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Big on Charm: Colonial Cartagena

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Cartagena, Colombia, was named after Cartagena, Spain. Founded in 1533, the colonial city played a vital role in expanding the Spanish Empire. (Photograph by Radius Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

Your calendar might say winter’s drawing near, but Cartagena de Indias, just a few degrees north of the Equator, is warm year-round.

One of South America’s oldest colonial cities, Cartagena was founded in 1533, its wealth built on slavery, sugar, and gold. More than seven miles (11 km) of walls and ramparts attesting to its strategic prominence surround the Old City, now a charming UNESCO World Heritage site.

Walking through Cartagena is a step back in time, especially in December and January—Colombia’s “summer”—when balconies, windows, and gardens are alive with tropical flowers. Music fills the streets, a mix of cumbia and other Afro-Caribbean sounds, giving an island-like sensibility.

Rich with history and alive with cultural attractions, the coastal city makes for a sunny and cerebral winter vacation spot.

New Yorker Barbara Kolber spends her winters in Cartagena—ideal, she says, because “it is a hot, dry season,” perfect for boating and wandering the cobblestone streets with little fear of rain. “Cartagena is en route to the Panama Canal, so yachts from all over the world stop off there before transiting the canal, which makes for a very lively international boat scene,” she explains.

‘Tis also Cartagena’s season of celebrations, from January’s Hay Festival of Literature & Arts and International Music Festival to February’s International Film Fest.

> A Great Stay:

The tropical-garden-enclosed pool at the Sofitel Santa Clara Cartagena offers a luxurious place to cool off during the resort city’s dry season. Born as a convent in 1621, the hotel has a whimsical, fairy-tale sensibility, its setting described in Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism novel Of Love and Other Demons.

The decor is a mix of old and modern, with some rooms looking out onto the walled colonial city, others to the sea. Scattered throughout are colonial artifacts discovered during the renovations, helping to further link the convent to the UNESCO World Heritage city around it.

This article first appeared in the National Geographic book Four Seasons of Travel.


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