Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, Cartagena is also one of the most visited cities in Colombia. Cartagena de Indias (as it was known during the colonial era) is famous for its colorful colonial buildings located within the Walled City of Cartagena (La Ciudad Amurallada) as well as the beautiful beaches and soft white sand of the Rosario Islands.
Located about 409 miles north of Bogota (Colombia’s capital city) along the beautiful Caribbean coast of Colombia, Cartagena is easily accessible by plane. Cartagena enjoys a warm and somewhat humid climate throughout the year, making it an excellent vacation destination during any season. The rainy season runs from April to May and October to November.
Much of what you hear about Colombia is related to drug trafficking, government corruption, etc portraying Colombia as a dangerous place to visit. While that may be true in remote jungle areas of the country, we found Cartagena to be a very safe and tourist-friendly city. People in Cartagena were hospitable, kind and always gracious towards us.
Cartagena de Indias was founded in 1533 and is home to one of the greatest fortresses ever built by the Spaniards in their colonial empire, the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. The fortress was built to protect the coastal city from pirates in the 17th and 18th century.
Cartagena captivates not only with its history and beautiful beaches, but also with the its colorful and captivating colonial architecture. The narrow streets of the Walled City are lined by beautiful multicolored houses leading to lively plazas scattered throughout the city.
The newer part of the city is a complete opposite of the Old City. Its contemporary high-rises line the wide coastal streets offering a variety of posh and ultra-modern lifestyle options.
Where to stay:
Cartagena offers a number of options from ultra modern to historic boutique hotels. We chose Casa San Agustin located within the walled city. Its central location made it easy to explore the old city and offered various choices for restaurants, shopping and sightseeing. There are of course plenty of accommodation options in the newer part of Cartagena, to be honest however, there was something beautiful and authentic about staying within the Walled City. It truly gave us that feeling of true colonial Colombia. The music, the narrow streets, the street food and the sidewalk cafes made for a truly enjoyable atmosphere and unmatched memories.
Where to eat:
Alma Restaurant offers a great evening atmosphere with excellent food choices. Live music on some evenings adds to its charm and ambiance. Excellent choice for a romantic date night.
Rosa Mezcal Taqueria a Mexican fare taco shop with a modern twist, truly exquisite food and excellent service. This place is casual, upbeat and has some pretty cool decor.
Zaitun is a delicious fusion of Carribean, Lebanese and Latin food with friendly staff, reasonable prices and upbeat atmosphere.
Things to see:
Ciudad Amurallada – The Walled City of Cartagena – if you are already staying within the walled city, just walk out of your hotel and start exploring. Every street is more colorful than the previous. We could spend days walking around and exploring. It is truly captivating and one of a kind. When you get hot (because you will due to the daily temperatures and humidity) sit down at one of the local cafes and enjoy a delicious cup of Colombian coffee or an ice-cold beer.
Iglesia de San Pedro Claver – built between 1580 and 1654, this Cartagena landmark is one of a number of religious buildings within the Walled City and a visual masterpiece visible from many of the surrounding streets.
Plaza Santo Domingo – a vibrant and busy plaza featuring restaurants and bars with the enormous Church of Santo Domingo looming high above the ground. This is where you will also find the famed bronze sculpture Gertrudis (a large, plump, naked woman) created by Colombian artist Fernando Botero.
Plaza de San Diego – a charming plaza in the middle of Cartagena. Sit down at one of the local cafes, enjoy a cold beer or a mojito and watch the world go by.
Plaza de la Paz – a bustling plaza home to the Hard Rock Cafe and the famous clock tower (El Torre del Reloj) as well as a number of local restaurants and street food vendors.
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas – original construction of the fortress started in 1536 and was considerably enlarged in 1762. It is located on the Hill of San Lázaro and is extremely well preserved. The fortress is considered to be on the greatest fortresses every build by the Spaniards in one of their colonies.
Convento de la Popa – located at the top of Mount Popa, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria de la Popa is a convent, cloister and chapel with 360 degree panoramic views of Cartagena. Founded in 1607 by the the Augustine fathers the convent no longer houses monks however you can visit the premises and enjoy the view.
Caribe Jewelry and Emerald Museum – Colombia is a leading country in the mining of the gemstone emerald. No journey to Colombia is complete without visiting an emerald museum/jewelry making facility and learning more about this beautiful green stone. Entrance to this particular museum is free and you receive a guided tour of their production facility as well as the museum. At the end you can choose to purchase emerald jewelry, however you are not obligated to.
Rosario Islands (Islas del Rosario) – do you need a day to escape the city, then head out to the Rosario Islands. This is an archipelago of about 30 islands located about 60 miles (100 km) from Cartagena. The islands are easily accessible by boat and parts like Playa Blanca even by car. Many tour companies offer a boat day trip to the islands. If you are looking for a budget friendly option take a group tour. From what I have read some group tours tend to get a little crowded and your options as to what part of the islands you will see are limited. We opted for a private boat charter where we could customize where to go and what to see. We chose the company ThalaSa Boat Tours and we were extremely happy with their service. We visited a number of islands, snorkeled both a Coral Reef as well as a sunken plane (assumed to be one of Pablo Escobar’s sunken drug planes). Also we opted for a more quiet lunch spot at the Agua Azul resort instead of the more crowded Cholon or Playa Blanca. The Agua Azul resort was truly beautiful with a private soft white-sand beach.
On the way to the Rosario Islands by boat you will pass by the Fortress of San Fernando de Bocachica. This military fortress was an important landmark in the 17th and 18th centuries because it was used to protect the bay of Cartagena. The original castle was built in 1646 but was severely damaged in 1741 by the British Navy during a siege. It was re-built in 1753 and has been an important tourist attraction during the last century.
Cartagena and its people truly surprised us with their hospitality and rich culture. We are not sure what we were expecting, but we were pleasantly surprised in every positive way possible. Once again, note to self, travel with an open mind and let the place you are visiting guide you, inspire you and captivate you.