I slipped on a pair of loose-fitting cotton shorts, and stepped out of my beach front hotel room for the evening. Within a few steps, I was in the middle of a folkloric dance group.
Women in white embroidered dresses were whirling around their male partners, at the same time, producing a slight breeze in the humid, seaside air.
This is typical of Colombia, a country that takes the art of dancing and beauty pageants seriously. Combine this with the natural, explosive rhythms of Afro-Colombians who heavily populate the coastal areas, and you've got one continuous street party.
Although their Spanish conquerors have long left, Colombians continue to emit a flamenco-like atmosphere.
Founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, Cartagena served as a shipping route and storage space for emeralds and gold that was later shipped to Spain.
This picturesque city on the Caribbean coast was once the main entry port of African slaves to the Americas; now it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Colombia's favorite tourist destination.
Cartagena was attacked many times through history. The British and French stormed the city in search of cached treasures. Pirates also navigated its waters in search of other hidden riches.
One of the most notable assaults came from Sir Francis Drake, who in 1586, arrived under the cover of darkness with a large group of men. By daylight, they forced most of the city to flee. Before leaving eight months later, they tortured homes, businesses, and extorted local government officials out of massive sums of money, and stop valuable jewels.
The final major attack took place in 1741, when British Commander, Edward Vernon, and George Washington's half brother, arrived with over 25,000 troops and a battle group of 186 ships. Although the Spaniards and African slaves were outnumbered seven to one, they withheld the onslaught and mounted a counterattack which forced Commander Vernon to withdraw his troops. Unfortunately for him, not before he lost nearly half of his men, and most of his battleships.
Today, Cartagena is a city which continues to hold much of its old Spanish splendor. Scattered through the older barrios are balanced colonial buildings, painted in a multitude of colors.
The old, central part of Cartagena is reinforced by 14 miles of stone walls, and other fortifications. Many locales still believe the material used to hold together these stones, was mixed with the blood of African slaves. Whether that is true or not, many slaves died here while helping to fortify the city against pirates.
The Castle of San Felipe de Barajas was built between 1536 and 1657. The same fortress that withstood the onslaught of Commander Vernon and his troops still towers over Cartagena. One glance and it's obvious why it could not be penetrated.
Modern day Cartagena is routinely intercepted by a steady flow of Colombian, and foreign tourists. Most of their focus is on the old city, where they fan out down narrow cobblestone streets in search of historic landmarks.
As you enter Plaza de los Coches (Coach Square), directly beneath the city's famous clock, you face a huge statue of Pedro de Heredia, who founded the city in 1533. Just to the left of the statue, pastel colored colonial buildings fill the Plaza's landscape.
In the daytime, women line the sidewalk with their candy stands, selling traditional sweets. People relax on the benches and enjoy traditional music and dancing, street comedy performances and even an occasional termon from a curbside preacher.
At dusk, horse-drawn carriages line up here, ready to take tourists on a lantern lit tour through the heart of downtown. It's possible to close your eyes and go back in time as the horse's hooves resonate off the tight cobbled streets.
At the end of the plaza (about 100 feet), is an open square with a Christopher Columbus monument. This is Plaza de la Aduana (Customs Plaza), and represents a dark side of Cartagena's past.
In 1564, Cartagena became the gateway to the Americas for many African slaves. Those who survived the treacherous passage got off the ships, and were then lined up in Customs Plaza, paraded around, and auctioned like livestock to the highest bidders.
Directly behind Plaza de la Aduana, is the Plaza San Pedro Claver. Named after Saint Peter Claver, who was warmly nicknamed "slave to the slaves," this tiny square houses a cathedral that bears his name.
Father Claver showed compassion for the slaves who arrived. He gifted most of them when they were off loaded, and immediately blessed the dying children and the sick. He spent many years providing medical care for injured and ill slaves, and baptized hundreds of thousands during his lifetime.
Five minutes walk outside the walled city, and you're standing in front of Castle San Felipe. It's worth the short climb up the steep hill to reach its doors. You can explore the castle's massive grounds, touch the original cannons, and peer through the portals. You can also gaze over the walls, and view the panorama of the city.
About 20 nautical miles off Cartagena are the Rosario Islands. This archipelago consist of 27 ecologically diverse islands which have been chosen as a National Park by the Colombian government. If you are looking for the perfect place to unwind, it's here. Good snorkeling, diving, windsurfing, kayaking and hiking are available. The outdoor aquarium and dolphin shows are always a hit with traveling families.
Several boats depart early in the morning from the downtown pier, and glide over the calm waters to the islands in about 45 minutes. The last boats of the day return to Cartagena around four pm So, you can pack a lunch and make it a day outing, or spend a few tranquil nights on the islands.
Through most of the barrios in the city, you often sense that you're in a smaller village. During the day, sellers walk the neighborhoods hawking everything from rye papayas and fresh fish, to pots and pans, and lottery tickets.
Anywhere in the city, you can find pickshift soccer fields where many young boys play, soccer in the blazing sun (and sometimes in monsoon rain) kicking goals like professionals, hoping to be the next Carlos Valderrama, or Ronaldinho.
After watching the dance performance, I wandered down some backstreets and stumbled on some couples nursing cold drinks near an open pit grill. The waft of barbecued chicken filled the muggy night air. The menu looked appetizing, as well.
Cartagena cuisine is a variation of genuine Caribbean and Creole, although you can find a wide range of food and drinks. Outdoor meals usually come with the sounds of Vallenato, Reggaeton, Champeta, or Salsa music, usually thumping from tall speakers, but occasionally live.
Overall, Colombia is an ideal gateway to South America for first-time travelers; whether they're backpackers, cruise ship passengers, or even those on a family trip.
From the grandeur of the walled city, to scenic beaches, to informal street parties, Cartagena is a destination you will always remember.
Where to stay:
If you're on a shoestring budget, hotel accommodation in Cartagena can cost as little as $ 5-10 a night in the Getsemaní area. However, for that price, expect a simple bed, fan, with a shared bathroom and shower. Add another $ 15 and you can find comfortable rooms in this historic section of town, which happens to be the oldest neighborhood in Cartagena.
The Bocagrande area has the most hotels in Cartagena. Here, you'll find many hotels on the beach. From small family hotels to 5-Star, there is a price range for everyone.
If you want to be pampered, try the Charleston Hotel. Not only does it offer 5-Star services, it's cleverly hidden between the city's ancient walls, and it sits near many tourist attractions in the old city.
The Charleston includes a breathtaking rooftop pool and restaurant area. Here, you get a bird's-eye view of the Caribbean, Cartagena Bay and the magnificent old city.
Copa Airlines has direct flights from Miami and Panama City, Panama.
AirMadrid has direct flights from Madrid and Barcelona, Spain.
American tourists traveling to Colombia need to have a valid US passport, but not a visa. This allows you to stay up to 90 days. This can be extended for another 90 days at the Immigration office (DAS).