Travel Guide: Cartagena, Colombia
If you asked me to describe Cartagena in one word, I’d have to use ‘magical’. Tacky? Sure is, but there’s no other way of describing this romantic, lush and serene setting. Cartagena has been on my bucket list forever and I must admit, it took some serious convincing to get Adam to agree to this trip. Sadly, he was inundated with negative feedback on Colombia and had some ill-advised concerns for our safety. Ask Adam today what he thought of Cartagena and he’ll tell you he’d be on the first flight back if could. It takes quite a city to change this boys mind and I’m so excited to share our experience with you.
Our vacation was a 10/10 and there’s nothing negative I could say about it… other than our journey there and back. With Toronto as our home base, we struggled to find any flight combination that was 3 flights or less to get to Cartagena. We flew from Toronto to Houston, Houston to Panama City and then Panama City to Cartagena. We nearly lost an entire day trying to get there which was a complete bummer. It appears that Jet Blue in Buffalo (for local readers) can complete the trip with 2 flights and I would highly recommend this option.
Tips and Tricks
For my Canadian readers, it was a surprise to us there was an entrance fee to get into Colombia upon arrival at the airport. The fee (which can fluctuate with exchange rates) was about $88 Canadian and could only be paid with credit card upon entry. Our card was flagged as fraud since the terminal name appeared odd to our provider so if you can call in advance, it might save you some time.
How long to Visit For
We booked our stay for 6 days and 5 nights. Having lost our initial day of travel, we made the most of our 5th full day and took a red eye flight home. We both agreed that 6-7 full days in the city is enough time if you’re looking to explore the walled city and surrounding areas, visit the Rosario islands, spend an afternoon pool side and taking your time becoming familiar with the city. Many suggested a day trip out to Bogota but given our limited time, we decided to stay put.
What to Pack
The weather in Cartagena was no joke. If we left our hotel at 10am, we’d both be dripping in sweat by noon just walking around town. I recommend lots of linen, light clothing, flowy clothes and a crossbody bag. We never encountered any issues of theft but heard of some experiences from guests at our hotel. Most restaurants aren’t super fancy in the evening so there’s no need to don multiple layers to fit in.
The best advice someone gave us was to be sure to stay within the walled city of Cartagena. With most sites and restaurants enclosed in this area, it’s also quite walkable. Any time we needed to get across town, visit the beach or if dinner required stiletto pumps, then we’d take a cab. Most cab drivers do not speak much English so be prepared to rely on your hotel staff to direct the driver on where you need to go and settle on a price or be prepared to rely on Google Translate quite often. Negotiating rates prior to getting into the cab are also highly recommended. And most cabs do not accept credit cards so always have some cash on hand. You can likely get from one stretch of the city to the other for no more than 8-10 USD.
Where to Stay
I must have combed through reviews and photos for hours and came to my theory on Cartagena. You can stay at a luxury, chain property such as the Conrad or Intercontinental on the beach but be removed from city life or you can stay at a boutique property within the walled city. Given that the beach wasn’t very nice (dark brown sand, murky waters, busy beaches), we opted for the walled city to get a taste of the culture. We visited the Intercontinental one afternoon to get a feel for the location, and it reassured us once more that boutique properties are absolutely the way to go for this town.
After a toss-up between Tcherassi Hotel, Hotel Quadrifolio and Casa San Agustin, we opted for Casa San Agustin. We were won over with the inclusive breakfast, aesthetic and that stunning pool set up. And having wrapped our stay, we both agree we made the right choice. The morning breakfast buffet (and a la carte menu) were scrumptious, the room decor was uber chic, a well-stocked (and complimentary) mini bar and the staff were incredibly friendly and helpful. The pool, though small, was perfectly refreshing after a long, hot walk around the city.
What to Do
Rosario Islands: We opted for a more relaxed take on the nearby islands, but you can join a group or private tour of the Rosario Islands and hop from one remote destination to another throughout the day.
Blue Apple Beach House: As mentioned above, many people flock to the Rosario Islands for the day. Since we only had one day to escape the city, we were looking for a peaceful and low-maintenance day where we could set up on a beach and relax. Thankfully, Ashley’s review on Blue Apple Beach House completely sold me and we booked our passes for the day. Getting to and from the island was a breeze and to say this remote island was just what we needed, is an understatement.
A short 30-minute boat ride away from Cartagena, Blue Apple Beach House, is a remote island off the coast of Cartagena equipped with pools, hammocks, a private beach, restaurant, bathrooms and anything else you’d need for a day. There are also artist residences on site where you can rent beach bungalows for a night or two during your stay. This is something we would certainly look into if we visited Cartagena again. For $27 USD per person, you have access to transportation (boat ride), towels, a chair by the beach or pool and access to the facilities.
Inspired by St. Tropez, the lounge music, food offering and Rose wine list made for the perfect setting. We shared the Paella for lunch which was life changing and highly recommend! We shared the experience with maybe 30-40 other people, and it made for such a peaceful and quiet day. At times, we even had the entire beach all to ourselves. This island is a MUST DO if you’re visiting the city and want to escape for a day to get a peek at crystal blue waters!
Explore Getsmani: Walking around the streets of the walled city is a no brainer but tourists start flooding the street early and the crowds can be even worse on a day when a cruise is in port. We were advised from our hotel staff to avoid Getsmani but after chatting with a few friends who had visited, we were advised it was completely safe. This part of town boats some stunning graffiti, bright coloured walls and bougainvillea galore. A short cab ride away from our hotel (about $5), we asked to be dropped off anywhere in town for a galavant without the crowds.
Mercado de Bazurto: Stop by the local farmer’s market for local fruit and delicacies. The prices were beyond reasonable here for a quick lunch or afternoon snack.
Where to Eat
Carmen’s: I’m embarrassed to admit I was attracted to this restaurant from a Real Housewives franchise show, but I figured, if they loved it, why wouldn’t I? And I wasn’t wrong. We enjoyed a late lunch at Carmen’s dining on their ceviche, grilled octopus and banh mi. Every single course was out of this world. And be sure to bring your camera for some Instagram content as well – this place was a designer’s delight.
La Perla: We booked this restaurant on a whim one night after it came recommended from our hotel staff. We were initially taken back form the décor and crowd, but glad we didn’t let that stop us. A mix of Peruvian focused food, we loved the seafood options they served here.
Alma: This restaurant was located in Casa San Agustin and since we enjoyed breakfast so much, we spent a tired evening dining close to home. We’re not normally ones to enjoy hotel restaurants but this spot was definitely an exception.
Maria: After reading a review of this restaurant in the Times and seeing the stunning pics of the interior, I knew we had to make a pit stop here for dinner one night. This might have been one of my favourite spots for interior inspo and the meals were superb. We loved the tenderloin and lemon chicken.
La Cevicheria: Every single person who’s been to Cartagena will tell you to visit here (Anthony Bourdain put it on the map). Sadly, it was closed for renovations during our visit but based on all the positive feedback, I’m including.
Donjuan: We stumbled upon this restaurant one night after dining at Maria. I fell in love with the rattan and striped interior and after reading the menu, we thought it looked great. Be sure to book a reservation here at spots fill up fast. We loved the prawns, lobster and octopus (hot dish).
Bars and Café’s
Café Havana: Even if salsa dancing isn’t your thing, you must make a visit to this infamous bar in Cartagena. Feel free to stand on the sidelines with a cocktail or participate in the fun but it’s a must do.
El Baron: One of the most praised cocktail bars in the city – it’s a must do after dinner one night. The outdoor patio is great for people watching and the mixologist is on point!
Café Del Mar: Truthfully, we didn’t love the cocktails here but the sights of the sunset makeup for a lackluster drink in my books. Head here about an hour before sunset if you’re visiting in high season for a table.
Abaco Libros Café: A library with a great cup of coffee: what else could you need?