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Cartagena de Indias, one of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas, lies on the north coast of Colombia. The city was once one of the wealthiest port towns of the Spanish Crown. Today it is beautifully preserved, with charming squares and balconies overgrown with bougainvillea. Thanks to the large number of well-preserved villas built by rich merchants and noble families, the historic city centre has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.
A huge fort built on the hill right next to the city defended Cartagena against pirate attacks. This gave the residents the confidence to invest heavily in their villas as well as their churches: the bright yellow tower of the St Catherine's Cathedral has been one of the most iconic landmarks in the town since 1612. The maze of colourful streets in the city centre is contained by a 13-kilometre-long defensive wall. The cannons serve a strictly decorative role these days: the locals often flock here to enjoy the sunset.
The courtyards of the colonial villas are some of the loveliest spots in town. These are often tucked away behind large wooden gates with massive door knockers. With a little bit of planning, visitors can peek inside by reserving a table at one of the many restaurants housed here. Amadeus, for example, is located in the courtyard of Casa Pestagua, a fabulous little palace with beautiful frescoes that were recently uncovered during a restoration, hidden underneath layers of centuries’ old paint. Restaurant Alma is the main meeting place of the hotel Casa San Agustín, a combination of 3 17th-century merchant villas, now equipped with a modern cocktail bar. Just around the corner you will find El Gobernador, a fine dining restaurant housed in an impressive 18th-century building, run by Colombian master chef Jorge Rausch. If you really enjoy these hidden gems, why not spend the night? Many of the restaurants are part of a deluxe boutique hotel.
The neighbourhood of Getsemaní is the younger, trendier part of the city centre. As a result, the restaurants and bars are more budget-friendly. The same goes for the accommodations: the district is home to a large number of affordable hostels. Admire the great variety of street art. For example, above the patio of one of the best coffee bars, Café del Mural. Bar Demente, located on the central Plaza de la Trinidad, serves the best Colombian craft beers. Nearby, live music rings out from Havana, a popular and always busy salsa bar. In the same street you can book a luxurious room in the eccentric Casa Lola.
Just a stone’s throw from the opulence of the wealthy city centre is a women’s prison. Recently, the prison set up a special programme that offers the inmates hospitality training. The courtyard has been set up as a restaurant — appropriately named Interno (Intern) — which is open to the general public. Those who come to dine are greeted by the guards on arrival. The recipes (and training) are provided by the same Colombian top chefs who work in the nearby 5-star hotels. They were recruited for the project by Colombian television actress Johanna Bahamón, who also runs theatre workshops in prisons.