4th January 2019
Cartagena is arguably the most beautiful colonial city in the Americas.
Inside the old town walls, a grid of brightly coloured streets criss-cross each other, divided by pretty palm-filled squares. A riot of equally colourful bougainvillaea hang from the balconies that almost touch in the centre of the streets. Towering cathedrals, churches, forts and theatres give evidence of this stunning port city's important past.
Founded in 1533, Cartagena is located on the Caribbean coast, close to the mouth of the Rio Magdelena, Colombia's biggest river, and as such developed as both a Spanish stronghold - to store the gold and silver the conquistadors plundered from the interior - and trading port.
In 1586, Sir Francis Drake famously sacked the city and carried away much of the Spanish loot, but the next Brit to try did not fare so well.
In front of the massive fort, built to defend the city against attack, is a statue of the half man Don Blass de Lezo, so called as he only had one leg, one full arm and one good eye.
He was the local general responsible for holding off the British siege of 1741. In April of that year, the Brits entered the bay of Cartagena. Thinking they had taken the town the commander of the fleet, Admiral Vernon, sent a light ship immediately back to Jamaica announcing the important port was now in British hands.
Coins were minted. Celebrations made. But although the Brits had taken Cerro de la Popa, the high ground above the city, they never managed to take the old town and the treasure stored there. Malaria and long rains made many sick and the fleet left 3 months later allowing the Spanish to regain total control.
We enjoyed 3 full days in town during which time we did two fascinating guided cultural tours. We drank coffee in some of the many plazas, ate in some excellent restaurants and had a riotous New Years Eve on the old town battlements at Cafe Del Mar.
But our favourite experience here was a rum tasting at Cuba 1940.
In an upstairs private bar, looking like a room from the 1950s, our guide, Noah, had set up five glasses each and a miniature copper still.
First explaining the history of sugar cane - which apparently came to the Americas on Columbus's second voyage in 1493 (by way of Papua New Guinea, India and the Moors in Spain) - he explained how rum is made and the different flavours and strengths one gets from different distillation techniques.
He also showed us by firing up the still and illustrating how it worked. Being a chemist by profession, and a natural storyteller, he was both enlightening and entertaining, and rum will never taste quite the same again.
We've now moved onto an island off the coast for a bit of R&R before heading home.
There's no doubt Colombia has come a long way in a relatively short space of time.
From the dark days of the 80s and 90s when it was seen by many as the basket-case of the continent, with a violent communist insurgency, a corrupt and ineffective government and a multi-billion dollar a year drugs trade, it has now emerged as one of the most fascinating and tourist-friendly countries in Latin America.
These days you will rarely hear a bad word said about Colombia from anyone that's been here.
Now I can understand why.