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Accessible history and culture are raising Cartagena’s status with travelers

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For most North Americans, Cartagena, Colombia, is little recognized. Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage site with a colonial walled city, historic 17th-century fortress and lively, 24-hour streets, Cartagena remains unfamiliar to many.

However, Cartagena’s “unknown” status is clearly in jeopardy. Already the country’s primary resort city, Cartagena has emerged as a staple port of call on Panama Canal and Caribbean Antilles cruise itineraries.

Cartagena’s growing popularity is not hard to understand, as it offers all of the elements that make for an exciting port of call: extensive, accessible historical sites and cultural experiences, diverse shopping and sightseeing, and plenty of active, sun-and-fun opportunities.

The port and its majestic fortress were designated World Heritage sites in 1984 in recognition of the most extensive fortifications in South America. Cartagena is also a center of Caribbean economic activity and offers a wide variety of shopping districts, from upscale malls to lively retail avenues lined with local merchants and friendly street vendors.

For some, Cartagena recalls a legacy of headline-grabbing crime cartels and drug wars. Yet a decade of social, legal and legislative reforms have created a safer, happier country, and aggressive government tourism promotion has placed the focus on Cartagena’s incredible combination of top-shelf historic, cultural, sightseeing and shopping attractions, all within easy reach of cruise guests.

Arrival: Approaching Cartagena by sea is a spectacular experience. Travelers gaze upon a broad bay ringed by sandy shores and a long, narrow beach stacked with sparkling white condo and hotel towers. On the bay’s opposite end sits Ciudad Allamurada, the extensive walled Old City, with fine Spanish-colonial civil and military architecture. The massive Castillo de San Felipe, a 17th-century fort, is also visible. Many ships arrive around sunrise, and it’s worth awakening early to witness the spectacle. In the evening the bay glitters like a beautiful necklace of lights.

Independent Sightseeing: Upon disembarking, guests can take a shuttle bus or walk about 300 yards to the terminal building, a well-planned facility with telephones, a handful of small shops and ATMs, although there are no Internet facilities at present. Although the cruise port shares the facility with a working cargo port, the terminal area is remarkably clean and well maintained, unlike similarly shared facilities in other global ports.

The walkway from the pier to the cruise terminal is lined with colorfully painted, heart-shaped bollards featuring decorative art and Cartagena information. A taxi stand is attached to the terminal, and in a particularly helpful measure, rates to the main attractions are posted. However, as is advisable anywhere, passengers should settle on the rate and the route before getting into the taxi.

Walking from the cruise terminal to any Cartagena’s attractions is not practical. Virtually all are a 10- to 15-minute drive away, and as taxis are plentiful and inexpensive (less than US$10 to the downtown and Bocagrande districts), they represent the best option. Visitors so inclined can eschew organized tours and negotiate with a taxi driver to undertake tours of the Old City and the Bocagrande area, including lunch, with time for strolling and sightseeing.

Must-See Attractions: Cartagena’s can’t-miss sites begin with Cuidad Amurallada, the walled colonial city, the extensive, intact walls of which are a destination unto themselves, intertwined throughout with small and massive gates, cannons, redoubts and lookout points. Broad enough to walk across, the walls are lit by blue and gold floodlights at night, and the adjacent streets form pleasant vistas for evening strolling.

Within the walls, attractions include the Palacio de la Inquisición (Palace of Inquisition), the scene of ritualistic torture during the Spanish Inquisition and now a museum found in Plaza de Bolivar, a lush courtyard built around an impressive statue of Simon Bolivar. The building, recently restored to feature all of the original artifacts and implements, is one of many fine examples of Cartagena’s 18th-century “Colonial House” style of architecture, featuring finely carved wooden balconies, ceilings and windows.

The museum not only provides a history of the Inquisitorial Process of the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the inquisition, it highlights Cartagena and Colombia as well. An extensive module and floor map depicts Cartagena’s conquest by the Spanish during the 17th century and the dynamic interaction of Caribe, European and African cultures.

The district also features impressive 17th-century churches, including Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, dedicated to the priest St. Pedro Claver, canonized for his work with former slaves (Cartagena was one of the first sanctuaries of freed African slaves in the Americas), a gold museum and historic dungeons. Beyond the walled city is the Castillo de San Felipe, a commanding fortress designed by the Dutch engineer Richard Carr and built in 1657 by the Spanish to protect gold shipments from raiding pirates. Close by the fortress is La Popa hill, atop which sits the 17th-century Santa Cruz monastery.

The monastery provides stunning views of Cartagena, the bay and the surrounding residential and resort districts, and also features an airy, shaded interior courtyard that features historic maps as well as portraits of important religious and political figures in Colombian history. The chapel features a massive gold framework surrounding a beautifully rendered image of the Virgin of La Candelaria.

Off the Beaten Path: The island of Tierrabomba offers superior beaches to those surrounding Cartagena Bay. Bocachica, a small fishing village there, features a restored fortress (Fuerte de San Fernando) and open-air restaurants. For cruise visitors, it’s an all-day excursion. Boats depart every 30 to 45 minutes from Muelle de los Pegassos and take about 15 minutes.

If you’re determined to enjoy a Caribbean-style beach experience, negotiate with a taxi driver to venture to Playa Blanca, which features white sand and crystal-clear water and is generally recognized as one of Colombia’s best beaches, far cleaner than any of those surrounding the city. There are small venues for food and drinks and also a number of vendors of fruit, jewelry, massages, seafood and oysters.

About 10 miles outside Cartagena, and accessible via shore excursions, is the Volcán del Totumo, a 50-foot-high mud volcano. Visitors enter the crater for a skin-freshening (or so the story goes) mud bath. A nearby lagoon serves as a natural bath for washing off the mud. The mud bath and massages are normally included in the price of the excursion, but you will be expected to tip anyone who provides a massage, stores your belongings, holds your camera and even takes your picture while you are immersed in the mud. There are women to help you wash off in the lagoon; they should also receive a tip.

Conveniences: Internet cafes and shops, along with currency exchanges, a post office and banks, all can be found in several locations along Cra 1, the main street of the Bocagrande district.

Restaurants: Cartagena boasts various restaurants and food shops offering native cuisine, generally focusing on seafood and combining African, Arabian, European, Indian and other cultural influences. Coconut rice and plantains are the staple side dishes. Several eateries are found along Cra 1 in Bocagrande. In Ciudad Amurallada, the celebrated local artist and musician Juan del Mar operates three upscale eateries, one focusing on Peruvian fare, another on seafood and a third on gourmet pizzas.

Best Souvenirs: Emeralds are mined extensively in Colombia and are available at strong values. Visitors should avoid street vendors and instead check out any one of several jewelry shops within the walls of Ciudad Allamurada to secure the best merchandise.

Be Aware: Cartagena is a city where security is in evidence. In addition to the municipal police force and a visible and active military, there is a separate tourist police force. Visitors should be required to exercise no more—or less—the amount of caution they might in any large city.

For more information, http://visit --Brian Major

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