by: Dana Johnson, Southwind Director & Adventure Travel Specialist
At Southwind Adventures we like to keep our finger on the pulse of Latin America and its hidden treasures. For the past ten years we’ve been watching as Colombia grew into one of the newest must-sees in South America. Make no mistake, Colombia is not the politically charged country of the 1990’s. Though still riddled with the perception of guerilla warfare and drug cartels by people stuck in the 1980’s, Colombia has blossomed into a remarkably successful travel destination. Only a three hour flight from Miami, this South American hub of culture, coffee and salsa dancing has become one of the hottest vacation destinations for Americans.
Colombia is located southeast of Panama, northeast of Ecuador and Peru, northwest of Brazil and southwest of Venezuela. Completely unique to Colombia is its rich diversity of destinations. There is something for everyone here. With two coastlines, one can get the Caribbean island feel on one day and see whales swimming in the Pacific on another day. With large Andean mountains running through the center of the country there are multiple biospheres good for a variety of crops, but most notably coffee. So notably that Starbucks doesn’t exist in Colombia, rather instead you will find the local Juan Valdez cafes on every corner. The country’s geography and elevations allow for cooler climates and various activities. Traveling to the far south of Colombia you can get into the Amazon jungle and dip your toe in the Amazon River, being aware of the piranhas of course. If the urban adventure is more your scene, then your appetite will be filled after checking out the unique urban landscapes of the various notable cities of Colombia. Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena and Cali are just a few cities within the country offering a huge variety of food, traditions, music, history and culture.
So as a way of introducing you to our newest destination country, we will be sharing specifics about sections of Colombia in upcoming blog posts. Today, we wish to share the amazing colonial city and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cartagena.
Cartagena was founded on June 1, 1533 by the Spanish as a primary port for trade between Spain and its South American colonies for the export of Peruvian silver and the import of African slaves. Cartagena played a key role in the expansion of Spanish rule in South America and thus the founding date in 1533 is most notable. The actual community of the Cartagena region however, was actually started in 4000 BC by the native Puerto Hormiga culture. Originally, during the early Spanish reign, Cartagena was comprised of five islands connected by bridges, It eventually became connected into three areas after centuries of fortification through the engineering substantial sandbars, jetties, walls and fortresses necessary to maintain a hold on the important port city. Today each of these areas has their own unique attractions.
The walled city section, known as the Historic Centre is the main tourist attraction. The buildings contained within the wall maintain the colonial history and beauty of the era. The New City is identifiable by the high rises overlooking beaches. It is a typical metropolitan area with all modern conveniences and is referred to as Boca Grande. The third section, Manga, is the northern portion containing the airport, more industrial endeavors such as petroleum refineries, educational institutes and many upscale homes of wealthy Colombians.
Cartagena’s location on the Caribbean Sea and its hot tropical climate make it an exceptionally popular tourist destination. Most busy during the months of December and January, Cartagena is toured year round though its northern hemisphere summer months are only for those able to tolerate heat and humidity (hovering around 90 degrees Fahrenheit). Bustling with lots of activities, Cartagena offers something for everyone. Rich in history, a walk through the streets of the walled city are reminiscent of old times with horse-drawn carriages, cobbled sidewalks, rustic doors and flowered balconies overhanging the narrow streets.
Inside the walled city you’ll find many fine restaurants and hotels. Ranging from the quaint boutique stylings of the Casa San Agustin to the large former monastery of the Santa Clara Sofitel Legend hotel, luxury abounds with phenomenal service, delicious food, beautiful accommodations and relaxing spa services. Enjoy music and dancing at many of the local clubs and fresh fruit from the Palenquera women selling it curbside. In the warmth and humidity, you will be hard pressed to find anything more refreshing than a coconut limeade. Lime juice, coconut milk and ice blended together create a puckering yet smooth and satisfying refreshment native to Cartagena. While in the city you can also learn more about other local dishes through a cooking demonstration or class.
If visiting Colombia you can’t miss the coffee either. The San Alberto coffee brand is considered the best in all of Colombia. They happen to have a café in Cartagena where you can enjoy a delicious cup of coffee and can buy pounds of this gourmet bean. We were able to participate in a coffee baptism lead by the San Alberto baristas on our tour and came away as coffee snobs. Taught much like a sommelier course, all of our senses were tantalized and educated on the finer points of a good cup of coffee.
A walking city tour will enhance your visit greatly as you learn about the many stories of Cartagena, visiting the city market, museums and art installations. Bring a good pair of walking shoes as the tour covers a lot of ground going in and out of the walled downtown. Be sure to include a tour of the Gold Museum, the Palace of the Inquisition and the clock tower. A great way to end your tour is with a sundowner on the wall. The Café del Mar, located on top of the old wall in the western part of town, has a small bar surrounded by tables, chairs and couches set up to enjoy the sunset overlooking the canons of yesteryear.
Those interested in architecture will not only enjoy the variety of colonial buildings in the old city, but will also marvel at this city originally composed of 20 fortresses, of which 16 remain today. A short taxi ride will bring you San Felipe Fort where you can climb the walls and learn about the rich fighting history of the port. On your tour you’ll have an opportunity to walk through many of the narrow passageways built underground to allow the movement of soldiers from different areas of the fortress to others, undetected. If you’re tall however, beware as the people of Cartagena were not tall folks.
An excellent day get-away is a trip to the islands sprawled across Colombia’s largest coral reef off the shores of Cartagena. Hotels located on the island offer boat shuttles so you can day-trip without having to move your luggage. You’ll get a day on the beach with fruity drinks, gourmet lunches and relaxation in the sun with opportunities for swimming and snorkeling in the ocean. Most hotels on the islands limit the number of day passes to keep the relaxation factor alive, so be sure to have this organized in your trip ahead of time.
Another option for tourists is a visit to the new National Aviary of Colombia. Having just completed construction in 2016, this walking tour showcases some of the world’s most beautiful birds up close and personal. Meander at your own pace through the 6 acre property to see over 2000 birds of 140 different species. A great excursion for any birdwatcher, photographer or family member.
After having traveled throughout the country of Colombia, I’ve determined the city of Cartagena and its surrounding area must be included in any trip to Colombia. As the Director of Marketing and Sales for Southwind Adventures, I’m thrilled to announce we are developing a new itinerary in this part of the world. Our goal is to help you make the most memorable vacation of your life while traveling in our care. I can assure you Colombia is a wonderful destination for honeymoons, family, active, cultural, historic and gastronomical vacations. Are you ready to join us on an adventure? Custom trips for small parties, couples, groups of friends and families are our specialty, Contact us about a trip to Colombia today.
Dana Johnson, June 5, 2017