Generally considered the most beautiful city in the Caribbean, Cartagena in Colombia grew unimaginably wealthy as the port through which the looted gold of the new world sailed eastwards to Imperial Spain.
So, I hear you think, why the hell haven’t we been going there for years?
Turns out we have, with the likes of Sir Francis Drake (one man’s privateer is another man’s pirate) plundering the city as far back as 1586. In subsequent years, particularly those of the late 20th Century, Colombia was famous for other exports: mountains of pure cocaine, left-wing guerrilla ideology and "magic realism" from the pen of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Nowadays there’s more to the country than Marquez, Marxists and marching powder, but a distinct hint of debauchery lingers, particularly in Cartagena. This is, after all, the city where President Obama’s security detail got caught with their pants down during a boozy 48-hour bender with local hookers.
1 | Stay
Tcherassi Hotel (above), the first foray into hotels by the eponymous designer Silvia Tcherassi, is the go-to haunt in town. Think colonial mansion meets exposed brickwork Meat Packing District warehouse with just seven rooms, one of the city’s best restaurants, Vera, and happening watering hole Aquabar. The spa also nods at a classic Colombia export — no, not that one — Deluxe Colombian Coffee Wrap, anyone?
2 | Lunch
Follow the locals to the very cheap, very cheerful La Mulata. Try for a courtyard table out back, order the comida corriente set lunch and an Aguila beer (FYI, it ain’t the best beer in town but their ads invariably feature smokingly hot babes in bikinis. So support it.)
3 | Dine
La Vitrola is the hot hangout for Cartagena’s most beautiful people, which is saying something in a city of fitties. The food isn’t too shabby, either: eat the fiery red snapper à la diabla washed down with one too many mojitos and you’ll be dancing between the tables to the live Cuban band with all the other diners.
4 | Drink
The perfect spot to enjoy a sundowner sangria by the jug-full is on the elegant tiled roof terrace at Malagana Café & Bar in the hip <barrio> (district) of Getsemani, outside the perfectly preserved city walls and a whole lot edgier as a consequence.
5 | Party
The tractor beam that is Café Havana will surely lure you for one mo’ mojito in this, the Cuban-themed epicentre of Getsemani’s epic nightlife scene. This despite Hillary Clinton being recently spotted here doing obligatory embarrassing mom-dancing.
6 | Do
Start your recovery plan post-big night out on a white sand beach on nearby Isla Baru. Easily reached by boat from the city, it’s a world away and was the (extremely pleasant, we’d imagine) hangout for pirates of old. Take your metal detector.
7 | See
The locals in action on Sunday at the city beach: not in the same league as Isla Baru, but order a drink and watch local families dance to bands playing vallenato (Colombia’s unique blend of Spanish and African rhythms). Everyone sings, plays and gets plastered; come sundown you’ll have made new friends and soaked up way too much sun and rum.
8 | Avoid
Bocagrande, the supposed home of the city’s finest sites; it’s a dump, complete with tourist trap emerald shops et al.
9 | Shop
Anywhere that sells "Soy Getsemanisense" by Lucho Pérez. This is the unofficial anthem of the inhabitants of Getsemani and makes Havana’s Buena Vista Social Club sound like, well, a bunch of old timers.
10 | When in…
Consume coffee non-stop, preferably from a street vendor in small plastic cups with equal measures of Colombia’s finest and sugar. A few of these and nights on the rum means sleep in Cartagena is not an option.
11 | Why now?
July sees concerts on the beaches and events in the bullring and yet more excuses to party thanks to the Summer Festival. Alternatively, the literary/arty Hay Festival Cartagena de Indias rolls into town each January. Wales or Colombia, Wales or Colombia? Mmm, tough call….
12 | Get there
BA and Virgin fly to Miami, then connections on to Cartagena with Avianca.
Tom Barber is the founder of award-winning travel company originaltravel.co.uk