When traveling to Cartagena, one feels as if coming upon the fortune of a great secret. If any city captures the essence of magical realism, that distinction is bestowed upon none other than Cartagena, the adopted home of the world’s most beloved magical realism author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The seaside city combines the best of Caribbean and Latin flavors with effortless flare and color. Like many best kept secrets, the word has gotten out, and now is the time to romance this gem brimming with old world charm and hospitality like only Colombia knows how to do.
Guest post by Jennifer Mims
What’s the best time to visit Cartagena?
Cartagena is near the equator with typical Caribbean weather. While temperatures rarely sway beyond the range of 24C to 31C, humidity is a factor that should be considered. September and October are the wettest months. December through April is considered the sweet spot for weather, which is also the busiest tourism time. Regardless of time of year, warm days give way to balmy, breezy nights.
What’s good to know about Cartagena?
The UNESCO heritage site was founded in 1533. To ward off intrepid pirates and political adversaries and protect city inhabitants and the precious metal and jewel exports, a giant wall and series of fortresses, which still stand to this day, were built around the city. Old City is beautiful and is made up of two neighborhoods: San Diego and El Centro. Bougainvillea-draped balconies shade tiny streets and alleys. Getsemani, just outside the wall separating Old City from the rest of Cartagena, is the former slave quarters. It is up and coming and is often compared to New York City’s neighborhood SoHo. The street art is not to be missed.
Skip the tourist trap jewelry shops but don’t miss an opportunity to barter on the street for a Wayuu mochila!
One day in Cartagena itinerary
Top things to do in Cartagena, Colombia
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Start the day early. While walking to the Castillo, order an arepa con huevo and jugo de fruita from one of the street stands. This is fast food at its best.
Not only is this imposing fortress a stunning example of Spanish colonial architecture, by also being situated on a hill, the best vistas to be had of Cartagena’s evolving skyline will be from here. Across the bay, the sleek, shiny high rises of Boca Grande will have you wondering if you are looking at Miami or if you are still in Colombia. The development in action is a sign of a changing economy. Avoid the tour and rent a radio lanyard that can be adjusted for language preference for the self-guided tour. Don’t miss the chance to take a selfie with the cannons!
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas – Carrera 17, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
Lunch at La Cevicheria
After spending a couple of hours at the Castillo, head back toward Old City. Once you pass through the wall, slow down your pace to a meander so you can notice the exquisite details in the building facades. Many of these buildings are several hundred years old. Be shameless and take some pictures in front of your favorite doors in an array of colors as impressive as the ornate door handles.
On the corner of Calle 39 and Carrera 7 is a remarkable little restaurant, La Cevicheria. Order a mojito and a basket of patacones, which is a delicious twice fried and smashed plantain to savor while you choose which of the various ceviches you want to eat. If you are a Gabriel Garcia Marquez fan, you will be pleased to know his house is a block from the restaurant.
Plaza Santo Domingo
Admire La Gordo Getrudis. If you happen to see one of the las palenqueras in their brightly colored dresses with massive bowls of fruit, stop and engage with her. For a small fee, usually the purchase of some fruit from her, she will happily pose for a picture with and for you.
As you make your way toward Museo del Oro, you’ll come upon La Paleteria. Even though you likely just had fruit, step inside for a sweet snack that will be utterly refreshing. They have a variety of flavors to suit anyone’s fancy! Try one of the local fruit flavors such as the Lulu.
La Paleteria – local 2, Cl. 35 #03-86, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
Museo del Oro Zenú
Channel your inner gold digger. Stop here for a beautifully curated collection of gold and its historical significance to the region. Enjoy the respite from the humidity because the air conditioning is likely set quite cool. As you pass through the various plazas, don’t be surprised if you spot a parrot or two.
Museo del Oro Zenú – Cra. 4 #3326, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
Afternoons in Cartagena are meant to rest. Go back to your room for a brief nap and shower before going out for a sunset stroll along the wall, dinner, and soul shaking salsa dancing. In this city, night begins late. And the nightlife is one absolutely not to be missed.
Happy Hour, Sea Wall Stroll, and Dinner
Take a walk along the city wall and admire the view. Make your way to Café del Mar and grab a table. This is a great vantage point to be for sunset. Have dinner at one of many highly regarded restaurants, with Restaurante Don Juán Cartagena a favorite (reservations are strongly suggested).
Don Juan # 34-60 Local 1, Cra. 6, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
Café del Mar – Baluarte de Santo Domingo., Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
From Salsa Dancing to Street Party
Following dinner, venture to Getsemani for salsa and champeta dancing. Two popular salsa clubs are the legendary Café Havana and Bazurto Social Club. If you don’t feel like dancing, order a mojito and watch the scene unfold. The salsa bands are some of the best you will hear. What if you want to try to dance but don’t know how? It does not matter if you are still as a steel rod with two left feet. Your local partner will help you find the rhythm!
Your night cannot be complete without a street party in the most colorful plaza in South America, Plaza de la Trinidad! Only one block away from Café Havana, this plaza will be brimming with life and street performers. Find a table at one of the numerous patios or at the bar in Demente, where the décor is as stylish as the drinks are delicious. Once your feet have rested well from the dancing and walking, if you notice you built up an appetite from that dancing, say hola to the fellas operating that hot dog cart right in front of the church and do yourself a solid by ordering a Colombian hot dog for your late night snack. You earned it!
Demente – Cra. 10 #29-29, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
Café Havana – ESQUINA, Cra. 10, Cartagena, Getsemaní, Colombia
Some extra tips for visiting Cartagena?
Where to Stay?
It’s best to book a room or apartment within El Centro, San Diego, or Getsemani.
It is possible to get around the city by walking. The traffic patterns and flow can make a taxi ride longer than the walk would be. If taking a taxi, always negotiate and agree to the fare before beginning the ride. A taxi ride from the airport to Old City or Getsemani should cost about $10,000 COP. Have cash on hand because the driver will not be able to take cards.
While language may be a barrier if your Spanish skills aren’t up to snuff, Cartagenans are tremendously friendly and will attempt to assist and understand in any way they can. Be prepared for a majority of people to only speak Spanish. It’s part of the charm of getting to explore this charismatic spot before a boom of tourism changes the character.
If you happen to have the luck to be able to spend more than one day in Cartagena, rent a boat or hire a driver to take you to spend the day at Playa Blanca!
Most international cards are accepted at larger establishments but anticipate to primarily use cash for your transactions.
Guest post by Jennifer Mims
In case you have more than just one day in Cartagena, check out Tripadvisor for detailed list of all the top things to do in Cartagena.
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