The most dangerous aspects of my recent trip to Cartagena were the uneven and broken sidewalks — aside from the aggressive drivers who think they’re competing in the Grand Prix.
Located on the northernmost part of South America, and virtually on the same longitude as New York City, Cartagena, Colombia’s fifth-largest city, is just over a four-hour flight on JetBlue from JFK, which means that it takes you two hours less to get there than to California. In addition you don’t have to worry about jet lag since Cartagena is also on Eastern Standard Time.
The most recognizable landmark in Cartagena is the Castillo de San Felipe. The 17th-century structure was never a castle per se, but rather a very elevated fort used by the Spaniards as a way of fending off (further) foreign invasions.
You have to be in good shape to climb to the top of San Felipe since you can only get there via trekking up steep stone ramps. Anyone who has been to Israel will think of Masada, though getting to the summit is a lot easier here.
About a mile from Castillo de San Felipe is Cartagena’s main tourist district, El Centro, which is reminiscent of Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan because of its narrow streets, plazas and a wall that reminds one of El Morro.
There are three museums worth catching here. The Caribbean Naval Museum recounts the numerous sea battles between England and Spain in the area. The Museum of Gold holds a terrific collection of artifacts from the Zenu tribes who lived in Colombia before the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century.
You need a strong stomach to tolerate the third museum, the Palace of the Inquisition, which unflinchingly looks at the wide array of torture devices the Spanish military used on the local people to get them to submit to their rule. As Jews and Moors learned in the 15th century, the rulers of Spain did not value diversity of beliefs and values, and that lack of tolerance was carried over to the New World.
There are some modern touches to the old city, such as the high-end boutique hotel The Charleston, and the Hard Rock Café, which is one of the few places in town where you can enjoy a hamburger and hear American pop music.
Getting around Cartagena is fairly easy. Cabs are inexpensive but I recommend taking the local buses, which cost 1,500 pesos (approximately 85 cents).
Most of the hotels are located three miles away from the old city, in the Bocagrande and Laguito sections. While there is no shortage of hotels here, there is a dearth of traditional American lodging brand names, though Hyatt is building a property in Bocagrande that will open next year. Today, the Cartagena Hilton is the most recognizable property here and is highly recommended for numerous reasons.
Cartagena is not yet Cancun. Not much English is spoken here, and I relied on my Spanish more than I ever have before. But everyone working in customer service at the Hilton is bilingual.
The property is immaculate and modern and lives up to Hilton standards, and when you are not in the United States you need that reassurance. The rates are quite reasonable compared with what you would pay for a top-tier hotel in, say, Miami Beach. In addition there are several packages that include their gourmet breakfast buffet, which features lox, an omelet station, juices from locally grown fruit, American and Colombian hot and cold favorites, as well as access to their 10th-floor executive lounge where snacks, soft drinks, and fruits are available all day. There is no charge for Wi-Fi and there are plenty of computer terminals that are free of charge.
The Cartagena Hilton has numerous swimming pools and jacuzzis. You can enjoy a dip in the Caribbean Sea at the hotel beach as well.
Be sure to bring a quality SPF sunblock such as those from Coppertone or Dr. Brandt’s because you rarely see a cloud here and the rays are fierce.
Queens’ own JetBlue has three flights a week to Cartagena from JFK and certainly more will be added as the word gets out about this very charming resort town. As is the case with all of JetBlue’s international flights, the on-board movies are free.
You can now leave your car at the Parking Spot lot which took over the Avistar location on Conduit Boulevard near JFK. It will probably cost you less than taking a taxi back and forth and the shuttle van will pick up and drop you off at the JetBlue terminal. For discount coupons, log on to theparkingspot.com.