The ancient walls of Cartagena, once built to repel intruders, now preserve the celebrated colonial architecture so vital to its modern appeal.
After centuries of horse and foot traffic, the cobblestone streets in the Old City are worn leather-smooth. Bustling avenues feature colonial mansions painted in bright yellows, blues, and corals. Their parlors are framed by vaulted ceilings, the courtyards sheltered by palms, and the brick walls draped in bougainvillea.
Beyond this heirloom district, Cartagena thrives as a popular destination for its beaches and seaside culture. Hedging the historical quarter are the gleaming white towers of Bocagrande where visitors flock year round to stay within feet of the beach. Yachts populate the harbors of Castillo Grande and Manga, close to the Bahia, symbols of a prosperous time far removed from conquest.
No longer useful against marauding pirates, the 16th-century fortifications serve only to charm guests. Instead of guarding itself, the oldest port city of Colombia entices visitors with a selection of fine restaurants, boutiques, galleries, and hotels. Despite the lack of Spanish gold, Cartagena’s appeal endures in the form of culture and a vibrant night life.
The city has attracted the South America’s most notable artists, from Fernando Botero (see ‘La Mujer Reclinada’) to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. While writing “Love in the Time of Cholera,” the author lived in and drew inspiration from Cartagena’s storied past and tempestuous conditions. Fans of Marquez – while on break from the Hay Festival of Literature & Arts or the Cartagena International Film Festival – will often visit the shady lanes of Plaza Fernández de Madrid. Rooted here are the same almond trees from which grew one of the greatest love stories ever told, living testimonies to Cartagena’s impact on magical realism.
The first romance is the cool kiss of the salt breeze, though perhaps not the last. Cartagena is a popular destination for American, European, and South American tourists of all kinds. Couples stroll the promenade and the beaches, following the tangerine glow towards the horizon. As day gives way to night, the allure of modern Cartagena is most apparent.
Come sundown, Cartagena comes alive. From the bars around the Torrej del Reloj to the champeta and salsa clubs just outside El Centro in neighboring Getsemani, to youth dance groups performing ´mapale´in the plazas for tourists, the energy of this city´s nightlife is incomparable.
This guide to Cartagena makes us want to hop on the next flight out of town! Follow these tips and you’re going to be one happy adventurer by the end of your travels.
Top 5 Landmarks of Cartagena
#1 Las Murallas
In 1543, the pirate Robert Baal launched a raid on Cartagena and extorted nearly 700 pounds of solid gold while the governor attended a banquet. After suffering a series of similar attacks, the Spanish crown decided to fortify the valuable city with 40-foot stone walls that surround the old city to this day.
Inside the old walled city, you’ll find a peaceful neighborhood called El Centro, which is sheltered from car and motorcycle traffic. Stroll along Las Murallas – the walls – between cozy cafes with tasty cocktails and secluded nooks where lovers steal away for a kiss. For $60,000 COP ($20 USD), hire a horse-drawn carriage to tour the historic homes, lush plazas, and impressive churches. Or rent an electric bike for $30,000 COP per hour!
Since it’s only a 90 minute round-trip from end to end, be sure to walk along the top of the battlement walls. Studded with iron cannons and offering a tremendous view. From here you can survey both the azure Caribbean and Cartagena’s architectural marvels. These features earned the city its accolade as a Unesco World Heritage City.
#2 Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Dominating the western side of the walled city is the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a colossal triangular fortress built by the Spanish. Had you visited in 1536, when construction began, you would have seen the skull and bones of the pirate flag, the Jolly Mary, waving from the distant masts of privateer frigates.
To enjoy an impressive view of both land and sea, enter through the grand entrance and climb the fortified parapets. While tropical vegetation has overtaken parts of the causeways, you can still dip into the vast array of tunnels that snake beneath the castle walls. Strolling through the dim passageways and amongst the sunlit crenellations is a spectacular way to spend a morning or afternoon.
#3 Mercado Bazurto
Mercado Bazurto is a bustling trade hub where local artisans, farmers, butchers, and fishermen ply their goods. It’s not uncommon to rub elbows with the city’s elite chefs as they peruse the fish stalls for the night’s special. But you should know that this place is hectic. While Cartageneros are warm and friendly, you’ll be ignored amidst the hubbub if you don’t assert yourself.
Be sure to ask for some exotic Colombian fruit. Whether a tart sip of lulo juice, the pulpy guanabana with its berry flavor, or the fleshy seeds of a granadilla that you crack over your forehead – these treats are as delicious as they are varied.
Mercado Bazurto is only a 15-minute Uber or taxi ride ($8,000 COP, $2.65 U.S.) from downtown, and a great way to experience the authentic Colombia. It is highly recommended that you and your group go with a guide to get the best prices on fruit and juices, most will offer some sort of tasting into the price of the tour.
#4 Iglesia de San Pedro Claver
Towering over the old city is the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, a marvel built from coral stone in the classic Jesuitic style of Spain. Architecture buffs will also appreciate how the external cloister and courtyards recall The Duomo Cathedral from Florence, plus the archaeological museum within.
The church’s central altar holds the remains of Saint Peter Claver, a 17th-century evangelist who devoted his life to redeeming slaves in New Grenada. Under the vaulted ceilings, the marble colonnades widen to reveal colorful frescos and gold-gilded woodwork. Don’t forget your camera! And if you´re visiting on a weekend, you’ll likely be privy to a huge, formal night time wedding!
#5 The Vaults (Las Bovedas)
Built right into the city walls, the 23 interconnected chambers of Las Bovedas were originally a storehouse for weapons, ammunitions, and valuables. During the 19th century, The Vaults were used as dungeons, even at high tide when the vaults were knee-deep in seawater!
Two hundred years later, the prisoners have been replaced by local vendors hawking their wares. Weave between the alcoves of this yellow arcade as you shop for knits, leather goods, and last-minute gifts for friends and family. Haggling is commonplace along the pedestrian mall, and will guarantee you the best prices. If you’re on a city tour, ask your guide for a stop at Las Bovedas.
The 5 Can’t-Miss Activities in Cartagena
#1 Mud Bath in El Totumo Volcano
For an immersive and unique spa experience, dip into El Totumo Volcano for a mud bath. Descend the sturdy ladder into an active crater and set yourself afloat in the bubbling volcanic mud. Then pay one of the attendants $10,000 COP ($3.30 U.S.) for a calming massage with the thermal therapeutic sludge.
Once you´re loosened up, climb back out and plop down in the nearby lagoon. While sitting in the warm water, a local woman will rinse you completely clean again with a wooden bowl. It’s natural relaxation at it’s finest. Access this marvelous natural space by taking an Uber, cab, or local shuttle an hour from the city for $20,000 COP ($6.62 U.S.). Daily tours to Totumo are also available with a group leader.
#2 Helicopter Tour
Experience Colombia from a rare perspective by gaining 5,700 vertical feet and leaving the world behind. A good helicopter tour showcases a breathtaking range of climates – deserts, mountains, rainforests – each a unique display of biodiversity that’s otherwise inaccessible.
After banking inland, the verdant countryside unfurls and gives way to the glacial peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountain. As you swoop over the emerald jungle, the guide points down to Ciudad Perdida, “The Lost City.” This miniature Machu Picchu was only recently discovered by treasure hunters in 1972.
#3 Beach Day at Rosario Islands
The Rosario Islands, an archipelago just off the coast of Cartagena, are not to be missed! Meet at the docks, buy a ticket, and get in your dedicated lancha, a long motorboat, from one of the tour companies that work the docks for $35,000 COP ($11.59 U.S.). Pro tip: Boats leave when full, so sign up with a company with the longest passenger list.
Soon you’ll be skimming over coral reefs on your way to secluded beaches lined with palapas and hedged by mangrove trees. While the Rosario Islands are part of a Natural Park, there are a handful of restaurants serving up fresh seafood and cold beer.
#4 Party a lá Colombiano in Cholon
Just a 45-minute boat ride from Cartagena is the city’s best weekend party scene. A popular Colombian tourist destination, the island of Cholon is covered in palms, white sand, and the shallow waters are dotted with palapa huts.
These stands allow you to chill in the waist-deep water in the comfort of total shade. When the local vendors wade past, help yourself to a grilled langostino (lobster) or at tropical cocktail served in a hand-hewed coconut.
#5 Dancing Salsa: Don’t be Shy
Café Havana boasts some of the best salsa dancing in all Latin America. Set within the colorful and happening neighborhood of Getsemani, this Cuban-style bar appeals to expats and locals alike. The all-star roster of live salsa bands and excellent cocktails fuels a dance party that stops only for sunrise.
If you’re not keen to rhumba, be sure to toss back a couple shots of aguardiente, Colombia’s botanical liqueur made from anise. It’s not an authentic Colombian night out without taking at least a few steps or sips! For a splash of variety, be sure to drop into Donde Fidel as well!
The 5 Culinary Delights of Cartagena
#1 Pargo Rojo Frito
This traditional coastal dish of fried red snapper is available throughout Cartagena. But when you’re en route to El Totumo Volcano, break for lunch in a fishing village of La Boquilla. It’s the local specialty.
You’ll get an entire fresh-caught snapper, served fried. The skin is crispy while the flesh is succulent and mild. Each plate comes with a side of salad, steamed coconut rice, and fried plantains. Allot time for an afternoon siesta afterward and make sure you agree on the price of your meal beforehand!
#2 La Cevicheria
If you love ceviche, you can’t miss La Cevicheria. The menu is nothing but fresh fish and seafood delicacies, but the lobster ceviche reigns supreme. The langostinos are caught just minutes away and come served in a tangy citrus broth with two packets of saltine crackers. Anthony Bourdain himself lavished praise upon this no-frills eatery in an episode of No Reservations.
#3 Mojitos at Café del Mar
Café del Mar is prized for serving cocktails and marvelous views of the azure Caribbean. Perched atop the old city wall looking West, it’s the best spot in town to watch the sunset. The mojitos here are world-famous, the staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and the people-watching is rewarding. After the lights go down, a live DJ keeps the rooftop vibe with a great mix of deep house tracks. If you’re here for New Years Eve, this is a great option, too!
Hugging the old city walls is Demente, a trendy Spanish tapas restaurant beloved by discerning locals and savvy visitors alike. It’s located in the Getsemani neighborhood, the heart of the city’s nightlife.
Grab your seat (an aluminum rocking chair) within the dimly lit interior or head out into the open air courtyard. Savor a variety of delicacies; pulpo a la parrilla, wood-fired mini pizzas, and roasted ancho chilies in Himalayan salt. Wash it down with a bottle of red or a Tres Cordilleras craft beer. Once you’ve settled in, eat and drink until you’re ready for your next activity.
#5 Snack on Street Food
After a night of dancing and drinking, Cartagena’s fried street snacks are a tasty blessing. In fact, some of Colombia’s most delicious food is available at street vendors. Grab a few empanadas (deep-fried cornmeal pockets) filled with your choice of chicken, vegetables, or potatoes. Arepas de huevo (a disk of fried cornmeal with an egg fried inside) are the Colombian breakfast burrito, especially if spiced with the local chili salsa, aji. Plaza Trinidad in Getsemani is the place to go for late night snacks.
Should you crave something heartier, sit for the famous sancocho stew at La Cocina de Pepina. Arrive early, as this chicken, sweet corn, and yuca stew is famous worldwide!
Your Turn to Travel
Cartagena is celebrated for its blend of historic charms and contemporary delights. It’s a dynamic destination where hemispheres and cultures meet against a backdrop of 16th century Spain. In classical European style, the city offers haute-cuisine, boutique accommodations, and first-class nightlife.
Whether you come for the history, the waves, or the fun, Cartagena yields its magic to you freely.