CARTAGENA, Colombia — Call it the End of the Spanish Main for its colorful role during the swashbuckling 16th Century, or Heroic City for its struggles and sacrifices spearheading independence from the mother country; what matters most is that this town is perhaps one of the most unspoiled examples of colonial Spain in the New World.
Walk the narrow streets of Old Town feasting your eyes and senses on the Iberian grace of intricate baroque portals, ornate churches, flower-strewn balconies and patios, lovely plazas and the panza , a street-level bay window that once allowed protected young women to carry on their courtships without leaving their homes.
Cartagena de Indias was founded in 1533, its early history rich in gold, silver and emeralds being shipped through to Spain. The world-renowned forts and ramparts walling the port are a massive 50 feet thick in places.
Enjoy the colorful palenqueras fruit vendors, lottery women, shoeshine boys and rainbow-hued buses of Old Town. Then move around the bay to a 20th-Century resort with hotels, good restaurants, shops and galleries, and fine white beaches.
Here to there: Fly Eastern or Avianca to Bogota, Avianca onward. Royal Viking Lines, Princess, Cunard and Holland-American cruise ships stop here. Take a taxi from airport to hotel area in newer section for about $2.25.
Getting around: Cabs are cheap, about $1 from most hotels to Old Town. Buses are an even better deal, about nine cents a ride, but don't climb aboard at rush hour. Horse-drawn carriages are plentiful, reasonable and fun. Take one to see the floodlighted ramparts and streets of Old Town at night.
How long/how much? Most stay at least a week for resort living and the many day-trips along the coast or to islands. Prices for dining and lodging are low, low.
A few fast facts: Colombia's peso recently traded at 180 to the dollar, but don't change too many as it's difficult to change back. And put aside $15 for departure tax, traveler's checks not accepted. Weather very pleasant most of the year, seldom over 80 degrees, short rains in August and September. There's poverty in Colombia, so don't flash your bankroll or leave purses unattended.
Getting settled in: Even a five-star is reasonable here; the Cartagena Hilton (El Laguito; $32-$74 double) is just about 5 years old. Three sides on the point of a beach, most rooms with balconies, fine pool, tennis courts, an excellent assortment of shops and two restaurants. Rooms spacious and colorful, children stay for free.
Smaller in concept and a step down in stars, Las Velas (Calle las Velas 1; $40) has a beach, pool, cool marble lobby softened by plants and white wicker furniture. More wicker in the view restaurant.
Hotel Caribe (Calle 3, No. 1; $46) is a Moorish study in slightly faded elegance, a place where affluent Colombians once spent their honeymoons. Now the lobby could use a bit of work, entry lawn the same. But huge pool is surrounded by lovely and luxuriant grounds in rear, and they were booked to the rafters.
Old Town has only one that we would barely recommend. Plaza Bolivar (Plaza Bolivar; $18) is a colonial building on a beautiful square, clean rooms, friendly manager, but modest is an understatement.
Regional food and drink: Cartagena's cooking differs somewhat from the rest of the country, using rice cooked in coconut milk a great deal. The influences are a combination of Indian, African and Spanish, not particularly spicy but with Caribbean overtones in many dishes. Lots of seafood, again cooked often in coconut milk or in a Creole sauce of onions, peppers and tomatoes. Pastel de arroz is a delicious blend of seasoned rice, potatoes and various kinds of meat wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked, frequently served with fried plantains.
Coffee addicts have always looked forward to a cup of Colombian, which some places serve free with your food. Local liquor is Ron Tresesquinos rum, taken neat or mixed with just about anything, all versions cheap. Roman Kola is a popular soft drink, red for some reason and sweet stuff indeed.
Moderate-cost dining: Club de Pesca is built into city ramparts overlooking the water, an irresistible place where you dine in an ancient patio under gigantic rubber trees. A strolling trio plays "Nights of Cartagena," and you never want to leave. Mixed seafood platter here about $8, shrimp marinated in coconut milk before cooking, numerous local fish fried or broiled $4.50. An extensive menu, sprinkled with Spanish dishes, all good, and the atmosphere is spellbinding.
Cartagena Hilton's Tinajero de Dona Rosa restaurant also does a formidable job with seafood, jumbo shrimp prepared any number of ways for $8.50, red snapper with fennel $6, lobster bisque $3.50. Decor is a refined copy of a rustic Spanish kitchen, very pleasant.