Facing the Caribbean Sea on Colombia’s northern coast, the charming city of Cartagena de las Indias, founded in 1533, boasts some of the oldest, best-preserved colonial architecture in South America. The city’s historic walled district was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984
1. Spend the Evening in an Open-Air Plaza. The Plaza San Diego and Plaza Santo Domingo are your best bets to catch street performances of local folk music, called vallenato, or—if you’re really lucky—a Shakira impersonator like the one above.
2. Get Lost in the Walled City. The Ciudad Amurallada, surrounded by 400-year-old stone walls, offers both romance and history. The sea is visible from the tops of the walls, and a stroll along the narrow brick streets past burnt orange and royal blue buildings is a way to relive the city’s colonial past.
3. Climb the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. A short walk from downtown, this seventeenth-century fortress is a maze of tunnels that seem custom-made for hide-and-seek. The fortress was built as a defense against pirates. The tunnels were designed to help overtake intruders.
4. Catch a Few Rays. With its blinding white sand and turquoise blue water, Playa Blanca- may be the prettiest beach around Cartagena. Passenger boats depart every hour from the main port for about $25 roundtrip.
5. See and Be Seen. The city plays host to a number of music, literary and film festivals, many of which take place at the historic Teatro Adolfo Mejía. If high art isn’t your thing, catch one of the rival beauty pageants that captivate every cartagenero come November.
6. Hop on a Bike. Escape downtown and head to the working-class neighborhood of Getsemaní. On your way back, ride past the clock tower and stop at a nearby bakery for a bocaqueso (a cheese- and guava-filled pastry). Bikes are available at shops downtown with two-hour rentals for about $3.50.
7. Visit the Convento and Iglesia de San Pedro Claver. One of the city’s many cathedrals, this church doubles as a museum, housing pre-Columbian and colonial archaeological artifacts and a small, but surprisingly rich, collection of Afro-Caribbean art. Tickets cost $3.75 for adults, and it’s open daily.
8. Put on Your Dancing Shoes. Coastal Colombia is home to a vibrant salsa culture, and Cartagena is no exception. Café Havana in Getsemaní gets going after 11 p.m., with crowds spilling onto the streets.
9. Release Your Inner Child. Splash around in a warm mud bath atop the Volcán de Totumo, about an hour’s ride outside of the city in nearby Arboletes. Make sure you take time to rinse off afterward at the nearby lagoon.
10. Stay at the Charleston Santa Teresa. The Carmelite convent in the walled city has been converted into a boutique hotel. Not for the budget-minded (double rooms start at $450 per night), it’s still worth visiting to see the large courtyard and tropical garden, and the rooftop pool with spectacular 360-degree views.