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By Joshua Rapp Learn, Contributing Reporter

CARTAGENA, COLUMBIA – From the lapping turquoise waves of the Caribbean rise centuries old ramparts erected to rebuke the onslaught of pirates from a bygone time. Sailboats and yachts ply the waters of the port while the walls protect the gem-colored colonial buildings of Getsemaní, the 500 year old waterside region of Colombia’s famed city Cartagena.

The beautiful streets of Cartagena hold numerous hidden treasures, photo by Doug Gray.

Walking under the gates of one of South America’s oldest cities, it’s easy to be taken back in history. Cartagena de Indias is heavily fortified and for good reason – the city was raided by everyone from Basques to French noblemen on the pillage, to English pirates like Sir Frances Drake ever since the Spanish first built a town on the site of a former indigenous Kalamari village. Later, Getsemaní became an area inhabited predominantly by slaves.

Cartagena’s beaches lie mostly in the Bocagrande area, a short bus ride from Getsemaní. Music combines with sun and sand to make every weekend a party here, and although the seawater isn’t the most beautiful of the area, you can take boat rides out to nicer waters from the shore.

If you are looking for a little more isolation, take a launch out to Playa Blanca from Muelle Turistico de la Boguita – a nearby, pristine stretch of beach little more than an hour’s boat trip from town. The ride out is nearly as beautiful as the pristine crescent of white sand – you’ll skip off the waves alongside flying fish and cliff-side grottoes.

If you enjoy the place enough, you can pitch a hammock overnight at Wittenberg’s Place. If you go out on a new moon when the sky is black enough, a midnight’s swim will be highlighted in bright phosphorescent plankton.

The white Sands of Playa Blanca, photo by mallox/Flickr Creative Commons License.

Sizzling Caribbean street food offers spices that contribute to some of Colombia’s best cuisine. Culinary staples such as coconut rice and fresh fried fish accompany a range of cheap juices squeezed straight from the fruit.

Like most Colombian cities, Cartagena moves. Whether it’s the ritzy clubs of Bocagrande or famous Getsemaní fixtures like Mister Babilla, there is nearly always something to do on weekends.

If you’re in the market for cheap emeralds, this is also the place to be, but the large number of naïve cruise liner tourists is naturally accompanied by an equal amount of hustlers hawking fake gems. Be careful what you get yourself into – many of the same hustlers are involved in currency scams offering exchange rates that are obviously too good to be true.

As Colombia’s most touristic city, Cartagena doesn’t lack in accommodation. Whether it’s super budget hostels within the walls of Getsemaní like the classic Casa Vienna or ritzy hotels in Bocagrande, there is no shortage of rooms, just hunt on the internet until you find your preference. Flights to and from Cartagena go through the Rafael Núñez International Airport and start at around USD$849 (off season) for a round trip from Rio.

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