Forget what you think you know about Colombia. Much has changed since the old days of drug crime and corruption. These days Colombia, and Cartagena in particular, is a top tourist destination for those in the know. With its northern Caribbean coastline, classy food scene, and colonial elegance, Cartagena is a lust-worthy destination. So grab your flip flops and set your sights on Colombian cool; we’ll show you how to make the most of this bucket-list must.
How to get there
Cartagena is closer to the U.S. than you think at only two and one-half hours from Miami. American; United; Colombia’s national airline, Avianca; and low-cost alternative Viva Air Colombia have direct flights to the city’s Rafael Núñez International Airport. Even better, the airport is close to downtown. Grab a taxi for a safe, 15-minute ride to Cartagena’s old town for about COP 15,000 (about $4.50).
The local currency is the Colombian Peso (COP). Many businesses accept credit cards and there are several ATMS in the old town (in particular) to get cash. Pro tip: thanks to lower fees, BCP and Servibanco are your best ATM options for cash.
A combination of walking and shared rides is the best way to visit Cartagena. EasyTaxi is a popular local alternative to Uber. While taxis are also available, they charge by zone rather than meter, and can be inconsistent in their pricing. If you must, look up the cost of a trip with Uber and negotiate accordingly. Agree on a price before getting in and be sure and have small bills on hand. Don’t fall for the, “I have no change” pitch later.
A brief history
Established by Spanish settlers in 1533, Cartagena soon became an important port city for the Spanish colonial empire. Precious natural resources from the continent (silver from Peru, for example) shipped out, while other resources and enslaved peoples from Africa, were shipped in. The city’s trade activity attracted pirates, which led to the construction of a fortified wall around the city and the massive military fortress Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Both are still in place.
Over the years, and despite various raids and war footings, Spanish colonial Cartagena grew in economic, political, and ecclesiastical influence. With the relocation of the aristocracy from Bogotá in the late 18th century, Cartagena became one of the wealthiest cities in the Spanish colony.
Columbia achieved independence from the Spanish in the 1820s but went through a long period of inertia, suffering not only from a decade’s worth of siege and battle, but from a devastating cholera epidemic in 1849. Modernization finally came with President Rafael Núñez in the 1880s, who spearheaded the construction of roads, railroads, and other improvements.
Lay of the land
The city is laid out in a cluster of neighborhoods that face the warm Caribbean waters. The old city of Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, includes the walled districts of San Diego and El Centro (downtown), which contain many of the city’s most historic sites and where we recommend you focus while you visit Cartagena. Getsemani to the southeast is a more transitional neighborhood known for its edgy art scene and lively, but still slightly dodgy, nightlife.
To the south of the old town, Bocagrande stretches along a narrow peninsula complete with beaches, skyscrapers, newer hotels, casinos, upmarket shops, and restaurants — a sort of Colombian Miami.
Where to stay
We recommend staying in El Centro. It’s close to many attractions, is safe, and has great dining options. The Sofitel Legend Santa Clara is our top pick. It is a stunning colonial-style convent converted to meet the needs and wants of an upscale, 21st-century clientele, featuring luxurious rooms, a beautiful pool, and a high-end restaurant. Expect to pay around $400 per night.
The Townhouse Boutique Hotel is a newer alternative, with a rooftop bar and jazzy nightclub that serves great tapas and martinis. This will run about $200-250 per night. If you’re on a budget try the Casa Gastelbondo. This is a lower-key but chic property with a rooftop pool and a no-kids rule. Rooms here are about $150 per night.
If shopping, nightlife, and easy access to city beaches (see more on this below) are your focus, you may want to stay in Bocagrande. Here you will find several major chain hotels, including the Hilton Cartagena (starting at $150/night) and for the more budget-conscious, the Holiday Inn Express ($80/night).
Where to eat
Like the city itself, Cartagena’s food scene blends traditional and modern, with offerings from basic mote de queso (a classic yam and cheesy stew), fresh seafood, and tropical fruits to newer artisanal dishes sporting Euro-Caribbean fusion vibes.
In old town, there are tons to choose from, so we’ll focus here. For traditional Fritos Cartageneros (Cartagena’s famous fried snacks), go with local favorite Los Fritos de Dora. Try Dora’s mouth-watering Carimañolas (fried cassava bread stuffed with meat and vegetables) or the Arepa de Huevo — maize-based dough stuffed with egg, meat, chorizo, and cheese.
Restaurante El Gobernadaor Rausch (located in the Bastión Hotel) is a must for dinner. Helmed by Chef Viviana Lievano, El Gobernador offers a refined take on traditional Colombian cuisine, combining the best of the region’s rich flavors and local ingredients with French influences. Try the Beef Tenderloin with wild mushrooms and baby vegetable orzo, followed by the signature Coco Loco, a confection of perfection involving piña colada mousse and coconut foam.
Also, don’t miss El Boliche Cebichería, a small but chic eatery known for its outstanding Colombian ceviche: octopus, squid, and conch marinated in tamarind sauce or coconut milk with cilantro. Yum.To get your java fix (an altogether different experience here), head to Folklore Colombian Café for the best in rich Colombian brews. Pro tip: Grab a bag or two of Folklore coffee to enjoy at home.
If you’re in Getsemani, try Demente, a hipster hangout with a great tapas menu and even better cocktails. Mango margarita — that’s all we’re going to say.
Staying in Bocagrande? Our pick is Mangata, a small but mighty pick that combines Peruvian and Japanese takes on fresh fish with the best in locally sourced Colombian ingredients, including mango, coconut, herbs, and spices.
What to do
Much of the appeal of Cartagena is just being there, immersed in its history and exquisite Caribbean setting. Walking through the Torre del Reloj (clock tower gate) of the walled old town is like walking back, well, in time. Meander through narrow cobblestone streets lined with tropically-hued colonial villas, 16th-century churches, and Old World plazas with ornate balconies. Above it all, baskets of pink and purple bougainvillea spill down over the street. It’s a full-on sensory experience; take it in.
The old town walls themselves are walkable and provide views in all directions. We suggest walking when it’s cooler, either in the early morning or (preferably) toward the end of the day when you can catch that postcard-perfect sunset over the Caribbean.
While you’re in the old town, you can wander on your own or do what we do and take a walking tour for more context and local flavor. Free tours are available, but they tend to be crowded and can be slow. For about $25 per hour (for your party) you can arrange for a private tour that will provide a more personalized and satisfying experience.
Be sure and stop by the Plaza Santo Domingo, once the site of public executions, now known for the bronze statue “La Gorda Getrudis” by famous Colombian artist Fernando Botero. The reclining Gertrudis, while maybe a bit “gorda” (fat), is clearly at ease with her curvaceous bod and seems not to mind when people touch her breasts — ostensibly for romantic luck.
About a minute’s walk from Gertrudis, you’ll find the magnificent Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (aka the “Cartagena Cathedral”), one of the oldest episcopal churches in the Americas. This is a stunning, baroque-esque basilica whose completion was delayed thanks to an attack from Sir Francis Drake (yup, that one). The pink and pearl dome dominates the Cartagena skyline, but the golden yellow building itself is tucked among the tiny streets of the old town, protected from additional seafaring attackers. It’s well worth a look.Located on the beautiful Plaza be Bolivar is the bizarre Palace de la Inquisition — also a must-see. This 18th-century palatial mansion, complete with a lush internal courtyard dripping with blooms, was the local site where the so-labeled heretics were tortured during the Spanish Inquisition. Now a modern museum, it is chock full of the gruesome tools used to exact confessions from prisoners. Just the dissonance of its setting and original purpose makes it worth a visit.
Finally, Getsemani is chock full of provocative street art, galleries, restaurants, bars, and nightlife. Check out Plaza de la Trinidad, especially in the evening, for entertainers, mimes, dancers, vendors, and the odd drug dealer. While the Plaza itself is generally fine, we wouldn’t recommend wandering around in other areas after dark. Tourists have been known to be shaken down by both dealers and police, often working together. Using a guide while in Getsemani is also a good way to navigate the area.
City beaches have greyish-looking sand rather than the white sugar sand and turquoise-blue waters of your Insta fantasies. For those you have to go slightly farther afield. The closest is Playa Blanca at the top of Isla Barú. Beaches here are postcard perfect but can get crowded, thanks to relatively easy access from the city. Your best option for transport is the Hostel Mamallena shuttle with three departures daily. Cost is about COP 50,000 (about $15) round trip for a 45-minute, air-conditioned ride. Best to make reservations ahead.
We think the better option is head out to the Islas del Rosario, an archipelago of 28 islands within the National Park system known for its unspoiled verdant beauty, top snorkeling, and calmer, less crowded beach scene. Your key destination is Isla Grande, about 60 miles (or about an hour) from Cartagena by speed boat. (There is also a private bird sanctuary on Isla Grande which is free.)
A day trip is very doable, so long as you’re on the dock at El Muelle La Bodeguita (near the walled city’s clock tower) between 8am-9am. Plow through the rather aggressive vendors selling packages and head directly to the ticket agency at the back wall. A one-way ticket will total COP 58,000 (about $17). Most day liners will bring you back to Cartagena for around COP 15,000 (about $5).
You can also do a full day tour to the islands and back. Our pick is Rosario Island Catamaran, which for $80 per person includes beach time with inflatables and underwater fun swimming among coral reefs and cavorting with tropical fish. On your cruise back, enjoy a late lunch of fresh seafood, fruit, salad, and soft drinks.
Pro tip: The waters here can be a bit choppy and leave you feeling a little queasy. This can easily ruin your day, so plan ahead, eat smart, and bring necessary meds to help mitigate the queasiness.
There are markets throughout Cartagena, though our favorite is in the old town. Spanish for “the vaults,” Las Bóvedas is a massive arcade that was originally built as a series of dungeons in the 18th century. Located under the wall near the sea, the market carries souvenirs – both standard and authentic — including traditional Colombian clothing, jewelry, artwork, antiques, and handicrafts of all kinds. Even if you’re not in the market for a mochila shoulder bag, Las Bóvedas is worth a visit for the browsing.
When you visit Cartagena, be aware that it can be hot and humid, especially in summer months. Try to schedule higher levels of activity in the mornings and a siesta or long lunch in the hot afternoons. The best weather is from December through March, which is, naturally, the height of its tourist season. Finally, vendors can be a nuisance in Cartagena; if you’re not interested in their wares, a polite, “No, gracias” will usually do the trick. For more information, visit Cartagena tourism online.