Cartagena - known as the 'Jewel of the Indies'; a city that rivals a rainbow in terms of color, oozes Carribean flavor, and is proud of it's tropical climate. It's a port city in Colombia's Caribbean coast; a historic city filled with old world charm with its Old Town being a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Cartagena is an entanglement of cobblestone alleys, bold and electric-colored glistening walls, balconies dressed up in bougainvillea, a place where the sweet smell of arepas and empanadas fill the streets, fruit carts glide through the narrow alleys adorned with mangos and papaya, beautiful old churches dawn majestic shadows, and music plays from every direction. Sold yet?
WHERE TO STAY IN CARTAGENA
There are so many beautiful boutique hotels in old colonial style buildings having only a handful of rooms, making it feel like you have the entire place to yourself. They hold all the colonial grandeur and old world charm - something quite unique to the area.
HOTEL AMARLA - €€€ - The magic of the dancing shadows from the candles, the draping greenery in the courtyard and the canopies rustling in the breeze on the rooftop had me mesmerized at Hotel Amarla. It was like being in a bygone era, a time of adventure and discovery when merchants of the Spanish Empire built palatial properties in faraway lands. There are 7 rooms in this property with a rooftop pool overlooking the Cartagena Cathedral. There is a splendid courtyard where you can enjoy breakfast and fruits from the region, a reading room perfect to get lost in a page-turner, and an open lobby area with plush sofas to relax in.
As I was traveling with my husband for our anniversary, we wanted something that offered us an excellent space to relax in, centrally located and with a rooftop pool, so this boutique hotel was perfect. We rarely saw anybody else in the hotel except the staff, which made it feel extra private. Breakfast was included in our stay, so we would request to have this on the roof overlooking the pool, building a routine of dip, eat, dip, read. There is no spa facility at the hotel, but you can request for a massage either in your room or the rooftop - we did this on the rooftop, where they decorated the two beds with rose petals. The rooftop was only lit by candlelight, and we could hear live Caribbean music from the bars and restaurants in the surrounding area, guiding us into deep relaxation.
Other hotels to consider:-
SOFITEL LEGEND SANTA CLARA - €€€€ - for a 5* luxury stay
CASA SAN AGUSTIN - €€ - architecturally stunning, with multiple areas to relax in (this hotel was my first choice but was sold out)
SOPHIA HOTEL - €€ - again with a rooftop pool and views of the city
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK IN CARTAGENA
The food in Cartagena is outstanding, with every meal being hit after hit. Here are my favorites:-
BASILICA PIZZERIA - casual pizzeria in Getsemani. This isn't your Italian nonna's style of pizza, but more like a tortilla pizza with a sweet sauce. It is perfect as a meal or a snack to hold you over. It was so good that I visited three times whilst in Cartagena. They service drinks/cocktails and have outdoor seating, where street performers gather at night. No reservation is required.
RESTAURANTE DONJUAN - high quality Latin/ Caribbean seafood with excellent ambience, and service. Reservation is required.
RESTAURANTE MARDELEVA - vibrant interiors, live music and fantastic Latin cuisine. Reservation is recommended.
CUZCO COCINA PERUANA - Peruvian fusion cuisine, excellent for seafood options. The ambience is outstanding with live music and great cocktails. Reservation is required.
LA PERLA - continuing with Peruvian cuisine, La Perla is less formal, excellent for ceviche and across the street from Hotel Amarla, making it a no brainer. No reservation is required.
CAFE STEPPING STONE - casual and nutritious choice for breakfast - a friendly Australian cafe fighting inequality in Colombia through their social enterprise cafe - a great cause to support and enjoy a delicious breakfast at the same time. No reservation is required.
CUBA 1940 - great place for cocktails with live music every night and a cigar bar upstairs. There is outdoor seating overlooking Plaza San Diego where you will see street performers, fruit carts, and possibly even a wedding! No reservation is required.
EL ARSENAL: THE RUM BOX - a fun bar to enjoy cocktails with extremely friendly bartenders. They welcome you with a hug (no joke), rum, chocolate and pimento peppers to get your experience started. No reservation is required.
MOVICH HOTEL ROOFTOP - watch the sunset with a cocktail in hand at this rooftop. You see the stark contrast of the bright yellow Cathedral with the high-rises in Bocagrande in the background, offering 360 degree views. This place gets crowded so either get there an hour before sunset or make reservations.
EPOCA ESPRESSO BAR - espresso bar and coffee roasters in an avant-garde space. It gets busy but there is fast turnover.
EL SOMBRERO VUELTIAO CEVICHERIA - possibly the best thing you can eat in Cartagena is the shrimp or seafood cocktail from here. This hole in the wall stall offers 11 sizes of styrofoam cups filled with the seafood and is too good to be missed. Truly a local spot.
Local foods to try - other foods to eat whilst here are arepas, empanadas and meat skewers. There are many good street sellers in the square in Getsemani offering these local snacks. The fresh fruit is delicious and you can purchase the fruit precut for ease of eating at any of the fruit carts.
WHAT TO DO IN CARTAGENA
OLD TOWN - walking around Old Town will keep you entertained for hours. There are lots of small streets as well as busy squares to people watch, photograph and soak in the atmosphere. Daytime is quieter and at night street artists come out to amuse. There are many boutique shops and a number of cafes and restaurants. The history runs deep so you can book (free) walking tours (runs on tipping). Here you will also see the famous Palanqueras - brightly dressed woman balancing fruit baskets on their head. These Palanqueras that have become iconic in the city - today they graciously pose for photos with tourists, smiling and flaring their dresses for a price (around 2000 pesos per woman) but this wasn’t always the case - they truly were once fruit sellers. Click here for more information.
GETSEMANI - is a neighborhood just outside of the inner walled Old Town, with a cool, bohemian vibe. It hosts a number of great casual bars and restaurants (including Basilica Pizzeria above) and most of the hostels are located in this area. It is very different to the Old Town as it used to be a barrio (ghetto), but is now a cultural hub where you will see locals and travelers come together. This hip district boasts street art and murals painted by some of the best local artists, making for some great street photography. When you walk through the narrow colonial streets of Getsemani, all your senses will be enthralled. The sights, sounds and smells will have you captivated and keep you curious. You will see people playing cards on street corners, hear the sound of the drums and people dancing, smell the sweet scent of empanadas and skewered meats, see children playing football and hear the clinking of glasses from the numerous bars. Sticking around after the sun goes down will be a treat for all you jazz and salsa enthusiasts.
BOCAGRANDE and MANGA - Upscale Bocagrande is Cartagena's version of Miami, with high rises sitting at the beach front. Manga is leafy residential area that offers great views of the skyline. Both are nice to visit if you have time, to get a perspective into regular life for residents outside tourism.
THE PINK SEA DAY TRIP - Between Cartagena and Barranquilla you can find the breathtaking El Salar de Galerazamba, otherwise known as Colombia’s Pink Sea. I booked this tour which also includes a mud bath in a volcano. El Salar de Galeramba is a magical place that looks like it came from a fairytale, although it’s real purpose isn’t so sweet, but rather salty. It is located about an hour Northeast of Cartagena on the coast of Colombia within the small pueblo of Galerazamba. The sea is actually a salt mine and the bright pink hue is caused by colorful salt-loving microbes which create pigmented protein to absorb the sun’s energy. The bright pink color is only usually visible for two months in the year - usually spring time, when water levels are low causing a high concentration of microbes. During the rest of the year, the water is a rich shade of blue. I was fortunate enough to see it pink in July.
ROSARIO ISLANDS - are an archipelago located an hour away from Cartagena by car, then you switch to boat. You can stay overnight at the islands or book a day trip like I did. Each island has its own vibe, some of which are purely for partying, some for snorkeling and access to coral reefs, and others for relaxing. The Rosario Islands provides a nice balance of city life and beach life from Cartagena, allowing you to swim in the crystal clear Caribbean waters.
Cartagena is great to visit all year round, but peak season is December - January and March - April. The weather is hot so pack appropriately. The city is very walkable so comfortable footwear is advised. Uber does exist in Cartagena, although technically it is illegal. An Uber costs around 15-20,000 Colombian Peso from the airport to the walled city/ Old Town.