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EXPERIENTIAL CARTAGENA - A CARIBBEAN DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
 
(2012 - Fall Issue)

Writer: DENISE J. DEVEAU



Long before Johnny Depp put swashbuckling on the entertainment map, the real deal was the city of Cartagena, Colombia.

Founded in the early 16th century on the shores of the Caribbean, this once-Spanish stronghold has drawn its fair share of celebrity pirates. In fact, the infamous Sir Francis Drake and his crew braved near-impenetrable barriers to reach the Spaniards’ well-protected treasure trove of emeralds, gold and silver.

Today the original Spanish fortresses loom large over the old part of the city. These imposing stone edifices contain countless underground tunnels and alcoves, where soldiers once waited in pitch darkness to attack unsuspecting invaders. When all else failed, they simply escaped through the rabbit’s warren of tunnels, leaving behind enough explosives to snatch victory away from their would-be captors. Today visitors are welcome to explore this underground piece of history—albeit with far less dire consequences.

Cartagena’s dramatic history is never far from view. Now divided into the old and new cities, the Spanish presence permeates every pore, from the architecture to the artifacts.

True to its Roots

It’s a city that prides itself on its cuisine, its culture, and if you ask any tour guide, its beautiful women. In fact Cartagena’s walk of fame, which you typically find near major entertainment venues, has its own spin, immortalizing the faces and names of Miss Colombia pageant winners over the years.

But Cartagena is far from your typical Caribbean tourist destination. Hot and humid with temperatures around 28 C year-round with humidity levels sometimes rising off the charts, it doesn’t have quite the polish of other resort communities. In fact, when stepping off the plane, the entrance to the terminal is a simple, understated garden walkway.

Cartagena may have fallen into disfavour as a tourist destination over the years, however it is reviving itself as an “experiential” destination for travellers looking for a less commercial and more culturally-immersive experience. Tourism is also getting a helping hand from an influx of all-inclusive resort properties that cater to everyone from families and party-goers to honeymooners and hermits.

While you might not get a lot of coddling when you wander outside the resorts, travellers do indeed get to experience a culture that remains true to its roots. Street vendors abound, traditional music and dancing greets you at every destination, and the local entertainment is a hotbed of salsa bars and traditional restaurants. While some of the locals speak basic English, you may be hard-pressed to find one who does when looking for directions. Your best bet is local shopkeepers. (Police and public service       folks . . . not so much.)

Unique Experiences

Anyone with a hankering for Spanish history has plenty to entertain them in the Old City, from the remarkably intact fortress to tons of top-notch local fare. The seafood and beef dishes are nothing short of amazing, whether you decide to go highbrow or lowbrow. A particular favourite with our group was the upscale El Club de Pesca, a 300-year-old restaurant located within the ruins of a fort in the Old City. But even the street vendors’ goods are scrumptious if you’re looking for a mid-day treat.

For those with an ecotourism bent, the region has some unique offerings that make the trip worthwhile. El Totumo Mud Volcano is a popular draw that’s about a one-hour drive out of the city. Not to worry about staying afloat when you sink yourself into the 100-metre-deep pool of mud. You end up in a suspended weightless state with your head (and often your feet) above the mud surface. Definitely a one-of-a-kind experience. Be sure to bring a lot of pesos for tipping the locals who assist you in and out of the mud bath or escort you to the lagoon to rinse off. We were told that 1,000 to 2,000 pesos was a typical outlay—about 50 cents to a dollar.

Our favourite stop by a long shot was the Decameron Isla Palma Resort on an exclusive private island in the Natural National Park of Islas del Rosario and San Bernardo Archipelago. Set in the heart of a mangrove swamp, this exclusive site offers a truly unique eco experience for those who enjoy nature. Guests can eat breakfast on the veranda or lounge in a hammock while watching flamingoes and other local wildlife. In keeping with the back-to-nature theme, rooms are spartan but spacious and well appointed. Visitors on the move can hike through a carefully laid-out trail to view the flora and the fauna without disturbing the ecosystem.

Slightly closer to Cartagena’s shores is the Decameron Baru Beach Resort, Spa and Convention Center. For the less reclusive island resort types, this is a perfect spot to vacation with the kids in a lush tropical setting, while enjoying all the amenities—from ample food offerings and spa treatments to sailing and hiking. The resort’s claim to fame is its beautiful white-sand beaches, crystal-clear waters and a spectacular coral reef.

One word of warning—the boat trip out to these resorts is a lengthy one, and choppy waters can make for a bit of an adventurous ride. But if you keep your valuables under wraps (literally) the boat trip can be a terrific interlude.

We spent our last night at the San Pedro restaurant in the Old City and experienced Cartagena at its best. Following a superb dinner, we sat on the steps of an old cathedral to watch the Cartagena night scene. Within minutes the air was alive with salsa music, and as we looked up to the top of the Old City walls, we could see a dance party in full swing as if suspended in mid-air. It was the perfect ending to a unique cultural experience.

 
 
 
 
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