Loving My Time in Cartagena

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Jan Butchofsky-Houser / Corbis

An overview of Puerta del Reloj, the main gateway that leads to the walled city of Old Town Cartagena, Colombia

"Why are you risking your life for a vacation?" a close friend said with a gasp, aghast when I told her I planned to spend my postelection holiday in Cartagena, Colombia. In fact, few of my friends seemed to think it was a good idea: I couldn't persuade any of them to share my rental house in the city's walled Old Town. If they had heard of Cartagena at all, it was only as the backdrop of the classic 1980s romantic caper Romancing the Stone, a place of corrupt juntas and bodice-ripper-reading drug dealers — a parody turned deadly serious by four decades of civil war, Pablo Escobar and cocaine cartels. But what my friends — who spent their vacations standing in line at Space Mountain or screaming down the Atlantis waterslide — failed to realize is that Cartagena has become one of the Caribbean's most charming hidden gems.

Though this port city is overtly Caribbean, what draws people to it is its colonial Spanish soul, best captured perhaps in the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, its most famous resident. If you had any illusions that García Márquez's cilantro-spun stories were fictional, a few days in Cartagena will change your mind. One baby-faced cabdriver, looking as if he had just stepped off the pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude, speaks of his 18 children and 30 grandchildren, many named some iteration of José. Characters like these aren't hard to find in Cartagena. And the cobblestone, bougainvillea-draped Old Town, with its bright colors, 18th century mansions and roving salsa bands, is like a spiffed-up fusion of New Orleans and Havana. (See the 100 best novels of all time.)

Cartagena's Old Town was once ransomed to the Spanish crown for 2 million gold pieces by Sir Francis Drake, and it was for centuries Spain's vault for its vast South American holdings. The city earned the nickname La Heroica, having endured hundreds of sieges throughout the 17th and 18th centuries — as evidenced by the 400-year-old walls, made of mined coral, that encircle the city. But for all of Cartagena's battlements, in the modern era it has been plagued by crime, its potential as a UNESCO World Heritage site marred by kidnappings and murders. (See pictures of Colombia's guerrilla army.)

In 2002, upon his election, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe made it a priority to secure Cartagena's walls. Emulating London, Uribe installed a 137-camera surveillance system that covers all of the Old Town and tourist areas. Murders dropped from 66 in 2002 to just 23 last year, 10 fewer than in my hometown of Washington. Uribe then lobbied Washington to declare the city safe for U.S. travel, a designation that opened the floodgates to cruise ships. In the past five years, foreign visitors to Colombia have more than doubled, from 1 million to 2.6 million a year. From 2006 to 2007 alone, the country saw a 13.2% increase in tourism, which is now Colombia's third largest industry.

"This stability and growth has attracted local and international investors, and even expat Colombians are going home to get in on the action," says Chantal McLaughlin, an editor for Suzanne's Files, a travel, dining and lifestyle website. "A host of new upscale boutique hotels and restaurants have opened there recently, and more are under construction, many in renovated historic town houses."

It's no wonder that travelers are fast discovering this city. During the day, the temperature hovers at an eternal 88°F, and the heat rises languidly off the cobblestone streets. Like the locals, you can retreat into the cool, moist refuges of the ancient stone homes, most with walls so thick that air-conditioning becomes redundant. One of my favorite places to chill: Getsemani, the tiny European-style section of the Old Town — once the poor neighborhood just across the moat but now the cool Greenwich Village–style area of the city. Getting around the Old Town is a cinch; cabs cost about 5,000 pesos ($2.50) anywhere within the walls.

You can also duck in from the heat and visit any number of Cartagena's cultural gems — from the stunning Museo de Oro (Gold Museum, at Plaza Bolívar) and Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art, right off la Plaza de San Pedro) to the Cathedral, which offers an exhaustively comprehensive audio tour for $8. (I gave up after about 15 minutes.) There's also the delightfully twisted Palacio de la Inquisición, which, despite its grand name, is a tiny museum that features some of the many torture devices used to elicit confessions of witchcraft. A 15-minute cab ride away, there's the historic fort Castillo de San Felipe, built in 1657 and site of the crocodile-filled penultimate scene in Romancing the Stone.

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