Introduction: Cartagena is a city of fantasy, imagination, and magic, the jewel of Colombia's long Caribbean Coast, and a booming port and tourism destination with enough architecture, history, culture, fine dining, and nightlife to captivate even the most sophisticated and demanding travelers. It is arguably the most important tourism destination in the country, and just a quick stroll through the beauty of the old city will quickly explain why.

Founded in 1533, it was the Spanish Empire's main port in the new world, and attracted much attention from pirates and privateers seeking to plunder the riches of the Spain-bound galleons. In response to Francis Drake's 1586 seige of the city, Cartagena began work on a series of elaborate fortifications known as "las murallas".


Orientation and Location: Cartagena is located in the middle of Colombia's Caribbean coastline, roughly half-way in between Panama to the west and Venezuela to the east. It's Colombia's fifth largest city at 900,000 in the city limits, and 1.2 million in the metropolitan area. The other two big cities on the coast are Barranquilla, just 75 miles northeast, and Santa Marta, 140 miles northeast.

How to Get There: Cartagena is one of the most accessible locations in Colombia, served by a major international airport, Rafael Nunez, many boats and cruise ships, and several excellent highways.

If you're flying into Cartagena, the airport is just 3km from the old city, and it's a standard $10.000 taxi fare. Most higher end hotels will happily send you a free shuttle. Both jetBlue and Spirit offer direct international flights to Cartagena, as well as Avianca (Colombia's national airline), Copa, and LAN. For domestic flights, Viva Colombia, Colombia's new low cost carrier, is also an option.

Many cruise ships and smaller passenger vessels arrive and depart from Cartagena. If you're interested in crossing to Panama via the San Blas islands, inquire in the hotels and hostels about transit by boat.

Cartagena is also readibly accessible from Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Medellin, and Bogota by bus. It's about 2 hours to Barranquilla, 4 to Santa Marta, 20 hours to Bogota, and 14 to Medellin. With the increasingly low cost air fares in Colombia, it's a much better idea to fly to Cartagena from Bogota or Medellin.


What to See: Cartagena is widely regarded as the most beautiful city in Colombia, due in no small part to its majestic colonial architecture and rich history. The old city is divided into three areas: southeastern Getsemani, northwestern El Centro, and northeastern San Diego. The geographic center, and heart of the city, is the Torre del Reloj, an impressive clock tower, where you'll always find something going on. Just northwest of here you'll find the Plaza de la Aduana, the city's civic center. 

Walk west of the Torre del Reloj and you'll find the city's Convention Center, and the Muelle, where you'll find boats departing for Playa Blanca, Isla Rosario, and a variety of other excursions. On the other side of the avenue, you'll spot the historic Iglesia/Convento de San Pedro Claver.

The city is surrounded by las Murallas (the walls), an impressive system of fortifications designed and implemented under the supervision of Europe's top military engingeers, following repeated attacks on Cartagena and its ships. Along the murallas you'll find picturesque towers, charming cafes, quaint bridges, and spectacular views of the Caribbean Sea.

And no visit to Cartagena would be complete without passing by Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, on the city's eastern edge. This impenetrable maze of tunnels, walls, and fortifications was the most impressive feat of military arquitecture by the Spanish Empire. From its vantage point, Spanish gunners could control any marine approach to Cartagena. In 1984 UNESCO listed it as a world heritage site.


Ambience: It is impossible to be bored in Cartagena. Whether you're interested in low-budget backpacking or five star luxury, you'll find it all in Cartagena. Backpackers would be well advised to head to the budget hostels in Getsemani along Calle de la Media Luna, while San Diego and el Centro offer up some of the finest (and most expensive) hotels in the country.

If you're on a backpacker budget, stroll around Getsemani for some of the best Italian food you'll find anywhere. Even the pizzerias, which are not typically Colombia's finer point, are excellent. There are also a number of good places serving up almuerzos ejecutivos. For finer dining, the area around Torre del Reloj/Plaza de la Aduana, and further into the Centro offer up world-class cuisine. The area is particularly strong in seafood and Peruvian cuisine.

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