Cartagena’s Old City – an up and coming destination
I’d heard and read a lot about Cartagena, Colombia’s UNESCO-listed old capital on the Caribbean coast. My travel friends kept telling me I had to travel to Columbia and when I finally got there, I was not disappointed and now understand why Cartagena’s popularity as a destination is on the rapid rise. It certainly offers great contrasts having been described as elegant and crumbling, sexy and scruffy, colonial and modern. And if you like colonial architecture, this city is a must-visit. In my view, it’s equal to Antigua, Guatemala, which is generally regarded as Central America’s best-preserved colonial city.
There are three sections to Cartagena’s Old City contained within some 9kms of Spanish fortified stone walls, which are in a continual state of maintenance.
First, there’s fashionable San Diego where boutique hotels, trendy restaurants, bars and cafés and intriguing shops are to be found amid a maze of cobbled streets and winding laneways. Don’t be put off because it’s touristy – it has a fabulous atmosphere and there’s a photo to be taken around every corner. Dinner in a nice restaurant will cost about $US20 – including a beer – so it’s good value. Over the years it has become very expensive to buy in this area where, so I’m told, properties rarely come on the market and a small house can cost millions! Drop the sightseeing routines and be sure to get lost in this area or you really won’t experience the alluring atmosphere. My personal view … spend at least a morning plus an evening visiting this part of town. Better still, repeat the exercise on another day and you’ll feel like you know the place!
The second area is where locals live and it too is a must-see. Up-and-coming Getsemani is also filled with atmosphere but one vastly different to that of the tourist area. Just a few kilometres from San Diego, you’ll notice it’s significantly poorer and well-worn but also colourful and intriguing with lots of graffiti and street art. As you walk through the narrow roads, catch a glimpse into people’s houses and see how they live. This doesn’t bother the friendly locals who are more than likely to give you a warm “ola”. You’ll notice backpackers and cheaper places to eat and drink, including some trendy food vendors.
In between these two sections is La Metuna. Consisting of government offices, a few higher rise buildings and local housing, there’s not much on offer for the tourist.
One final piece of advice – time permitting, head out at the crack of dawn for a mangrove tour in a wooden dug-out boat. The canoe owner will do all the hard work while you just pop on a life jacket, get your camera ready and enjoy. You’ll see amazing bird life, the locals fishing, amazing mangroves and serene scenery. Well worth the effort!
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