Be still my heart.
Colombia was just named Lonely Planet’s 2nd best travel destination for 2017 and with good reason: the sheer variety of landscapes, cultures and welcoming people make it a dream travel destination. When I met my Colombian friend Christian Cardona in Portugal this past year, he convinced me that travelling to Colombia had to be next on my list because it was the “gem of South America.”
He was not wrong. I have fallen in love with this country again, and again, and again as I explored it the last two weeks. Around every corner is a surprise waiting to delight you and in Cartagena this is especially true.
Cartagena is incredibly special: it’s a place of vibrant color, late nights of dancing, romance and seafood. It is everything I want in a vacation destination and it is clearly the backbone of Colombia’s tourist economy. Cartagena is unbelievably charming, affordable, and engaging. We easily spent five days in this city and never tired of wandering it’s streets.
The humidity is off the charts in Cartagena so be prepared to drink lots of limeade and wonder why you even took a shower. Be prepared to be wet, sweaty and hot the entire week: dance close to someone and embrace it.
Here’s some of my favorite images from our travels there and my personal mini Cartagena travel guide for navigating this beautiful city.
STAY: You will want to stay within the city walls for it’s charming historical winding streets. Pops of bright color, inventive door knockers and churches around every corner are steeped in old world colonialism. There are tiny amazing restaurants tucked into every corner with incredible seafood. We ate octopus every single day. There are beautiful studio apartments that you get all to yourself on Airbnb for $80-160 a night in the area. We really enjoyed our stay at Luis and Monica’s Old Town apartment. It was a perfect and incredibly convenient location to explore from.
If you aren’t interested in the straight tourist experience, then stay in the nearby barrio of Getsemani, the burgeoning, borderline hip neighborhood that’s an equal mix of locals and ex-pats. While the richest originally lived in the northwest corner of the walled city, this is smaller and poorer section of the original city, which now features more modest architecture but an electrifying atmosphere. Most of the best bars and dance clubs can be found in this hood and it’s starting to fill up with hostels, airbnb options and boutique hotels such as Casa Lola.
EAT: The most memorable places we discovered in Cartagena were intimate and featured long lists of seafood every way. Restaurants in Cartagena open late (expect to eat after 7 PM every night), or confusingly, sometimes not at all, and reservations are usually needed, especially with large groups.
- El Boliche chefs Oscar Colmenares and Viviana Díaz dish out incredible ceviche that honours and partners with the local fishermen. Each meal starts with a bowl of homemade soup, a tradition in Colombia. This place is incredibly intimate and only seats 25 – swing by and make a reservation in order to make sure you get a table.
- La Perla is dim, stylish and comfortable. Beat the humidity of the streets of Cartagena by stepping into this cool oasis that serves up Peruvian style ceviche and is best known for their tiraditos, thin strips of fresh tuna or sea bass. The staff is incredibly gracious and attentive and willing to pass around the pisco sours and their wine list was one of the better ones we encountered and was filled with dry whites, reds and roses to accompany any meal.
- One of my other favorite meals was at Carmen. Although this restaraunt seats many in multiple different rooms or with the option of al fresco on the patio, the experience feels intimate because everyone is split up. Our waiter did an excellent job of choosing wines and helping recommend dishes for the night. The highlight of our meal was certainly the pez negro, a thick strip of barracuda seared in black olive oil and accompanied by raviolis filled with seafood and ricotta. Reservations recommended.
- Restaurante Donjuan is collected and cool. Dishing out Basque style delights in an exquisite setting, the menu boasts a dizzying array of starters and shareable plates. If you can’t get a table here, try it’s sister restaurant next door, Maria.
- Alquimico is a new addition to Cartagena but clearly a welcome one. Reasembling a Manhatten speakeasy, the swanky cocktail focused joint is in a two story dimly lit building and features custom cocktails prepared with local Colombian fruits.
- Demente is a trendy, hip new staple to the Getsemani barrio and features Colombian craft beers from Bogota Beer Company and 3 Cordilleras, brilliant cocktails and a cool outdoor patio with long communal picnic tables perfect for the large group that failed to make reservations for dinner inside the walled city. It’s clearly the place for ex-pats and tourists to be seen.
- Cafe Havana is the local Cuban hotspot packed to the brim for those looking to salsa almost every night after 11 pM.
- Alma Restaurante is located in the Casa San Augustin, now a boutique hotel that retains the beauty of Cartagena’s colonial architecture with it’s original frescoes and centuries-old wood-beamed ceilings. The outdoor patio is shaded and perfect for an afternoon snack and a glass of wine. Their list is extensive and features a fantastic selection of Spanish, Portuguese and South American vineyards.
- Get lost over and over and over again in the streets of the walled city and Getsemani. The vibrant colors, cascading flowers, overhanging balconies, street performers and artisanal shops supply days of endless entertainment.
- Get your extra tourist on: Volcàn de Lodo el Totumo” is a strange 15m high
volcano mound about a half hour outside of town. Legend says that the volcano once was active but a local priest, seeing it as the work of the devil, sprinkled it with holy water and the lava miraculously turned to mud. The mud is silky, at moments gritty, and so dense that you float effortlessly and confusingly on top. For a mere few dollars you can pay one person to let you climb up into the mud bath, then you can pay another person to give you a questionable “massage,” and then another to carry your shoes around, and then some women to aggressively strip you down in the river afterwards and make sure your orifices are clean. It’s preposterous and worth the $10 you spent laughing. Don’t book a tour to do so – simply hire a car for the day to drive you out here and for double the fun, have him take you to the mangroves afterwards where you can arrange for a 30 minute kayak tour through the narrow water channels of the mangroves.
- Hire your own personal photographer: Flytographer offers two options for photographers in Cartagena. I love hiring my own personal photographer while on vacation – photos make exceptional souvenirs and I can’t imagine a more romantic or colorful place than Cartagena to be photographed. I am one of Flytographer’s Lake Tahoe photographers and have utilized their services for my own personal shoots in both Bangkok, Thailand and Porto, Portugal.
- If you visit during early November, chances are you’ll be here for Cartagena’s Independence Day celebrations when a lively atmosphere takes over the city. Carnaval de Cartagena starts on Friday with a three hour parade started on one side of the walled city that snakes it’s way through the town. Bands of teenagers roam the streets with disposable canisters of foam, ready and willing to offload it’s contents into the hair, heads and backs of any likely suspect. No one is spared. The weekend’s festivities also include Colombia’s Beauty Pageant where they elect Miss Colombia for the year.