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Cartagena - A Destination Guide

Cartagena: A Destination Guide

Introduction

An oceanside town mixed with great food, gorgeous views, and Latin American culture. Once the port city for trade between Spain and its South American empire, today, it’s the fifth largest city in Colombia, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. The walls built during the colonial era once made this city an impenetrable fortress, so impressive that UNESCO named the Walled City of Cartagena a heritage site. Experience the sights of Cartagena through the the winding streets of this charming city rooted in the history of colonial Colombia

Know Before You Go 

  • Currency:  Colombian Peso (COP), though often noted using the ($)
  • Airport: Rafael Núñez International Airport is the main international airport you’ll likely fly into.
  • Language: Spanish is spoken widely, though you’ll have no trouble finding English speakers in this heavily visited city.
  • To/From the Airport:
    • Taxi: A taxi will cost upwards of 15,000 COP to the walled city, and around 20,000 COP to Bocagrande (though some have been known to haggle the price down)
    • Uber: An Uber will cost you between 15,000-20,000 COP ($5-7 USD) to the Walled City, and 17,000-25,000 COP to Bocagrande ($5.50-8.50 USD)
  • Getting Around:
    • If you’re staying in the Walled City, it’s easy to get around on foot, though the occasional taxi/Uber may be preferrable if you’ll be visiting some sites that are a bit outside of town. If staying in Bocagrande, a taxi to the Walled City should cost no more than 10,000 COP (though I lucked out once and was only charged 8,000 COP!)
  • Tipping: Tipping isn’t required but is appreciated. A tip of 1,000-2,000 COP or 10% is appreciated by the staff.
  • Credit Cards vs Cash: Within the Walled City (and basically with anything seemingly touristy), credit card is widely accepted, but having cash on hand for smaller purchases is always a good idea.
  • Neighborhoods – The Walled City is the Old Town area – where you’ll find those quintessential Cartagena homes you see in travel books. Nearby Getsemani is known for its street art and food and nightlife scene. Bocagrande is where you’ll find many hotels and high rises (and malls) that cater to visitors.
  • Must-Try Food: A trip to this oceanside city would be incomplete without indulging in some freshly caught seafood! Ceviche is served in many restaurants, and you won’t have any trouble finding restaurants that specialize in fish and shellfish. And of course, when in Colombia, one must have a good cup of Colombian coffee.

The Details

See & Do

The Walled City – The Old City, surrounded by Las Murallas, or “the walls”, built between the 16th and 17th century as a means to protect the port city from pirate attacks.  The gumball colored colonial houses that fill pages of travel guidebooks about Cartagena line the streets of this straight-from-a-postcard neighborhood. Walking on the walls will offer great views of the ocean. There’s no starting point, really, and it’s hard to miss – after all, there’s 7 miles of stone that frame the old city. The fortifications, which you’ll find dotted along the wall, make for great photo ops (and a place to pop into the shade).

  • Las Bovedas – Located on the northern tip of the city, this unique building is attached to the walls. Built as dungeons, the building is now home to shops that sell local crafts and souvenirs. As with most tourist-targeted areas, expect to pay a premium for anything you buy here. Even so, the structure is worth a walk through to admire the unique architecture.
  • Iglesia de San Pedro Claver – Located in the square that shares its name, the church and convent was originally known as the church of San Ignacio de Loyola. The church was later renamed after the Pedro Claver, a Spanish monk who devoted his life to ministering to the enslaved people brought from Africa, up until his death in 1654. At the alter lies the remains of the church’s namesake, who was canonized two centuries after his death.
L-R: Colonial-style houses, Fortification along the wall, Las Bovedas, Iglesia de San Pedro Claver
  • Catedral de Cartagena – Built in 1612, the building that stands today is the third iteration of the church, the previous two having stood on land directly behind the current cathedral. While work began on the building in 1575, the structure was damaged during an attack lead by an English pirate named Francis Drake. While most churches open up to a plaza, this one does not – if you’re looking for some shade, stop by the Plaza del Bolivar, located diagonally across from the church, where you’ll find plenty of benches and trees to escape the Cartagena sun.
  • Convento de la Popa– Situated on top of the La Popa mountain, this former monastery boasts breathtaking views of Cartagena. The story goes that the monk was built by Augustinian monk Fray Alonso Paredes, who dreamt that he was mandated by the Virgin Mary to build a monastery at the tallest point in Cartagena. When he arrived, he found a pagan sect had built a shrine to a black goat. He flung the icon from the top of the mountain and replaced it with a shrine to the Virgin Mary, which still stands today. While monks no longer reside in the monastery, you can visit the gorgeous cloisters for about 6000 COP (just over $2 USD), though you may want to take a cab instead of attempting to hike up. Open Monday – Saturday.
  • Puerta del Reloj –This clocktower was once the main gate of the walled city, connecting it to the Getsemani neighborhood right at the foot of the city. Known as the Boca del Puente during the colonial era, the plaza that stands outside the tower was once a moat, with the walled city only accessible by a drawbridge. In the late 1800s, clocks were installed, though the timepieces that stand today were put in 63 years after the originals.
  • Castillo San Felipe de Barajas – Built by the Spanish in 1657 as a strategic fortress to identify those approaching by land or sea, today, the castle no longer serves a military purpose but is now open to visitors. The original fortress that stood on the hill, built in 1536 shortly after the founding of the city, was much smaller, though was rebuilt and expanded numerous times until its final expansion and restoration in 1763. Today visitors can explore the numerous tunnels throughout the fortress. A taxi will cost anywhere from 6000-8000 COP from the Walled City. Entrance fee is 25,000 COP (or just under $9 USD), open between 8 AM to 6 PM.
  • Choco Museo – This chocolate museum plus kitchen combination might come off touristy, but it’s a great break from the rising temperature outside after a day of sightseeing (and only a couple blocks away from La Cevicheria if you’re looking for something to do while killing time). You can sign up for workshops to make your own chocolate, or go for a quick tour of the museum while you’re there. It also makes a great gift to bring home (who doesn’t love chocolate?).
L-R: Catedral de Cartagena, Plaza del Bolivar, Puerta del Reloj, Choco Museo
  • Getsemaní – Just outside the walled city, this up and coming neighborhood is quickly becoming a hotspot for top bars and restaurants. Explore the neighborhood and walk through the streets lined with unique wall art, or pop by the Plaza Santisima Trinidad to see what the locals are gathering about today – anything from a dance class to live music.  You’ll find similar candy colored homes in Getsemani as you will within the walled city, albeit less grand. This neighborhood is a chance to see a less dressed up version of Cartagena – and appreciate the culture  by observing the locals.
L-R: Getsemani street art, Iglesia de la Trinidad at the Plaza de Santisima Trinidad

Beaches

  • Rosario Islands – Cartagena may be an Oceanside city, but it isn’t known for its city-side beaches. You’ll have to escape via speedboat to experience the turquoise blue waters. You can find a number of tour groups that will take you to the Rosario islands. There are several resorts on the islands that you can stay at overnight, though you’ll find many day trip options as well. I visited the Hotel Gente Del Mar and was charged just under $70 USD for the day (about 5 hours on the island, returning at 3 PM), which included transportation to and from the islands, and a hot lunch (fish, rice, soup, and salad) in the middle of the day. Once on the island, you’ll have access to use lounge chairs and the like, but everything else was an extra charge, including alcohol (drinks cost about $7 USD), massages, and activities like paddle boarding and snorkeling
L-R: View from the speedboat on the way to the Rosario Islands, Beach-side bar, Meal served at the resort, Ocean view from our beach chairs 
  • Playa Blanca – This white sand beach located in the southwest corner of Isla de Baru is a great day trip or overnight option for those visiting Cartagena. You can take a speedboat for about 45,000+ COP (plus a 12,000 COP departure fee) from the Port of Cartagena. Meals and alcohol can be purchased once there, as well as day accommodations (like cabanas and umbrellas). Overnight accommodations exist in the form of lofty Oceanside cabanas with bedrooms.

Eat

  • Restaurante Don Juan – Located in the walled city, this gastro-style restaurant serves up some amazing seafood dishes. The langostino risotto, prawns over coconut rice, and the baked chicken with risotto were some of our favorite dishes. Wine lovers be sure to peruse the wine menu – it’s quite an extensive offering.
    Calle del Colegio # 34-60 Local 1, Centro Histórico, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
    http://www.donjuancartagena.com
L-R: Langostino risotto, Prawns over coconut rice, Baked chicken with risotto 
  • Cuzco Cocina Peruana  – Cartagena may be an odd place to look for Peruvian food, but this fun, picturesque spot in the walled city is a great stop for those looking to mix great food with a lively ambiance. Classic Peruvian dishes like lomo saltado (beef stew), aji de gallina (chicken stew in a spicy cheese sauce), and ceviches pair well with delicious sangria concoctions (the rosé was my favorite!). Throw in some live music and quaint décor (think ivy covered walls and a relaxing reflection pool)  and this place makes for an upbeat evening in Cartagena.
    Calle Santo Domingo #33-48, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
    https://www.restaurantecuzco.com/cuzcocartagena
L-R: Ceviche, Rosé Sangria, Aji de gallina, Lomo saltado
  • Demente – If tapas-style dining is your thing, then Demente, located in the Getsemani neighberhood,  is a must on your trip.  It’s hard to recommend what to order, exactly – everything on the menu was fantastic. We had the arepa de camaron (shrimp arepas), dumplings de cangrejo (crab dumplings), criollas bravas (papas bravas), bun de costillitas (baby back ribs in a bun), asado de tira (angus chuck flap), and it’s hard to choose exactly which was the best thing on the menu. The restaurant tends to get busy, so make reservations or expect to wait  for a table – but it will be well worth it.
    Cra. 10 #29-29, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
    http://www.demente.com.co
L-R:  Arepas de camaron, Dumpling de cangrejo, Bun de costillitas, Criollas bravas 
  • La Cevicheria – This restaurant came highly recommended by just about everyone I know who’s ever been to Cartagena, and it’s easy to see why – a restaurant that serves up ceviche in a town known for it’s seafood? A winning combination. The fish of the day ceviche and the black squid ink rice were favorites at this spot. No reservations accepted, and wait times can get pretty lengthy (30 minutes to an hour is not unusual), so we suggest heading over right when it opens at 1 PM to skip the line.
    Cl. 39 #7 14, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
    http://lacevicheriacartagena.com/en/
L-R: Fish of the Day Ceviche, Sicilian with mushrooms sandwich, Octopus with peanut sauce, Peruvian fish ceviche
  • Abaco Libros y Café – You can’t visit Colombia without having some Colombian coffee! This quaint bookstore and coffee shop combination offers a quiet escape from the busy sidewalks of the walled city. Browse through their huge offering of books – including selections from South American writers – while enjoying a perfectly brewed espresso. Bonus: they serve wine too!
    Cl. 36 #3-86, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
    http://www.abacolibros.com/ 
  • La Paletteria – There’s nothing quite like a popsicle after walking around the city. The shop offers a huge range of flavors – from standard flavors like chocolate and vanilla, to sorbet flavors like guanabana, mango, and raspeberry, or more unique ones like Nutella, lulada, tamarind, and green apple. Cash only.
    local 2, Cl. 35 #03-86, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
    http://www.lapaletteria.co/en/
L-R: Cafe latte at Abaco Libros y Café, Caffe latte frio, Popsicles at La Paletteria, Nutella popsicle

Drink

  • El Baron – If you’re in the market for a creative mixed drink, you’ve come to the right place. Located right on the Plaza San Pedro Claver, this tiny mixology bar (with a few seats outside) is the perfect place to sip a unique concoction after a day of exploring. Reservations are accepted on their website, but securing a table without one isn’t impossible in the earlier half of the evening. A must-try is the Aisha, not just because it’s delicious but also because it’s served on a carpet.
    Cra. 4 #31-7, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
    http://www.elbaron.co/
L-R: El Baron signage, Rosarito cocktail, Aisha cocktail, Jungle Bird cocktail
  • Restaurante Alma – Outdoor seating and a solid cocktail menu (and 2 for 1 happy hour from Tuesday to Sunday at 7 to 8 PM) makes this a solid spot to start an evening out on the town. If sweet cocktails are your thing, the lychee martini is a great one to try at this walled city restaurant.
    Calle de la Universidad No. 36-44., Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
    http://www.almacolombia.com/bar.html
  • El Bar del Sur – Located in the Getsemani neighborhood, just steps away from the plaza (and right around the corner from Demente), this relaxed bar offers a range of local beers (both on tap or in bottles), snacks, and cocktails. Nothing satisfies a craving for midnight snacks like an arepa – and this bar offers twelve varieties. Snag a seat outside, where you can experience the lively action buzzing from the plaza over an expertly crafted mojito.
    Cl. 29 #1027, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
L-R: Lychee martini at Restaurante Alma, Plaza outside Restaurante Alma, 3 Cordilleras Rosada beer at El Bar del Sur

Stay

  • Intercontinental Cartagena de Indias– Located in the Bocadilla neighborhood, IHG’s top of the line offering in Cartagena is reasonably priced and boasts a fantastic infinity pool to laze around on a hot afternoon. Hotel is updated with plenty of modern touches, plus staff is friendly and eager to help. See our review of this property here. Room rates range from $100-200 USD.
    Carrera 1 #51, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
    https://www.ihg.com/intercontinental/
  • Sofitel Legend Santa Clara – If you’re looking to stay in the walled city, the Sofitel should be your top choice – large rooms, a luxurious spa, and fantastic service all make this property a favorite amongst many. Built on a former convent, this property mixes the romance of days past with modern opulence. Room rates range from $200-350 USD.
    Cra. 8 #3929, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
    http://www.sofitel.com/
L-R: Classic Room at Intercontinental Cartagena, Exterior of Intercontinental Cartagena, Infinity pool at the Intercontinental Cartagena, Exterior of the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara
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