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A Caribbean coastal city with a soupy climate, Cartagena doesn’t have a long litany of sights to tick off: a visit is really about absorbing its ambience. Its old town is girded by a relic of the Spanish Empire, one of South America’s most celebrated pieces of colonial architecture: 11 km (6.8 miles) of zigzagging ramparts constructed from coral stone and punctuated by Moorish-like bastions. Beyond them, a warren of cobbled streets make up the old town with buildings painted in punchy primary shades, and a culture quite unlike that of the Paísa (the fair-skinned people of Colombia’s Andes and highlands).

In Cartagena, you’ll see that the majority of residents are Afro-Caribbean, with many women wearing headwraps and flowing dresses in bright palettes. But, the most vibrant manifestation of their culture comes in the form of the cumbia dance performances you’re likely to happen upon in the squares of the old town every afternoon.

Cartagena, ColombiaThe city’s walls were first raised in 1563 to protect Spain’s booty of New-World gold, crops and slaves from ransacking pirates and privateers. Sir Francis Drake famously breached the ramparts, and had to be paid off with a shower of ducats.

Today, you can best enjoy the walls on languorous afternoon strolls (a tradition called ‘paseo’) or even a guided walk. Do as the locals do, and stop off at one of the cafes lining the walkways. Here, you can look out over a huge sweep of the Caribbean Sea. Seats inevitably fill up around sunset.

While walking the walls, expect to see newlyweds or wannabe-models having photoshoots, or young girls decked out in rhinestoned, lacy ballgowns celebrating their quinceañera (a ‘coming of age’ ceremony held on their 15th birthday).

Aside from the walls, the city has three main architectural highlights. The Castillo de San Félipe de Barajas, the largest fort ever built by the Spanish colonialists, sits atop a grassy mound and looks almost like a multi-story Mesoamerican pyramid. You can wiggle your way through its tunnels on a guided tour.

The white-stone 17th-century Convento de la Popa also occupies a hilltop vantage point. Its elegant cloister, partly shaded by frothy potted palms, is particularly welcoming on a hot day. Then there’s the city’s cathedral, also referred to as ‘Santa Catalina’, with its orangey-rose bell tower and surprisingly understated interior.

The best way to take in the old town is simply to wander around, admiring the zany yellow, hibiscus pink and cobalt blue shades of some of the buildings and their grandiose doors whose lintels are often festooned in climbing plants. Doors were something of a status symbol in Cartagena society: look out for their elaborate aldabas (knockers), some of which are designed in the shapes of animals: turtles, lizards, doves and seahorses, to name a few.

Outside the old town is the slowly-becoming-gentrified district of Getsemaní. Here, walls are painted with splashy, stylistic murals, locals gather to play card games in the middle of the street, and vendors sell arepas, corn pancakes often stuffed with meat, cheese, and avocado.

In the late afternoon and early evening, plazas in both the old town and Getsemaní come alive with impromptu cumbia dancing. Men in white sailor-like suits and women in ruffled, butterfly-like dresses stalk around each other barefoot to a background of drumming, and a melody often played on a wind instrument called a gaita.

Best time to visit Cartagena

The city has an extremely humid, sultry climate nearly all year round, with temperatures usually staying around 28 C (about 82 F). November can be busy, as the city prepares for its annual Independence Day celebrations on the 11th, but the atmosphere is electric. Be aware that December and January can also be hectic, as the city swells with an influx of domestic visitors over the Christmas period.

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