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March 13, 2008 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Located on the Caribbean coast at the northern tip of South America and protected by nearly 500-year-old walls, Cartagena is one of Colombia’s most iconic cities. Although the drug trafficking of Colombia has earned the country an ugly reputation over the years, the high crime rates that once plagued the country have declined. Today, Cartagena is a bustling metropolis. The city is the fifth largest urban area in Colombia, and its historic feel makes it a great destination for those looking to experience a truly legendary city.
Shortly after its founding date in 1533, King Philip II of Spain heard of Britain’s plans to send pirates to loot the city and ordered the walls to be built. Rich with gold, silver and emeralds, Cartagena had developed into a major seaport and a key commercial post.
It can be difficult to take in all the sights and sounds of Cartagena, so simply exploring is generally the best option. The city is divided into three neighborhoods: El Centro, home to the city’s churches and museums; San Diego, an upscale, residential neighborhood the nobility once called home; and Getsemani, a lower-class residential neighborhood that has seen the least amount of renovation over the years.
Visit Cartagena’s churches to learn the most about the city. The 16th-century blue-and-peach cathedral Santo Domingo represents what Cartagena looked liked centuries ago. The churches’ original paint jobs — and those of the buildings along the way — had been painted over with a shade of white until about 10 years ago. Fortunately, historians discovered that a rainbow of oranges, yellows and pinks lay underneath the white paint. Originally, the colors were chosen because they didn’t reflect the sun as harshly as other shades would have. Now the beauty of the buildings shines through like it did years ago.
Of the fortresses built to protect the city, the San Felipe Castle, located on San Lazaro Hill, has been around the longest, says Janelys Caicedo, concierge at the Sofitel Santa Clara Hotel. Overlooking the castle is the Popa Convent, which offers a magnificent view of the city, especially at sunset. It once was an additional fortress and now has a museum and the chapel of the Virgen de la Candelaria, Cartagena’s patron saint.
To combine history with shopping, visit Las Bovedas, meaning “the dungeons.” Las Bovedas contains 23 rooms that were used as military barracks toward the end of the 18th century. The dungeons were the last major structures constructed inside the walled city during the colonial era. No soldiers remain, though, as the rooms have since been converted to souvenir shops for international visitors and tourists to Colombia.
The best beaches require a bit of travel. The Rosario Islands, which comprise the Archipelago Nuestra Señora del Rosario, are about two hours away from Cartagena by boat. For even more instant gratification, the busy but fun Bocagrande beach suffices; it is only five minutes away from Cartagena by cab.
Good food is not hard to come by in Cartagena. Visit La Vitrola to enjoy seafood broth with coconut milk in a laid-back atmosphere complete with live Cuban music. Cartagena’s hippest restaurant is 8-18. This sleek white-and-lime-green cube in the Santo Domingo Square (near the Santo Domingo Church) offers updated classics such as shrimp wrapped in a banana leaf. The most-recommended dish to come out of its modern, open kitchen is bull’s tail stewed with red wine and garlic cream.
With European exchange rates through the roof, Cartagena is affordable. The value of the U.S. dollar remains high in South America — $1 equals 1,865.25 pesos. Cartagena bills itself as a charming city by the sea, leaving the political strife and violence to other parts of the country. With its good food, rich history, beautiful beaches and praise from top travel critics, it certainly lives up to its reputation.
Toothbrush? Check. Swimsuit? Check. Passport? Not a problem.
It’s Easy.com opened a 24-hour passport services help desk at JFK Airport’s Terminal 4 in January. Desperate travelers can fill out government forms for new or replacement passports and take photos right there. Employees rush the paperwork through the local passport agency and give the customers an estimated wait time, enabling them to reschedule their flights.
Don’t worry if you’re hundreds of miles away from New York when panic sets in. Just overnight your documentation to the company, and It’s Easy.com will have your passport waiting for you at JFK Airport.
“Some execs have so intense a need that they will literally put their passport on a plane for me to pick up, or they might fly to JFK to meet me and my staff,” David Alwadish, president of It’s Easy, says.
Services such as PassportsandVisas.com or Rush My Passport also promise up to 24-hour turnarounds for lost, expired or damaged passports. Expect to fork over $250 to $300 plus the Department of State’s application fee for same-day service. The expedience comes at a cost, but with only 13 regional passport agency locations in the country that work in less than two weeks, it can be worth it to make that plane.