On visiting Cartagena

This item appears on page 61 of the April 2008 issue.
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Colombia has a reputation as a potentially dangerous destination, but I felt no uneasiness when walking around the old walled city of Cartagena for five days in January ’08.

The Old City remains a living place. Yes, there are several hotels and plenty of restaurants that attract foreign visitors, but the streets and shops are alive with Cartageneros going about their business. Some buildings have been carefully restored; others retain their somewhat dilapidated charm. Go now before gentrification and growing tourist demand transform it into a more sterile place.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT — There are many highrise hotels along the beachfront of Bocagrande, but neither the hotels nor the beaches receive rave reviews, and most of them are beyond walking distance of the colonial city.

Inside the walls, there are two “international-class” hotels: the Charleston at one end of the city and Sofitel’s Santa Clara at the other. Both appeared charming; both are expensive.

My less-expensive choice was Casa La Fe (Centro, Parque Fernández de Madrid, Calle Segundo de Badillo No. 36-125, Cartagena, Colombia; phone +57 5 6640306, fax 6600164 or visit www.casalafe.com. . . or call [Miami] 305/767-1217), facing on a plaza in the middle of the Old City and no more than a 15-minute stroll from the walls in any direction.

I booked a spacious second-floor room with balcony, queen-sized bed, minibar, CNN, air-conditioning, ceiling fan, wireless Internet and a small but adequate bathroom with a walk-in shower but no tub. Including a hot breakfast, the cost was 280,000 pesos (about $155) per night for single or double occupancy.

My room (No. 205) was one of the few rooms overlooking the plaza. Although I didn’t see other rooms, I think mine was worth the additional cost.

In several of the plazas there are outdoor cafés for lunch. Among the many restaurants inside the walls, I recommend Da Danni (Italian food), right off the Parque Fernández Madrid, where Casa La Fe is located, and San Pedro (serving an excellent if unusual Pad Thai), near the Church of San Pedro Claver. Meal prices at each were between $16 and $20, including one beer, tax and service.

OTHER PRACTICALITIES — It’s possible to walk on the ramparts around most of the Old City. It’s not all that dramatic a walk, but it’s still a good way to get oriented.

The naval museum is worth a visit, especially if you’re interested in fortifications and the British, French and Dutch sieges of the city.

The small, modern art museum can be worthwhile, depending on the temporary exhibits, and the gold museum on Plaza Bolivar, which is free, has some choice small pieces.

The Museum of the Inquisition, across the plaza, won’t take much of your time, and the church interiors are surprisingly plain. The cloister of San Pedro Claver is worth a short visit.

In sum, the charm of the Old City lies primarily in wandering its streets. Plaza Bolivar has comfortable benches for watching the world go by, including the groups on excursions from their cruise ships. Some of the benches there are shaded and cooled by nearby fountains.

There are several ATMs at banks on the Plaza de la Aduana. There’s also a supermarket of sorts nearby at the Plaza de los Coches (and another near the Casa La Fe). An upscale handicrafts store is Upalema, on Calle San Juan de Dios, near the Charleston Hotel and the Naval Museum. The best place for souvenirs, however, is Las Bóvedas, a series of 20 or more little shops side by side in an arcade near the Santa Clara hotel and just inside the city wall.

Do not expect the Cartageneros to be fluent in English. Even a small Spanish vocabulary goes a long way there, as does a bit of patience and a lot of smiling and gesturing.

GETTING THERE AND BACK — If you connect to Cartagena on Avianca through Miami as I did, get to the Avianca counter in Miami when it opens. Colombians and Americans returning home to Colombia check impressive amounts of baggage, which slows down and complicates the check-in process. It can get fairly chaotic.

Also, after I checked my bag, I was directed to another counter nearby where I had to pay a $5 tourist tax before I was issued my boarding pass. This was the first time I can remember having to pay an entry fee before leaving the U.S.

Stapled to my boarding pass was a Colombian Customs form, which I turned in before leaving the baggage claim area in Cartagena. (My baggage tag also was checked against the tag on my suitcase.) It’s advisable to complete the Customs form before landing. There is no separate landing form for Colombia.

There are no individual luggage carts at the Cartagena airport. When leaving Colombia, I used a porter, who first took me to a window where an official issued me a form and stamped my passport for reasons I never understood. Then I was asked the standard security questions twice — first by an Avianca employee and then by a uniformed member of the antinarcotics police.

Next, my suitcase was opened and checked fairly carefully before I was directed to the check-in counter. When checking in, I was required to pay a departure tax of $52 or 103,000 pesos. It cost less to pay in dollars; still, that’s the highest departure tax I can remember having to pay. I wasn’t allowed to pay part of the tax with my remaining pesos and the balance in dollars.

My carry-on bag and I then were screened twice, once before entering the departure lounge and again, for no apparent reason, before leaving the lounge to walk to the plane.

All this takes time, so, again, I recommend getting to the airport early. The check-in counter opened three hours before departure. Taxis to and from the Cartagena airport cost less than 10,000 pesos ($6).

The security checks were conducted with courtesy, and the actual passport-control formalities were quick and painless.

U.S. officials in Miami didn’t seem particularly interested in the fact that I was returning from Colombia.

STAN BACH

Washington, D.C.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

Colombia has a reputation as a potentially dangerous destination, but I felt no uneasiness when walking around the old walled city of Cartagena for five days in January ’08.

The Old City remains a living place. Yes, there are several hotels and plenty of restaurants that attract foreign visitors, but the streets and shops are alive with Cartageneros going about their business. Some buildings have been carefully restored; others retain their somewhat dilapidated charm. Go now before gentrification and growing tourist demand transform it into a more sterile place.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT — There are many highrise hotels along the beachfront of Bocagrande, but neither the hotels nor the beaches receive rave reviews, and most of them are beyond walking distance of the colonial city.

Inside the walls, there are two “international-class” hotels: the Charleston at one end of the city and Sofitel’s Santa Clara at the other. Both appeared charming; both are expensive.

My less-expensive choice was Casa La Fe (Centro, Parque Fernández de Madrid, Calle Segundo de Badillo No. 36-125, Cartagena, Colombia; phone +57 5 6640306, fax 6600164 or visit www.casalafe.com. . . or call [Miami] 305/767-1217), facing on a plaza in the middle of the Old City and no more than a 15-minute stroll from the walls in any direction.

I booked a spacious second-floor room with balcony, queen-sized bed, minibar, CNN, air-conditioning, ceiling fan, wireless Internet and a small but adequate bathroom with a walk-in shower but no tub. Including a hot breakfast, the cost was 280,000 pesos (about $155) per night for single or double occupancy.

My room (No. 205) was one of the few rooms overlooking the plaza. Although I didn’t see other rooms, I think mine was worth the additional cost.

In several of the plazas there are outdoor cafés for lunch. Among the many restaurants inside the walls, I recommend Da Danni (Italian food), right off the Parque Fernández Madrid, where Casa La Fe is located, and San Pedro (serving an excellent if unusual Pad Thai), near the Church of San Pedro Claver. Meal prices at each were between $16 and $20, including one beer, tax and service.

OTHER PRACTICALITIES — It’s possible to walk on the ramparts around most of the Old City. It’s not all that dramatic a walk, but it’s still a good way to get oriented.

The naval museum is worth a visit, especially if you’re interested in fortifications and the British, French and Dutch sieges of the city.

The small, modern art museum can be worthwhile, depending on the temporary exhibits, and the gold museum on Plaza Bolivar, which is free, has some choice small pieces.

The Museum of the Inquisition, across the plaza, won’t take much of your time, and the church interiors are surprisingly plain. The cloister of San Pedro Claver is worth a short visit.

In sum, the charm of the Old City lies primarily in wandering its streets. Plaza Bolivar has comfortable benches for watching the world go by, including the groups on excursions from their cruise ships. Some of the benches there are shaded and cooled by nearby fountains.

There are several ATMs at banks on the Plaza de la Aduana. There’s also a supermarket of sorts nearby at the Plaza de los Coches (and another near the Casa La Fe). An upscale handicrafts store is Upalema, on Calle San Juan de Dios, near the Charleston Hotel and the Naval Museum. The best place for souvenirs, however, is Las Bóvedas, a series of 20 or more little shops side by side in an arcade near the Santa Clara hotel and just inside the city wall.

Do not expect the Cartageneros to be fluent in English. Even a small Spanish vocabulary goes a long way there, as does a bit of patience and a lot of smiling and gesturing.

GETTING THERE AND BACK — If you connect to Cartagena on Avianca through Miami as I did, get to the Avianca counter in Miami when it opens. Colombians and Americans returning home to Colombia check impressive amounts of baggage, which slows down and complicates the check-in process. It can get fairly chaotic.

Also, after I checked my bag, I was directed to another counter nearby where I had to pay a $5 tourist tax before I was issued my boarding pass. This was the first time I can remember having to pay an entry fee before leaving the U.S.

Stapled to my boarding pass was a Colombian Customs form, which I turned in before leaving the baggage claim area in Cartagena. (My baggage tag also was checked against the tag on my suitcase.) It’s advisable to complete the Customs form before landing. There is no separate landing form for Colombia.

There are no individual luggage carts at the Cartagena airport. When leaving Colombia, I used a porter, who first took me to a window where an official issued me a form and stamped my passport for reasons I never understood. Then I was asked the standard security questions twice — first by an Avianca employee and then by a uniformed member of the antinarcotics police.

Next, my suitcase was opened and checked fairly carefully before I was directed to the check-in counter. When checking in, I was required to pay a departure tax of $52 or 103,000 pesos. It cost less to pay in dollars; still, that’s the highest departure tax I can remember having to pay. I wasn’t allowed to pay part of the tax with my remaining pesos and the balance in dollars.

My carry-on bag and I then were screened twice, once before entering the departure lounge and again, for no apparent reason, before leaving the lounge to walk to the plane.

All this takes time, so, again, I recommend getting to the airport early. The check-in counter opened three hours before departure. Taxis to and from the Cartagena airport cost less than 10,000 pesos ($6).

The security checks were conducted with courtesy, and the actual passport-control formalities were quick and painless.

U.S. officials in Miami didn’t seem particularly interested in the fact that I was returning from Colombia.

STAN BACH

Washington, D.C.