I can’t take my eyes off the machete. I’m not sure whether it’s the sight of the weapon that’s paralysing me, or the owner’s disarmingly beaming face. The only thing for certain is that I’m rooted to the spot. I watch as the woman working the knife deftly slices a pawpaw into 12 perfect pieces, which are placed on a platter alongside ruby-red watermelon and mango, then swiftly sold to a salivating bystander.

It’s all for show, of course, the fruit-seller drawing a crowd via her notable skills with the blade. But her smile is real and her sunny Colombian manner medicinal after months of grey UK. Heading out of the Plaza de Bolivar, away from the countless snack vendors, fruit carvers and Panama-hat-wearing shoe shiners, I begin the first of many wanderings around Cartagena, the tropical jewel in Colombia’s crown, and arguably the most enchanting city I’ve stumbled across on the gringo trail to date.

Cartagena city wall in Colombia

Light and dark

As Colombia’s fifth-largest settlement (and surely the prettiest), the city packs a high-definition assault of colour on the eye, from the fuchsia-hued bourgainvillea spilling from overhanging hacienda-style balconies, to the fluorescent greens, tangerines and lemons worn by the locals, and the candy-coloured facades of the houses. Monochrome doesn’t belong here. Nor does silence. Melodies and music echo through the streets, permeating the life and soul of a city that loves a good party. On my second day I take in an ear-clanging combination of beatboxes, wind-up radios, barber-shop quartets, humming waitresses and, most memorable of all, a makeshift disco around a car boot filled with speakers, a TV and a few gallons of rum, where men congregate on plastic chairs to swig local liquor and appreciate the sound of the two-step, and all before midday.

But beneath Cartagena’s dazzling, dizzying surface sits a darker past – one coloured by repeated invasions by the French and British. And the legacy lives on. From the romantic Andalucian architecture and grandiose Spanish cathedrals, to the many navalmonuments, the city’s troubled history is splayed out before you, ready to read between the deceptively pretty lines.

Underscoring this reality is the 11km walled fortress that surrounds the Old Town – a great place to catch a cool breeze and enjoy a birds-eye panorama of the city, old and new. After 200 years of French and English attacks, the Spanish Crown got fed up with greedy buccaneers (including Britain’s very own Sir Francis Drake) and in the 17th century commissioned the wall to better protect the city’s supply of gold, silver and silk. Drifting along the wall while drinking a fresh coconut water, I find it hard to relate the joggers, chess players and interlocked lovers to the violence that Cartagena once faced.

Culture clash

In stark contrast, the Cartagena of today has never been so at ease with clashing cultures, and that’s what draws people in. A magical melting pot of Carib, African and European dwellers, it’s that which keeps it at the top of the list of Colombia’s must-visit destinations, producing a thriving fusion food scene and a diversity that makes daily life an endless round of sensory experiences. The to-die-for location on the Caribbean Sea doesn’t hurt, either.

Nowhere is this truer than Getsemani, a once run-down neighbourhood a five-minute walk from the Old Town’s landmark clock tower. Once a down-at-heel barrio riddled with drugs and gangs, significant improvements to policing and sizeable investment in the area means Getsemani now offers a buzz similar to that of London’s Dalston a few years back. It’s still gritty, sure. But a flurry of independent bars, the freshest hole-in-the-wall pizzerias, fairy-lit music dens and elegant, artistic coffee shops line the streets, enticing you with the prospect of a laidback ambience and throat-tinglingly strong rum con coco (rum with coconut cream). For just 7000 Colombian pesos (less than £2), this creamy concoction, drunk to a steel drum version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, reminds me that I could be nowhere other than the Caribbean coast.

Come dancing

Iglesia de Trinidad in Colombia

With new-found friends, I sit and soak up Getsemani as it preps for its notorious party muscle. Be warned, from Thursday ‘til Sunday afternoon, Colombians bring seats, chess boards, deep-fat fryers, bottles of aguadiente (a local anise liquor that translates, ominously, to mean ‘fire water’), sound systems and some serious booty-shaking skills on to the street for three days of socialising – something to bear in mind when booking your guesthouse or hotel. That, and bring the best earplugs money can buy.

Noise aside, it’s irresistibly fun. So we forgo all plans for dinner and partake in a little people watching. One traveller in our group jokes, “the Colombians have obviously realised the street’s more entertaining than anything they’d find on TV”. He’s right. That and the fact the city’s constant temperature of 32 degrees means it’s better to live your life outside and enjoy the balmy Caribbean trade winds when they make an appearance. Requesting a second round of rums, we park ourselves among the throngs that congregate around the barrio’s 500-year-old Iglesia de Trinidad, a crumbling colonial church that serves as a massive hub of activity come sundown. Here, teenage boys sit on the stone steps to play backgammon, their shoulders bobbing to the city’s signature sound, champeta.

Originally a form of ‘Creole therapy’ to help Colombians forget about the country’s economic woes, over three decades champeta has evolved from a basic blend of local salsa, jibaro and reggae to encompass different variations of ragga and reggaeton. It’s the defining sound of Cartagena and the locals love it. From where I’m sitting, the sultry pelvis grinding and hip swaying that’s becoming more assertive as the square’s rum bottles are drained is comically jarring in the shadow of a Catholic church.

Hot salsa

Leaving our spot, my fellow voyeurs and I stop off at one of the many night stalls framing the square. Here, freshly pulped fruit cocktails, meat skewers and my favourite, areppa con huevo, are served up piping hot by locals touting these sinful street snacks to anyone wandering past. Made from fried maize and resembling a large hash brown, each patty holds a fried egg inside, which you then smother in piquant cilantro dressing and sour cream for only 1500 Colombian pesos (50p). It’s the perfect pre-bender snack and we all wolf one down before heading off to encounter Cartagena’s older musical stalwart: salsa.

The cultural equivalent of tango for the Argentines, salsa forms part of Colombia’s staple musical diet. For a true appreciation of this sexy, sultry dance form, it doesn’t get better than Getsemani’s Cafe Havana. Deceptively shabby on the outside, this five-year-old nighttime haunt pulses with live Latino bands and a sweaty, mojito-swilling crowd from 10pm until 3am. We squeeze our way into the packed, dimly lit bar, where monochrome prints and tobacco-stained walls do a good job of echoing Castro’s Cuba.

I spy a spectrum of nationalities attempting to perfect their two-step. They’re swiftly shimmied off the dance floor by two locals who make Mick Jagger’s snake hips seem stiff by comparison.

Island retreat

Beachs in Colombia

The following day, deciding that Cartagena has got the better of me and my liver, I board one of the plentiful vessels heading to the nearby Islas del Rosario. Just 45 minutes away via a bumpy speed boat ride, this dreamy, protected marine park of 27 coral-fringed islands offers the chance to scuba dive, hike, horse ride, snorkel, kite board or simply daydream the hours away on sands so platinum they’d make Robinson Crusoe swoon.

Touching down on Baru in Playa Blanca, I walk past sleepy cabanas, bamboo-thatched beach huts and a whole section devoted to hammocks, which you can rent for 7000 Colombian pesos (£2.50) to enjoy a night of slumbering under the stars. I’m psyched for an afternoon of nothingness, until I spy one of several kiteboarding instructors flying over the waves and decide to give it a try.

My instructor works for Colombia Kite, a well-respected company based in Cartagena that offers bespoke kite-surfing tours to take advantage of the coastal Caribbean winds. Strapping my feet on to the board, I’m unsure whether my upper body can handle the gusts here – between January and April, the winds get surprisingly fierce. This is why the region is a hotspot for the sport. That and the fact it’s affordable to learn (approximately £17 per lesson).

Taking flight

Kite surfing in Colombia

Grabbing the harness, I pull the bar with all my weight and watch the kite billow. The rope goes taut, and I start skimming over the waves with a gathering pace. Fortunately, my instructor watches my back, for fear I go flying off into the sunset. At one point my board takes off, and I really do take flight – if only for a few seconds. It feels incredible. By the end of my stint I’m exhausted, elated and energised. I’m also starving.

Fortunately, Playa Blanca’s small selection of budget-friendly fish shacks come up trumps, and I indulge in some grilled red snapper, fried green plantain and arroz de coco. I doze to the sounds of the ocean and the occasional albatross diving into the blue, until I’m woken by the beaming skipper from our boat, who tells me it’s “time to head  back to the big shore, lady”.

Looking at the paradise around us, something tells me the skipper can only be keen to get back for one reason – it’s time for the next insane booty-shaking party.

More on Cartegena at cartagenainfo.net 
More on kiteboarding with Colombia Kite at colombiakite.com
Windsurfing is also big business in Cartagena; see windsurfcolombia.blogspot.com for more

KEEP READING for our must-do daytrip.


EL Totumo Mud Volcano

A not-to-be-missed messy treat just 50km northeast of Cartagena, the El Totumo Mud Volcano features an impressive ‘mud vent’ that goes some 2300m beneath the earth, and acts as a channel for hot mud to rise to the surface of a 15m-high mud cone.

Located in the Ciénaga de Totumo (Totumo swamp), the ‘volcano’ is reached by ascending a rickety bamboo staircase, from which you can observe plenty of mud-clad travellers, rolling around in the apparently therapeutic volcanic mud, happy as a pig in proverbial shit.

According to local legend, the volcano used to belch out lava, fire and ashes, but it was turned into mud by a local priest who believed it was the work of the devil, and sprinkled holy water into the crater.

Afterwards, rinse off in the nearby lagoon and enjoy a cold beer with the other gringo pigs.

Be careful when arranging transport to the volcano – local cabbies have been known to try charging hundreds of pounds for the ride. Book a tour with your hostel instead, which shouldn’t set you back more than about £13.

See: colombia-information.com

KEEP READING for our insider’s guide


The Insider’s guide

Rainbow Nelson in Colombia

Rainbow Nelson, co-founder of city guide This Is Cartagena, serves up some local knowledge.

Where’s best to let your hair down?
Try Bazurto Social Club, just off Parque Centenario. The bar celebrates the Afro-Caribbean sounds long forgotten by most of the Getsemaní crossover hangouts; champeta, cumbia, terapia get more of a look-in and the drinks are cheaper than Café Havana. The owners Fadia de la Rosa and Jorge Escandon also organise tours of the raucous, open-air market Bazurto that gives its name to the bar. Pick up some fresh fish and then head back to Jorge’s place in Manzanillo del Mar to prepare a killer ceviche by the beach. ticartagena.com/bazurtosocialclub

Where’s good to chill?
There can be too many distractions to totally switch off in the Old Town, so escape to the islands. Playa Blanca, Baru, is the best public beach ‘in Cartagena’, even though it’s a 45-minute speedboat ride from the centre. When the boat drops you off, turn left and walk 10 minutes to gain a little space. Take a hammock and sling it up in one of the shady huts of Mama Ruth’s place where you can get a slap-up fish lunch for £6.50. If you want to push the boat out, Agua Baru offers an ultra-luxurious beach retreat that you will find hard to leave.  hotelagua.com.co

Where’s good for a cheap meal?
La Mulata is great. For £4 you get a fish soup starter followed by one of four local delicacies that change daily. Also, the Pordesh Indian Restaurant is a pop-up curry house that serves freshly prepared dopiazas, tarka dals and bhunas, and has mains for £4.

KEEP READNG for our tourist’s guide

Tourist’s guide: Head to Colombia’s Cartagena on the Caribbean coast for a life more colouful

Cartagena in Colombia

WHEN TO GO: Weather is a balmy 30°C+ year round, but peak season is from December until the end of January, when accommodation costs soar to coincide with the popular Hay Festival.  hayfestival.com

CURRENCY: £1 = COP2807 (Colombian pesos)

ACCOMMODATION: The Media Luna hostel is the shining star on Getsemani’s hostel scene, with a large rooftop pool, barbecues, plus friendly staff who can help you arrange trips and kite-boarding lessons. Dorm beds from £9pn.  medialunahostel.com

SEE:  cartagenainfo.net