What to do in Cartagena, Colombia
The first day we got to JFK 3 hours before our flight, grabbed breakfast, and boarded our flight to Rafael Nuñez International Airport, Cartagena (CTG).
After 5 hours of flight, we were in Cartagena. We joined the very long lines and proceeded through immigration, customs, and were escorted to taxis.
After 20 minutes of views of the UNESCO-designated walled old town, packed with amber yellow historic buildings, which date back to the colonial era in the 16th century and beautiful beach scenery, we arrived at our hotel located in Bocagrande, where most of the hotels are. It was 2 minutes walking distance to the beach (Playa del Bocagrande), had a rooftop pool, gym, supermarkets, and restaurants all around. Check in was also a wait but the staff were courteous!
Once we got to our rooms, we freshened up and walked to the beach. We were bombarded with hecklers, but the service was great. They instantly set up a table and chairs for us and brought us menus. The food was very good, but the natural juices were watery. We had snapper, robolo, and filet. Skip the filet, it’s like fried breaded fish from a fish and chips dish.
Among the hecklers who did not take no for an answer were massage therapists, souvenir vendors, hat vendors, jewelry vendors, and juice vendors. My sisters engaged the massage therapists and said that it was the best massage of their lives.
While on the beach we met a tour guide (there are many along the street). We paid for them to pick us up at our hotel and take us to Rosario Islands. We paid $80 pp and it included meals and drinks.
We walked around the city, went to the ATM (BBVA) where we struggled to understand the currency and just ended up taking out $300,000.00 which is the equivalent of $75 and paid $5 in bank fees.
Finally, we tried out the Froyo bar.
The next day, after a boring continental breakfast, the tour guide Marlon texted us, showed up on time with a tour bus, and drove us to a park in the City Center across from Muelle de los Pegasos, where we were given wrist bands. There were many mosquitos in the gardens.
Then we crossed the street and walked to the docks with a new tour guide to take a boat to see the islands. There were several stops with historical lessons and a stop at each island.
The first stop was at the Bocachica fort for a brief historical review in Spanish about its construction and function Fuerte de San Fernando de Bocachica.
The five islands were:
Isla Grande. Big Island sector for snorkeling and two points of interest such as Pablo Escobar's plane and the Big Island reefs.
- Isla Medusa. On this island, there was a swing for great photos, cabanas lined the beach, and you could swim, snorkel, rest, or dine. It was surprisingly filled with dogs and cats who were very friendly. The sand was white and fine, but walking into the ocean felt like walking on a coral reef.
- Isla Baru. This island consists of Cholon beach, which is a party island where you will enjoy a shrimp cocktail tasting, then blue water sector to enjoy crystal clear waters and beautiful landscapes. This island took on a Maldives look. It had the bungalows in the water, loud music, and was definitely a party vibe.
- Isla Tierra Bomba. This island consisted of Agua Azul. The water was intensely blue. Here I got stung by a bee in between my toes simply by walking in the sand. Men ran and put sand to ease the pain. I wasn't much in the mood for doing anything after.
- Playa Blanca. This is the relaxation island (playa tranquilo). Sandwiches and sugar water were provided in the tour but we paid for fish dinners, water, and ice-cream. We struggled to enjoy it as flies swarmed us once the fish came out.
In addition to visiting the islands, we had the option to snorkel, learn about Pablo Escobar, and a night tour on the water to see the plankton. I recommend skipping the bioluminescence tour. At this point you are completely dry, so why jump back in the water?
Also, whatever you are expecting, it probably won't meet your expectation. The water isn't colorful or glowing. It appears white when you move in it but you can't really capture it in photos no matter how high tech your phone or cameras are.
One of the many charms of Cartagena de Indias is that you feel as though you're leaving the 21st century behind to discover a beautiful colonial architecture.
One of my favorite feelings being there was feeling like royalty. Men opened every door and pulled out seats. The chivalry was alive and well here. We were constantly complimented on our dress and golden brown skin tone.
On the third day, we walked the Walled City and Getsemane and saw Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower),
took photos on umbrella lined streets (Calle de la Magdalena),
flag streets (Calle San Andres and Calle de la Tripita y Media),
and the flags of the world (Calle de la Sierpe).
The street art all around Getsemaní also makes for some of the best places to take photos in Cartagena as the walls are filled with murals.
We took photos and videos with Colombian women dressed in traditional costume. Read this to learn how palenqueras (black women in colorful dresses expertly balancing bowls of tropical fruit on their heads) became the symbol of Colombia.
As a bibliophile, author, and publisher, I wanted to visit Abaco Libros y Cafe. It was beautiful and the staff were friendly.
This trip can be made on foot at any time; however, we suggest that you try it again at night, and in a horse-drawn carriage, especially if traveling as a couple.
Later that day we got manis and pedis for $7.50.
Then, we got dressed and had dinner near our hotel at Hamachi. This place did not disappoint.
We got tea and coffee at Juan Valdez and purchased Colombian coffee for gifts.
The fourth day we went to the Rooftop bar of Hotel Sophia.
We ate lunch at Hotel Santa Maria (Sofitel).
We scheduled a private one hour dance class at Crazy Salsa (Carrera 8 #8-85 Av. Carlos Escallón Ed. Banco Santander office #301 Frente al Parque de las Flores, Provincia de Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia).
We had Reuben as our instructor and we loved him. First we did warm ups, then simple step by step instruction, then he added music, paired us up, and practiced our steps. It was amazing how quickly we got it. That's because he was such a great teacher!
After returning to the hotel and resting, we went for dinner at Restaurante Candé. Traffic that night was horrendous. What was normally a 10-15 drive took around 40 minutes, so plan accordingly.
The last day our check out time was 11am but our flight was not until 330pm. We asked our taxi to take us to a few spots before the airport and instead he gave us a full tour. His name is David. You can use WhatsApp to connect. His phone number is: +57 324 3862959. We highly recommend him.
First, he took us to the Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa for great views.
Then he took us to the iconic Castillo de San Felipe (San Fernando castle), which is the largest military building constructed by the Spanish Crown in America.
The Old Shoes monument, a bronze sculpture of shoes which is a tribute to poet Luis Carlos Lopez, is directly across the street.
Next we saw India Catalina Monument, an indigenous child of Mokaná ethnicity from the Colombian Atlantic coast, who accompanied Pedro de Heredia as an interpreter and intermediary, playing a role in the Spanish conquest of Colombia.
We took photos at the Cartagena letters.
We walked around Plaza de la Trinidad and we met the artist of all the murals and fine paintings.
We took more photos in front of the beautiful doors throughout the city.
We finished our visit in Cartagena with lunch at Casa de Socorro.
Finally, we headed to the airport 2 hours before our flight. Our flight was delayed but check in and immigration were seamless.
- The Convent
- Castillo San Felipe
- Hotel Sofia's Rooftop Bar
- Hotel Movich’s Rooftop Bar
- On top of the City’s Iconic Wall
Where to eat
- Restaurante Candé (San Diego, Cra 10, Cl. de la Serrezuela #No 39-02, Cartagena de Indias, Provincia de Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia)- Rated Traveler's Choice in 2021, it has Carib fusion food and Mediterranean ambiance with live music and entertainment, great service. Cande Restaurant is a popular place with travelers who want to experience real, authentic Cartagena culture and cuisine. It’s also an intimate space with limited seating. As such, it fills up fast and reservations are recommended. However, if you don’t mind dining earlier you can usually get in with a minimal wait time.
Alma - Alma serves as a restaurant and a centerpiece of Casa San Agustin, where fashionable locals and guests share a passion to enjoy the cuisine of coastal Colombian cuisine amidst a vibrant environment.
Its colonial Courtyard, the Main Room and the Private Room are places rich in character serving as a backdrop to ancient aqueduct found in the Hotel and the historic walls that are close to. Alma restaurant radiates the life of Cartagena de Indias and offers the best of traditional cuisine of the renowned Chef Heberto Eljach in the heart of Casa San Agustin Hotel, where you can enjoy an exquisite seafood casserole, as well as a variety of ceviches, matured meat in various cuts, lobster tail and seafood prepared with traditional cooking, among other dishes that are a celebration of Chef Eljach´s creativity and skill on fresh seafood. It is open daily from 12:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. for lunch and dinner service. There is live music at the Courtyard from Wednesdays to Sundays (8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.).
- Hamachi Peruvian Japanese Fusion Restaurant (Cl. 8 ## 2-36, Cartagena de Indias, Provincia de Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia) Japanese decor with great sushi and try Limeno sigh, an indigenous dessert from Peru.
- Casa de Socorro (Calle Larga, No. 8B-112 Getsemaní, Cartagena Colombia) - great location, large portions, close to airport, the food was good but nothing to rave about. There was good service and the best natural juices we tried at each restaurant.
- Sierpe Cocina Caribe
- Cafe del Mar
- Crepes and waffles (for breakfast if you are tired of continental)
Our Favorite Drinks
- Passion fruit martini
- Classic mojito
- Watermelon martini
I didn't care for the tamarind martini, but you should at least try it.
Learn more from an actual mixologist.
Where to stay
To be near the main attractions and be able to walk the city, stay in the Town Center for around $300 per night. The most luxurious hotels we saw were:
- Hotel Santa Clara by Sofitel (Calle Del Torno, 39 - 29, Barrio San Diego, Cartagena, Bolivar, 130001)
- Hotel Sophia (Calle 32, de la Aduana, Cra. 45 #26c4, Cartagena de Indias, Bolívar, Colombia)
- Movich Hotel Cartagena de Indias (Calle de Vélez Danies #4-39, Centro Histórico, Cartagena, Bolivar, 130001)
- Casa Pestagua Relais Châteaux (Santo Domingo, 33-63, Cartagena, Bolivar, 130001)
- Bastión Luxury Hotel (Calle del Sargento No. 6-87, Cartagena, Bolivar, 130001
- Ananda Hotel Boutique (Calle del Cuartel No. 36-77, Cartagena, Bolivar, 1)
To be near beaches, stay in Bocagrande for about $150 per night
- Hyatt Regency
- Hampton by Hilton (I don’t really recommend it but it wasn’t the worse of the worst)
To go really cheap and spend the money on fine dining instead, there are a ton of hostels.
To visit other cities, use local airlines like Viva Air, Amenica, and Copaco. If you are flexible to travel you can get rates for US $33-75 each way to Bogota or Medellin. You will need to stay for 2-3 days because many tours are 6-8 hrs long.
There was so much to do. We researched but couldn't do it all on such a short trip, but if you weren't interested in the things we mentioned, you might like:
- Cartagena- 8 hour volcano tour and mud bath
- Medellin- 8 hr tour to Guatape
- Bogota- mud bath
What you need
- Passport. Make sure it isn’t expired. Save a printed copy and keep a copy on your phone.
- COVID vaccine card. Have the actual and the digital.
What to pack
- Beach towels. Some hotels do not provide rags/wash cloths, let alone beach towels
- Water shoes. They sell them there but the really cheap kind. You can buy, use, and discard when finished or just bring the really good kind, dry, and reuse on later trips.
- Bright colored outfits. Invest in solid color outfits and swimsuits preferably colors of their flag- yellow, blue, and red.
- Sneakers. It is a walking city but we wore heels and took cabs everywhere.
- Waterproof phone protector.
- Sun hat. The sun is intense.
- Sun block. Avoid getting sunburned.
- Mosquito repellent. There are mosquitos in the gardens and it rains and floods a lot so it is a perfect breeding ground.
- Handkerchief. It is hot and you will be sweating profusely.
- Umbrella. It rained for 5 minutes every day we were there.
- Water bottle. Let’s save the earth and refill instead of consuming things in more plastic
- Reusable travel cutlery set- I got mine from Eco Evolution in Norwalk, CT. They have an online store. Here is the link: https://www.ecoevolution.co/collections/kitchen/products/bamboo-travel-cutlery-alternative-utencils
Don't worry, if you forget any of these, they will be easily found at the local store, on the beach, walking along the ports, and on the streets. These vendors have it all and for very cheap!
- Flying. Wear compression socks and stay hydrated the flight is long and even with more leg room, you dont stretch out very comfortably.
- Walking. Pay attention as the streets are very narrow. While there are some crosswalks, there are very few walk signals and they do not stop for pedestrians.
- Driving. The cars are very small and they drive very close to each other.
- Money. It’s very cheap but they’ll overcharge tourists. A fish dish shouldn’t cost more than 40,000 pesos. A taxi is between 10-20 mil pesos…may cost more during traffic. Most places take cash, use ATM and learn conversion.
- Luxury. The city is very rustic and charming. Most buildings are very old. Very few hotels and restaurants gave an elite vibe. Don't expect a Dubai experience. Some places don’t have elevators especially to the rooftop.
- City life. It’s a city (smells and feels like one)
- Beaches. The water isn’t as blue or transparent as other Caribbean islands and the sand isn’t as white or fine. Don't expect the Cayman islands.
- Vendors. It has many hecklers who are very persistent who aren’t easily deterred. Don’t engage if you are not interested. If you genuinely want to help, then engage and get a massage, food, souvenirs, beach wear.
- Traveling. Bring masks as the airport and hotels still require for entry. If you aren't vaccinated, remember to get your COVID test before your last day of travel. Complete your online attestation form.
If you love traveling and trying all the different ways we travel, order the Olivia Lauren Olivia Travels book for your child: https://www.laurensimonepubs.com/products/olivia-travels-a-guide-to-modes-of-transportation
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