- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 31, 2000

Cartagena, hundreds of miles from the killing fields and coca plantations of this violence-wracked South American nation, is Colombia's major tourist attraction and a popular port of call for large cruise ships.
Cartagena de Indias, as it is officially known, is a city of 1 million people. It was founded in 1533 by the Spanish, and by the middle of that century was the center for shipping gold and other products to Spain from its colony.
In the 18th century, Cartagena, with the protection of its San Felipe de Barajas fortress, withstood a siege by the English forces led by Adm. Edward Vernon. During the English attacks, which ended with the loss of many lives and defeat, Lawrence Washington, elder half-brother of George Washington, led a contingent of Colonial troops, many of them from Virginia, and later named his Virginia plantation Mount Vernon in honor of the admiral.
Cartagena was the center of the Spanish Inquisition in South America, and its Palace of the Inquisition now is a museum.
As a city, it is a gem, although the $850,000 spent to spiff up the city, remove beggars from the streets and to repave sidewalks and roads for President Clinton's visit yesterday was criticized by some people as excessive. Others approved.
Even before the cleanup, the city's oldest section, San Diego, charmed visitors with its narrow streets and numerous and colorful balconied buildings from the Spanish colonial period. The modern buildings in the upscale peninsular Bocagrande section include high-rise condominiums and hotels; from the water, the skyline is reminiscent of Miami Beach.
"Cartagena is just the opposite of the United States," said one businessman. "Here the poor people live by the water and in your country that is an area for wealthy."
Two of the city's five-star hotels are in San Diego, and both formerly were convents: the Sofitel Santa Clara and the Santa Theresa Charleston. They retain large open courtyards and offer travelers modern amenities such as swimming pools, spas and fitness and business centers. Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, has a home near the Santa Clara.
Tourism once boomed, but it has been down since the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning about Colombia. In the Santa Theresa Charleston Hotel, a large air-conditioned room with high ceilings in the original part of the convent, costs about $110 per night; an equally impressive suite costs about $135 per night.
City tourism officials insist Cartagena is safe. They say the Marxist guerrillas waging the war with the Colombian government are hundreds of miles away in the jungles, and that Cartagena is even 400 miles north of Bogota, the capital. These Cartagenians want an exemption from the State Department's advisory about the whole country.
They also want more air service between their city and the United States. The only scheduled nonstop daily U.S. flights are Cartagena-Miami, operated by Avianca, the Colombian airline. American and Continental airlines as well as Avianca fly between the United States and Bogota. Avianca has connecting flights to Cartagena.
City officials are excited and hopeful about upcoming visits from several U.S. airlines. These officials were also concerned about the daylong closing of their airport during Mr. Clinton's visit, an action they said was taken by the Colombian government and not at the request of the United States, which requested a few hours' closure before and after the president's arrival and departure.
"Cartagena is safe," said the businessman. "The war is not here. Look how many visitors we have from cruise ships. They haven't reported serious crimes.
"What we need are Americans," he said.

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