By Cynthia MacKay and Arthur Stampleman

Where in the world can you listen to exceptional classical musicians perform in seventeenth-century chapels and monasteries, live inside a UNESCO World Heritage site, see the very buildings that Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez used in many of his memorable works of fiction, and gape at exotic tropical birds as they land right next to you — or, as happened to one of our party, on her hat?

The answer? Cartagena, Columbia. In mid-January, we attended Cartagena’s 12th annual Music Festival. The trip was organized and led by Rye’s Chris Clark through his Great Performance Tours.

More than a dozen concerts were offered at the festival of which we attended six — chamber music, orchestral programs, and Mozart arias and choral works. Established European artists and orchestras were featured, but the most memorable performance was a closing concert by the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra of Colombia that could match that of any international orchestra.

Our fellow travelers included some 30 people from across the U.S. and Canada, plus several from Europe. A number of meals and receptions were offered, so our week felt like one big party. The conversation flew as we enjoyed delectable Caribbean food flavored with cilantro and coconut milk. 

Founded in 1533, Cartagena is the oldest city in Columbia. In the 16th century, it was the key Caribbean port for the Spanish, as unbelievable riches in gold, silver, and other metals poured through. Today, the old walled city boasts horse-drawn carriages, narrow cobblestone streets, tree-shaded plazas, and beautifully restored colonial architecture. That includes our five-star Hotel Santa Clara, a former convent built in the 1600s with a lofty chapel, which was the site of several concerts.

After the music, the high point of the trip was a two-hour visit to the 17-acre national Aviary, a 40-minute taxi ride from Cartagena. One hundred thirty-five different bird species are housed in six different enclosed sections (each representing a different Colombian environment, such as tropical rain forest or coastal). These wild birds went about their daily lives without any fear of us. We were able to watch up close as they mated, took baths, and built their nests.

If you enjoy balmy tropical breezes in January, first-rate classical music, historic Spanish architecture, and intelligent, convivial fellow travelers, then this is the tour for you.


A friendly toucan

Botero sculpture

Cartagena historical houses

Old slave market square