If Tayrona is the natural jewel in Colombia’s Caribbean Crown, then Cartagena de Indias is without doubt the City highlight. A major port during Spanish Colonial times, the walled city and fortress were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 and the tourists have been pouring in ever since.
Cartagena is split into 3 main tourist areas, the walled city, Getsemani (where the majority of the backpacker hostels are) and Bocagrande, a beach and high-rise hotel area obviously trying to be Miami, and one of the least inspiring places I’ve been to in South America.
I’ve been to a few Colonial towns in South America (Sucre in Bolivia, Salta in Argentina, Cusco in Peru, Ouro Preto in Brasil, Villa de Leyva in Colombia all spring to mind) and along with Cartagena they all have one thing in common that distinguishes them from similar historical sites in Europe.
Whereas in Europe, a similarly well-preserved historical town would be a Disneyfied site, beautiful, yet devoid of any soul, full of high-rate art galleries, overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops, in South America these places, are alive, they are lived in. This is not to say they don’t cater to (and in some cases obviously rip-off) tourists, but on the whole everyday life continues around, and despite, you.
We spent 2 days in the Old Town, simply wandering around enjoying the atmosphere, the architecture and the sea breeze. It’s a very walkable place, probably the best thing you can do there is just amble. Every corner holds a new surprise, every building is begging to be photographed. Jewel in the Crown indeed.