Like most travelers, I was wary when I thought about planning a trip to Colombia. Not only because of its rocky past, but also because within Colombia there are many vastly different cultures. Bogotá is a fashion-forward city, Medellín is all about history and Santa Marta is a resort getaway.
Through my research, I found Cartagena. It’s an old town with beaches, islands and a relaxed nightlife. I booked my ticket immediately.
My travel partner and I spent one week in Cartagena, travelling through Bogotá to get there. The flight doesn’t take long, and since Cartagena is one of the newest hip tourist spots in South America, new flights open up every day.
Pasando el rato en Getsemani: Hanging out in Getsemani
We spent our first nights in Getsemani, boasted as Cartagena’s coolest up-and-coming neighborhood. Coming from Seattle, we weren’t strangers to hipster-esque coffee shops and street vendors offering the best of their crafts.
We spent the first full day wandering the streets, I know, not groundbreaking. However, within this tiny neighborhood are dozens of streets, all covered in graffiti. Turns out, Getsemani is also one of the graffiti capitals of South America.
Each street tells a story of an artist, and each artist has a different style. The accumulation of these works is the base for Getsemani’s culture. It’s vibrant, free and fun.
Almost everything you need to see in Getsemani happens on the streets. Don’t forget Cartagena is hot and humid, so wake up early to explore, but head back to your hotel for an afternoon dip in the pool or a siesta. Then you can venture back out later (around 8 or 9 p.m.) for dinner and street performances. Welcome to Caribbean time.
At night, don’t miss the giant party in Holy Trinity Square. In the center of the neighborhood, laid-back groups of travelers and locals gather around the square every night to drink beer, eat food and watch performances. On our first night, we happened upon a Michael Jackson and Shakira show, followed by break-dancers.
THINGS TO DO
Eat arepas from a street vendor.
Walk for an entire day without maps and no destination.
Drink a beer in the street.
Party with locals till dawn.
Perderse en Old Town: Get lost in Old Town
Cartagena’s Old Town, also known as the “Walled City,” was founded in the 1500s and still stands tall with a protective cobblestone wall around its border and gorgeous buildings of every color within.
We stayed in Old Town for two days and were on our feet for most of it. The city is made of two- to three-story buildings with residences on top and shops on street level. After spending enough time exploring to feel comfortable, we realized there were even more shops to explore after walking through unmarked buildings.
Don’t forget Cartagena is a hub for Caribbean and Colombian history. With historic slave-trade buildings, Colombian coffee specialists and emerald emporiums, the Old City tells the rich history of this coastal spot with every step. Walking tours from This Is Cartagena, a local tourism company, range from $15 to $100, depending on how long and which areas you want to explore.
One of the best secrets of Colombia is the food. There’s no shortage of paella and seafood restaurants that serve pitchers of sangria so delicious you’ll never want to leave.
On our last night in Old Town, we ventured to Café del Mar, which is one of the more well-known restaurants in the area. Café del Mar is perched on the wall that surrounds the city. After climbing the stairs to the outdoor seating area, guests are practically swept away by 360-degree views of the water to the north and colorful buildings to the south.
To end our evening, we walked back to our hotel. (A little-known fact: Cartagena is known for its boutique hotels offering private pools and 360-degree views of the city.) Along the way, we were invited to ride on horse-drawn carriages, and we witnessed beat boxers performing and street vendors offering everything from jewelry to fresh coconuts.
No matter how exhausted we felt, the second we heard champeta music ring throughout the streets, we were ready for another night on the town.
Fresh fruit from street vendors
Dinner at Pata Negra
de Paco Roncero
The sunset at Café del Mar
Gabriel García Márquez’s home
Descansa en Isla Barú: Relax at Isla Barú
What’s a Caribbean vacation without bright blue waters and white sands?
Cartagena has stretches of beach near the city; however, with the influx of tourism and pollution, those beaches are known to be less clean and filled with tourist traps.
For a tropical getaway, we travelled one hour south to Isla Barú. Even though it’s only an hour away, it feels as if another world. The white sandy beaches sparkle along a lush green backdrop. We decided to veer off the beaten path and try a villa at Playa Manglares on the other side of the isle.
Playa Manglares is a locally owned, sustainable boutique hotel that rests on the beach, with private chefs and communal dining.
We stayed in a tree-house-like room on the third floor with an open-air concept and an outdoor shower. In the morning, we woke up to the sun and the waves crashing on the beach. Olga, the owner, announced when each meal was ready. She was often flanked by one or two of her dogs that live on the property and give away free snuggles on the beach all day long.
On our second day at Olga’s, we chartered a boat for an island-hopping tour. Olga organized the entire trip, so all we had to do was be on the beach at 9 a.m. The speedboat zipped from island to island off the coast, the Rosario Islands. Our tour guides explained how the islands evolved, what they’re used for and the day-to-day life of locals living on these small patches of land at sea.
At one stop we had a seaside lunch; at another we went snorkeling; and finally, we ended up on a sandbar in the middle of the ocean, drinking beers and lounging in the sand. Even if you choose to skip Playa Manglares, This Is Cartagena also offers Rosario Island tours from Old Town.
Have a mojito on the beach
Visit Pablo Escobar’s castle
Eat fresh-caught fish