Cartagena, Colombia is one of the best places to travel in 2024

As the boat pulled away from Cartagena, I gripped the railing a little tighter, watching the line of the city quickly diminish on the horizon. After a few minutes, all I could see was the Caribbean Sea and lush mangroves surrounding small undeveloped islands. When I finally reached my destination – a private beach on Isla Baru – I was in a beach oasis with no sign of Cartagena de Indias, the bustling city I actually visited.

It is this juxtaposition that makes this Colombian city — named one of the best places to travel in 2024. Travel + free time editors – so special. If you want a beach vacation, you can visit the white sand beaches and turquoise waters that the Caribbean is known for. If you want more culture, then the walled Old Town, a UNESCO heritage site, is steeped in history. Elsewhere in Cartagena, towering new buildings show how much the area has modernized and its potential for growth. (Colombia as a whole saw a 222 percent increase in international tourists between 2010 and 2022.)

Here’s why you should travel to this South American city in 2024

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In Cartagena, growth in 2023 includes the debut of Casa Pestagua, a historic 17th-century mansion that underwent a USD 15 million (HKD 116,973,750.00) renovation in the Old City. The owners have also opened overnight bungalows at Acasi, a private beach in Barú that is a popular day trip spot. Next year, Disney’s Encanto tour of Colombia will include a stop in Cartagena, and the city is slated to welcome a Four Seasons hotel.

“Cartagena has something to offer everyone”, Boris Sechkovich, a T+L An A-List advisor and co-founder of Amakuna said T+L. “It has rich architecture and history, as well as high-end restaurants, and Cartagena is home to some of Colombia’s leading chefs. Cartagena is also known for its nightlife, especially around the festive season.”

Back in the Old Town, I couldn’t get enough of the charming cobbled streets lined with colorful walls, ancient wooden doors with whimsical knockers and diverse architecture. (According to Sechkovic, the city has a mix of classical, baroque, neoclassical, and republican architecture.) Vendors set up shops on the corners, selling the likes of arepas, coconut lemonadeand fresh coconuts. Even as I wandered aimlessly around the area, I came across street performers, colorful murals, the iconic sculpture “La Gorda Gertrudis” by Colombian artist Fernando Botero, and countless boutiques.

On my recent visit, I went on a walking tour of the city with Galavanta, which offered both fun bits of trivia and important historical context for how Cartagena became the city it is today. I learned that the aforementioned whimsical door knockers, which I couldn’t stop photographing, symbolized the occupant’s occupation at the time. A lion, for example, meant that the home belonged to a military family.

Book your stay at Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena through Booking.com

Book your stay at Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena via Agoda.com

I also learned that Cartagena was once the largest slave port in Spanish America. David Witt, associate professor of history at Michigan State University, said T+L that at least 100,000 were trafficked through the city between 1570 and 1640 from Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jose Palacios Preciado, former director of the Colombian National Archives, said The Black Star of Atlanta that 1.1 million Africans were trafficked through Cartagena.

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After learning about the city’s history, it became hard not to see the Afro-Colombian culture in everything from the music to the art. “The music we listen to is called champetta and it’s based on African beats,” said Alex Rocha, an Afro-Colombian who owns Experience Real Cartagena. T+L.. . “We have poets like Candelario Obeso and writers like Manuel Zapata Olivella.

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I would soon learn that even the attention getters palenqueras, who wear bright dresses with bowls of tropical fruit on their heads, played an important role in the rebellion against slavery. Fernando Rivera, a guide working with Galavanta, told me that many enslaved people escaped to create their own villages, which the Spanish government called pancakes. “Women were crucial in facilitating the escapes. They knew the slaver’s lifestyle and were able to find the best time for the escapes,” Rivera said. “Women were also able to move throughout the city, which made them the perfect messengers and ensured pancakes would be safe.”

These contributions led to the formation of San Basilio de Palenque, which made history in 1713 as the first free city for Africans in the Americas. Today, centuries later, palenqueras they sell fruit all over the Old Town. (Though they probably sell more photos to tourists than actual fruit – a clever nod to the city’s burgeoning tourism scene.)

Both Rocha and Rivera noted that there are many places and landmarks to experience and honor Cartagena’s Afro-Colombian culture, including Plaza de San Pedro Claver, San Basilio de Palenque, La Ruta del Esclavo, Monumento a la Palenquera, Mercado de Bazurto, Plaza Joe Arroyo and Plaza Benkos Bioho.

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Even Cartagena’s culinary scene carries strong influences from the past. “Our African ancestors bequeathed various foods such as coconut rice; Petakons (fried plantain); and different kinds of fruit-based candies like dulce de papaya, dulce de coco, dulce de yucca,” Rocha said. “There is also sledgehammer, which is a stew cooked in a pot with vegetables, plantains, potatoes, corn, yucca, and fish or beef. (Pro tip: Roche recommended dining at La Cocina de Socorro, La Picúa, Kiosko El Bony, and La Mulata to explore Afro-Colombian cuisine.)

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Don’t miss popular staple restaurants like Celele, Alma, La Cevicheria, Carmen and Donjuán Cartagena. In 2023, chef Heberto Eljach, the mastermind behind Alma, debuted Ánima at Casa Pestagua, focusing on the ancestral traditions of Colombian cuisine. “Ánima’s relationship with Colombian cuisine is focused on the ancient techniques of traditional cooking — this includes preservation methods (dried, salted, fermented, preserved, smoked, pickled), the use of local products, artisanal fishing, organic products from Montes de María, The Amazon and other regions of Colombia,” said Eliah T+L.

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And of course, no culinary tour of Colombia is complete without a coffee experience. After all, Colombia is the leading producer of washing Arabica coffee.

My first visit to Cartagena included daily visits to Epoca Coffee, coupled with a desperate impulse purchase of coffee beans so I could try to replicate this tradition at home. But on my second trip, I joined a coffee experience at Café San Alberto. Here I learned about the Colombian coffee scene and explored the flavor notes of different beans – leaving with a greater appreciation of all the elements at play when brewing a batch of coffee beans.

At the end of my recent visit, I couldn’t help but compare my two visits to Cartagena. So much had changed in the four years between my travels – and yet there was still a rich culture that permeated the entire city. I found that I was able to relive what I loved from my first visit while also embarking on new experiences and ended up putting together a trip that had a little bit of everything.

Book your stay at Casa Pestagua Relais Châteaux through Booking.com

Book your stay at Casa Pestagua Relais Chateaux through Agoda.com

(Main image credit: Piero Damiani/Getty Images)

This story first appeared on travelandleisure.com

All currency conversions have been completed at the time of writing

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