How do you know a formerly dicey destination has now become not only safe, but reassuringly mainstream?
As I wrote in my “where to go” list for 2017, one indication is seeing Prince Charles of Great Britain lunching at the next table with his wife, Camilla. That was the experience of my friend Darren when he and his wife honeymooned in Cartagena, Colombia, two years ago.
The happy couple wanted romance, of course, but also someplace that felt different from their usual vacation spots — classics like South Beach, Paris and Bermuda. Cartagena could join that list someday (and prices are already well on their way), yet it still seems more adventurous. I suggested the UNESCO World Heritage city for its romantic tropical atmosphere, lively Latin culture and upscale tourism infrastructure.
While the first two qualities have defined Cartagena for ages, the third is a byproduct of Colombia’s new era — one in which peace and security are finally taking root after a half-century of drug-fueled civil war. The official truce was signed just weeks ago, but violence has been receding for a decade (while rising precipitously next door in Venezuela, another, sadder story).
With its dramatic, mountain-ringed cityscapes and a sophisticated cultural scene, Colombia deserves the increased attention it is getting from tourists. And Cartagena is one of the closest destinations for Americans seeking Old World historical charm — just a 2.5-hour flight from Miami, or an hour from Bogotá by plane. Cartagena also has a near-perfect climate, averaging about 80 degrees day and night, year-round.
Even Jewish life is re-emerging, as the descendants of conversos (forcibly converted Iberian Jews) are rediscovering their Jewish roots in cities across the country. That phenomenon has fueled the growth of a tiny Jewish community in Cartagena; a handful of families worship and celebrate holidays at the Sephardic Israelite synagogue.
Centuries ago and just a short ride away, their ancestors were victims of persecution at the Palace of the Inquisition, a pretty white building whose collection inside — including rusty instruments of torture — reveals one of the ugliest chapters in Hispanic Jewish history. The palace is home to Cartagena’s historical museum, tracing 500 turbulent years of conflict and culture under a Caribbean sun.
But what you notice first in Cartagena (and what makes it a lavish, unforgettable honeymoon) is the saturation of colors. Banana-yellow buildings, balconies in turquoise and candy pink, and stucco façades the color of persimmon all shimmer under that equatorial sun, whose brilliant light makes fruit-stand papayas, mangos, and exotic melons look like Gauguin painted them.
Modern Cartagena is a sprawling, Miami-style metropolis of glass high rises overlooking a sandy beach, but tourists head for the 16th-century walled settlement that faces the sea, crowned by a clock tower and dotted with palm-fringed plazas.
And despite the Spanish-colonial ambiance, Old City Cartagena is hardly frozen in time. The ancient cobblestone streets are well maintained; youthful crowds stroll amid the upscale jewelry stores and artisanal gelaterias. Amid the red and yellow buildings of the Plaza de Santo Domingo, the 20th-century’s bold, surreal aesthetic commands attention in an oversized nude sculpture by Fernando Botero, perhaps the country’s most famous artist.
Cartagena has several attractive modern galleries, as well as a handful of museums, but the city itself is the main sight. Stroll along the ancient walled fortifications, savoring sunset views over the Caribbean. Or wander over to Getsemaní, another historic district that, say locals, went from derelict to hipster seemingly overnight.
Well into the warm, humid evening, throngs of people chatter in pizzerias and bounce to the pulsing beat of salsa and reggaetón. As you roam, pick up a cold, slushy drink to enjoy; sipping while strolling is not only legal, it’s practically de rigueur in sultry Cartagena. Eating and drinking can easily be the main activity in a city full of tapas bars, cocktail joints and fresh fish restaurants with patios overlooking the sea.
Speaking of the sea: Everyone tells you the best beaches aren’t in Cartagena proper — and as with any large city, they’re right. As enjoyable as it is to simply hang out in Cartagena, most visitors venture outside the urban hub to explore quieter beaches and picturesque coves nearby, or take a short ferry ride to one of the islands to the south (Playa Blanca is a popular choice).
Wherever you go, the optimism of a newly liberated country is palpable — so join the celebration, raising a glass of rum to Colombia’s future in the city most evocative of its past.