Forget everything you think you know about Colombia. A country once infamous for its drug trafficking and violence has gone from a travel no-go zone to one of the world’s biggest holiday hot spots.
At the helm of Colombia’s tourism is Cartagena de Indias, an upmarket colonial city both crumbling and majestic and oozing old world charm. Surrounded by the Caribbean Sea, at Cartagena’s core is the walled historic center, home to multi-hued buildings, a maze of cobbled alleys, towering churches and bougainvillea flowers cascading from balconies like a scene from a painting. Just a short hop away are idyllic white sand beaches, coral reefs and jungle. Add to that balmy Caribbean weather, a sultry nightlife and a rich culinary scene and it’s easy to see why Cartagena is the second most visited city in Colombia after its capital Bogota.
Here’s a quick guide to the city known as the jewel of Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
What to Do and See
The Historic Center
Cartagena is one of the few South American cities with a preserved city wall and a photogenic old town, home to narrow cobbled streets, beautiful architecture and charming plazas. It’s the perfect city to simply walk and get lost in. The busy Centro district revolves around Plaza de Bolivar, a public square where you’ll spot palenqueras (colourfully dressed women selling fruit from tubs balanced on their heads), old men playing chess on rickety tables and Catedral de Cartagena, with its tropical fruit–colored facade. The surrounding streets also buzz with colorful dancers and salsa bands.
Cartagena's historic walls stretch 2.5 miles (4km) around the centre, San Diego and Getsemani and were built in the 16th and early 17th centuries to protect the city from attack. Make sure you take a walk along the city walls for incredible ocean views and of the city below. Also check out Castillo de San Felipe, a fortification built by the Spanish to defend their stronghold in the Americas. Cartagena was one of the first cities founded by the Spanish in South America, and some architecture dates back to 500 years.
Another area of note is Plaza de los Coches, which is home to a host of restaurants and bars as well as live music, dances and other performances. Cartagena’s famous clock tower, Puerta del Reloj, is adjacent to this thriving square. When the sun goes down Cartagena really comes alive. If you want some unique fun, tour the city at night in a ‘chiva’ – colorful open air buses where you can drink rum while enjoying the loud beat of local music.
Visitors hunting for a beach usually first clap eyes on Bocagrande, the closest and longest of the city’s beaches. To be blunt, the beach isn’t the prettiest, plus it’s full of tourists and aggressive touts. If you want white sand, turquoise waters and swaying palm trees, take a day trip to Playa Blanca. Located about 45 minutes from Cartagena, Playa Blanca is touristy yet stunning; it’s like stepping into a cliqued screensaver on your computer. Boasting crystal clear water and powdery white sand, there’s also plenty of vendors selling almost everything from fresh lobster to cocktails and jewelry. Most people head to the island on a pre-packaged day trip arranged through their hotels, but you can also simply head to the marina and jump on a boat from there.
El Totumo Volcano
El Totumo Volcano is a 49 foot (15m) high mud volcano where you can jump in its crater and bathe in silky smooth mud with supposedly therapeutic qualities. The volcanic mud is extremely buoyant and it’s difficult to stay upright. You’ll be crammed in there with about 20 other tourists, so expect strangers’ arms and legs everywhere and lots of giggling, but it’s a heap of messy fun you shouldn’t miss. You can even pay a few dollars to get a massage while you’re in the mud pit, and for someone to take a photo of you from above. Afterwards, wash off in a nearby lagoon where you can tip a local lady to help clean you up (which is actually easier said than done!) The volcano is about 45 minutes outside Cartagena and is most easily reached by a tour booked through your hotel or hostel.
Rosario Islands National Park
If you can’t get enough of picture perfect Caribbean beaches, take a day trip out to Rosario Islands, an idyllic archipelago of 30 islands about 45 minutes from the city. The islands also boast platinum sands and crystal clear waters. There’s not as much beachfront here as Playa Blanca, but the islands do have better snorkelling and diving opportunities.
Where to Eat
There are excellent restaurants in the historic town. One of my favorites was at the Charleston Santa Teresa Hotel, which has a beautiful outdoor plaza restaurant framed by the city walls and where local musicians serenade you with live music. They offer typical food (like ceviche) and international dishes such as sushi. La Vitrola is one of Cartagena's most famous restaurants, but you’ll need a reservation. This stylish restaurant has become the gathering place of sophisticated Colombians. The food is Nueva Colombiana, with specials including baked grouper in a passion fruit and mango sauce. If you want something more affordable, check out Restaurante Casa de Socorro, a cheerful place in the working-class quarter of Getsemani. A great way to end your day is by watching a spectacular Caribbean sunset with a daiquiri in your hand at Café del Mar, which sits on the historic walls near the rusty cannons which once guarded the city.
Where to Stay
The old city features two medieval convents that have been turned into luxury hotels. If you’re looking to splurge, head to Sofitel Santa Clara which has 122 rooms and a spa and pool built around a colonial courtyard with tropical gardens. There’s also the Charleston Santa Teresa, which was once home to a Carmelite order and features a rooftop pool with spectacular views (both offer doubles from around USD 350, or COP $1,041,349). For more modest budgets, the Casa La Fe, also in the centre, or Casa Santa Ana Hotel in Getsemani are a good choice. Backpackers on a budget can check out Media Luna Hostel, a popular hostel also in Getsemani.
When to Go
Cartagena is at its best from December until April, when temperatures during the day range from the mid 70’s (23C) to the high 80’s (31C) and humid days turn into breezy nights. Holidays like Christmas, New Year’s and Easter are very busy and hotels book up months in advance.
Getting from the Airport
Be careful not to get ripped off when catching a taxi from the airport. A cab shouldn’t cost more than COP $12,000 (USD 4). When it comes to getting around, always negotiate your fare with the driver before getting in.
Try the Street Food
The street food in Cartagena is readily available, cheap and delicious. You’ll find fresh fruit, arepas (cornmeal patties stuffed with savory fillings), papas rellenas (stuffed potatoes), meat skewers, burgers, sandwiches, ceviche, juices and cocktails.
Don’t Forget Your Camera
After lugging my hefty camera around Latin America for nine months I decided Cartagena was the place I would give it, and myself, a rest. That was a mistake! Cartagena is an incredibly photogenic city and you’ll be kicking yourself when you round a corner and see that bright yellow building swathed in bougainvillea, a beautiful palenquera in traditional dress or a spectacular sunset – and you don’t have your camera on you.
Learn the Lingo
Colombians are incredibly friendly. Locals will stop you in the street to ask where you are from and for a general chat, even when there is an obvious language barrier. Learn some Spanish before you go. While English is spoken in Cartagena, being able to converse and connect with the locals in their language will make your trip much more memorable.
Is Cartagena, or Colombia, on your bucket-list? Let us know in the comments section below! If you enjoyed this story, please share via the social media buttons!