Cartagena, Colombia, Is The Hottest New Getaway In South America

Couple sitting with cannon in Cartagena

No longer associated with Pablo Escobar and the bloody drug wars of the 1980s, Colombia has recently become one of the hottest destinations in South America.

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About 1.8 million visitors went to Colombia in 2011, the last year for which tourism info is available — about 7.3 per cent more than the previous year. And about 11 per cent of those tourists visit Cartagena, a charming city on the northern coast of Colombia.

The historic Spanish colonial city on the Caribbean coast is a UNESCO World Heritage site. With its pastel-coloured buildings covered in bougainvillea flowers, cobblestone streets, and bustling open squares, Cartagena is the type of place that’s so perfectly preserved it almost feels fake in a Disney-esque type of way. There’s also fresh seafood, succulent fruits, and tropical cocktails, which you can enjoy in the open-air cafes and bars, some of which overlook the ocean.

It’s a colourful city that has become the hottest new getaway in South America — especially since JetBlue started offering direct flights from New York City last November.

Relax, soak up the culture, and enjoy Cartagena de Indias like a Cartagenero.

Enter the old city through the Clock Tower Gate (Puerta del Reloj).

Once you pass under the clock tower, you enter the Plaza de los Coches, the main square. It was once used as a slave market.

There's a statue of Pedro de Heredia, a Spanish conquistador who founded Cartagena, in the centre of the square.

Horse-drawn carriages line up in the plaza, waiting to take tourists around the old city.

A horse-drawn carriage ride costs about COP$35,000 to COP$45,000 (about US$19 to US$25).

Many of the streets are fairly narrow, with just enough room for a car (or horse-drawn carriage) to pass through.

Leafy Plaza San Diego is one of the most picturesque squares in the city.

Vendors sell fresh fruit — mango, papaya, coconut, watermelon — on the street.

The fruit is so sweet and juicy it almost tastes like candy.

There are also vendors who sell fresh coconut water. They slice open coconuts on the street, stick a straw in, and voila: a refreshing coconut beverage.

There's also a colourful flower market just outside the old city walls.

Grand old buildings are a testament to the Spanish explorers who came here in the 16th century. There are also beautiful old churches and cathedrals, like the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, which dates back to 1580, in the Plaza San Pedro de Claver.

Considering that temperatures in Cartagena average in the high 80s Fahrenheit year-round and the Caribbean sun can be brutal, shady squares are little oases where people escape the broiling heat.

Plaza Bolivar is a shady square with lots of benches, which are always taken.

You can also buy a straw Panama hat here to protect yourself from the sun.

People gather in the open-air cafes in Plaza Santo Domingo.

There's also a large sculpture of a reclining fat woman by Colombian artist Fernando Botero in the centre of Plaza Santo Domingo — a favourite photo spot.

La Vitrola is one of Cartagena's most iconic restaurants. It has a Cuban-inspired vibe, Caribbean and international food, and live music every night.

Cartagena has access to incredible fresh fish, and ceviche is one of the most popular local dishes. There are tons of varieties of ceviche — it can be made with shrimp, octopus, and endless varieties of fish — but one of the best places to get ceviche is at La Cevicheria.

In general the food is Caribbean-inspired, with tropical citrus flavours and ingredients, fruit drinks, and lots of fish, like this grilled mahi mahi with orange glaze from La Cocina de Pepina.

But there's also plenty of fantastic street food. You'll see vendors selling pinchos (skewers of grilled meats), fruit drinks, and arepas: ground corn or flour pancakes that are grilled and filled with cheese or meats.

These flour arepas were stuffed with butter and a salty white cheese.

Other vendors line up in Plaza de la Trinidad, selling everything from arepas de choclo (corn arepas) to sausages and candies.

At sunset, people gather for cocktails and ocean views at Cafe Del Mar, a bar right on the old ramparts.

Nearby, couples cozy up on the 16th-century city walls, looking out at the ocean. It's very romantic.

At night, Plaza de Santo Domingo is bustling.

People eat and drink at outdoor cafes, with live music and people-watching for entertainment.

There's a very relaxed, laid-back vibe here.

Now explore another hot destination.

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