For many years, Colombia was basically a no-go zone for tourists. Its reputation for drug violence, organized crime, armed insurgency and general lawlessness was enough to keep all but the most intrepid (or foolish) travelers away. Now, though, the country has completed a 180-degree turn and has become something of a South American success story, drawing investors, tourists and curious travelers who want to experience a place that seemed off-limits for so long.


Cartagena, Colombia's Caribbean port city, might not enjoy the name recognition of Bogota or even Medellin, but it has many of the features of a bona fide mainstream tourist destination. Cartagena's historic center is a major tourist draw, as are the city's beaches. A handful of noteworthy eco-tourism attractions on the coast near the city, on offshore islands, and amid the coral beneath the Caribbean waves make this an ideal destination for travelers who want to introduce themselves to Colombia while also keeping their eco-tourism options open. Easy access to local food and small-scale accommodation (mostly housed in converted historic villas) make it convenient to go green while visiting Colombia's city by the sea.


Go green

From a tourist perspective, Cartagena is a city of taxis. Anyone traveling between different districts will probably be best served by flagging down a cab. Fares are based on the number of zones that you travel through. Though the fare details are supposed to be printed in every taxi, drivers often treat them as guidelines for negotiation, not set prices. Green-minded travelers need not despair about creating carbon in Cartagena. The most popular parts of the area, the Old Town and offshore islands, are best explored on foot. This is especially the case with the Old Town, which is quite walkable. Boats and ferries, meanwhile, provide transport to the offshore islands.


Most tourists forgo the colorful buses that are a common sight on Cartagena's roadways. With no set universal routes or schedules, the bus system can seem confusing to novices. However, with a combination of local help and travel savvy, this is a viable means of transport. Bus routes are summarized on the front of each bus's windshield. Tourist buses, mainly for sightseers, can help you get the lay of the land before you strike out on a public bus adventure. Since most tourist buses have hop-on, hop-off privileges for anyone who buys a ticket, they can be useful for getting to the major sightseeing attractions in Cartagena.


Eat green

As one would expect from any city by the sea, the star of Cartagena's culinary scene is seafood. Local bistros offer set menus and relatively low prices. These meals often feature fresh fish, rice and local fruits or veggies, with frying being the preferred method of cooking. With fresh fish so widely available, ceviche, a raw fish dish found in many Latin American countries, is a staple of Cartagena's eating scene. The aptly named La Cevicheria is one of the most well-known dining spots in the city and a great place to taste fresh ceviche.


A few vegetarian choices are available in the city, with El Sol de la India offering vegan and meatless menu options, as well as providing a glimpse into the unique, multicultural eating scene of Cartagena. This restaurant has a second location in the Old Town area. The down-to-earth Restaurante Vegetariano Girasoles, meanwhile, serves a set lunch that changes daily. A downstairs health food store will also interest green-minded and/or health conscious travelers.


For a heady cultural and culinary experience, intrepid visitors can head to Mercado de Basurto. This locals-only market is flush with super-fresh seafood, tropical fruits and just-picked vegetables. Spanish language skills will be helpful in this maze of market stalls and exotic edibles.


Sleep green

Green-minded travelers and people who put a premium on hotels with great ambiance will be delighted by the historic accommodations in Cartagena. Instead of knocking down colonial-era buildings and replacing them with blockish hotels of the kind common to beach destinations, Cartagena has converted many of its aged structures into boutique hotels. Casa de la Chicheria is one such inn. This converted colonial villa is a great example of the type of small-scale sleeping options available in Cartagena. Chicheria offers bike rental and catamaran tours in the harbor. Hostal Real is another history-rich inn. Its rooms occupy a renovated 17th-century villa. The heavily planted courtyard makes this an ideal venue for people who want to see some greenery while enjoying a small-scale, Earth-friendly stay.


The Hotel Caribe is a slightly larger but equally historic structure. It is one of the oldest hotels in the area and has been recognized as a cultural heritage site by UNESCO. While this might not be the best choice for budget-conscious travelers, it is yet another example of how historic buildings have not given way to high-rise resorts despite Cartagena's rising profile as a beach destination.


The Playa Scondida Guesthouse, on the Rosario Islands, serves up a scene that might be a little more familiar to experienced eco-tourists. Its airy “ecocabins” are constructed using sustainable, local materials. Gardens featuring local plant life and trails running through the surrounding beach and woodlands make this an ideal destination for those who want a non-urban, close-to-nature experience. Guests have to get to Scondida by boat from the mainland.


See green

Aside from its beaches, Cartagena's main attraction is its historic Old Town, an area surrounded by fortified walls (Las Murallas) and filled with colonial-era churches, plazas and other structures. Green-minded history buffs and architecture lovers (and any travelers who want to spend time in a place that has great atmosphere) will appreciate the fact that this area is best explored on foot. There is no need to attempt to navigate Cartagena's less-than-straightforward public transit system to explore the historic district. With a wide variety of hotels, bars and restaurants, some visitors never travel beyond the colonial-era walls during their stay in Cartagena, except to venture to the beach or islands (see below).


Those in search of more-natural attractions for their itineraries can head to the vast mangrove swamps that lie a short distance from the city. Visitors can support the local economy and the environment through canoe tours usually piloted by members of a nearby village.


It takes more than a canoe, however, to reach one of the other natural wonders in the Cartagena area. The Rosario Islands consist of more than two dozen coral islands designated as a national park. The islands can be reached by boat, with the trip averaging about an hour, one-way. Beach-going and diving are the two main events, though a small open water Oceanarium on one of the islands offers an up-close look at the islands' marine inhabitants for those who don't want to get wet. Day tours, cruises and diving excursions are often organized to last for a day and return to the urban mainland at night. Hotels, villas and rental cabins, though not cheap, are available for those who decide that they are not ready to head back to civilization after a day on the Rosarios.


Cartagena has plenty of diving schools and outfitters. These companies are known for offering diving classes and certification courses for reasonable prices. The coral reefs of the Rosarios are a favorite underwater destination for guided dives, though a lush marine landscape near Baru Island, just off the coast of the urban mainland, is also popular.


Villa Babilla is difficult to define. A zoo-like attraction, it is a converted farm that houses wild animal species including caimans, various species of mammals, boa constrictors and other reptiles. Obviously, allowing some of the farm's residents to run free would be unacceptable, but the fact that they are kept in large enclosures makes it easier to define this as an ecotourism attraction instead of a mainstream tourist attraction.


Cartagena's diverse set of attractions makes it difficult to define it. It is, at once, a historic sightseeing destination, a culturally rich city with great eating and nightlife scenes, a beach destination, a haven for scuba divers, and, yes, an eco-tourism destination. The real attraction is that you can combine these elements to create a unique, memorable vacation.


Want more vacation ideas? Check out more eco-friendly destinations.


MNN tease photos of Cartagena via Shutterstock