ON THE ROAD AGAIN: CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA

It’s important to debunk a few unfortunate myths about Colombia from the get-go. The image of a lawless country that is run by drug cartel gangsters and where kidnappings are a daily occurrence is completely outdated. Colombia has been a thriving, safe country ever since cocaine king Pablo Escobar and his ilk were gunned down by government forces nearly 20 years ago.

The most dangerous aspects of my recent trip to Cartagena were the uneven and broken sidewalks as well as aggressive drivers who think that they are competing in a Grand Prix.

Located on the northern-most part of South America, and virtually on the same longitude as New York City, Cartagena, Colombia’s fifth largest city, is just over a four-hour flight on JetBlue from JFK which means that it takes you two hours less to get there than to California. In addition you don’t have to worry about jet lag since Cartagena is also on Eastern Standard Time.

The most recognizable landmark in Cartagena is the Castillo de San Felipe. In spite of its name, this 17th century structure was never a castle but rather a very elevated fort used by the Spaniards as a way of fending off foreign invasions.

You have to be in good shape to climb to the top of San Felipe since you can only get there via trekking up steep stone ramps. Anyone who has been to Israel will think of Masada although getting to the summit is a lot easier here.

About a mile from Castillo de San Felipe is Cartagena’s main tourist district, El Centro, which is reminiscent of Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan because of its narrow streets, plazas and a wall that reminds one of El Morro.

There are three museums that are worth catching here. The Caribbean Naval Museum recounts the numerous sea battles between England and Spain in the area. The Museum of Gold is a terrific collection of artifacts from the Zenu tribes who lived in Colombia before the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century.

You need a strong stomach to tolerate the third museum, the Palace of the Inquisition, which unflinchingly, looks at the wide array of torture devices used by the Spanish military on the local populace to get them to submit to their rule. As Jews and Moors learned in the 15th century, the rulers of Spain did not value diversity of beliefs and values, and that lack of tolerance was carried over to the New World.

There are some modern touches to the old city such as the high-end boutique hotel, The Charleston, and the Hard Rock Café, which is one of the few places in town where you can enjoy a hamburger and hear American pop music.

Getting around Cartagena is fairly easy. Cabs are inexpensive but I recommend taking the local buses that cost 1,500 pesos (approximately 85 cents).

Most of the hotels are located three miles away in the Bocagrande and Laguito sections of Cartagena. While there is no shortage of hotels here, there is a dearth of the traditional American lodging brand names.

Although Hyatt is building a property in Bocagrande that will open next year, the Cartagena Hilton is the most recognizable property here and it is highly recommended for numerous reasons.

Cartagena is not yet Cancun. Not much English is spoken here and I relied on my Spanish than I ever have before. Everyone working in customer service at the Hilton is bilingual.

The property is immaculate and modern and lives up to Hilton standards and when you are not in the United States you need that reassurance. The rates are quite reasonable compared with what you would pay for a top-tier property in Miami Beach. In addition there are several packages that include their gourmet breakfast buffet that features lox, an omelet station, juices from locally grown fruit, American and Colombian hot and cold dish favorites, as well as access to their tenth floor executive lounge where snacks, soft drinks, and fruits are available all day. There is no charge for Wi-Fi and there are plenty of computer terminals that are free of charge.

The Cartagena Hilton has numerous swimming pools and Jacuzzis. Enjoy a dip in the Caribbean Sea at their beach as well.

Be sure to bring a quality SPF sunblock such as those from Coppertone or Dr. Brandt’s because you rarely see a cloud here and the rays are fierce.

Queens’ own JetBlue has three flights a week to Cartagena from JFK and certainly more will be added as the word gets out about this very charming resort town. As is the case with all of JetBlue’s international flights, the on-board movies are free.

You can now leave your car at the Parking Spot lot that took over the Avistar location on Conduit Boulevard near JFK. It will probably cost you less than taking a taxi back and forth and their shuttle van will pick up and drop you off at the JetBlue terminal. For discount coupons, log onto www.theparkingspot.com.