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Magic, sensuality, romance: try as they might, visitors to Cartagena can’t help but resort to poeticisms as they describe the cobbled streets and wrought-iron balconies of this Caribbean paradise. And no wonder: the walled colonial town seduces everyone who sees it—including Gabriel García Márquez (“Gabo” to Colombians), who immortalized its tropical sultriness in Love in the Time of Cholera, one of the sexiest novels ever written.

The Nobel Laureate definitely had his finger on something. Cartagena’s historical center is storybook picturesque, a veritable maze of churches, monasteries, bougainvillea-entwined mansions, and horse-drawn carriages. Topping it all off is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Spain’s greatest fortress in the New World. Built over echoing tunnels and eerie dungeons, this bastion defended Colombia’s coast against pirates well into the 1800s.

Cartagena isn’t just a monument to the past. The town also has a thriving arts scene, with a gallery in the old customs house. Hungry souls will find ceviche, paella, and lobster mac-and-cheese in the countless eateries tucked away down its side streets, while at night, the dance clubs and taverns of the barrio Getsemaní sway to Afro-Cuban rhythms.

And then there’s the beach. Just steps from the languid decay of the colonial quarter, the Rio-style hotels of Bocagrande look out on the churning waters of the Caribbean. Looking for something more off the beaten bath? La Boquilla offers Colombian flyboarding and tours of mangrove swamps.

UNESCO has described Cartagena as the most remarkable set of Spanish fortifications in South America. But the last word on this enchanted city will always be that of Gabo: “Seeing it in the mauve light of six in the afternoon, one can’t help but feel reborn.”

Learn more about this destination at Visit Colombia.

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Bogotá / Cali / Medellín / Tayrona National Park / Zona Cafetera

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