the turquoise-blue Caribbean sea on the other, and straight ahead a horizon filled with apartment buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in the opening of the popular TV show CSI: Miami.

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