Few cities capture the imagination like Cartagena. This sultry, romantic city on the Atlantic is an open air museum of the best of Spanish colonial architecture and is Colombia’s most popular and beloved vacation destination. The walled city was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, and walking its flower-strewn balconies, elegant plazas and cobblestoned streets might make you feel like you’ve stepped back a few centuries to the time of the conquistadores. Or at least onto a telenovela set. Either way, there’s something magical about Cartagena.
But before you go thinking Cartagena is paradise on earth, there are few things to keep in mind: Sure, being the tourism capital of Colombia is an honor, but this means Cartagena is more expensive than just about anywhere in Colombia. If you want a romantic meal in one of Cartagena’s many plazas, expect to pay at least $20 per person and don’t expect to find too many bargains when it comes to souvenir shopping. Because the city managed to escape most of the violence of the ‘80s and ‘90s, there are plenty of foreigners in Cartagena, which means street vendors and musicians have perfected their trade in multiple languages. In other words, claiming not to speak Spanish won’t help your cause much. If you’re dining in one of the main plazas and want to escape a dinnertime serenade, I recommend you avoid eye contact with anyone holding a guitar. Also, watch out for pickpockets and keep your guard up outside the old city at night.
That said, throw on your sarong, put on your sunglasses, and start exploring!
Tip: If you want to save money, consider staying and dining in Getsemani, outside the walled city. This working class neighborhood has a reputation for being dangerous, but as a woman traveling alone, I never had any problems here. You can find hotel rooms here with A/C, cable TV and a private bath for the equivalent of US$15 and some great restaurants running about 50% cheaper than those in the old city. There are modern lodging option in Boca Grande and el Laguito, Cartagena’s Miami-esque new town.
Wake up early and head to the walled city. The best way to get a feel for Cartagena is to simply stroll through its narrow streets, get coffee at one of its outdoor cafes and people watch at one of its many plazas, but those looking for a more formal itinerary can follow the plan below:
Start your Cartagena walk-through at the Plaza de Los Coches, one of Cartagena’s most historic plazas, and stock up on traditional Cartagena sweets at the Portal de Los Dulces. Next, walk toward the Plaza de San Pedro and visit the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, which also operates as a museum. If you’re into modern art, you won’t want to miss the Museo de Arte Moderno just a couple blocks from the plaza. And if you’re into naval history, you may want to pay a visit to the Museo Naval off of Calle Juan de Dios. After you’ve had enough of antique nautical instruments, take Calle A. Ricaurte to la Plaza de Bolivar, one of my favorite plazas in the walled city (keep in mind that Calle A. Ricaurte turns into Calle Santa Teresa). Here you can visit attractions such as the recently remodeled Cathedral, the Museo del Oro and the Palacio de La Inquisicion. At the Plaza de Santo Domingo, visit the Iglesia y Claustro Santo Domingo. If you’re hungry, this is a good place to grab lunch.
After lunch, walk on toward Plaza de San Diego, one of Cartagena’s prettiest plazas. If you’re in the mood to buy souvenirs, walk down Calle de Las Bovedas to Las Bovedas, an old jail now boasting 23 souvenir shops.
If you’re still feeling energetic and ambitious, ask your hotel to book a tour for you on a chiva, a traditional, colorful wooden bus, to see some of the sites outside the walled city. Your chiva includes a bilingual guide (bilingual being subjective here) and entrance to several attractions such as the Castillo de San Felipe de Barejas and El Convento de La Popa, both of which offer great views of Cartagena. If, for some unlikely reason, your hotel doesn’t offer chiva tours, head to the tourism office at La Plaza de La Aduana, which will be able to book a tour for you.
Next, head back to your hotel for a late afternoon siesta before heading back to La Plaza de Santo Domingo for a seafood dinner on one of the Americas’ oldest plazas. Yes, there are too many vendors and musicians and the food is horribly over priced, but who doesn’t want to say they ate dinner in a 500 year-old plaza?
If you’re feeling particularly festive, I recommend booking a rumba chiva, which will give you a tour of Cartagena at night with a party twist: All the aguardient, rum, fried yucca and fried plantain that you want, before dropping you off at a night club to really get the party started. There’s usually a bilingual guide and traditional Vallenato band on board, and most Rumba Chivas stop to take in traditional Cartagena dances such as the Mapale and Cumbia, which showcase Cartagena’s rich African heritage. Again, most rumba chivas can be booked by your hotel or at the tourism office at La Plaza de La Aduana.
Cartagena’s beaches are loud, busy and decidedly unspectacular, so I recommend booking a tour to Las Islas del Rosario just off the coast of Cartagena. Las Islas del Rosario are a small archipelago of islands that offer much nicer, quieter beaches. A day tour almost always includes a dolphin show, snorkeling, a typical Cartagena lunch of fried fish and coconut rice and a couple hours on Playa Baru, an attractive, white sand beach with a lovely jungle backdrop.
You’ll probably be worn out when you get back to your hotel around 5pm, so take a quick nap before heading off to dinner. To celebrate your last night in the city, indulge yourself in a delicious, avant-garde seafood dinner el Club de Pesca, one of Cartagena’s most exclusive and expensive restaurants. Situated in a 300 year-old fort overlooking the Cartagena marina and its many impressive yachts, this romantic, picturesque restaurant is the perfect ending to your Cartagena vacation.