A catholic education
Historic slave port, architectural jewel and former home of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cartagena de Indias - the Carthage of the New World - has always brought out the best and worst in people.
Founded on Colombia's Caribbean coast in 1533, it has been pulling in tourists for centuries, one of the first being English navigator and admiral Sir Francis Drake. Popping by unexpectedly in 1586, Drake threatened to burn the city to the ground if the locals didn't pay him 10 million pesos. They met his demands but decided that to safeguard their city they would build one of the most impressive systems of fortifications in the world: 10km of defensive wall, 12 metres high and up to 17 metres thick, that encircled the city and was punctuated at regular intervals by turrets, cannons and crenellations.
Las Murallas (The Walls), as they are known today, took 200 years to complete owing to repeated storm damage and pirate attacks, not to mention some understandable motivational problems among the workforce, many of whom were African slaves.
Wandering about those walls today, it is easy to see what Drake was so excited about. Apart from its gold and jewels (conquistadors used the city to stockpile treasure plundered from the Indians before shipping it to Spain), Cartagena was, and remains, a stunning little city, falling over itself with allure, style and a peculiarly Caribbean kind of laissez-faire.
In Cartagena, even the pickpockets are laid back. I have my watch filched in the street but because the thief can't be bothered to run away, I walk up to him and demand it back. (He complies; he is about 13 and half my size.)
Cartagena is also a cosy city; consummately manageable, despite being Colombia's second-largest port, with only 800,000 inhabitants and an endearing, old-world intimacy. There is a newer, resort-style section called Boca Grande - or 'Bigmouth' - to the south, but the older, more interesting part is only a kilometre across. Here, you'll find the historic districts of El Centro, San Diego and Getsemani, with their narrow cobbled streets and pastel facades, baby blue and pistachio green, and their tall wooden doors studded with giant iron nails.
There is no end of tourist attractions in Cartagena, particularly for history buffs. Witness the statue of the one-legged, one-eyed, one-armed war hero Don Blas de Lezo, who successfully defended the city from attack by Englishman Sir Edward Vernon in 1741. Vernon besieged the place for 56 days with 27,000 men and 3,000 pieces of artillery but ultimately left empty-handed. De Lezo's statue stands at the entrance to San Felipe fortress, west of the outer walled city, across Puente Heredia. Then there is the Palace of the Inquisition, in Plaza de Bolivar. Built in 1776 and featuring a magnificently over-the-top baroque stone gateway, the building served as a court in which to try heretics; today it is a tidy museum containing documents, paintings and assessments of the Inquisition, plus the occasional instrument of torture. Outside, facing Calle de la Inquisicion, is the small, barred window from which the tribunal's sentences were announced.
Equally impressive is the Museo del Oro y Arqueologia, also in Plaza de Bolivar, and the monumental three-storey Iglesia y Convento de San Pedro Claver, a church built by the Jesuits in 1603 and later dedicated to Saint Pedro Claver. Known as the 'slave of the slaves', Claver was a monk who lived in Cartagena, begging from door to door and passing on whatever he was given to local slaves. His body lies in a glass coffin on the high altar; in the monastery you can see his cell and the balcony from which he watched slave ships coming into the harbour.
Cartagena has beaches, too, which, though fun for a sunset dip, probably won't do much for most coast-dwelling types. The real buzz is in the city streets. Cartageneros are pathologically gregarious, having inherited the Spanish habit of conducting much of their private lives in public places. The streets are a kind of informal, open-air bazaar trafficking in almost every type of human interaction. There are the buskers and footpath booksellers, fruit-juice stands and stalls selling tintos, piping hot shots of sweet black coffee. There are children selling cigarettes and chewing gum, newspaper boys
and scruffy, hole-in-the-wall bars spilling out salsa music and the bracing, over-proof aroma of aguardiente (a hooch whose name means firewater). Pot-bellied men in white shirts and trilbies sit propped on beer crates. People lounge in doorways and talk through windows. Some parts of the city resemble New Orleans, all overhanging balconies sagging with pot plants; others feel like a tropical Seville, with Moorish back alleys and whitewashed walls.
Cartagena's most important annual event is held on November 11: the celebration of the city's declaration of independence from Spain, in 1811. Men and women in masks and fancy dress roam the streets, playing instruments, throwing flowers and generally going crazy. This event also doubles as the national beauty pageant, with the winner representing Colombia in the Miss World showdown. One guidebook warns visitors this festival 'tends to be wild and can be dangerous'. But don't let that deter you. After all, you have to take the good with the bad in Colombia.
Getting there: Continental Airlines (www.continental.com) flies from Hong Kong to Bogota via New York. Avianca (www.avianca.com) flies from Bogota to Cartagena. La Merced Hotel Boutique, Cartagena, offers standard suites from US$270 a night. See www.lamercedhotel.com.