Colombia’s Cartagena de Indias Tarts It Up Yet Keeps It Real

March 8, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Colombia, history, lodging, South America | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

When it comes to birthday parties in Latin America — these days at least — nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Yet here they were, a pretty young Colombian señorita and maybe a hundred or so of her family and friends, happily celebrating her quince (“Sweet 15”) in the walled garden of Cartagena de India‘s Palacio de la Inquisición, now a history museum, where once upon a time, hapless wretches were gleefully tortured by so-called Christians. Off to one side, yellow and white balloons tethered to a wooden gallows bobbed gaily in the sultry breeze.

This bemusing snippet of surrealism brought home for me what truly sets this walled Spanish colonial gem of a city — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — apart from others of its ilk, such as Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan, Panama City’s old town, or the most splendid of all, Old Havana. Cartagena’s 16th-century ciudad amurallada (walled city) achieves by far the most felicitous balance of the bunch: a largely restored, amenity-laden living museum that’s truly living. By day I saw thousands of locals going about their daily lives — entrepreneurs selling cell-phone calls and recharges; vendors hawking coconuts, grapes, and more; office workers scurrying hither and thither. Rarely did I notice obvious tourists outside the occasional backpacker and of course in a few key spots like outdoor-café-thick Plaza Santo Domingo. At night, there was still plenty of street life until late into the night, which feels, incidentally, just about as safe as daytime; whatever you’ve heard about Colombia, in recent years the country has made great strides safety-wise, and especially in Cartagena.

Of course tourism has definitely made its mark; in just the past several years a veritable abundance of riches has sprung up in terms of restaurants (some of them elegant Nuevo Latino stars that could hold their own in New York, London, or Sydney), hotels, and shops (fortunately, the honky-tonk factor has so far been kept to a minimum on this front). The trend of the moment is the so-called “boutique” hotels occupying colonial-era townhouses of usually smallish size. Some, like the seven-room LM, are impeccably restored period pieces, while others have given their historic quarters contemporary twists. My own home base, the 24-room, two-month-old Anandá,  was obviously reaching for something of a Zen vibe, while others like Delirio (17 rooms) and the latest, Hotel Tcherassi (just seven, below right) have gone in the direction of white-toned minimalist-mod. Many have small pools, in courtyards or on rooftops, and high rates (most starting north — in some cases well north — of 400,000 pesos*), while several are more down-to-earth, such as the four-room Hotel Cochera de Hobo (also with a pool, albeit a teeny-weeny one, and starting at just US$80). There are also plenty of other options under US$100 a night, as well, by the way, and like Cochera de Hobo not all of them fetid hostels; personally, next time I plan to rent an apartment through a site like CartagenaApartments.com.

Oh, and about all those pools I mentioned? You might actually find them quite handy, because much of the year it’s effing sweltering down here.  You can break a sweat just by casually strolling a block, and after a visit to monumental San Felipe Fortress south of town I felt like I must be leaving a sluglike trail in my wake.

But hang in there, because the rewards are vast. Besides the aforementioned Palace of the Inquisition and San Felipe, you can explore a small but fascinating museum of gold and pre-Columbian culture; the Emerald Museum (emeralds being a big deal in Colombia, even if they’re mined in the interior, not on the coast); the offshore Rosario Islands with pristine beaches and fab seafood; the usual array of elaborate colonial churches; an interesting monastery south of town on a hill called La Popa; a onetime jail complex now occupied by tourist shops; and the colonial walls themselves.

But quite honestly, much of C-town’s allure is more than anything about just hanging out in this remarkable city.  Yes, the touts trying to pull you to the café tables in Plaza de Santo Domingo are un poquito annoying — but still, what a swell place to chill and watch the world stroll by the swelling buttocks of Fernando Botero’s Reclining Woman. Catch the sunset and a cerveza amid centuries-old cannons at the Café del Mar, perched atop the old city wall. Or have a street vendor hack you a cool natural drink out of a fresh coconut.

All this, plus some truly tasty dining at upscale spots like La Vitrola, Café San Pedro, and El Santísimo, mid-rangers like El Bistro, and a slew of budget-friendlies from contemporary Quiebra-Canto to many local holes in the wall (many of them surprisingly good), has me eagerly watching my airfare alerts for that magic SRS — Cartagena airport, through which I’m anxious to pass again ASAP.

*at press time, about US$212 / £140 / €155 / CA$218 / A$233 / ZAR1,566

photos: David Paul Appell, Hotel Tcherassi
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Tripatini Surveys Hot Destinations for 2010

December 28, 2009 at 11:03 am | Posted in Africa, Asia, Barbados, British Columbia, Canada, Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Central America, Colombia, Croatia, cruising, Cuba, Estonia, Europe, Florida, Honduras, Iceland, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Macau, Mexico, Middle East, Montenegro, New Mexico, Panama, Rwanda, Slovenia, South Africa, South America, Sri Lanka, St. Lucia, Suriname, Turkey, Turks and Caicos, United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe | 2 Comments
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by David Paul Appell

It’s that time when the travel-hungry are scouring the media for word of the coming year’s “it” spots. We can play that game too, so, besides popular perennials, here are 29 we see looming larger on twenty-ten’s worldwide vaycaydar:

U.S.A.
For Americans at least, tight times mean Florida will tempt folks sticking closer to home; better deals down south include  Fort Lauderdale and up north the Panhandle. The latter’s now marketed as the “Emerald Coast,” trying to softpedal the “Redneck Riviera” image; comparisons to Sardinia’s glam Costa Smeralda are laughable, but there are some fetching towns, inns, and some interesting attractions — but above all sugary beaches along a stretch including  Destin, Fort Walton, Apalachicola, St. Joe Beach, and Pensacola. Another hotspot due for a boost this year is Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is popping the corks for its 400th anniversary (and while you’re out here, add a couple of days to explore some cool nearby towns like Acoma Pueblo and Gallup.

CANADA
The big story this year is inevitably the province of British Columbia, with cool cities Vancouver and Victoria, stunning coastal and mountain scenery, eco/adventure tourism, and swell snow sports. The reason is, of course, is the attention focused on Vancouver and ski resort Whistler Blackcomb, hosting this February’s Winter Olympics.

MEXICO
The so-called Maya Riviera, on the Yucatan Peninsula’s Caribbean coast stretching southward from Cancun, continues evolving whether big luxury resorts, mass-market all-inclusives, exquisite small inns, or budget digs. Some also see a bump for Mexico City, whose pollution and security issues can be finessed with some common sense and which offers one of the world’s great urban experiences — and what other burg has not just a stunning Aztec pyramid complex (Teotihuacan) on its outskirts but several right in town — one smack in the middle of downtown?

THE CARIBBEAN
This winter/spring, more ships come online and cruising is likely to stay strong, thanks to heavy discounting. Beyond the usual suspects, keep your eye on buttoned-down Barbados,  where some resorts and dining spots have been updating of late, and scenic St. Lucia, with luxury properties coming online fairly recently (Jade Mountain, The Landings) or refurbing (Cap Maison); there’s also a movement toward sustainable — and less pricey — town and country tourism. Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos also keeps adding fab resorts without sacrificing its limin’ vibe. Finally, could this be the year for Cuba, when the self-defeating, un-American, yet stubborn travel ban is dropped or relaxed for all U.S. citizens? Hold not thy breath, but anything’s possible, and if it happens, go — unsavory regime notwithstanding, it’s one of the world’s great travel and cultural experiences.

EUROPE
Eastern Europe has been on a major upswing ever since the Berlin Wall fell. But even 20 year later, some destinations are still growing or even just emerging. Examples of the former include Croatia and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. And lately we’re hearing more about Croatia’s neighbors, Slovenia and Montenegro. Both serve up stunning mountains with eco/adventure, historic cities and towns, and Adriatic seacoast with fine beach resorts. And this year, Montenegro welcomes AmanResorts’ fancy-schmancy Sveti Stefan, on an island of medieval architecture. On the western side of things, Icelands a nice land, with its superb eco/adventure, cool capital Reykjavik, short flight time from Europe and New York City, and some of the most affordable prices in years, thanks to the recent economic meltdown.

CENTRAL AMERICA / SOUTH AMERICA
In Central America, everybody’s jockeying to be “the next Costa Rica” — even El Salvador (who knew?). But watch Honduras; ’09 tourism plummeted due to its political crisis but should be back on track — and hungry — once the new elected government debuts in January. Highlights: Maya ruins, colonial towns, exceptional eco/adventure, world-class diving.  Panama, too, with great rainforest, beaches, one of the hemisphere’s loveliest colonial quarters (Panama City’s Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and barefoot Caribbean isles like Bocas del Toro and the San Blas, home to the autonomous Kuna Indians. In South America, Colombia‘s overall continuing security and economic progress will feed that diverse country’s tourism, especially to another colonial stunner, Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, and happening capital Bogotá (whose colonial quarter’s also nothing to estornudar at). Rising on the radar is the continent’s smallest and only Dutch-speaking country, Suriname, a multi-culti charmer with a cute, sleepy little capital and some of the hemisphere’s most unspoiled eco offerings.

MIDDLE EAST
With the steam let out of Dubai, look to UAE capital Abu Dhabi, also developing a-plenty yet without sacrificing traditional culture and flavor. On the Mediterranean, with political crisis at bay for now, Lebanon is still rockin’ the casbah — well, at least Beirut is, while the beach resorts, Roman ruins, and even wine country outside the capital provide a lower-key counterpoint. Up on Turkey‘s “Turquise Coast,” meanwhile, a resort town and region called Dalaman is currently hot, for example outstripping Spain’s Majorca as among the Brits; allures include beaches, soft adventure, nightlife, and historic/archaeological sites.

ASIA
The tourism offerings in staid ol’ Singapore are getting something of a 2010 shot in the arm, with the elaborate, Vegas-style casino-resort Marina Bay Sands; the also elaborate Fullerton Heritage Complex crammed with shopping, dining, and lodging; and Sentosa Island’s Resorts World, with a Hard Rock Hotel and a Universal Studios theme park. Another “city-state” (now a semi-autonomous part of China) seeing some new action is Macau, where, again, it’s Vegas-style casinos that’ve been complementing the Portuguese colonial architecture and fueling a local boom. On a less glitzy, more laid-back note, since Sri Lanka ended its civil war last May, more travelers will be returning to its historic towns, Buddhist temples, and breathtaking beaches.

AFRICA
From Kruger Park to Cape Town to the winelands, South Africa is on the upswing again, thanks to interest generated by Hollywood hits like Invictus and District 9, and especially June’s soccer World Cup. Lower on the radar, the story of the year may well be the rebirth of safari tourism in Rwanda, 17 years after its genocide, and, believe it or not, Zimbabwe, despite still being a political and economic basket case.

Back This Winter: The Biggest Carnival Blowout You’ve Never Heard of, in Barranquilla, Colombia

December 9, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Colombia, festivals/celebrations, South America | Leave a comment
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by José Balido


Just a little more than nine weeks to go till pre-Lenten Carnaval time, and if you’re thinking of a warm getaway to the biggest party in the Latin world, Rio de Janeiro’s is always a rip-roaring crowd-pleaser — but it’s also massively mobbed, pretty pricey, and these days, to say the least, just a wee bit overcommercialized. For a taste of this annual revelry that’s both more affordable and closer to its folkloric roots (so much so that it’s on UNESCO’s World Heritage list), consider the second-largest Carnaval (in 2010, February 13-16), bringing more than a half-million people to Barranquilla, just down the Caribbean coast from historic Cartagena. This city of 1.7 million isn’t much to see most of the year — despite some nice historic homes, a small museum of city history and Carnaval lore, and historic bar-cum-eatery La Cueva, onetime hangout of Colombian literary legend Gabriel García Márquez and his circle. But come February, normal life shuts down, partying erupts, and city authorities and private Carnaval societies come together to throw parades with floats and costumed characters both traditional (gold- or white-faced, African-derived congos) and contemporary (Hugo Chávez, Barack Obama, hot chicas in skimpy outfits); you’re likely to have corn flour flung and water guns squirted at you, but everybody takes it in good humor. More info: CarnavalDeBarranquilla.com, CarnavalDeBarranquilla.net.

Bogota’s Tasty Historic Center

July 14, 2009 at 11:05 am | Posted in Colombia, history, South America | Leave a comment
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by José Balido

One of the sloping streets in Bogota's La Candelaria district

One of the sloping streets in Bogota's La Candelaria district

For reasons that certainly don’t need repeating, until fairly recently informing your nearest and dearest you’re considering a vacation in Colombia might’ve been considered grounds for dialing the dudes in the white coats. But these days, the country’s capital is optimistic, as safe as anywhere in Latin America, and in the midst of a boom in restaurants, la rumba (nightlife), and the economy and society in general. Apart from an impressive mountain setting and comfily cool weather all year round, what makes a visit well worth the flight is the city’s intensely atmospheric colonial core, La Candelaria. Dating back to Santa Fé de Bogotá’s 1538 founding and anchored by the expansive Plaza Bolívar and the neoclassical presidential palace, Casa Nariño, the old quarter’s 2¼ square miles of sloping brick- and cobblestone-paved streets are crammed with enough sites, sights, and stuff to do for several very rewarding days, all against the dramatic, cloud-wreathed backdrop of the surrounding Andes.

Start with the digs – there’s a nice selection budget hostels and midrange small hotels; folks seem to particularly like the Platypus, and others include Hotel Internacional and El Dorado. If you can spend a bit more, check out a pair of restored buildings that combine the colonial with mod-cons: the elegant 81-room Hotel de la Ópera (check out that fancy spa and pool in the basement, ay, caramba!) and the smaller, less pricey Hotel Casa de la Botica, with a more contemporary flavor inside. Getting fed is fairly easy, too, from tasty street food to a range of cafés and restaurants.

Stops on your sightseeing itinerary should of course include several of the old churches, of which the cathedral is the largest but far from the most interesting (for truly over-the-top art and gilt, check out San Ignacio, Santa Clara, and San Francisco). Must-visit museums, meanwhile, are devoted to conquistador-era art and furnishings; the roly-poly folks painted and sculpted by the world-famous Fernando Botero; and above all pre-Columbian gold tribal artifacts that will just knock your knickers off. You can even apply for a tour of Casa Nariño.

One thing especially worth noting is that, unlike, say, Old San Juan, La Candelaria is far from just a kitschy tourist zone. A dizzying spectrum of bogotano society bustles along its streets every day, and you can easily dine with them (a variety of eateries range from humble and funky to fancy and pricey) and shop with them (there are several colorful covered markets, and green-bling fans can even browse for the local gem specialty on an “emerald alley” along Carrera 6). Some have noted a crime problem at night, once the daytime crowds are gone — but anyone used to navigating big cities with care and common sense should be able to manage just fine.

So yes, by all means take time out to hop the funicular up looming Monserrate hill with its Sugarloaf-style Virgin Mary statue and va-va-voom city views; to hit the restaurants and clubs in North Bogotá’s Zona Rosa and Parque de la 93; to browse the Sunday street market and charming old plaza in Usaquén; and to take day and even overnight jaunts to coffee country and the impressive salt-mine-turned-underground cathedral in Zipaquirá. But just make sure to give yourself the leisure to soak up the atmosphere of La Candelaria, one of the most historic and flavorful working neighborhoods in the Americas.

For more info, see go-lo’s Colombia group.

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