If we’re being honest, Colombia has never really been on my radar. But I wanted to go somewhere different, warm, and relatively close. Being in D.C., that ruled out just about everywhere except the Caribbean. I’ve never really thought of Colombia as being “Caribbean” in the way that I think of Jamaica or Barbados, for example. But Colombians do and now I will forever.
Cartagena is full of rich history, inexpensive and delicious food, beaches/water activities and beautiful art. And the people. Oh, the people. The diaspora is so real in Cartagena. If for one second you considered whether to rock your fro, twists, or puff, DO IT. You will be greeted by similarly situated hair halos and warm nods of appreciation. (Besides its way too hot and humid to make your curls submit. They WILL rebel.)
Cartagena exceeded my expectations and I can’t wait to go back! Here is a list of my favorite things and tips for exploring the city:
1. The Walled City and Getsemani
For starters, Cartagena is a big city. The main neighborhood for travelers is the “walled city.” This is the part of the city that was walled (it is a literal wall) to protect the then Spanish territory from the English and French. Despite the wall, Cartagena was invaded three plus times by the French and Spanish. The wall didn’t work. Someone may need to hear that today. Anyways, the wall did leave behind an amazing relic that is still present in the city. There are squares above the wall where you can walk along the wall. At night, locals dance and dine there too.
Inside those walls is an aesthetically amazing neighborhood with beautiful artwork, murals, squares and food. The colorful houses and flowers of Cartagena can’t be beat. Just walk around and take it all in – it is an activity on its own.
Pro-Tip: Consider doing a walking tour. We chose City Sightseeing. It wasn’t the best but you need a guide because the street artists and panhandlers are tiring. They’re nice but it gets exhausting and overwhelming.
Getsemani is, for lack of a better translation, a hipster neighborhood – If you’ve ever envisioned hipsters as inhabitants of a tropical paradise wearing dope colors and painting the best street art. I always thought of handle bar mustaches. Thank you, Cartagena for erasing that disturbing image. Getsemani is known for its street art – there are murals everywhere – and its growing restaurant and bar scene. It is well worth an afternoon to just walk around and see the expansive outdoor art.
2. Delicious Cheap Food and Nightlife
Edward and I are constantly blowing our budget on food when we travel. It’s easy to do and people are always leading you astray with bad (and overpriced) restaurants. In Cartagena, fret not. With the pesos conversation, restaurants with $$$ will have you full and happy for easily under $100.
Candé – Cande is traditional Caribbean and Colombian food with an emphasis on seafood. Candé gets my vote for one reason: black coconut rice. I have never heard of or seen this but now I want it all the time! Black coconut rice is exactly how it sounds and is served under several seafood dishes. Speaking of seafood, Edward and I both had delicious fish. Except my fish was more delicious because it was topped with shrimp, mussels, and squid. Two apps, two entrees, and a drink all for $60. Yes, please.
Don Julio – If you’re looking for a chic and modern spot, this is it. The ambiance is very cosmopolitan without any pretense. Their menu is short and to the point but they know how to flavor their food. Everything I had was very good but the tres leche was on another level. You CANNOT skip this dessert. Get over your Paleo 55 and Atkins 42 and have the damn cake. Again, our meal consisted of two starters, two mains, two drinks, and dessert all for about $80. Amazing!
Pro-Tip: Getting a reservation at the big restaurants in Cartagena – Cande, Alma, 1921 – is challenging. Most don’t do online reservations either. Have your hotel arrange dinner weeks in advance if you know your travel plans.
And of course – Street food! We ate arepas everyday because why TF not? There are vendors all over the walled city making arepas with cheese and meat, and it would be messed up to let all of that good food go to waste.
Alquimico – This was by far my favorite place in Cartagena! Low lights, stunning art, and a rooftop made this everything. The vibe here is chill, period. Come to drink tropical drinks and dance the night away in the ocean breeze.
Boundless – If you want more of a craft cocktail scene, definitely go here. It’s a dark and deftly decorated mezcal cafe. The cocktails take a while to prepare – mainly because the bartender is lighting shit on fire and pickling carrots – but it’s worth the wait.
3. Beaches and the Bay
During this stay, our beach was at our hotel. We stayed at the Conrad Cartagena which was beautiful. The water is what you expect of the Caribbean Sea – pretty warm and low waves.
We also explored the Bay of Cartagena on the Bona Vida Catamaran. This was such a pleasant surprise! The boat was lovely and the views were even better. Last year I was blessed to see the sunset in Oia, Santorini. This year, the sunset in Cartagena blew me away. The boat is also a great way to see the very modern and sleek skyline of Cartagena.
4. Designs and Art
Whoever designs the restaurants in Cartagena needs an award. From sophisticated tree houses to modern lounges, this city has it all. And I know it sounds strange, but wherever you go, please look at the ceiling. They are all amazingly intricate and gorgeous. Do tray ceilings go for a bargain in Cartagena? I need their secrets.
Cartagena also has beautiful street art everywhere. Getsemani (mentioned above) is THE place to go to see it but the walled city holds its own too.
The only thing you won’t like: Transportation
Since we stayed outside of the walled city, we had to rely on cabs. “But what about Ube-” Nope, let me stop you there. Yes, Uber has an app. But no, you will not get an Uber ride. Not enough drivers, or any for that matter.
Cabs are OK but beware the usual hyperinflation unless you predetermine your price. We also had a cab driver change the price when we arrived at the hotel. He preyed on our laughable Spanish skills. The best advice?
1. Give your cab driver a post-it with your hotel address.
2. Ask the price upfront (as soon as you sit down) and repeat it back.
3. If the driver doesn’t know where it is (which happened to us) turn your google maps directions on and set the language to Spanish.
Other than transportation woes, Cartagena is a fabulous and colorful dream.