The Caribbean gem of Colombia is encased in 13 kilometres of stone wall, its streets wind below ancient balconies bursting with flowered vines, and the beauty of its fortresses, churches and plazas have earned it UNESCO World Heritage status. And yet Cartagena is remarkable for its popular beaches, its proximity to beautiful coral reefs and its modern neighbourhoods, reminiscent of Miami Beach.
Tourists in Cartagena will likely spend their time exploring three different neighbourhoods: the old city, the Bocagrande peninsula to the south and the more gritty neighbourhood of Getsemaní. Keep in mind that Cartagena is hot, so your exploring deserves a siesta between one and three in the afternoon, when you’re digesting lunch and the sun is overpowering. Cartagena’s street life is more vibrant at night anyway, and that’s when a relaxing breeze spills through the town and the ancient architecture is expertly lit.
The old centre is small and safe (approximately 2,000 police officers patrol the old town), making this the perfect destination to simply wander. Modern bridges now connect pieces of the ancient wall so that visitors are able to explore long stretches of it while admiring beautiful churches and the sea beyond. Below the wall, time is well spent going in and out of boutiques or sitting with a cup of iced cream. Bibliophiles should check out Abaco Libros y Cafe for a glass of wine or simply to admire the literati in their element. If you have money to spend or want to upgrade your sunglasses, Cartagena is home to one of ultra-stylish German eyeglasses designer Mykita’s 12 boutiques. If you want to sleep in the old town, there are many expensive options, and L’Hotel Petit is an explicitly gay-friendly one.
Cartagena’s old city is a paradise of international dining, devoid of North American chains. For your morning pick-me-up, the Juan Valdez coffee chain (owned by a national farmers’ cooperative) on Plaza Santo Domingo cannot be missed, and the juice bar across the small plaza is an excellent place to sample local fruit juices, including the sour and creamy lulo. For evening cocktails, Frank & Frank’s spurns colonial atmosphere for a sleek modern interior.
Throughout the year, Cartagena comes to life with festivals of all types. The International Music Festival at the beginning of January brings classical and new-world music to the city, and 2014 will see the first Art Biennial of Cartagena from February to April. Throughout the year, however, there is a small but interesting Modern Art Museum that’s well worth a visit. At the beginning of January, fans of electronic music head to Cartagena for SummerLand, a three-day electronic music festival that features big names like Tiësto and Armin van Buuren.
The towering, modern hotels of Bocagrande are never more than a few hundred metres from the Caribbean Sea, and all of them are big enough and smart enough not to ask questions about the persuasions of their guests. The beach at Bocagrande is great if you’re not too fussy about finding one that’s picture-postcard perfect. Its unofficial gay section is Playa Hollywood, in front of the Hotel Caribe, and it is particularly busy on Sundays.
Getsemaní, the charmingly grungy neighbourhood to the southeast of the centre, is the place to go for budget accommodation and vibrant street life. At night, the plaza in front of Iglesia Santisima Trinidad comes alive with locals and tourists getting their flirt on, while vendors sell hamburgers and tasty fresh juice (with or without alcohol). If you’re looking for a restaurant, Getsemaní has an abundance of inexpensive places, clustered on Calle del Guerrero. Ely’s Cake shop, near the convention centre, sells delicious pastries in an atmosphere of Rococo indulgence.
Gay tourists and locals heading out at night congregate on the first two floors of Hotel L’Petit. In the heart of the old city, the venue caters to a mixed clientele who want to drink, flirt and dance. Studio 54 in Getsemaní, which has both a salsa room and a techno section, is the logical next stop as the room rate at L’Hotel Petit usually includes entry to Studio 54.
Back in the Old City, Via Libre, at Calle de la Soledad No 5-52, open only one night a week, is the best bar for checking out the local fauna, and the drinks are cheaper than at tourist bars. The club of the moment is Cinema Club, on Calle del Arsenal, where pretty young South Americans dance to a rotating roster of international and local DJs.
Cartagena’s local attractions can easily absorb a week, but it is also an ideal jumping-off point to the Islas del Rosario and San Bernardo. Offering white sand beaches, swaying palms and snorkelling-worthy coral reefs, you can have the beaches to yourself (except in high season) if you stay overnight. If you fall in love with the Colombian coast, consider heading to a seaside town such as Taganga, one of the least expensive places in the world to get certified as a scuba diver.
A 90-minute flight south is Bogota. Read our travel feature Finding the Gay Scene in Bogota. For the most up-to-date travel information on gay Bogota, see our City Guide, Listings Guide, Events Guide and Activities Guide.