Risk falling in love with Colombia’s sultriest city. The Caribbean’s steamiest port of call is finally shimmying centre-stage, with her slinky salsa moves matched by a facelift. But even without cosmetic surgery (a Colombian forte) the colonial beauty flirts for kicks. Cartagena can feel like a walk on the wild side but is both safe and sexy – the closest you’ll come to the Colombian drug barons is on celluloid at the Cartagena Film Festival. As the tourist board trumpets: `Colombia - the only risk is wanting to stay.’ Cartagena’s sassy swagger suggests she knows all about her sex appeal.
Tropical Cartagena was the movie-star setting for Love in the Time of Cholera and is inexorably linked to the author, Gabriel García Márquez, the greatest living Latin American novelist. Affectionately known as `Gabo’, the poet of Magic Realism makes a compelling guide to the languorous spirit of his adoptive city: 'The city, his city, stood unchanging on the edge of time…where flowers rusted and salt corroded, where nothing had happened for four centuries except a slow ageing among withered laurels.’ Flanked by two forts, the walled, 16th-century city still clings to the salty Caribbean shore; bougainvillea spills over artfully distressed balconies. Beguiling ghosts still lurk in convents and bastions, despite colonisation by chic bars and boutique hotels.
After a piratical breakfast, follow in the wake of stately Spanish galleons and marauding pirates. For a cloistered coffee break, catch a cab to El Centro, the historic heart, and to Santa Clara (Calle del Torno 39-27). Sip rum (sorry, coffee) in a former convent that reeks of romance and intrigue. Greet the cheeky toucans in the cloisters and catch your breath in the mellowest bar in town, complete with a ghost in the crypt. Santa Clara overlooks Gabo’s garden and the Nobel prize-winning author is not immune to nursing a whisky here among the ghosts that inspired Love in the Time of Cholera.
Muse among the walls, turrets and winding streets of El Centro, the aristocratic neighbourhood, and the heart of the inner walled town. The colonial-style Plaza de Bolivar is framed by the Palace of the Inquisition, where heretics, guilty of blasphemy or black magic, were sentenced to death. Ignore the museum of torture in favour of the fort-like cathedral and the park colonised by folk musicians in thrall to Vallenato, the coastal rhythms that make Cartagena sing and dance in its sleep.
After hours, take a carriage to neighbouring Getsemani, a picturesquely distressed barrio with hip-swinging Cuban-style clubs like Café Havana (Calle Media Luna). Despite a whiff of Fidel Castro, Havana evokes Cartagena’s Spanish, native Indian and African heritage. This is a club where shrinking violets shake their hips, non-drinkers knock back mojitos and non-smokers light up Cuban cigars.