Cartagena de Indias… The name itself already conjures up mythical stories. Even though this city with its Caribbean vibes has somewhat been run down by tourists, it remains an absolute must do on your trip through Colombia. Getting lost in a maze of colourful streets, the laid back atmosphere and abundance of good restaurants, will make you fall for Cartagena mercilessly.
Is Cartagena not too touristy?
We’re not going to beat around the bush: Cartagena is without a doubt the most touristy place we’ve encountered during our backpacking trip. No wonder, since this part of Colombia has been visited by (mainly American) tourists for a much longer period of time than the more authentic interior. On our first day, we made the mistake of starting off with a visit to Plaza Santo Domingo where pushy vendors and annoying tourists dropped off by a cruise ship swarmed the square. The horror, the horror. But there’s of course a reason why they are here: Cartagena is the uncrowned queen of the Caribbean coast, a city made oit of legends with well-preserved buildings that remind us of its rich colonial past. The city is an explosion of colour, with beautiful houses with balconies full of bougainville, and stately churches rising high above the many charming squares. Getting lost in its streets is what makes visiting Cartagena fun, there’s something new to be found around every corner. So, don’t pay too much attention to its touristy side, and you’ll get hooked on this overwhelmingly pretty city.
What’s there to do?
Two or – even better – three nights in Cartagena will do to get a full picture of the city. Everything can be reached within walking distance, so put on your comfy shoes and go out wandering the streets. There’s enough to be seen around every corner, by day ánd by night. Get swept away by the sensual Caribbean atmosphere, catching a breath from the heat from time to time in one of the many cosy bars and restaurants.
San Diego and the old city centre
With all its colourful buildings and picturesque squares, Cartagena is a feast for the eyes. The best way to discover the San Diego quarter and old town, is just letting yourself get lost in its photogenic streets.
Outside the ramparts of the old town you’ll find Getsemaní, a less touristy part of Cartagena. It’s an up and coming hipster neighbourhood with lots of new hostels and bars finding their way in. De streets may look less picture perfect sometimes, but that’s part of the charm of Getsemaní. Street artists are more than happy to show their skills on the run-down walls here.
Sunset on the ramparts
Cartagena’s old centre is still walled in by its centuries old ramparts. At the side where the city meets the Caribbean sea, you’ll be able to walk on top of these old walls. Go there to watch the sun set after a hot day. You won’t be the only one of course, but the atmosphere is great! When the sun finally says goodbye, a general cheer can be heard: the (cooler) night life can get started!
Cartagena also has a market outside the city centre that can easily be reached by taxi: Bazuro. Don’t expect to find a cosy, idyllic market like in so many other South-American cities. The Bazuro market is dirty, smellls horribly in some places, the food is far from hygienic, and it can be overwhelming in all its crowdedness. It’s not a place where many tourists go, which makes it all the more authentic. You’ll be looked at, but it’s definitely save to walk around in day light. Just take the usual precautions, and you’ll be fine (We chose not to take any valuables with us except for our camera, just so we wouldn’t have to worry). If you’re in for something atypical, or want to see what real life in Cartagena looks like, you’ll like visiting Bazuro.
Cartagena is a vibrant city, also by night. Getsemaní has plenty of cozy bars on offer, or you can go enjoy the atmosphere on the square in front of the Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad. We also went for a drink at Havana Club, a salsa club where there’s live music at night. They charge an entrance fee (30.000 pesos) and the atmosphere will depend on which band is playing and what kind of audience there is, but we liked it. Everybody was dancing to good music while we were there. It’s also perfectly ok to enjoy a drink at the bar and look at everything happening around you if you don’t feel comfortable mingling with the dancers.
Restaurants in Cartagena
- Carmen: one of the best restaurants in Colombia, which can also be found in Medellín. It’s a great experience to lunch or dine here, even if the restaurant is clearly targetting richer tourists. We did however prefer El Cielo in Medellín when it comes to value for money.
- La Laguna Azúl: Delicious ceviche served in the tiniest restaurant in a shopping area in Getsemaní. Far from the crowds, cheap and without any doubt the best ceviche in Cartagena!
- Alquimico: Fancy cocktail bar where it’s ‘see and be seen’.
- La Cocina de Pepina: Local, small restaurant in Getsemaní serving simple but delicious Caribbean cuisine. Make a reservation or be prepared to wait for a while to get a table.
- Solar: Belgian bar on Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad where there’s a nice atmosphere at night thanks to street artist taking their chances.
- La Mulata: Yummy Caribbean food in the centre, perfect for lunch. It can get very busy though.
- Moshi: Japanese-Colombian fusion kitchen, by the same owners of Carmen and even found in the same building. Good but pricey.
- Alma: Restaurant in the centre, very good food and a gorgeous setting.
Our hotels in Cartagena
- San Pedro: Stunning Boutique hotel in the old city centre where you’ll be treated like royals. As a welcome gift, you’ll get a delicious drink as well as a free foot and hand massage. Heaven! They also serve a very tasty breakfast in a beautiful colonial style setting.
- Casa Pizarro: We also stayed 2 nights at this hipster hotel in Getsemaní. Pretty, but the rooms are rather basic. The rooms downstairs are located right next to the small pool and the corridor where everyone has to pass. Just ask to get a room higher up in the building if possible, just like we did.
Things to avoid in and around Cartagena
The Maritime Museum. It’s the most chaotic museum where we’ve stepped foot. The texts are endlessly long (everything in Spanish, which is a challenge even for those who know some Spanish) and there’s no good structure which will make you happily give up halfway through. What’s more, we’ve walked out with more mosquito bites here than we’ve had during all our trip. God knows why they like this museum that much.
Barú. Right before coming to Cartagena, we wanted to relax a couple of days on a Caribbean island. Lots of doubts about Islas Rosarias, which looked very touristy, and problems with timing made us go for Barú. Worst decision of the journey. It turned out to be very touristy, not that pretty after all, and our expensive hotel was so not worth the money. But more on that later in a separate blog post.
Bocagrande. We walked all the way to the modern part of Cartagena, only to find high skyscrapers and soulless streets where there’s nothing to see. You do get a nice view on the old city from the beach, but we’re not convinced it’s worth the trouble getting here…
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