Cartagena has rightly won its place as one of the most preserved colonial destinations. An abundance of cobbled alleys, churches, plazas and beautiful architecture all snuggled within 13km of ancient stone walls. Yes, it is Colombia’s most popular destination which makes it very touristy but its beauty is so unique you quickly overcome the fact that Cartagena is not exactly the place to ‘lose yourself’ in true Colombian culture. Personally, I absolutely loved the place, I couldn’t get enough of its colourfuness, fairy tale atmosphere, music and food.
Stay streetwise: For the very reason Cartagena is ‘touristy’ it also makes it the safest metropolis in Colombia with police patrolling the city 24/7. Still, same rules like any country in Latin America apply – don’t flash your wealth! Be a little extra vigilant at night at places like Getsemani as it is still less populated and not well lit in certain areas.
Opt for accommodation at the old colonial part. This is the only way to fully emerge in local life and Cartagena’s rhythm. You don’t get an opportunity very often to step out of your hotel and find yourself surrounded with so much history and centuries’ long architecture. Most of the times I opt for an authentic accommodation option but that’s down to personal taste. Would definitely recommend 3 Banderas – a charming boutique hotel which is just one step from all restaurants, cafes and Plaza de San Diego. I found this part of Cartagena the most enchanting – the atmosphere is more eclectic and few of the best cafes and restaurants are situated nearby.
Walk around old town
Not much to say here. The town is a colonial jewel. Don’t leave until your shoe soles have melted on the heated cobblestones! Having said that, apart from experiencing the old town at one’s leisure I would really recommend arranging a walking tour. I know, it is not inline with ‘independent travelling’ but I learnt so much on the town’s history and key architectural sites (Palacio de la Inquisicion, Plaza de San Diego, Plaza Santo Domingo, Convento la Popa de la Galera, Plaza Bolivar etc) that wouldn’t have done just by wandering around or relying on my Rough Guide.
Visit Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Truly impressive. Short walk from Getsemani or a short cab ride. Make sure you wear sunblock and a hat and visit either early in the morning or for sunset – whatever you do avoid midday. I learnt the hard way!
Music and nightlife
Countless options! The following are tested and recommended!
Great for lunch. Really good seafood and cafeteria-meet-tropicalia ambience.
Tip: only stays open until 3pm so head there early.
Tiny place but state of the art ceviche. Luckily was just situated opposite my hotel.
Tip: make a reservation, the tables are just a handful.
Another worthy cevicheria located at beautiful, quiet calle 39, between Carrera 7 and 8.
Plaza de San Diego
This restaurant is at Plaza de San Diego. An ideal spot to spend a few hours at the most beautiful square in Cartagena, full of life, musicians and vendors selling local handmade art. I loved sitting outside just people watching but the restaurant has a beautiful interior with live bands (usually salsa) performing 9pm onwards.
Just outside Cartagena’s Old City walls lies Getsemani. Once a seedy part of Cartagena (known for drugs and prostitution), now the neighborhood enjoys trendy bars and small authentic restaurants, boutique hotels, colourful colonial streets, artists and local life in its plazas. And as the big colonial mansions are confined in Old City’s walls, architecture here is different, down to earth and ‘real’. A slow pace restoration has began, yet, the various graffiti and decayed streets don’t allow for a fully polished image – as the Old Town has – but this urban decadence is exactly what makes this neighbourhood so unique and authentic. So unique that it was love at first sight for me and debated whether to keep a secret; yet this is not what this blog is all about!
I made the small walking trip to Getsemani twice during my stay in Cartagena. During the day, streets are lethargic, and the people you meet along are locals owning various small businesses. Still, there is a strong sense of community, almost as if Getsemani is a small village on its own right. This ‘barrio’ comes alive at night with Plaza de Santisma Trinidad as the main point of activity; a big square infront of a 17th century beautiful church gets quickly busy with food vendors, mojito carts and musicians, locals and a handful of backpackers who seem content enough to have discovered this beautiful secret.
I suspect, this is what Old City Cartagena used to be like before the tourist hoards. I also know that Getsemani won’t stay like this for too long. This is really the time to discover the most interesting part of Cartagena.
Day trip to Islas del Rosario
I am really torn as to whether this was a good trip or not! I definitely enjoyed the (not meeting safety standards) speed boat ride to a number of small islands off the coast of Cartagena. The scenery was undoubtedly beautiful. Still the whole day felt rather exhausting. Cramping on a boat and jumping from island to island with not enough time to really understand where you are. The boat spends most of the time on Playa Blanca, which is also the last stop. It is a gorgeous beach albeit overcrowded by both tourists and beach vendors.
Tip: it’s nice to escape Cartagena’s heat but what I would recommend is to take the boat that only goes to Playa Blanca and spend the day there.
Sunset at Old Town city walls
Possibly the most rewarding experience in Cartagena. Possibly the best sunset I have ever seen.