I’ve been wanting to go to Colombia for a long time. However, with its history of being a kidnapping, drug-ridden nation of guerrillas led by the infamous late drug lord Pablo Escobar, I was hesitant and apprehensive in visiting the country 8 years ago.
As time passed, I learned that security in Colombia has improved significantly. The ideas I’ve had are outdated. Through talking to travelers who have been to Colombia, many have said the Colombians are wanting to turn their own image of Colombia around. The locals generally have an interest in wanting to make tourists feel welcome and safe. The consensus is stick to certain cities and areas and don’t go off the beaten path.
So when I saw a sweet flight deal to Cartagena, Colombia, I booked it! Cartagena is located on the northern coast of Colombia along the South America’s Caribbean coast. It used to be a Spanish Port where they embezzled riches from Amerindian nations and was a hub for shipping the stolen cargos back to Spain.
When you fly into Cartagena, you see Bocagrande – long stretch of white sand and a skyline that reminds you of Miami – a beachy modern metropolis. It’s not until you take the taxi into the old city walls do you see the historical influences of the Spaniards – the brightly colored Spanish-colonial architecture, cobbled-stone streets, boisterous plazas, and street vendors selling local art, traditional crafts and colorful beaded jewelry.
What To Do
Explore the Old City. It’s beautiful and charming. You can easily to spend a day there, wandering the streets. I was obsessed with the colorful doors and the door knockers. They are so intricate and in the medieval times they were a symbol of wealth and position in Cartagena’s social hierarchy. For example, a lizard denoted royalty, a lion meant military, while a sea creature signified sea merchant.
While you are in the old city, you may come across Las Bovedas Shop. These were once dungeons that are now converted into 23 souvenir shops.
Catch a Great Sunset. As you explore the city, walk on the wall surrounding the city and grab a seat at the open-air Cafe Del Mar. It’s a great place on the city wall that overlooks the Caribbean sea and has a great view of the Bocagrande skyline.
Wander around the streets after sunset and see tradition Colombian Carribean dancing and Reggaeton.
Explore Getsemani. Check out this barrio. Head across the street from Old Town’s tall, yellow Clock Tower, and pass through a little park. This used to be a seedy neighborhood where the original inhabitants were people of a poorer class but now it’s an up-and-coming trendy neighborhood where during the day you’ll find funky street art and at night it’s a hot spot for night life. The neighborhood feels hip, artsy and cool. It’ll give you the authentic local vibe of Cartagena.
San Felipe de Barajas Castle. Brave the heat and go check out the fortress and explore the underground tunnels. You’ll also get another great view of the city. If you want to learn about hte history, get an audio guide and read up on the history so you can see and learn at your own pace in the sweltering heat. Go first thing in the morning or late afternoon.
Try the Exotic Fruits of Cartagena
Uchuva – gooseberry like with a tangy taste;
Lulo – Tastes citrusy;
Curuba (Banana Passion Fruit) –
Look like bananas but taste
like passion fruit;
Zapote – tastes similar to papaya but less sweet;
Maracuya – a type of passion fruit that tastes tart.
Chiva Tours. These buses are painted with vibrant murals of Cartagenian scenes and are loud. You won’t miss them. They used to be Cartagena’s public transport buses. Now, they serve as a great way to see Cartagena’s best attractions during the day. And a night, it turns into a party nightlife bus tour.
General Things To Note
Humid and hot. The heat is stifling in Cartagena between approximately 11-2. You literally need to step inside somewhere to keep your cool.
Anytime you have a chance, I would suggest ordering a Limonada de Coco. If you love lemonade and coconut this drink is a life saver. Coconut Lemonade quenches your thirst while it helps you beat the Cartagena heat without leaving you feeling tired. The best part is it is not too sweet, and a healthier and a more refreshing option than a cold cerveza or cocoloco.
Affordability – Cartagena is an up-and-coming popular travel destination and so the prices are not overly inflated yet. Transportation is cheap. From Rafael Núñez International Airport (CTG) is just a 10-15 minute drive from Old Town, and a taxi will cost you about 10,000 to 15,000 Colombian pesos (~$3-~ $5 USD); You can find a decent mid-range accommodation for about $50 per night. Suggested daily budget – 150,000 COP / $50 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re eating at mid-range restaurants)
Where to Stay
Looking to be close to the beach and chill by the hotel pool – Stay in Bocagrande;
Looking for a cool hipster vibe – Stay in Getsemani
Looking to be charmed by historic Spanish-Colonial vibe – Stay in the Old Town;
Where to Eat
There are so many great places to eat in Cartagena. You can find a delicious meal easily in the Old City where the place is decked out in intricate details. Below are some of my favorite spots.
Gelateria tramonti (snack/dessert) – Best gelato in Cartagena. Hands-down! I’d come here 2 or 3 times a day during my stay. The owner is from Italy and brought the craft making gelato to Cartagena.
Abaco coffee shop (snack/coffee/dessert) – It’s cute charming bookstore / café to step into to get a cold brew and escape the mid-day heat and hustle and bustle of the streets.
La Cevicheria (lunch/dinner) – A cute, casual spot to taste the best ceviche in town. The chef is a friend of Anthony Bourdain and the restaurant was featured on an episode of No Reservations. Your taste buds will be delighted.
Pezetarian (lunch/dinner) – Fresh, simple and tasty sushi at a great price.
Pasteleria Mila (breakfast/lunch/dessert) – Has a diner feel that serves great dessert and savory snacks and meals. The service is on the slow side.
El Baron (drinks/snacks/lunch/dinner) – High-end mixology bar that serves amazing cocktails and Tapas
Mud Bath at Volcan del Totumo. This is a half day trip where you get into a volcano with some strangers to soak up the natural healing properties that are supposedly good for your skin. Since I’m obsessed with anything natural for my skin and doing random activities I had to sign up for a mud bath experience. You could choose to leave in the morning or afternoon. The morning tour included a short stop for lunch at a beach so it would cost you a little bit more. The cost didn’t seem standardized. For the morning tour, we were quoted 60,000COP to 80,000COP, but we ended up paying 55,000 COP when they dropped us off and we paid them cash. Tip: Ask around at the different hotels to see what they quote you.
Would I go again? Probably not. It was fun and an experience in itself the first time. If you decide to go – keep an open-mind and have fun but don’t go with high expectations. It’s a laugh and a story to tell.
Head to the Beach. There are many beaches easily accessible in Cartagena. For a private beach away from the crowded beaches, book a day trip to Beach Apple Beach House in Tierra Bomba. The price is super reasonable. It will cost you about $50USD which includes your round trip boat ride (15 minutes -one way) and then you have to spend a minimum of $25-$30 USD at the resort.
Other Places to See Outside of Cartagena
If I had more time, I would visit:
Santa Marta. The oldest Hispanic Carribean beach town in Colombia, this city is the gateway to Ciudad
Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) is the oldest lost city in South America. It was built roughly around 650 years before Machu Picchu and was discovered in 1972 making it the newest found lost
Tayrona National Park and Beach. Word has it this national park is home to dozens of engendered species and is a magical paradise and will take your breath
Cocora Valley. Set at the foot of the snow-capped Andes, Cocora is known to be the home of Colombia’s
* A Note For Canadians
Upon arrival, Canadians are required to pay a reciprocity tax to enter Colombia. If you are a dual citizen and hold another passport, you may want to enter with your other passport. However, I quickly learned that the reciprocity tax is excluded when you enter via Cartagena port of entry or through the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia