City Guide: Cartagena, Colombia

Ok, yesterday’s post was depressing. Let’s try this again…

I’d planned to do a city guide kinda thing from Bilbao this week, but since I’m not there, I thought it might be fun to do one from my recent trip to Cartagena, Colombia.

Hope you enjoy!


Nicknamed the “Venice of Colombia,” Cartagena is located on the country’s northern coast. Situated right on the Caribbean, it’s a frequent spot for Colombians looking for a beach vacation. But, given that the city is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, history buffs and urbanites can find plenty to do as well. An easy 3 hour direct flight from Florida, Cartagena is also accessible from most major US cities by way of Bogotá. Depending on where you’re coming from, getting there may be an undertaking – I flew from Boston to Houston to Bogotá to Cartagena – but it was well worth it. (Didn’t hurt that US Airways sat me among the Brazilian men’s national rowing team, but I digress…) Once you’re in Cartagena, cabs are easy to find and very cheap. Harder to find are people who speak English, so be sure to brush up on your Spanish before you leave. When in doubt, smile. Colombians are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Follow their lead.


I stayed at the Hilton Cartagena just off the Miami Beach-like strip of Bocagrande. With four pools, a private beach and a million amenities, the Hilton is a great spot for those looking to soak up the sun with a frozen drink. There are tons of great restaurants within a 10-15 minute walk and the Old Town is a quick 7 minute cab ride away, so I personally found the Hilton to provide the best of both worlds. That said, I’ve noticed that a lot of people complain that its location is too far from the charm of downtown. If an historical city vibe is more what you’re looking for, and assuming you can afford to splurge a little, the Sofitel Santa Clara is a popular choice. There are a bunch of budget-friendly hotels in both Bocagrande and Old Town, so hunt around online. I’ve heard mixed reviews about the city’s hostels – a few of the people I met loved them, others swore they were among the worst they’ve ever stayed at. My best advice: ask around and, when in doubt, lower your expectations.


Hilton Cartagena


Confession: I don’t usually love hotel restaurants. Raised on too many episodes of No Reservations, I agree with Anthony Bourdain’s take that most of them suck. Granted, a handful of notable exceptions come to mind – La Terrasse at The Westin Paris, Santé at the Fairmont Sonoma, the unnamed gem at Albergo Miramare in Positano, Italy…. In my experience, though, most hotel restaurants are full of grumpy tourists more interested in eating quickly than in eating well. That having been said, the patio restaurant at the Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa also defies the stereotype. It can hold its own among the others on atmosphere alone. The food is solid, but the romantic vibe is really what makes for a meal to remember. A great spot for people watching, lingering over a glass of wine or the signature chocolate cake. I highly recommend it.

The food in Old Town is a little bit more varied than in other parts of the city where local cuisine is more common. If you’re into French, Indian or Chinese, you’ll find it all in Old Town. But, you’re in South America, so expand your horizons a little and try the Peruvian Japanese fusion restaurant just behind the cathedral. Think ceviche meets sushi. And just down the road is an awesome Argentinian restaurant. It’s a dream for carnivorous oenophiles – thick steaks, rich Malbecs. Can’t go wrong.

Back in Bogagrande and throughout the neighborhood of Getsemaní, order whatever fish was caught that morning with a side of fried plantains and coconut rice. I’m not freaked out to eat uncooked produce; if you are, be warned that salads are served with nearly every “traditional” meal.

Honestly, I didn’t have a single bad meal the whole time I was in Cartagena. There’s plenty to choose from for any palate or price point. And as with anywhere, locals know the best spots, so get offline and get recommendations.


Rum, then beer. Then more rum.


With its 17th Century colonial architecture, Cartagena’s Old Town feels like a postcard. The architecture, stunning; the vibe, European. If you’re like me, you can just get lost wandering through the city’s churches, parks and fortresses. If, however, you’re looking for more of a secluded beach vibe, get out of town and take a boat to the nearby Isla Baru. There you can dive, snorkle or just curl up with a book, all of which are near impossible at city beaches. Be warned:  the weather in Cartagena is very hot year-round and the sun is much stronger than you might realize. Sunscreen, water, shade.


Isla Baru

If you’re into more active pursuits, Cartagena has a few offbeat ones to choose from. It’s a great destination for kitesurfing and spots for lessons/rentals abound. I recommend En Colombia Kitesurf; they’re very nice, very professional and you can make reservations online in advance. Another warning:  the winds in January/February can be pretty intense, so if you’ve never attempted kitesurfing before, don’t be freaked out.

And if you’re really looking for a quirky travel adventure, go for a “swim” in El Totumo Mud Volcano just outside of the city. Without question this is among the top 5 weirdest travel experiences I’ve ever had. To be honest, most of my pictures from the trip are more or less obscene, but that alone should give you an idea of the bizarreness that is visiting a mud volcano. For a more articulate and thorough account of the experience, check out the article that inspired me to get muddy.


El Totumo Mud Volcano


I wasn’t surprised that Colombians are friendly, but I was surprised by just how friendly they are. Every waiter, bartender, cab driver. They were all helpful, nice, engaged. It didn’t matter that they didn’t speak English or that my Spanish needs A LOT of work. For example, the first day that I was there, I was having breakfast at a small outdoor cafe off the Plaza Bolivar. A street vendor came by selling empanadas from a cart. The owner of the restaurant came outside and bought one for each of the waitresses. I looked over at one of them and smiled. She came over to my table, held out the pastry and told me to take a bite. It was such a sweet, kind gesture. One that would never, ever happen in the States. But, it’s just another Tuesday in Colombia.


I strongly recommend visiting Colombia in general, Cartagena in particular. That said, Cartagena is definitely more of a hybrid location than other Caribbean locales. So, if you’re looking for a straight up beach vacation, you might be better off at a resort in the Dominican Republic (my picks: avoid Puerto Plata and stick to Sosua or Cabarete) or, my personal favorite, Turks & Caicos (again, skip the “big” city of Providenciales and head over to Grand Turk or a Caicos). If you’re really looking for more of an active ecotourism adventure, Belize or Dominica may be more your speed. If the beach isn’t your bag at all, and an Old World/New World city vacation is more your style, Buenos Aires would be a great choice. I haven’t personally been there, but I’m planning a trip for January, and it looks incredible. But, if you want a Caribbean atmosphere alongside Old World charm and amenities, Cartagena is the perfect choice.

Happy Trails…

• The novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez is probably the most famous person from Cartagena. Ask anyone around town where Gabo’s house is and they can direct you to it as if it were their own. Sadly, the Nobel Prize winner died a few days ago at the age of 87. He left behind some of the most famous works of the 20th century, including One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. Must reads, even if you can’t make it to the author’s hometown.

“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” -Gabriel Garcia Marquez

• I’m hoping to keep up these city guides for the trips I have planned this summer – Quito, Ecuador; Stockholm, Sweden; St. Petersburg, Russia; London, England and (fingers crossed!) Bilbao. Until things settle down here, maybe I’ll do one for Boston?


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