Cartagena, perched on Colombia's Caribbean coast, is quickly becoming a must-visit, its mix of casual beachside charm and urban vitality make it a fun and fascinating place to explore. The city center and its fortifications are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so you'll be able to soak up the history as well as the sun.
Cartagena, like so many places in Latin America, is named for a city in Spain. Therefore, Cartagena, Colombia is often called by its full name, "Cartagena de Indias," or Cartagena of the Indies. The historic center of Cartagena is within the old city walls built by the Spanish between the 16th and 18th centuries. It's called the Ciudad Amurallada -- Walled City -- and it's where the majority of hotels and restaurants are located, in addition to being extremely walkable.
The famous Clock Tower is often used to demarcate the boundary of the walled city, as it's above the main Old City Gate. If you only have a few days, you're best off staying here. Many of Cartagena's biggest attractions are quite close to each other. Start with the Clock Tower. From there, the narrow street across from the Tower is known as El Portal de los Dulces, or Sweets Street. Here, vendors -- primarily women, who tack up wooden signs bearing their names above their booths -- set up carts selling local favourites like coconut and panela (similar to brown sugar) cookies, guava jellies and dulce de leche shaped like coins, hearts or babies. Most of these come pre-wrapped, making them easy and fun souvenirs or gifts for loved ones back home, and you can usually try samples.
Even if you' don't see a show, the beautiful pastel Teatro Adolfo Mejia is usually open to explore. Built on the ruins of a church, this gorgeous building now serves as a temple to the arts -- inside, look for a huge fresco of the nine muses, painted by Colombian artist Enrique Grau, on the ceiling. Nearby, you can also see the former home of the man who is arguably Cartagena's most famous son, the late Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez's iconic novel "Love in the Time of Cholera" is set in a lightly fictionalised Cartagena, and there's a Marquez quote painted on the side of his onetime house. As it's still a private residence, though, you can't go inside. The mural is on the side of the building on Calle 7, next to Hotel Makondo (whose name comes from the town where Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" is set).
Many of Cartagena's most beautiful buildings are churches. One of the most notable, with a dramatic stone front, is the church of San Pedro Claver. Originally a church built by Spanish Jesuits in the 1600s, it was renamed for Pedro (Peter) Claver, who was canonised in 1888. Claver was known for providing medical care and food for enslaved Africans brought to Colombia. He is now the patron saint of both Colombia and of enslaved people, and the church here has a museum dedicated to his life and works. Around the corner from the church is Cartagena's Modern Art Museum. This small but lovingly curated two-story museum focuses on work by Colombian and Latin American artists and has information in Spanish and English.
Once you are south of here, you find yourself in the colourful working-class neighbourhood of Getsemaní. Getsemaní is the place to go for street art, less expensive restaurants and vibrant community life. The narrow spit of land southeast of the walled city is Boca Grande. That's where you'll find many of the upscale hotels and all-inclusive resorts.
From Cartagena you can also spend a day or two in a fabulous tropical island easily reached by boat, such as Isla del Rosario.