As overtourism overwhelms Earth’s most popular places, Wide Open World seeks emerging, offbeat but equally compelling destinations.
If you like old, walled, seaside cities with cobblestone streets, brightly painted buildings and bougainvillea-draped balconies, you’ll love Cartagena de Indias. Sensual, steamy, tropical, colonial, sunny, playful, stunning—the superlatives for Cartagena go on and on. And it only takes a short stroll to understand why: this small Caribbean city is truly an amazing and relatively unknown destination, to many Americans anyway. Thanks to Romancing the Stone, I’ve been fascinated with Cartagena for years. Which is ironic because the scenes depicting the city were actually filmed in Mexico. And for good reason: dangerous, drug-trafficking Colombia was off-limits to outsiders for years. But the last decade has brought remarkable change to this incredible South American country and if you’re inclined to visit, Cartagena should be the first stop. Founded in 1533 by the Spaniards, this World Heritage Site seethes with history, passion and beauty. And it’s hot—both in temperature and reputation. Lying so close to the equator, every day is pretty similar: high humidity and lots of sunshine. Then, a gorgeous sunset followed by cooling breezes. Most visitors stay inside the walled city or in nearby Bocagrande, a sandy strip of beach with big waves, high-rise hotels and trendy restaurants.
Best Time to Visit
Because Cartagena’s tropical temperature remains pretty consistent year-round, weather isn’t as important a consideration as holidays. While North Americans seem oblivious to Cartagena, South Americans know a lot about it. Christmas, New Year's and Easter weeks are busy with vacationing Brazilians, Argentines, Peruvians and native Colombians. So be sure to pay attention to holidays, events and festivals when making plans. Otherwise, Cartagena is pretty affordable with decent services and good food.
Cartagena lies in Colombia’s far north, with a plum spot on the Caribbean. It’s served by many airlines.
Keep in Mind
Is Colombia safe? It’s the most common concern expressed by potential visitors. Colombia is a lot safer than it used to be and Cartagena is considered to be the safest city in the country, well-patrolled by police. And that makes sense because it’s the crown jewel of Colombia’s tourism industry. I've walked all over Cartagena (and Bogotá and Medellín, too) and have never felt threatened. My suggestion is to bone up on Colombia—travel sites, blogs, etc. The more I read, the more empowered and less afraid I became. I also downloaded the U.S. State Department’s Smarter Traveler app. With a few finger taps on your mobile phone, you’ll get the latest news—on any country, not just Colombia. I also signed up for STEP: the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. It lets the State Department know you’re in the country and also sends alerts.
The official Visit Colombia website is a good first stop.
Lonely Planet and Frommer’s have solid online guides as well.