Unlike how Hollywood portrays Cartagena and Colombia, this place rocks. In fact, you should plan on bringing a good digital camera for your trip because one of the things you’ll notice as soon as you get here is that everything’s full of vivid colors.
About a few years back, only a few people realized this. But word has slowly spread among the backpacker community and now more and more people have come to visit. If you’re planning to visit, do it now—a few years from now, it’ll probably get a lot more crowded.
Of course, it does help if you stay in a nice hotel (with a powerful air conditioner) and maybe a nice pool too. It can get very warm here, especially if you’re from a place where the winters are chilly. Here you can find lots of simple things to do to relax, as you enjoy the special ambiance that only Cartagena can offer.
Check Out the Old City of Cartagena
The Old City of Cartagena is actually the first colony that Spain established in all of the Americas. It was ruled by Spain for almost 300 years, then it declared its independence from Spain in 1811 well before the rest of Colombia did.
One good way to explore the Old City is to sign up for one of the free walking tours. These are usually offered in both English and Spanish, with a tour at 10AM and another one at 4PM. Book in advance because these tours tend to limit the number of people.
The tourist guide here can offer nice tidbits of history, along with interesting facts that explain many of the strange things you may find when you look closely. You may notice that some door handles feature a lion, while other door handles have a lizard. The tourist guide will tell you why.
Once you’re done with the tour, take note of the shops and boutiques that you may want to visit. The place has plenty of these shops, and here you can buy souvenirs for the folks back home.
If the heat outside is getting to you, try visiting La Paletteria. Order an ice cream or some paletas (artisan icicles) and you’ll feel cool enough to continue.
Go Up the San Felipe Castle
Many consider this as the best-known landmark in all of Cartagena. It’s certainly old, as it’s been around since 1657. Its original purpose was to protect the port city on the Caribbean against pirates.
The tunnels here are worth exploring, as you’ll feel like you’re in a maze heading off into an adventure. When you rest, enjoy the views of the city from here. You may as well get out your digital camera too.
Marvel at the Getsemani Street Art
Don’t forget your digital camera when you’re in Getsemani, which is just outside the walled city. Maybe 10 years ago this was a rather dubious part of the city. Nowadays it has also been affected by gentrification, so that you can find boutique hotels, cocktail bars, and Italian restaurants.
Artists, especially graffiti artists, have thrived here for several years now, and their masterpieces are all over the place. Perhaps the most famous of these works is Las Tres Guerreras or The Three (Women) Warriors. It’s right at the entrance to the Santuario Hotel.
Do some online research or find a knowledge person in your hotel, and you may find some tours that are specifically for the street art. These last 2 to 3 hours, and for those who are interested in art and art history, these urban works of art can be downright fascinating.
Of course, if the street art is your main interest in Cartagena, you have to try to visit Bogota. The graffiti art there is even more exciting, according to some folks.
Enjoy Some Coffee
Before the drug lords made Colombia synonymous with cocaine, the country was actually famed for its coffee. Today, with the coffee craze still going strong, a lot more people know about the quality of good Colombian coffee. Since you’re here, you have to try an authentic cup of it.
You can try visiting at Carrera 10 and stop at the Café Stepping Stone. This is a rather surprising place, as it was founded by 3 young Australians. They offer terrific flat whites, along with home-baked sourdough and smashed avocado.
Another option on this same street is Gato Negro. This is for serious coffee lovers who insist on high quality single-source coffee. If you’re really serious about coffee, you have to try Café Mural in Calle San Juan side street in Getsemani. Along the way you’ll find a lot of graffiti on the walls. Just get there between 3PM and 8PM, as this is the time when they’re open to the public. That’s because they offer private classes and tastings in the morning.
If you just want a regular coffee, then you can find a few of the Juan Valdez coffee shops in the walled city. Juan Valdez is pretty much their version of Starbucks. If you’re into both books and coffee (a terrific combination during lazy afternoons), visit Ábaco Libros y Café.
Try Out the Street Food
You can find various street carts here that offer a wide range of fruits to suit your fancy. They’re often located at the Avenida Venezuela and Calle 32 streets, which separate the Walled City from Getsemani. The avocados, bananas, and mangoes are all fresh, and these are certainly tastier than the fruits you find in most groceries back home.
You can try your luck at finding a street food tour, as these can then get you around trying all the Colombian street food you need to try. But if you’re the adventurous sort, you can try one of the small local restaurants geared towards the people of Cartagena. These places tend to offer a “menu del dia” each day. This is a fixed 2-course lunch with a fresh juice, and it’ll cost you about $2.50 each.
If you’re a foodie who likes to prepare their own food, then a visit to Bazurto Market is in order. It’s a rather memorable experience as you’ll be surrounded by fresh exotic fruits which you may not find anywhere else. You’ll also find lots of spices, along with meats and fish. There’s a 4-hour guided tour for Bazurto you may want to try, but it’s not hard to find. Grab a taxi and pay less than $3, as it’s only 15 minutes from the walled city.
Enjoy the Sunset
While sunsets are in general a nice thing to see anywhere, seeing it from Cartagena is simply special. The fame of the Cartagena sunset has grown so much that today the Café del Mar (supposedly the best spot in town for the sunset) is just overbooked for this time.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t alternative spots for you to just see for yourself what’s so special about this sunset. You can try getting to the old wall ramparts on the sides of the Café del Mar, preferably an hour or even earlier before the sunset. There are several gaps on the wall you (and a romantic partner) can perch yourself. While you wait, you can buy from vendors walking around selling beer and snacks.
Hang Out at the Plaza de la Trinidad
When you just want to relax and watch the people pass by, go to Plaza de la Trinidad. Here you’ll find plenty of restaurants with outdoor tables, and you can just enjoy a cold beer as you catch your breath. In the afternoon, it’s very relaxing.
Things change, however, when it gets dark. Once the sun has set, Plaza de la Trinidad becomes the epicenter of a huge outdoor party. The area becomes filled with street performers, dancers, clowns, and musicians, while plenty of street food carts pass by offering treats and drinks.
Go Out and Party
Plaza de la Trinidad isn’t really the only party place in town in the evenings. You can also try Donde Fidel, Quiebra-Canto, and Café Havana for some salsa fun. You can also enjoy a few beers with other backpackers along the hostels found at Calle 30 in Getsemani.
Find the Other Spots for the Best Views
If you really want to make your buddies back home envious about where you are, you need to take some shots at some areas where the views are exhilarating. You can try Convento de la Papa, which is a 17th-century convent located on the highest hill in Cartagena.
You can also visit the rooftop bar at the Movich Hotel, even if you’re not a guest there. Another rooftop option is the Sunset Gastro Lounge.
However, many say the most convenient spot for a terrific view is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. There’s an entrance fee, but it’s only $7.50 or so. It’s just a 10-minute walk from the clock tower of the Walled City, and the view is amazing.
It’s best that you find organized tours in Cartagena especially if you’re only visiting for a few days. That way, you can make the most of your time. But there’s something to be said about exploring the city on your own. In Cartagena, you can relax, enjoy the view, talk to locals, savor the food (and coffee), marvel at colonial structures, and take lots and lots of good pictures.