• Photo: Rafal Cichawa / Shutterstock

Cartagena

A city of explorers, Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia on the ruins of a local Karib village. This first settlement was nearly abandoned when Heredia realized that access to fresh water was limited—an issue that would haunt the city in the centuries that followed.

This strategic Caribbean outpost boomed as it channeled the wealth of the continent to Europe, but caught up in the wars of great nations and rogue pirates, it soon would be made to bear the weight of its success. The most destructive of these was Sir Francis Drake, who in 1586 torched 200 buildings, including the cathedral, and made off for England with more than 100,000 gold ducats. Cartagena's magnificent city walls and countless fortresses were erected to protect its riches, as well as to safeguard what had become the primary African slave market in the New World, receiving hundred of thousands of slaves until the cruelest industry was permanently halted—although that didn't happen until the mid-19th century.

The most famous battle and greatest test of her fortifications came in 1741, the battle of Vernon, when Spanish general Basco de Lezo and a small crew of 2,500 soldiers held off a British armada of 25,000. But the city would also be first among the first to fight against Spain for independence, doing so twice. The first battle occurred in 1811 (after a declaration of independence in 1810), but the city was savagely reconquered four years later and lost a third of her population. Colombia fought again in 1819–20, when the great libertarian movements swept the continent. Cartagena was first to raise her voice for Colombia and would later take the moniker "La Ciudad Heroica" (the heroic city), given by the great Simón Bolivar himself.

Cartagena is a city of a thousand stories and more, steeped in a history that invokes both horror and admiration. Today, she is blooming, more open and in touch with the world than ever, having been re-created and reimagined as a city of romance, with polished wooden balconies, ancient brickwork, and vibrantly colored bougainvillea fleshing out the air that is already thick with the Caribbean climate. If it is the goal of a holiday destination to inspire, beguile, and enamor, the walled city is near perfect—emanating history from the cobblestones, the ancient trees presiding over cool patches of respite in Plaza Bolivar, and the houses of traders, nuns, or generals that have been turned into fine boutique hotels. As night falls and the sun is drunk down by the Caribbean just on the other side of the wall, the city unfurls: the streets and plazas mill with horse carriages, street musicians, the odd vendor of grilled cheese arepas; restaurants explode onto the sidewalks; and the city flexes her ever-growing gastronomic bravado. The night belongs to long, gentle meals, of perfectly cooked seafood, of lime, chili and smoke, of coconut, of exotic fruit cocktails. The night in Cartagena is for strolling, circling, getting lost between churches and plazas filled with light and revealing in the slightest presence of a cooling breeze gifted by the ocean. Suddenly, a door may spill light onto the cobblestones and a brash brass crescendo and beat of salsa may rush over you. That's when you swoon and fall in love with the city.

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