Cartagena is one of those places that you instantly fall in love with. It’s so incredibly beautiful that pictures don’t do it justice – you just have to see with your own eyes! At the end of 2018, I went on an origin trip to the eje cafetero (coffee-growing region) in Colombia to learn about sustainable coffee-growing. It was my first time traveling to Colombia and to South America and I had no idea when I’d be returning. So, I knew I had to extend my stay to visit Cartagena.
I went to Cartagena on my own; and as a solo female traveler, I was able to experience the city in a way that I wouldn’t be able to, had I gone with anyone else. My eyes, ears, and heart were fully open to absorb all of what Cartagena has to offer, free of distraction or influence by anyone else. There is a certain pulse to the city that is indescribable, and apart from aesthetics, I found that its true beauty and heartbeat lies in the people.
Know Before You Go
- It’s Latin, but it’s Caribbean. Colombia is a country of many landscapes, including lush, green mountains, the Amazon, the Pacific coast and the Caribbean coast, and each has a totally different vibe. Being right on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena (known formally as Cartagena de Indias) has a tropical climate and is hot all year round. It has 2 rainy seasons (from May–June and October–November). I went in the middle of November and it barely rained. However, it is VERY humid (with humidity averaging 90%). So, bear this in mind when planning your daytime activities.
- It has a remarkable history and culture. Cartagena has a rich and complex history, including colonialism, slavery, and pirate attacks. This history is what makes it so interesting from a cultural and architectural perspective, as the city abounds with Spanish colonial architecture and is a diverse mix of peoples today.
- It’s enclosed by a wall. Because of its location, Cartagena was a key trading port, but was also extremely vulnerable to attack. Many tried to invade, which led to the construction of a 7-mile wall (Las Murallas) around the city to protect it. The Walled City is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- The architecture is stunning. Cartagena is one of the most beautiful and charming cities I’ve ever visited. It’s filled with Spanish architecture, colonial homes, churches, and bright colours, and there is an abundance of bougainvillea and plants overflowing on the sides of the houses and walls. It’s just breathtaking.
- It is safe. Tourism is the one of most important sources of income for Cartagena, so it’s important for tourists to be well-protected. There are uniformed police officers everywhere, and plain-clothed officers amidst the crowds too. As a solo female traveler in Cartagena, I felt completely safe (exercising reasonable precautions). As a photographer and blogger, I was even able to set up my tripod across the street to capture photos of myself without fear of anyone stealing my equipment!
- You have to get outside of Cartagena for the beaches. Despite being on the coast, you have to venture outside of Cartagena for the best beaches. Head to the Rosario Islands (a group of 27 islands off the south coast), which include Isla Baru and its white sand beach, Playa Blanca. There are several private tour operators, boat charters, ferries and taxis that can get you there. If you have time, travel further to Santa Marta and Parque Tayrona, which are said to be beautiful.
Where to Stay
I’m a firm believer that: (a) location is everything, and (b) a beautiful hotel can set the tone for your trip. So, I’m usually willing to shell out a bit more cash to stay in a prime location and nice hotel. This belief definitely held true in Cartagena and for that reason, my biggest recommendation would be to stay in a boutique hotel in the Walled City, for at least a portion of your stay. It will be more expensive, but worth every penny. You’ll be in the centre of the action and in a unique property with charm and history! During my 4 days in Cartagena, I stayed both inside and outside of the Walled City.
Inside the Walled City: Casa Pombo
Casa Pombo is a gorgeous boutique hotel inside one of the oldest colonial mansions in the Walled City. Built in the 16th century, there are only 5 loft-style apartments here, each with high ceilings and stone throughout. It has a large courtyard on the ground floor with plunge pool, a rooftop with a pool and a view of La Catedral, and beautiful sitting rooms with black and white tiled floors. The original columns, arches, and frescos which were uncovered when Casa Pombo was restored give it its charm. The atmosphere is quiet, exclusive, and the service is excellent. I felt like a princess staying here.
Casa Pestagua is the sister property to Casa Pombo. It’s also very beautiful, just a little more dated. Casa San Agustin, Mansion Tcherassi or Hotel Tcherassi are also good choices. While I didn’t stay at them, I did visit the properties during the day and I would have been pleased to stay at any one of them.
Outside the Walled City: Hotel Las Américas (Torre del Mar)
If you’re looking to stay closer to the beach, if you are traveling with your family, or looking for a budget-friendlier option, consider Hotel Las Américas in the Cielo Mar neighbourhood of Cartagena. I stayed in Torre del Mar (the newer tower) and the accommodations were comfortable. The rooms were modern and clean, and there is a buffet breakfast with a large variety of options. My favourite part about this hotel was the rooftop infinity pool, which had a lively atmosphere, and being steps away from the Caribbean Sea.
What to Do
Stroll inside the Walled City
Wander, get lost, find your way, and then get lost again. You could just show up in Cartagena without a map or plan and find everything you need in the Walled City. There is beauty on every street, and lots of landmarks, churches, colonial homes, amazing doors, and flower-covered walls. The Walled City is small, so you could easily cover all of it on foot in 1 day (but you’re going to want to spend a lot more time here, I guarantee it!).
Go to Getsemani
Getsemani is the up-and-coming, hipper sister to the Walled City, which is known for cool bars, art galleries, restaurants, and boutique hotels. It used to be a seedy neighbourhood and haven for drugs and prostitution. The poverty is still very much apparent amongst the gentrification, but so is the joie de vivre. Strolling through the neighbourhood, I found local families going about their daily lives while Latin music played out onto the streets from inside their homes, friendly dogs, kids kicking soccer balls, local teenagers blasting rap from boomboxes on their shoulders, and just a raw authenticity that I didn’t find anywhere else in Cartagena. It’s only a 10-minute walk from the Walled City, so go here to take in the colourful homes and graffiti walls without all the crowds.
Watch the sunset on the walls of the city
The sunsets are beautiful in Cartagena, and witnessing them from on top of Las Murallas is truly an experience. Find your way to the top and set up shop or head to Café del Mar to grab a drink with a sea of other tourists.
Experience the nightlife
The nightlife is not to be missed in Cartagena. There are tonnes of bars in the Walled City and Getsemani. Or if you fancy, head to the famous Café Havana for salsa dancing.
Picture with the Palenqueras
The Palenqueras are one of the most iconic symbols of Cartagena. They’re descendants of runaway slaves who settled in San Basilio de Palenque, a small village southeast of Cartagena which was declared one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. San Basilio de Palenque is the last surviving village of escaped slaves in Colombia and home to the only Spanish-based creole language spoken in Latin America. If you do take a picture with a Palenquera, be sure to pay for her time and it would be a nice gesture to purchase fruit.
Video with the street rappers
As popular as it is to take a picture with the Palenqueras, so is shooting your own amateur rap video with the local street rappers. They will happily oblige for a small fee and will form an entourage around you to make you feel like a true celebrity.
Visit San Felipe Castle
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is one of the most important landmarks in Cartagena. It’s a fortress built by the Spanish in 1657, which served to protect the city from intruders. If you are a history or architecture buff, beeline here.
Where to Eat & Drink
I think the Creole influence in Cartagena makes the food here some of the best you’ll taste in Colombia. You could happily survive on a diet of fresh fruit and juice, but there are so many choices of restaurants and bars to suit all budgets and tastes.
Walk in the footsteps of the late Anthony Bourdain and head to La Cevicheria, which is essentially an institution in Cartagena! This was my favourite meal in Colombia and worth ditching the diet for. I recommend the rice and beans and Peruvian-style ceviche (ceviche Peruano). But you really could not go wrong with any other style ceviche, for that matter!
Erre is the 2 Michelin star-awarded chef, Ramon Fraixa’s restaurant inside of Hotel Las Américas. The food was thoughtful, elegant, and it was truly a treat to dine here.
I loved this hip(ster) bar inside of a colonial home in the Walled City. Alquimico has both a ground floor bar and rooftop terrace. You can enjoy a few experimental cocktails while people watching and listening to a good selection of 80s and dance music here.
Café Artesano is a cute, little café located inside of El Centro Artesano (an artisanal shop). The café has both an interior and courtyard, and is a great oasis to escape the hustle and bustle of the Walled City for a coffee or a glass of wine.
Época is an espresso bar, coffee roaster, and restaurant with a bit of a speakeasy vibe to it. It’s a popular place for brunch and has a couple different locations in the Old City. The Hierbabuena (peppermint) juice is particularly good.
Alma Bar & Restaurant
Even if you don’t stay at Casa San Agustin, you can visit Alma Bar & Restaurant located on-site. I did not have time for a full meal (which I’ll have to go back for upon my return), but I did spend time at the bar. I recommend the Aguanilé cocktail.
Basilica Pizzería Café
Basilica Pizzería Café is a humble place to grab a good pizza and mojito in Getsemani. I especially loved the mural on the side of the wall and the service was super friendly.
Cartagena truly checks all the boxes – from great weather and vibes, to friendly people, beautiful architecture, amazing restaurants, and hotels. If my words and pictures weren’t enough to convince you, be sure to check out my YouTube video below (and also don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel) and my Instagram story highlights from Cartagena for more!
Is Cartagena on your bucket list? Let me know in the comments below!