The second part of my trip to Colombia this past week after spending a full day in Bogota was spending 2 nights and 2.5 days in Cartagena. Cartagena is a city on the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia, it has a modern part but its main attraction and where most people stay and explore is the walled UNESCO colonial old-town. Cartagena was one of the top up and coming destinations to visit back in 2012-2014, but it has definitely since come. That being said, its still exceptionally beautiful, quaint, and worth a visit.
There are nonstop flights to the United States but not that many compared to Bogota or other Caribbean cities. There are plenty of flights from Bogota and a few other Latin American/ South American cities. Getting around the city is easy, other than say the airport, newer part of the city, and a hilltop Convent, the entire old-city is extremely walkable. Taxis, if needed are cheap, but I only would use this option if going to a part of town outside the wall and beyond the fort (which is walkable from old town).
The city is filled with lots of lodging options, from a multitude of hostels all the way up to ultra-luxe boutiques and hotels. Larger chain hotels are mostly found in the modern part of Cartagena, except maybe the Sofitel located right in the heart of old-town. We stayed at a small boutique called Casa La Cartujita, well located, with large rooms, comfortable beds, friendly service, breakfast included, and a small plunge pool and rooftop jacuzzi. They also provide mid-afternoon snacks if you are in-house, turn-down service snack and afternoon fruit infused water.
- Arrival at around 9AM in Cartagena airport, we had requested for the hotel to arrange an airport pickup, which now looking back was not necessary, as cabs are available, cheap and metered.
- Checked-in, however the room was not ready and as such I left my bags with the hotel and went out to the city and started exploring.
- I walked along the wall and then outside the wall along the main roadway surrounding old-town and crossed the river to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. The fortification built by the Spaniards to defend Cartagena from foreign invaders and pirates, a significant structure in Cartagena’s colonial history and significance in the greater Caribbean. The fort itself is easy to explore without a guide and simply relying on the map they give you when you purchase your ticket, just remember to try to explore a bit of the intricate tunnel system underneath. This is a popular site and is filled with large group tours bussed in from the cruise ships. But its worth checking out, it offers nice views of the city and is cheap.
- I then walked back toward old-town. Past Getsemani neighborhood, the hip bohemian neighborhood of old-town (but not part of the walled-in part) and home to Cafe Havana (a famous Cuban salsa bar and club, which we checked on our second night). I then walked through the Clock Tower which marks a key entry into the inner walled city. I kept walking straight and ended up in Plaza Boliviar at the heart of old-town and next to Cartagena’s photogenic and iconic tower of the Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandria, which unfortunately was going through a restoration and as such was closed. I then just wandered through the various cobble-stoned streets of town and admiring the beautiful and colorful colonial architecture.
Returned to the hotel to relax a bit before having lunch at La Cevicheria just down the street from the hotel. One of the best seafood and ceviche spots in town, it was made even more famous than it already was when Anthony Bourdain visited. The Ceviche here truly is exceptional, and the seafood dishes are also quite good. After a mini post-lunch siesta, I ventured out again to explore the city some more.
I walked by Iglesia de Santo Domingo and the plaza around it, then continued down Carrera 3, which is the main shopping street filled with local designer boutiques.
- I ended up at the Plaza de Santa Teresa, which is right in front of Museo Naval de Caribe, the Caribbean Naval Museum. A fairly good museum documenting the naval and general history of Cartagena and Colombia from the native population to the colonial era to the Republic era. Although a cheap entry fee, most of the exhibits were in text-heavy Spanish, with a few descriptions in English as well. It is not English friendly, but if you know your history and have a base military knowledge, this is quite intuitive. For me it was also a bit of a good Spanish review. Thought it was quite worth checking out as it put many things I was seeing in more context. A museum that I did not have time to visit but wish I did is Casa Rafael Nunez, the home of President Rafael Nunez, the first president of the Republic of Colombia who was from Cartagena.
- After some more walking around, I eventually made my way along the wall to Cafe del Mar, a famous and popular bar and restaurant on one of the best corners of the wall overlooking the ocean, one of the best spots for sunset viewing. You dont have to sit in the restaurant or order to enjoy the views, there is a small area surrounding the restaurant that is not occupied by the bar and many folks gather here for the sunset as well. I also tried some Colombian rum while I was at it.
- Walked back to my hotel and stopped and grabbed snacks at La Esquina del Pan de Bono, a popular local bakery selling fresh juices, and freshly baked sweet and savory pastries. where I waited for my family members to join me from Bogota. We then walked to Cafe Havana, but we were too early as live music doesnt start till 11PM. We then walked back to old-town and had dinner at La Mulata. A affordable and eccentric restaurant serving local seafood with nice presentation. We then returned to the hotel for a slightly earlier night’s rest for the next day’s packed schedule.
- Woke up early and had breakfast at the hotel. I had a typical Cartagena breakfast of cheese Empanada, egg-filled arepa, cheese, sausage, botifalla, yucca, sour cream, and chili-sauce with juice, coffee, fruits and bread. It was delicious and filling.
- Walked to the nearby Diving Planet dive shop where we had already pre-booked a half-day scuba-diving excursion (2 dives, lunch, transportation, and non-alcoholic drinks included) to Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Park. Atop of the diving fees (which were very affordable for diving standards) you have to pay a national park fee. This was a great dive trip. We took a 1 hour boat out south towards the national park and Rosario Island. The corals here are extremely healthy and alive, and they do a great job of conserving the environment here. In fact a great rule from the dive shop is if you touch or kick the coral due to your efforts of capturing a shot on your gopro, they will temporarily confiscate that gopro until you return to Cartagena.
- We returned to Cartagena by 3:30PM, walked back to the hotel to freshen up.
- Went out shopping before heading once again to Cafe del Mar for another beautiful sunset. We walked back along the wall as the sky turned bright pink with fluffy clouds, it was spectacular.
- Exhausted and hungry we decided to have dinner at La Cevicheria, I didnt mind because I loved it the first time and now with 3 people it would be easier to try bigger dishes. We ordered a lot of food and stuffed ourselves, but everything was delicious. We then returned to the hotel to cure our food coma.
- Walked to Cafe Havana, arriving at around 10:30PM, early enough to still get a seat, late enough that the place was already happening. There is a $8 cover charge to get in, and drinks here are around $9-$10 on average. Promptly at 11PM the live band began to play and the whole place really became alive as people started dancing and having a good time. Its a great mix of locals (in fact mostly locals), and tourists. So much fun watching locals dance, they sure have the right and great salsa moves.
- Returned to the hotel.
- Had the same delicious “typical” breakfast at the hotel.
- My flight to Atlanta was in the afternoon so we had a bit of time to explore a little more. We just strolled through town, stopped at La Paletteria for some artesanal ice cream popsicles, we arrived just in time as the shop lost power and was closing down less the ice cream all melt. I got a fig and pistachio dulce de leche pop and it was delicious.
- Returned to the hotel and headed to the airport.
My family also had meals at Maria, Basilica Pizzeria, La Perla and had good things to say about these places.