Why go now?
An historic 16th-century port city nestled alongside the Caribbean Sea, it’s no secret that Cartagena de Indias (commonly known as Cartagena) is one of Colombia’s prettiest jewels. Come for the old town’s stunning Unesco World Heritage Site’s colonial architecture, stay for the tropical islands and eternal summer weather. While the cobbled streets and vibrant façades might teem with cruise ship passengers, escape with a sojourn to nearby beaches. November is dedicated to Carnaval, the ultimate Caribbean fiesta that takes over Colombia’s fifth-largest city.
Get your bearings
The compact walled old town is Cartagena’s heart and soul, home to charming leafy squares, colonial mansions converted into boutique hotels and well-preserved churches. Sir Francis Drake tried – and failed – to destroy Santa Catalina de Alejandria Cathedral (1) in 1586. Two miles away, San Felipe de Barajas Fortress (2) overlooks the city. Cross through Torre del Reloj (3) past the docks to reach hip Getsemaní neighbourhood (4). Beaches run along the northwest and southwest, and the latter is home to Bocagrande (5), Cartagena’s answer to Miami. The tourist office is on Plaza de la Aduana (6) (0057 5 6601583; cartagenadeindias.travel) and is open Monday to Saturday from 9am-12pm, 1pm-6pm; Sundays 9am-5pm.
Take a hike
Start at Parque de Bolívar (7), a former bullfighting ring turned leafy urban jungle, which houses a monument honouring liberator Simón Bolivar. You can also stop by Zenú Gold Museum (8), open Tuesday to Saturday 9am-5pm and Sunday 10am-3pm; opposite is Palacio de la Inquisición (9), a former jail and torture chamber with a grisly past. Head to Plaza Fernandez de Madrid (10), dropping in at Santo Toribio church (11), to see the enormous entrances and their iconic knockers; maritime shapes indicate they were once a sea merchant’s abode.
Colombia’s most famous literary son resided on the corner of Del Curato street (12) and wandering the balmy narrow lanes gives a sense of Gabriel García Márquez’s fictitious Macondo. Calle de los 7 Infantes (13), one of the city’s most picturesque streets, is a must-saunter. From there, head to the three key plazas, De las coches (14), De la Aduana (15) and San Pedro Claver (16), where slaves were traded, imports arrived and the 17th-century monastery where defender of slaves Peter Claver lived respectively. Make sure you take in Peace Square (17) and the clock tower…