On the northern coastline of Colombia is the city of Cartagena, where it sits on the edge of the Caribbean Sea, surrounded by kilometres of beaches. The city dates back to 1533 and its colonial history is still highly visible. The old city is surrounded by the walls built by the Spanish to keep out invaders and runs nine kilometres around. But you won’t find cannons along those walls; those nooks and crannies are now occupied by lovers.

Indeed, the atmosphere is undeniably romantic. Notable residents include the Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His novel-turned-movie Love in the Time of Cholera was filmed in the old city, where horse-drawn carriages dominate the streets at night.

This mix of old and modern makes for lots of interesting shopping, architecture, cuisine and history.

Cartagena is well known for its beauty — and beauties. The national beauty pageant is held there every year, with the winner going on to the Miss Universe pageant.

Nearby islandslike Isla Baru and Isla Palma are just a ferry ride away, but that's far enough to get away from the hustle and bustle while allowing for day trips to visit the mainland.

 

Colombia is stepping up its efforts to attract tourism after years of decline. Many of the top international hotel and resort chains are building in Cartagena right now. Expect it to become a major hotspot for travel in the coming years.

Getting there

From Dec. 22 2011 to April 26 2012, Air Transat will be flying direct from Toronto and Montreal to Cartagena. If you’re looking for an island getaway on Isla Baru or Isla Palma, Air Transat will arrange all transfer details to get you to and from the islands.

Where to stay

Stay close to the action by reserving a room at the Hotel Caribe, the first hotel to open in Cartagena in 1945. Everyone who’s anyone who’s visited the city has stayed there – diplomats, celebrities, you name it. This five-star hotel was appointed a National Monument in 1982 and it’s full of history as well as luxury. Visitors can book their stay to include all meals – but alcoholic drinks are not included.

There are all-inclusive resorts across the area as well. The Decameron Group has locations in Cartagena, Isla Baru and Isla Palma. For a quieter stay not far from the city, try the Grand Occidental Cartagena. The resort just opened in July so everything’s brand new.

What to do

A trip to old Cartagena is a must. Walk the walls that ring the area and head to the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. This old castle served as the main base against invaders and remains one of the more complex Spanish military fortifications ever built. The twists and turns of the tunnels within its walls will astound you.

Wander the streets and you’ll discover the Portal de los Dulces, or Street of Sweets. Fans of Love in the Time of Cholera will remember a pivotal scene set there. It’s also just a great place to try the many Colombian sweets.

Head outside the city to find natural wonders, like El Totumo Mud Volcano. It’s a short ride away to the town of Santa Catalina. Visitors climb a steep but short set of stairs and plunge into a refreshing pool of mud. You can’t sink to the bottom — it’s like being suspended in Jell-O.

Where to dine

There is no shortage of excellent restaurants in Cartagena, which is known for seafood that you can get at nearly every restaurant.

Right in the middle of old Cartagena, across from the Cathedral de San Pedro Claver, is Cafe San Pedro. It’s got a large patio as well as a beautiful modern interior dining room. Just down the street you’ll find La Vitrola, one of the best known fine dining restaurants in the city. The food and service are faultless — yet prices are not exorbitantly high by Canadian standards. Keep an eye out for politicians and actors that make regular stops here.

Oh, and don’t overlook the street food.

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