The city has a good mixture of both the old and the new. The original settlement, which comprises the Old City, is probably the most extensive, and certainly one of the most complete systems of, military fortifications in South America.
Those defensive fortifications were built by the Spanish in 1586 and were strengthened and extended to their current dimensions in the 18th century to take full advantage of the natural defences offered by the numerous bayside channels and passes.
Today, historic Cartagena is the most visited city in Colombia and is popular with both locals and international visitors alike.
Apart from the Old City, the rest of the city is quite modern with the area known as Bocagrande slowly filling up with a number of hotels and resorts.
The best way to enjoy the Old City is on foot. Encased behind solid city walls which were built to protect the city from raiders, including the pirate Sir John Hawkins and his nephew Sir Francis Drake, Cartagena has always had a fascinating history which started with plundering gold from the tombs of an ancient Indian cultures and was followed by raids by privateers, wars, fires, the importation and trading of slaves and even legitimate businesses.
Within the walls are colourful, even gaudily so, houses, mansions and shops, churches, gardens, parks, fortresses and dungeons that were flooded at high tide.
Just a few minutes by boat from Cartagena’s Castillogrande is Isla de Tierra Bomba, an island that is both the perfect place to relax and an important historical location. Less crowded than the mainland, you have the choice of finding a quiet piece of beach to yourself, or of using the facilities at some of the properties on the island.
Further offshore is the Islas de Rosario where there is an aquarium, but it can also be a bit of a tourist trap if you book your trip through the wrong people. Some beaches are controlled by hotels so you pay to use them, so it is best to ask around to ensure you get the deal that is right for your needs.
Because of its popularity as a tourist destination for Colombians, and also because cruise ships are now using historic Cartagena for short stays, there are lots of good restaurants and plenty of things to do, and a real party atmosphere in the town. Many people are worried about visiting Colombia, but the country has changed from its dangerous recent past. Cartagena is a good destination and a great introduction to a much-malignedIsla society.