We recently became familiar with the charming and historic city of Cartagena, on Columbia's northern coast facing the Caribbean.
Our conclusion: a hidden gem that offers a mixture of historic attractions, great shopping, awesome food and great value-for-money.
Cartagena is Colombia's most popular destination for tourists; the historic centre has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1984. According to UNESCO: "Cartagena has the most extensive fortifications in South America. A system of zones divides the city into three neighbourhoods: San Pedro, with the cathedral and many Andalusian-style palaces; San Diego, where merchants and the middle class lived; and Gethsemani, the 'popular quarter'."
Situated on a sheltered bay facing the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena was an essential link in the routes of the New World. Spanish-built fortifications dating back to the 1500s are one of the city's key attractions to this day. One never tires strolling along the narrow streets of the colonial walled city (though passing horse carriages and taxis can be a bit of a challenge!)
There's no better base from which to explore the city that the Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa, located on the square by the same name in the historic district. With impeccable, friendly service and great food and beverage options - not to mention the rooftop pool and sundeck - you may be tempted to stay put on the property. A former convent, it boasts colonial and republican styles.The centrepiece is Harry Sasson restaurant, which offers a variety of Colombian and international dishes. The owner keeps a sharp eye over the operation during peak periods. Heavy on fresh seafood, we can faithfully recommend the crab, ceviche and octopus dishes. An extensive selection of wines from major wine-growing regions of the world will please the most demanding connoisseurs.
Speaking of food, just two blocks away is the extremely popular La Vitrola. An old colonial house converted into a restaurant, it is also renowned for its sumptuous dishes, excellent service and live Cuban music. The ceviche and octopus carpaccio are to die for here!
Cartagena has many small boutiques that sell top Colombian designers. The prices are moderate to pricey and it pays to shop around. Casual strolls will also reward you with small, charming cafes, bars and hole-in-the-wall eateries. A visit to El Baron bar (on Plaza San Pedro) is a must for its hand-made cocktails.