Author Gabriel Garcia Marquez called Colombia "magical realism," and being in Cartagena de Indias during the sunset over the old city, you don't need to ask why. Located at the northern tip of the country, the nearly 500-year-old Cartagena is a sweet mix of Colombian, Caribbean and individually peppered ethnicities from the growing expat community within the walled downtown. It has both cobblestone streets and minimalist storefronts. It's a great first stop for Americans who want to visit South America and an even better trip for anyone who loves spicy food and cool beaches
You can find all your meals on the street
If you think Portland has a lot of street food, visit Colombia. From breakfast to dessert, anything you want can be purchased from a carreta, including tiny cups of strong coffee, sweet sesame snacks, or even shrimp cocktail in little plastic cups.
Fruit is also available on carreteros throughout the city, as well as at the large outdoor market outside of the downtown area. Local favorites include carambolos, corozo (which is great as a juice!) and lulos.
If you lament the loss of fresh fish after the end of summer, Cartagena has delicious fish all year long, including ceviche, which you can find at almost any restaurant in the city, each making the tangy seafood salad with their own twist.
If sweets are your thing, the entrance to the old city is packed with enterprising women from Palenque, a nearby city known for its strong African traditions, and a variety of fresh candy brought into Portal de los Dulces every morning by busy residents.
It's an easy trip
Yes, you will need a passport, but direct 4-hour flights from NYC's JFK airport straight to Cartagena make it a simple flight from the States. Plus, with an exchange rate at 2000 pesos for every American dollar, and ATMs and a host of cambios, or money exchanges, around the old city, you won't have money troubles.
If you're in a pinch, street vendors will sometimes take US currency, but don't count on it, and you might even find a few who speak English. Those who do not are more than willing to help you out as best they can.
Badass historical figures everywhere
It is said that in 1741, armed only with a small clan of inexperienced local men, Don Blas de Lezo saved Cartagena from a fleet of thousands of British soldiers attempting to take over the city. Did I mention Blas de Lezo had only one arm and one leg, earning him the knick name "the half man" as well as "pegleg?"
In modern day heroics, Martin Murillo Gomez fills his carreta with books, not sweets, allowing anyone in the old city to sit down for a few minutes and take a literature break. And though he's been featured on both local and international news, Murillo continues his crusade to bring the Carreta Literaria to residents.
And, of course, you can spy the tall walls of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's homestead right against the entry to the old city.
There's always somewhere new to sleep
Cartagena is host to a dozen new boutique hotels, each with their own perks and themes. Whitewashed and shabby chic, Casa Blanca has enormous rooms and a rooftop pool, plus some rooms feature an outdoor shower. And with one side of the hotel facing a quiet downtown street, and another facing outside of the city walls, you can sample some peace and quiet, or the buzz and hum of the nearby university.
Hotel Casa San Agustin is also gorgeous, with an enormous sparkling blue lap pool in its wide open lobby. Or, you might like Hotel Agua, with cathedral views. The winding roads and uniquely shaped buildings of the walled part of Cartagena make it a perfect spot for boutique hotels, or visitors who want to try something different and stylish. Make sure to book a room at one of these boutiques before the mega Hyatt, planned for 2015, takes over the entire city.
Caribbean caliber beaches just a boat ride away
Though the UNESCO Heritage city is a great place to spend a sunny day, you may want to dip your toes into light sands for a particularly warm afternoon. For gorgeous beaches and waters just as blue as Puerto Rico, but a little more exotic, take a speedboat ride from the Cartagena pier to one of the 12 Rosario Islands. Depending on which island you'd like to visit, you could be on the boat for 40 minutes, or up to four hours.
Baru is popular with backpackers, who beg free rides from working fisherman to arrive at the island and create makeshift hotel rooms out of old cabanas and palm trees. About an hour from the mainland, the water is so sparkling that you may see a dolphin or two off shore. Each island has its own beach or governing hotel, but for $85 you can get a guest pass to the beach at the Hotel San Pedro de Majagua on Isla Grande, including lunch and a boat ride, and spend all day haggling with peddlers who come on foot (selling pearls from the island) or by boat (offering to cook fresh catches of lobster or crab, or to take you a mile out for snorkeling in the coral reef). Or, take a short walk along a thicket of mangrove trees to the island's bioluminescent lagoon.
On the boat ride back to Cartagena you'll pass a handful of private islands packed with current day bed and breakfasts, formerly the homes of drug cartels. And it gets hot in Colombia, so remember to take your sunscreen.
But you won't get homesick
The old city of Cartagena was colonized by the Spaniards and favored by pirates, which means winding cobblestone streets with pastel colored homes packed tightly in rows, and a 400-year-old, two-mile stone wall surrounding the old city. You know, similar to Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The old city, home to the mayor's residence and much of the downtown business district, is surrounded by walls built by the Spaniards to protect the city. They even built a comely fort on the other side of the water from the walled city, San Felipe de Barajas Castle, which looks so similar to Old San Juan's Castillo San Felipe del Morro that you'll do a double take on your passport stamp. In fact, both forts were designed by famed architect Battista Antonelli, who designed several other structures for Spain during that time.
But if you do start to feel homesick, baseball is popular in Colombia, and it wouldn't be strange to locate a bar in downtown or in the lively neighborhood of Getsemani and watch your favorite game even though you're not at home.
Life happens in the city squares
You can never become lonely in Cartagena because every town square is its own little community where you can grab a small meal, get your nails done, or buy some flowers. In Plaza de las Flores, accountants man typewriters, at the ready to do transcriptions for residents. In Getsemani's Plaza de la Trinidad, you can often watch children playing a game of futbol outside of a 300-year-old church.
Even the small gardens beside homes and hotels are often bursting with activity, from jewelry sellers, to women making treats or selling bread, or even portable phone and device chargers.
If street food isn't your thing, though, don't worry
The expatriates have arrived, and with them a slew of gourmet meals at some restaurants so chic, you'd think you're in New York City. For something sweet, try La Paletteria, a little shop that specializes in popsicles, offering dozens of unlabeled flavors for adventurous palettes. A few streets away, Maria specializes in classic drinks with a Colombian twist, like a cosmo made with corozo.
Or stop by Demente in Getsemani for tapas, wine, and to meet the resident bulldog, Socio. A fun choice for dinner is Frank & Frank, a restaurant with a 20's Chicago theme where food presentation trickery is always on the menu.
The locals are on another level
The Half Man may be gone, but the city is still filled with local heroes. Dona Nidia runs a popular shrimp cocktail food truck directly across from Plaza de las Flores that is packed from opening until closing. She took on the cart as a labor of love after her husband, the original owner, passed away. Besides shrimp, she serves crab and conch cocktails.
Directly in the middle of the walled city you'll find a shop smaller than a closet occupied by an older gentleman weaving bracelets with tiny beads. His English is perfect, and if you're an American, he'll explain about his many years running an ice cream truck in Queens, New York.
Friends of the four-legged will fall in love with the city's many well-maintained and well-fed stray dogs who seem to follow you everywhere, just to say hi, and disappear as quickly as they came.
As are the souvenirs
On the mainland, you will be tempted by dozens of emerald shops, a specialty of the region, as well as coffee shops, with stock shipped in from the nearby bean growing area of the country. If you take a boat out to the islands, be prepared to come back with a few dollars worth of shimmering pearls, fresh from the very beach you are sunning on.
You can find original artists painting watercolors or drawing street scenes directly within the Puerta del Reloj, or outside Iglesia San Pedro Claver.
The best place to visit for tapestries, religious figurines, and other assorted handcrafts is las bovedas, a series of 23 dungeons utilized during the city's colonial period for military purposes, and then following that, as a jail. Each vault is occupied by a different craft seller, and before you leave, be sure to ask to be pointed in the direction of Dictator Rum, a local concoction of sweet Colombian aged gin.
And there's a festival for every occasion
The streets of Getsemani are scribbled with paintings from the recent street art festival. If you like film, Cartagena's film festival is one of the best in South America, showing international films across the city, including at one downtown location, the Pedro Heredia Theatre, dating back to 1911.
In May the city hosts a fashion event which draws in designers from nearby regions hoping to get their works in one of the downtown shops. The popular literature and arts event, The Hay Festival, has a sister branch in Cartagena, filling the city with journalists, poets, musicians and creative thinkers from around the world.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote of a fictional square based on the many you can find in Cartagena, that you could sit "on the most hidden bench in the little park, pretending to read a book of verse in the shade of the almond trees," or enjoy a night out with everyone "from drunken beggars to young gentlemen in tuxedos who ﬂed the gala parties at the Social Club to eat fried mullet and coconut rice." And travelers can do all of that, plus find a secluded beach to swim away from, try an exotic food, and still feel like you were never that far away from home to begin with, yet in a totally foreign world.