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Founded by the Spanish in 1533, Cartagena is one of Colombia’s most notable ports. The historic port, fortresses and monuments may have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984, but a surge of new investment is providing a variety of new ways to experience the legendary tourism destination.
Strolling the streets of the Ciudad Amurallada — the walled city and Cartagena’s historic heart — during a recent visit, I couldn’t help but notice how many new restaurants, hotels and attractions there are, compared to my first visit several years ago.
Some of the qualities that made Cartagena a thriving port in the 16th century are driving its growth as a hot spot for vacation and business travel today. The city’s prized location on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, for example, was strategic for Spain’s sprawling empire in the Americas. Today, the port is an important commercial hub for goods from around the world.
The port’s convenient location also makes it popular with both Caribbean cruises and flights from around the Americas. This year, JetBlue added a nonstop flight from New York City, although travelers from the Western U.S. are more likely to connect through Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Panama City or Bogota. An ongoing renovation and upgrade at Cartagena’s Rafael Nunez International Airport, meanwhile, aims to make the arrival and departure experience smoother and more pleasant for both domestic and international travelers.
Historic Allure, Modern Growth
With 1.2 million residents, Cartagena — or Cartagena de Indias, the city’s full name — is Colombia’s fifth-largest urban area. Travelers, however, typically flock to the historic center. Similar in some ways to Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo and the Casco Antiguo in Panama City, the Ciudad Amurallada is something of an open-air museum, with narrow streets criss-crossing past countless architectural treasures.
In recent years, refurbished buildings have become home to an array of stylish gift shops and gourmet restaurants. More than two dozen small hotels have also opened in these historic buildings, with styles that range from classically antique to ultra-chic and trendy. Among the most famous are the Charleston Santa Teresa, a former 17th-century convent, and the Sofitel Santa Clara, set in a former monastery.
The biggest growth in the hotel scene is still to come. More than 9,700 hotel rooms, in fact, are joining the local inventory between this year and 2016. The majority of properties are debuting in the city’s newer upscale neighborhoods — especially the beachfront areas called Bocagrande and Morros. As a result, clients will have a much larger array of options in the coming months, as well as new ways to combine more beach time with their historic explorations.
One of the newest hotels already open is the 140-room Holiday Inn Cartagena Morros. The beachfront, resort-style hotel features a contemporary style and a convenient location near the airport, about 15 minutes by taxi from the city center.
InterContinental Hotels Group, which owns the Holiday Inn brand, will also debut the 280-room InterContinental Cartagena in the second quarter of 2014. The new construction, located on the beach in the upscale Bocagrande district, is part of a new, 215,000-square-foot development that will have a casino, shopping and restaurants. The new hotel will have a spa and a fitness center.
Additional brands slated to open in Bocagrande include Sheraton, Hyatt, Holiday Inn Express and Iberostar.
Tourist transportation is also diversifying. Horse-drawn carriages may still be the most romantic way to tour the historic city center, but a company called City Trolley Tour recently began a service that offers an efficient way for visitors to see various parts of the city. Stops may include the historic center’s museums devoted to gold, modern art, religion and even the Spanish inquisition as well as attractions such as the San Felipe Fort, built between 1639 and 1657, and La Popa, a 17th-century monastery that sits atop the highest point in the city.
City Sightseeing Cartagena, meanwhile, offers a “hop-on, hop-off” double-decker bus service that includes stops at several of the city’s most popular attractions. Clients interested in the city’s cultural side should also consider visiting during the annual Cartagena International Music Festival, which takes place in January. The 2014 event will include performances by Rodolfo Mederos, a concertina player from Argentina, Duo Assad, an acclaimed duo of guitarists from Brazil, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra from New York City.
The reasons for visiting may have evolved since Cartagena’s founding, but the allure of the city remains.
Cartagena’s historic city center features colonial period architecture as well as new infrastructure. // © 2013 Mark Chesnut/LatinFlyer.com
The Holiday Inn Cartagena Morros sits along the beach in Cartagena's Los Morros district. // © 2013 Mark Chesnut/LatinFlyer.com
Sixteenth-century architecture and a historic-style tour ship are among the most common features at Cartagena's port. // © 2013 Mark Chesnut/LatinFlyer.com
Uncrowded beaches and water sports are among the draws at Islas del Rosario, a group of islands off the coast of Cartagena. // © 2013 Mark Chesnut/LatinFlyer.com
Colorful and well maintained, Cartagena's Ciudad Amurallada — the historic walled city — offers photo opportunities on nearly every block.// © 2013 Mark Chesnut/LatinFlyer.com
Holiday Inn Cartagena Morroswww.ihg.com/
Proexport Colombia(Colombia's Tourism Office)www.colombia.travel/en
Turismo Cartagena de Indias(Cartagena's Visitors Bureau)www.cartagenadeindias.travel