Cartagena de Indias – Colombia

Ciudad Vieja: An Open-Air Living Museum

When the Spanish came looking for the kingdom of El Dorado in 1533, they landed at Cartagena. Today this gem of colonial architecture has been beautifully restored, particularly within its authentic and lively 16th- and 17th-century Ciudad Vieja (Old City). Overhanging wooden balconies, flower­ing patios, narrow back streets, stately man­sions housing fine restaurants, café- and palm-lined plazas, and centuries-old churches are enclosed and protected by the city’s elab­orate murallas, 7 miles of thick walls and an impregnable chain of outer forts. An outstand­ing piece of military engineering built to pro­tect Colombia’s most important city from pirate attacks, they are the only such fortifica­tions in South America.

The early-17th-century Convento de Santa Clara is an architectural treasure; after a stint as a charity hospital, it was recently converted (under the watchful eye of UNESCO) into the city’s finest hotel. The painstaking restoration exposed long-hidden murals and secret doors; ceramics and cannon shot from pirate attacks also surfaced, evidence of the site’s intriguing history. Guests can dine in the former refectory of the Clarisa nuns or stroll through the flow­ering gardens in the quiet of what once was an arched cloister. The nuns’ spartan rooms are now luxuriously appointed, but the inspiring views remain unchanged: The tiled roofs of the historic Ciudad Vieja against the indigo Caribbean sea.

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