I visited Bogota, Villa de Levya, Cartagena and Islas del Encanto last month and loved every minute of it! Colombia is a fabulous country and an easy vacation destination from the U.S. Located on the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena is one of the MOST popular destinations in Colombia. Here are 10 things that first-time visitors should know before visiting Cartagena, even if its just for a day as part of a cruise ship itinerary!
1. Cartagena is VERY touristy!
I knew that Cartagena is becoming very popular and has been on the Caribbean cruise circuit for years, but I did not expect it to be nearly as crowded and touristy as it was, and it was especially crowded when the cruise ships were in port! Lots and lots and lots of visitors and the entire old town (called “El Centro”) catering to tourists. A good time but not exactly authentic. Keep this in mind if you are looking for an authentic Colombian experience. I recommend pairing Cartagena with a less touristy destination, such as Bogota, to get a more well-rounded Colombian experience.
2. Cartagena Is More Caribbean Than South American
In line with tip # 1, Cartagena has much more of a “Caribbean” feel than a “South American” feel. For example, menus are more in line with other Caribbean destinations, think lots of fresh fish and seafood, and the culture has strong Spanish and African influences (rather than say Andean, as you may expect). This makes perfect sense, as the city is located on the Caribbean Sea, but it was still a little odd to feel like I was on a Caribbean island while in South America. Again, if you are wanting a stereotypical South American experience, pair Cartagena with a locale not on the Caribbean Sea. However, if you want to visit South American while maintaining a Caribbean vacation feel, Cartagena is for you!
3. Make Restaurant Reservations Before You Visit.
Cartagena has some really nice restaurants – on par with those that you would find in U.S. cities, like Miami or New York – and these restaurants book up quickly, and in advance. Luckily, I made reservations at one good restaurant, Don Juan, before I left home. Once I got to Cartagena, I had a terribly difficult time getting a reservation at any of the best restaurants. Quite different from my experience in Bogota. If you need/want to eat at any nice restaurants in Cartagena, I recommend making a reservation a few weeks before you leave home. Most of the restaurants that I visited had an option to email or book online though a system similar to Open Table.
4. The Street Food Is Pretty Great.
Alternatively, the street food in Cartagena is cheap, readily available and pretty delicious. Fresh fruit and arepas are most popular, but lots of street treats are available for very cheap. We explored the street food scene with Cartagena Connection’s Street Food Tour, but you can do it on your own. Its also legal to drink in the street in Cartagena. The local Club Colombia beer is ubiquitous.
5. Cartagena is hot during the day and cold at night!
Especially compared to other Colombia destinations, Cartagena is really hot during the day. Like 95 F degrees hot. However, it cools down quickly in the evening and can get quite windy around sunset. I recommend brining a light jacket or sweater when going out in the evening.
6. Cartagena Is Safe.
Historically plagued with the dangers associated with Colombia, upon my return everyone asked me if Colombia was safe. Cartagena is definitely safe, especially when compared with other South American destinations. I am certain there are dodgy areas of the city, but El Centro (the Old Town), Boca Grande (the newer part of the city that looks like Miami) and the Getsemani (just past El Centro) are perfectly safe and touristy-friendly. Keep your normal wits about you and you will be fine. The biggest threat is probably a pick pocket in crowded El Centro.
7. The Beach Is One Hour Away.
This is confusing to many, as Cartagena is located ON the Caribbean Sea. However, while on the sea, Cartagena is located in a bay and the water surrounding the city is just not nice for swimming. There are some usable beaches in Boca Grande, but if you want to go to a proper beach, you have to take a day trip out to Playa Blanca, the Islas del Rosario or the Islas del Encanto. Each of these locations are about an hour out of Cartagena and accessible by tour, which you should book in advance if possible. For example, Islas del Rosario was full when we were there and we visited Isla del Encanto instead.
Alternatively, many hotels have really nice pools. Those in the El Centro have rooftop pools with spectacular views. I recommend doing your site seeing early and then relaxing by the pool in the afternoon. The below pictures are from my hotel – Casa Claver.
7. See The Sunset.
Sunsets in Cartagena are absolutely gorgeous and not to be missed! We watched the sunset every night, and you should certainly plan at least one sunset in your itinerary! Two recommended spots to watch the sunset are (1) Cafe del Mar; and (2) the Movich hotel.
Cafe del Mar is a popular cafe on top of the town walls in El Centro (entrance near cathedral). All seating is open air and there is often a band or DJ playing music. Expect crowds, but you can almost always walk up and find a seat or place to stand. Reserve a table in advance to ensure one of the best spots along the wall.
The Movich hotel was my favorite place to watch the sunset. To get to the rooftop, walk into the lobby and ask to go to the bar on the roof. We were probably the only people who were not staying there watching the sunset, but the views are unbeatable. Note – it can get windy at sunset so bring a sweater!
8. Get out of El Centro.
El Centro is more commonly known as the “Old Town,” and is the Cartagena that you came to visit. Its gorgeous and home to delicious restaurants, boutique hotels and great shopping. However, its not terribly authentic and you will certainly miss out on the “real” Cartagena if you stick to El Centro. If you have more than a day, I recommend venturing just past El Centro into the Getsemani neighborhood; the Getsemani is safe, interesting and still filled with locals. When we visited, we joined in a neighborhood dance class in a square. If you want to visit in connection with a tour, I recommend the before-mentioned Cartagena Connections’ Street Food Tour. It goes right through the Getsemani and allows you to try tons of local food! Like El Centro, the Getsamani is very photogenic so take your camera.
9. Bring Aloe Vera.
Random, but a valid tip. The sun is very hot in Cartagena and while sunscreen is readily available, aloe vera lotion is nowhere to be found. The plant and plant-based products exists, but not the lotion. I suggest bringing a bottle from home depending on how burnt you plan to get. Sunscreen, on the other hand, was readily available.
80% of the world’s emeralds are from Colombia and Cartagena has what seems like hundreds of shops willing to sell “emeralds” to you. Do your research at home before buying because there are a lot of knockoffs, and emeralds are quite expensive. I purchased from Joyeria Caribe, located right in El Centro. Joyeria Caribe has a free “emerald museum” and an attached jewelry store. Every piece of jewelry comes with a certificate of authenticity and the employees spoke perfect English and were very attentive to my questions and interests. Prices are negotiable. There is a second, larger location in Boca Grande.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Cartagena Connection Street Food Tour: 2:30 daily as long as at least 2 people sign up. $30 per person. Includes all food samples (enough for lunch) but no beverages. Bring water.
Joyeria Caribe: 9:00 – 6:00 Monday – Friday. 10:00 – 3:00 Monday. Calle San Pedro Claver No. 31-18. TEL:(5) 660 0051 Cel: 317 428 3821. Bocagrande: Calle 5 No. 2-51. TEL:(5) 665 4625 Cel: 300 731 5049. Entrance to the Emerald Museum is free.
Café del Mar: Centro, Baluarte Santo Domingo, Cartagena, Colombia. Monday – Sunday 5:00 – 2:00. Food menu available.
Hotel Movich: Centro Histórico, Calle de Vélez Danies No. 4 – 39. Centro Histórico de Cartagena, Bolívar. Hotel: (57) (5) 660 0133. Reservas: (57) (1) 521 5050 – (57) (5) 664 2995 – 01 8000 95 5050. Recommended bar is on the rooftop.
Casa Claver: Calle de las Damas No. 3 -134, Cartagena de Indias. T: +57 (5) 664 9953 / +57 (316) 624 9428. Hotel where I stayed and home of the pool pictures above.
Don Juan: Fancy restaurant in El Centro. Make reservations early via email. Calle del Colegio # 34-60 Local 1, Centro histórico, Cartagena de Indias. T: +57 (317) 501 14 15 / +57 (5) 664 38 57 / +57 (5) 664 36 78. E: email@example.com