Cartagena has been growing steadily as a popular destination within Colombia, a country that has been struggling to overcome its bad reputation for some time. Cartagena proper is a rough, bustling, dirty, screeching mess of a city but a weekend in the Centro Historico district or neighboring Getsemani will leave you in awe and plenty stuffed.
If you like beautiful architecture, ceviche and gorgeous sunsets over the ocean, then don’t miss Cartagena. You could spend a lifetime getting lost in the old city, but a few days can suffice as well.
What to do
Cartagena is meant for lazy strolls, a beach day or two, and delicious meals that drag on. In a way, it takes a page from the Italian book by encouraging lazy afternoon meals that drag into the early evenings. Wander around and take in the brightly colored buildings, and small boutiques lining the streets.
If the beach is calling your name, skip the beaches of Boca Grande and head to the Rosario islands and Playa Blanca. The pier in the old city offers a do it yourself option to get to the islands, but to avoid the stress most accommodations will be able to book you a “tour” to the islands that offer a stop or two in a few different places. Warning: this is a time when it is necessary to get there early, I am talking 8am. By 10am, the prices for the boats skyrocket and become much more scarce!
If you are up for an incredibly unique experience, take a mud bath in the Volcano el Totumo. Tours are fairly cheap ($20 USD) for an hour shuttle ride each way to a deserted volcano where a small business has popped up. For a few thousand pesos you get a massage while floating in dense volcanic mud meant to restore your skin. For a few thousand more, hand your camera over to a local a the top to document the whole thing (don’t miss this opportunity! You’ll want documentation). Afterwards, get hosed off by some of the oldest women I’ve ever seen in a rather aggressive fashion. It is one of the most unique things I’ve ever experienced but isn’t for the faint of heart.
At night, follow the music to find hidden clubs and rooftop bars, many have covers and offer awful cocktails so you’ve been warned. Don’t miss a sunset cocktail at Café del Mar or a martini at the KGB bar.
Where to stay
Swanky hotels line the streets of the Centro Historico and the strip of Boca Grande that will set you back at least $100 USD per night. Skip staying in the Boca Grande, you’ll miss out on the charm of the old city and be forced to shell out extra cash for taxis to the best restaurants in the city.
Hostels are prevalent and are often significantly cheaper in the neighborhood of Getsemani, which is equally as safe as the old city but with a much more local, authentic vibe and street treats galore. Smaller boutique hotels or guesthouses are another option for those looking for a treat without dropping a couple hundred per night.
Posada La Fe in Getsemani is a bed and breakfast with an adorable cat, Nani that will surely entertain you through your delicious breakfast.
Hostel Mamallena is a good budget option in a good location, this quasi party hostel offers a relaxed vibe and a great home base for your explorations.
By South American and Central American standards, Cartagena is a bit more pricey of a destination. Hotel rooms will be upwards of $50 USD per night and hostels start at $12 per night for a dorm and $30 for private rooms.
Meals can be as cheap or as expensive as you’d like. You could spend a lifetime exploring the restaurants and cevicherias that line the streets, often hidden from the casual passersby, with meals starting around $15 – $20 USD with wine. Or, even better, explore the street food for meals in the $1-$2 range..
What to eat
For ceviche, head to La Cevicheria. To find this gem, find the Sofitel Hotel and look at it, walk to the left and take the first right hand turn, continue to where the road hits the next road at a T and the tiny restaurant on the left is THE PLACE. This ceviche was the best I found, the portions are huge, so skip the giant size and get a few between friends to sample the varieties.
If ceviche isn’t your style, head to the street food hot spots in the Plaza de la Aduana in the old city or Plaza de la Santisima Trinidad in Getsemani for arepas, kebobs, and so much more!
Finally, don’t miss a sunset cocktail at the infamous, Café del Mar. Get there early for a good seat and definitely try the sangria!
Walking is safe in the old city, beach strip of Boca Grande and Getsemani during the day. I wandered home in the wee hours of the evening/morning (think 4am) and felt safe although there are warnings of muggers and police shakedowns so if you are alone or in a small group, grab a taxi. Catcalls are a bit more prevalent at these times but if you walk with friends, you should be fine. Taxis in the old city are typically ok, but when possible, try to have your hotel or hostel call you one for longer trips to the airport and beaches.