Travel Guide to Cartagena, Colombia

This year it was one of my travel goals to set foot atleast once on my 6th Continent – South America! And I am so grateful I got to visit Colombia and check off that travel goal and get a small introduction to how diverse and beautiful this continent is. Since we had a long 4 day weekend we only visited the charming city of Cartagena in Colombia and decided to stay in the old Colonial walled city of Cartagena.

 

Why Cartagena + How to get there ? 

Cartagena is such a beautiful culturally rich city that I have always wanted to visit for the longest time. The old walled city is like stepping back in time and is a a designated UNESCO world heritage site and is one of the best preserved and most enchanting cities in the Americas. It is such an easy destination to visit from the US – with direct flights from some major airports on the east coast or easy connections from the west coast. We flew from San Francisco to Cartagena via Panama City and it was such an easy flight. This makes Cartagena such a fantastic option for a long weekend getaway; cos after having visited it I think 3 full days is more than enough to cover the major highlights.

My first visit to Colombia made me fall in love with this country already and I can’t wait to come back someday and visit the other parts like Medellin, Bogota and the Cocora Valley especially! if you are planning a long trip to Colombia as well I suggest 2-3 days for the city of Cartagena.

 

Best Time to Visit ?

The city is pretty amazing to visit year around, but the best time to travel to Cartagena in my opinion is just after the high season so from June to August. But keep in mind the weather can be super hot and humid, which I didn’t mind. The rainy months are from April to May and from September to November.

 

How to get around Cartagena ?

I recommend staying in the Old City of Cartagena cos it is the nicest part of town. That way you don’t really need a car and you can explore everywhere on foot or on bikes. There are local taxis as well if you are looking to visit other parts of town or for transfers to and from the airport.

 

Do you need to know Spanish ?

Probably my no 1 takeaway – learn Spanish! I wont lie it would help a TON if you know the language cos most people are only fluent in Spanish. Everything including menus in restaurants were in Spanish too so Anush and I definitely struggled a bit. However thanks to Google translate, we were able to manage.

 

 

Is Cartagena safe ?

Probably the question I was asked the most and I completely understand the concern about safety in Colombia in general. Having a treacherous past, Colombia has had a bad rep with safety back in the day. But things today are very different especially in touristy areas like Cartagena.  We felt totally safe in old town Cartagena. It is touristy, very easy to get around and people are friendly. But it can get super crowded on busy weekends and there are a lot of street hawkers who will constantly bother you; but having been born and raised in India I am very used to ignoring them or not being bothered by them. Its something you ll just have to get used it :). That being said like any place in the world, its always best to be cautious, aware and street smart about your surroundings.

 

 

Where to stay in Cartagena ?

Old Town Cartagena is undoubtedly the best area to stay in town. We stayed at the beautiful Casa San Agustin for 2 nights. This magical boutique hotel is a part of the Leading Hotels Of The World and is undoubtedly one of the best places to stay in all of Cartagena. Located in the heart of the old town, it is an intimate Colombian oasis like no other. If you ever visit Cartagena and are looking for a chic luxurious boutique stay this is the place for you! It is a place that makes you feels like home yet also giving you that sense that you have stepped into your own private Colombian casita. Check out my blog post about our stay at this hotel for more details.

For the last night we stayed at Townhouse Boutique hotel also in old town. If you are looking for a clean, basic and budget friendly hotel that you just need for a good nights sleep this is ideal.

 

Things to do in Cartagena :

1 ) Explore the magical Old Town Cartagena :

The very reason Cartagena was on my bucket list was cos of its colorful old colonial town. There is no surprise why this city thats so rich in culture and history is designated to be a UNESCO world heritage site. Visiting this vibrant city really feels like you stepped back into a different era! Every street is lined with the most beautiful colorful colonial buildings, packed with churches, plazas, palaces and mansions that have overhanging bougainvillea balconies. It was such a pleasure getting lost in this maze of quaint alleys of the old town.

This city is perfect to drop a specific sightseeing route and really get lost exploring one magical alley and plaza after another. The energy in the city is amazing – bustling, lively and sensual ; a totally charming experience by itself whether you walk around in the day or night.

Check out this blog post where I am rounding up the best photo spots around the city – I’m spilling all the deets on the exact locations, best alleys and more! So if you are visiting Cartagena you might want to bookmark that blog post ;).

 

2 ) Eat and Shop your way through Cartagena :

While exploring colorful alleys and buildings is fun, old town also has some incredible places to eat (more details in my “where to eat” below) as well as shop. There are tons of high end and local handicraft stores, as well as street vendors that sell so many gorgeous handicrafts. The one thing I did get is a “Chila” bag from a street vendor (the bright pink slingbag I am carrying) a must buy if you are visiting as well as swimwear from my fave Colombian swimwear brand – Maaji swimwear (their store is right at Plaza Santo Domingo).

Some other note worthy shops :

  • St. Dom (Colombian designers store)
  • Agua de Leon
  • Silvia Tcherassi store
  • Casa chiqui: home decor, accessories.
  • NH Galeria: Colombia’s greatest talents.  high-end fashion, art and interior design
  • Lucy Jewelry for emeralds. Colombia is the world’s largest producer of emeralds.

 

3 ) Catch the sunset from a rooftop :

The best place to catch the sunset in Cartagena is undoubtedly from a rooftop! With a birds eye sweeping view of the old city and cathedral towers, it is utterly magical.

La Movich Hotel Cartagena has the best view of the city is from the rooftop bar here! Unfortunately the days we were in Cartagena they were closed to public cos of a private event, so we went to Sophia Hotel which was literally right opposite La Movich, so really you get the same view! The only advantage La Movich has is that its 2 storeys higher.

 

4 ) Go Salsa Dancing at Cafe Havana :

Cartagena has an active nightlife scene. Anush and I arent too big on nightlife so we called it an early night on all days; but if nightlife is your kinda thing definitely check out Cafe Havana!

 

5 ) Take a horseride carriage around town :

Really makes your feel that romantic colonial charm of the city!

 

6 ) Explore beyond the wall :

We didnt have time to go beyond the walled city, but if you do definitely check out the neighbouring “Getsemani” which is supposed to have a totally different and eclectic vibe with its cool street art, grafitti, colorful alleys, cafes, etc.

 

7 ) Take a day trip to the Rosario Islands :

The Rosario Islands are a must do if you visit Cartagena being just an hour of a boat ride away; perfect for a day trip or to stay over for a day or two. It is an archipelago of 27 coral rich islands that are part of one of Colombia’s most important national park. Each of them are beautiful and diverse in their own way and have something to offer for everyone – whether you are looking to relax on a private beach/island, snorkel or dive, or actually party on an island ! Playa Blanca on Isla Baru is one of the most popular beaches to visit. While it does have the best beach and is easily accessible from Cartagena via taxi or boat it can get super crowded and I have heard that once you are on the beach too the vendors will not stop bothering you. Not the experience we were seeking…

We wanted something serene and rustic so we opted to visit the beautiful Coralina island for the day and it did not disappoint! Especially loved the endless blues for days around the island. You can choose to stay overnight or book a day trip with the hotel; which includes a pick up and drop off from your hotel in Cartagena, lunch and use of day beds on the island.

Also just to note – this island dosen’t have a sandy beach but the waters are still swimmable and there is great snorkeling all around. If you are looking for a sandy beach Isla Baru or another Rosario island might be a better alternative for you.

I also must mention that if you go to Coralina Island the boat ride back can be rough. I had NO idea about it and Anush and I were soaked to the bone on the way back! We weren’t sea sick, but the wind and waves were strong so we were completely drenched. I think many islands that are accessible by boat in the Rosario Islands have this problem; so a good idea is to pack a raincoat or a waterproof jacket for your ride back.

 

 

Where to eat in Cartagena :

Oh man, our culinary experience in Cartagena was absolutely incredible! Every meal we had was so delicious – the flavors, the aromas, omg take me back already haha! Here are a few faves we tried :

1 ) Zaitun : 

The lunch we had at this Lebanese – Colombian fusion restaurant was handsdown our fave meal in Cartagena! And I think the 1600+ reviewers on tridadvisor will agree why it deserves 5 stars.

 

2 ) La cevicheria :

Best ceviche of my life holy yum! Also featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No reservations; it is a must visit if you are in town.

 

3 ) Pasteleria Mila :

If you have a sweet tooth like me, you cannot leave Cartagena without trying the Quatro Leches (think Tres Leches but 10x better!) at Pasteleria Mila – wow it is superb! Even Anush who normally does not like Tres Leches ended up loving the Quatro Leches here. They also have other sweet items to try.

 

4 ) Epoca Cafe Espresso bar :

Epoca is a must try for some delicious Colombian coffee and other cafe eats.

 

5 ) Alma at Casa San Agustin :

Alma is one of the best fine dining places to catch a meal in Cartagena! The decor and ambiance in in the restaurant is also worth noting – so stunning. We loved our delicious breakfast here on all days. The spread not only had breakfast classics but also delicious local fruit, juices and local eats like empanadas, arepas and the like – yum!

 

6) La perla :

Latin, peruvian and caribbean fusion cuisine, loved our meal here.

 

7) Ice creams – Gelateria Tramonti for Gelato and La Paletaria for Paletas

Both so refreshing on a hot summer day!

 

8 ) Malagana cafe :

Nice little cafe just outside of the wall. Went here for drinks and appetizers and we liked it.

 

9 ) La pepita burger bar :

After having our hearts fill of Latin American food on the last night we were craving a good burger and stumbled upon this. The burgers were so good!

 

10 ) Street eats :

You have to try some of the delicious street eats around town like fresh coconuts, maracuya juice (passionfruit), fruit at the fruit vendors, arepas, empanadas, bunelos (fried dough), patacones (fried plantain fritters) and more!

Other restaurants worth mentioning that I had on my list but didn’t visit :

  • Don Juan
  • La Vitrola
  • Harry Sasson in Hotel Santa Teresa
  • -Carmen
  • Vera in Silvia Tcherassi hotel
  • Colette Bistro
  • 1621 in hotel santa clara
  • Mistura – Peruvian -Japanese food
  • Bohemia
  • La Diva pizzeria
  • El santisimo
  • -Club de Pesca
  • -Crepes & Waffles: casual dining
  • -Alquimico for drinks
  • -El Baron: best cocktails bar

 

 

Get Inspired to visit Cartagena :

Dancing and taking selfies with the beautiful Las Palenqueras

All the colorful doorways and walls!

And pretty alleys!

 

 

Here is a little recap of our highlights from our long weekend getaway to Cartagena :


Thanks for stopping by! xoxo

Jyo

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