If you are seeking a vacation that incorporates relaxing on beaches AND traversing eclectic streets without breaking the bank, look no further than Cartagena, Colombia. Aside from nonstop sun, this coastal South American city boasts a rich history and culture brimming with delicious food, vibrant nightlife, and stunning colonial architecture. Between a bustling beachfront and high-rises lining the streets of Bocagrande (Cartagena’s “Little Miami”), and the romantic, effervescent vibes characterizing the Old City, there’s a reason Cartagena’s popularity has gone through the roof over the last few years.
- Sunscreen: I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH the importance of bringing sunscreen to Cartagena. Since Colombia is closer to the equator, you are way more susceptible to getting burnt, even if you blessed souls are used to tanning.
- Aloe Vera: A follow-up to the above – aloe saved us the rest of the trip after we got burnt at the beach.
- Cash: You will need to carry some cash to pay for small street trinkets (e.g. woven bracelets, sun hats, etc.), cab rides, etc. For five days, I used ~ 500.000 COP, which came out to about $162 after exchanging $200. I typically used my credit card at restaurants.
- Flip-flops: If you plan on spending time at the beach or doing an island day, make sure you bring appropriate footwear!
- Sneakers: This one is pretty self-explanatory, but you should always pack a good pair of walking shoes anywhere you go. I wore sneakers most days and sandals at night.
- Small change purse/bag: You don’t need to lug around a huge bag while you’re in Colombia. Something small to hold all your essentials will do the trick.
WHERE TO STAY
There are two main neighborhoods that tourists flock to in Cartagena: Bocagrande and the Old/Walled City. Most American tourists opt for the Walled City, as much of the sightseeing takes place there. However, Bocagrande is frequented more so by South American tourists, or Colombians traveling from other parts of the country. Jacob and I chose Bocagrande, considering it had been a quick minute since either of us felt our toes in the sand. It is also a quick cab ride to the Old City, which typically costs 10.000 COP one way, or around $3. A STEAL, if you ask me.
We stayed at a small boutique hotel called Oz Hotel, just a two-block walk away from the beach. The staff were so accommodating and sweet, and the rooms, albeit small, were to our liking. Plus, we only paid $330 total for five nights, delicious breakfast included!
WHAT TO DO
- Old/Walled City: The center of all the action. The minute you step into the Walled City you will instantly be transported to the fairytale of your wildest dreams. Cobblestone streets, pastel facades and buildings, and gorgeously constructed doors – it goes without saying that Spain’s former colonization of Colombia influenced the architecture of the Walled City. The fact that it has remained largely intact for centuries (it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) makes this place all the more enchanted and magical. Take a long stroll through the streets (or do a walking tour) and see for yourself!
- Choco Museo: This was one of our favorite highlights of our trip! We booked a two-hour class, which included a history lesson on cacao and an actual workshop where we made our own chocolate. Don’t leave without purchasing some pre-made chocolate goodies in the shop, ranging from bars, all the way to liqueurs and skincare! The experience was made a lot better by the people who worked there – just one of the many examples of kind locals we encountered during our trip. 🙂
- The Plazas: You can’t visit Cartagena without heading to the three main plazas — Plaza Bolivar, Plaza Santo Domingo, and Plaza San Diego. Each one carries its own aesthetic, beauty, and scene. Whether you prefer a midday sit-down in the shade or late night street performances, there is an option for all.
- Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas: If you’re looking to enrich your mind with history (and your eyes with some great panoramic views), take a quick cab ride over to the fortress known as Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (try saying that five times fast). The Spanish constructed it in the 1600s to ward off foreign attacks, but since then it has become a notable tourist destination.
- Abaco Bookstore and Cafe: Stop into this beautiful bookstore-cafe hybrid for a brief reprieve from the sun. This was also the site of my first “limonada de coco” consumption, which was as delicious as it was refreshing.
- Island Day Trip: Taking a day trip to the nearby islands is a must-do while in Cartagena. We booked our trip to Playa Blanca through HiCartagena. With our purchase, we got to spend time in a quieter part of the island, complete with a cabana/day bed, lunch, a welcome drink, and round-trip transportation by boat. If you are looking for more of an intimate and private setting, the Rosario Islands may be your best bet! Either way, you can’t go wrong.
- Getsemani: Considered the Brooklyn of Cartagena, this neighborhood is the Old City’s hip and cool cousin. While the vivid colors are consistently similar, Getsemani possesses a grunginess replicating that of our dear Williamsburg, complete with street graffiti and rows of worn buildings with an abundance of stories to tell. Its resurgence in recent years has turned Getsemani into one of Cartagena’s crowned jewels for exploring, eating, and partying.
WHERE TO EAT
- Alma: A gorgeous contemporary spot with an open-air courtyard. I recommend getting here when they open at noon for lunch to get a seat outside. The food and drinks did not disappoint. Try the Fisherman’s Spaghetti, if you dare — it’ll fill you up quick!
- Maria: We also came here during lunch, so we could beat the evening dinner rush. The menu has something for everyone, meat-eater or not. We had the flank steak empanadas, fish tartare, and shrimp and chorizo risotto. The interior design is impeccable here as well!
- Bacco Trattoria: As a walking carb, I can’t travel somewhere and NOT get pasta. We found this little joint in the center of the Old City, and we enjoyed it so much, we got pizza to-go the next night to bring back to the hotel (we had a long day in the sun at Playa Blanca and just couldn’t hang). For an Italian restaurant in Colombia, I was pleasantly surprised.
- Cuzco Cocina: We ended up at this Colombian-Peruvian fusion restaurant on our first night via a family friend’s request. The menu was incredibly vast, so you had plenty to choose from. While I was sick from being awake since 4:00am, my few bites of the bacon-wrapped filet mignon were great. The inside of the restaurant was stunning, too.
- El Boliche/La Cevicheria: Getting into La Cevicheria is like waiting for a reservation to open up at Lilia. Made famous after Anthony Bourdain’s visit, this little joint is the culinary highlight of most tourists’ visits to Cartagena. Unfortunately, we didn’t make enough of an effort to get in, so we opted for El Boliche instead. We were able to sit immediately, and the ceviche was simply divine.
- Alqimico: Drinks so nice, we came here twice! But actually, this bar was easily our favorite. Three floors (the third being an outdoor rooftop area), three separate drink menus. I definitely satisfied my cocktail fix here.
- Cuba 1940: We went to this bar for a nightcap after dinner one evening. Come here to experience live music, a pool to wade your feet in while you have a drink, and just an all-around good time. Order a Club Colombia and prepare to be wowed. For someone who’s slowly learned how to tolerate beer over time, I found it quite enjoyable.
- Street food: You can’t leave Cartagena without getting your fill of authentic Colombian cuisine. Empanadas, arepas, the whole nine yards. Street food always ends up being the best, anyway.
KEY PHRASES TO GET BY
Most of the locals in Cartagena speak little to no English. While I am lucky to have a boyfriend who is rather conversationally fluent in the language, not everyone else has that advantage. As such, I have gathered a few general phrases that will help you navigate your way around, should you need some assistance. 🙂
- Buenos Dias/Buenas Tardes/Buenas Noches = Good Morning/Good Afternoon/Good Night.
- Gracias/No, gracias = Thank you/No, thank you
- No tengo dinero = I don’t have money –> This will be especially helpful when interacting with street vendors who refuse to back down, lol.
- Donde esta el bano? = Where is the bathroom?
- A la derecha/a la izquierda = To the right/to the left –> Helpful when you are in a taxi.
- Puede cambiar? – Can you exchange? –> If you are in a taxi and need to exchange larger amounts of money, use this phrase!
- La cuenta = The check
- La propina = Tip –> Speaking of tips, the tip is usually included on the receipt, but it is optional; however, we found service to be great across the board, so we tipped everywhere we went.
- Botella de agua = Bottle of water –> If you want your stomach to survive and thrive, always order a bottle a restaurant — sparkling or still.
- Vamos a “x” = We’re going to “x”
- Calle # y Carrera # = Cross streets
- Cafe con leche = Coffee with milk