Cartagena is the place that lives up to expectations. It’s the colourful, colonial city that you picture when you think of Colombia, the one that finds its place on the brochures and postcards, as well as a small place in your heart. But as with every place, you have to know where to go, so here are my top Cartagena travel tips.
Close your eyes and picture cute, vibrant streets full of street art and colonial houses with wooden balconies filled with flowers. Street food vendors sing song as they make their way around the city and cars beep at you wherever you go to grab your attention.
It’s divided into a few different areas, but I’d recommend staying in Getsemaní which is very fun and lively, full of bars and little restaurants with rooftops for you to soak in the view. I also loved the centro histórico (old quarter) a you are truly catapulted into the past: surrounded by the original old walls and closed to traffic, you still have horses and carriage (albeit a tourist attraction), stunning buildings, the Cathedral and a lot of shops and stalls to find some local artefacts. Don’t miss the beautiful square of Plaza San Pedro and Café del Mar to enjoy the sunset.
In Getsemaní I’d highly recommend to stay in El Pedregal, a lovely little hostel/hotel right near the Trinidad Square (Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad) which is where all the nightlife is. I think many of the hostels in the area are quite similar but some are better than others and I liked the fact that this one had a nice little roof terrace with a bar and great view of the city. To save some money in the evenings definitely check out the street stands that populate the Trinidad square, as you can get your hands on some massive portions of patacón for just a few dollars. Drinks can be on the expensive side but you have a good choice of bars in the area that do 2×1 Happy Hour until 7 or 8 pm.
Travel Tip: What we did was also just buy a bottle of rum which is very cheap and a load of delicious tropical fruit such as their massive passion fruits and mangoes and made our own cocktails on the roof terrace 🙂
For lunch instead wander a few minutes to Calle 30 or Carrera 10, which are both streets full of a variety of restaurants to choose from and where you can get really good deals of the day where you are served a soup, a main and a drink for only around 8-10 pesos.
You’ll be disappointed to hear that the coffee in Colombia is in fact terrible. Our expectations of drinking some of the best coffee of our lives were soon thwarted when day after day we were served instant coffee from a big steel pot.. Luckily, Cartagena seems to cater a little more to the tourists’ desire for a decent brew, hence hidden is a narrow street, you’ll find the Café del Mural, a lovely little coffee shop run by a ‘coffee chemist’ with a large selection of different beans to choose from.
Being in the Caribbean you’d expect the beaches in Cartagena to be heaven.. the reality is you feel like you’re in Dubai or Singapore. I was baffles when we took the short taxi ride from colourful Getsemani to Bocagrande and were suddenly surrounded by big cement tall buildings and sky scrapers, right along the beach front. We asked the driver to take us to ‘the best beach’ and to our surprise he only drove an extra 5 min to the end of the beach which is an area called la Boquilla. Honestly speaking, it’s pretty ugly. The water isn’t turquoise, the sand isn’t white and lying there is far from a relaxing experience. Literally every 30 seconds you get harassed by people walking along the beach trying to sell you stuff: water, fruit, beer, sunglasses, towels, artefacts, jet skiing, lounge chairs..you name it. And they don’t take no for an answer! They are the most persistent people I have come across; after several desperate attempts to tell them to leave us alone, we learned that after saying no once, ignoring them was by far the best tactic.
If you want the beaches you’ve been dreaming of, catch a boat ride to the Islas del Rosario, the Caribbean islands just of the coast of Cartagena. Here you will find the crystal clear water, white sandy beaches, star fish, coral reefs, you name it. But I’ll be dedicating a separate blog post to the islands so stay tuned 😉