Go here if you like: Colonial architecture, old history, boutique hotels, shopping, humidity
A bit of context: Cartagena has had a fascinating history. The old part, probably the only part you will visit, is walled from the days of pirate invasions. It is a maze of pretty streets, and it took me a few days to get my bearings.
The 2hr Old City Free Walking Tour Cartagena sets sail from the Naval Museum, Plaza Santa Teresa at 10am and 4pm every day of the week. I thought it was great; you walk around the city, learning about the founding of the city, the personalities key to the city’s history (e.g. India Catalina and Saint Peter Claver) and about the people who make up the culture of the city today.
Insider Tours is a social enterprise, working with the real Cartagena (ie. Communities outside of the wall). The tours take you on unique visits to Bazurto Market, champeta parties and city tours hosted urban indigenous communities.
I found myself more than once at the cosy Caponera Café Bar. Loved the local feel and that people found space to dance salsa between the tables. I challenge you to stay seated…I failed.
The Naval Museum of the Caribbean – lots to read about the founding of Cartagena but only in Spanish, unfortunately no English text.
Ciudad Móvil – a culture centre in Getsemaní – they have nightly dance classes, art exhibitions and a restaurant.
I found the tour around the Museo de Oro Zenú with Wilfrido, a Zenú guide, fascinating. The museum gives an insight into the story of Colombian gold, from the days when its only value was spiritual, not financial.
Head to Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad in Getsemaní at dusk for an icecream and watch Cartagena life.There are lots of nice restaurants and bars near there so wander and take your pick.
EATING AND DRINKING IN CARTAGENA:
Try the street food – papas rellenas, menu ejecutivos, the palaterilla icecreams eg. Gelatería Tramonti and Gelatería Paradiso). My favourite street food stall is the first one as your left as you walk from Plaza Fernadez de Madrid, down Calle Segunda de Badillo (Carrera 7).
Café Lunático (Calle Espiritu Santo #29-184, Getsemaní, Cartagena) – cool vibe and GREAT food and drinks
La Mulata (Calle Quero #9-58, Cartagena) – seafood
Abaco – Libros y Café (Calle de La Iglesia con Calle de La Mantilla esquina Nº 3-86) – place to drink coffee and catch up with internet
Serrano Gourmet Café (Media Luna #8B-108, Cartagena) – for salads and fresh international food
Sanctuario de Yoga (Calle Estanco del Aguardiente #5-16, Cartagena) – does veggie meals for COP 5k, you sit on the floor and it’s all quite relaxing
Pizzería Colombitalia (28, Cra. 10 #30, Getsemaní, Cartagena) – great affordable pizza
Café San Alberto (Calle de Los Santos de Piedra Cra. 4 #34-1 a 34-91, Cartagena ) – this is the café linked to the coffee plantation I visited in Buenavista. It’s incredible coffee and you can sample it in Cartagena.
Con-Fussion Food & Drinks (Calle 29 #10B- 2, Getsemaní, Cartagena) – a cool new-ish restaurant, with a roof terrace, bikes as decoration and a cool vibe.
I always stay at the Volunteer Hostel (Calle Quero #9-58, Cartagena) – a hostel that directs its profits towards FEM Foundation that supports vulnerable populations in Cartagena. A nice hostel, it doubles as an office for all the volunteers who work with the charity so get involved and find out what they’re up to. It’s fascinating work. Has aircon
Friends to Be Hotel is in Getsemaní, has a little pool, aircon, and is a bigger colonial house. Nice vibe.
GETTING TO CARTAGENA:
By air: Direct flights from the US and other Colombian cities get you to the Rafael Núñez International Airport, a 20 minute (COP15k) taxi journey from Cartagena historical city centre.
Shuttles to/from Santa Marta; Marsol minibus shuttles do a door to door service between Cartagena and Santa Marta several times a day. Can be a bit hectic sometimes but has worked for me. Easiest to reserve through your hostel one or two days before your travel date.
Bus – the bus terminal is a slog from the historical city centre – I’ve never been there but sure it’s doable.
Things to be aware of: across Colombia, inequality is an issue but in Cartagena it is particularly visible. The money from tourism only reaches 2% of Cartagena’s population.
TRIPS FROM CARTAGENA
· A day trip to Playa Blanca on Isla Barú – nice long narrow beach with restaurants and watersports along it. Avoid at weekends if possible. Boat or bus options.
· An overnight (or two nights ideally) trip to Casa en el Agua – a house built on stilts. Fun concept, super chilled long group table style, though music can get a bit loud at night – if some people want to dance, everyone’s going to hear it. Paddleboarding, kayaking, snorkelling, plankton trip, beach trip, islote trip and some cool underwater mermaid thing on offer. Or just lie and read your book! Reservations open a month in advance – be sure to reserve your boat there too – all details on their webpage.
Haven’t done but generally people tend to do:
· The mud bath volcano thing isn’t my kind of thing but some people dig it. From what I gather, you are ferried into the natural mud pit on top of a mini volcano, scrubbed by several men then you bob your way through the mud to women who rinse the mud off you.
· Bocagrande is the high-rise area that you can see from the historical centre. It’s mostly residential no real reason to venture over there unless you have time.
TRAVELLING TO OTHER PARTS OF COLOMBIA TOO?
For the full collection of notes I collected while exploring Colombia, head to Over to you: Tips for Travel in Colombia
(Includes Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park, Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) Trek, Cartagena, Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, Isla Providencia, The Coffee Region, La Guajira and great Colombian music, books and festivals to aim for)
Hope you enjoy!! Please do share with anyone you think might find them useful.
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