There are three temperatures in Cartagena year-round: Hot, hotter, and hottest.
The difference in vibe is palpable when you step off the plane in Cartagena. It’s still undenaiably Colombia, but there’s a salty, sultry flavor of the Caribbean and its origins that immediately paints a different picture from the rest of the country.
Everything in the city (and around it) is about contrast. There’s the beautifully preserved, walled old city, with a backdrop of the Bocagrande neighborhood that’s reminiscent of the white high-rises in Miami. When you walk the streets of the old city, you get a distinct New Orleans-meets-San Juan, Puerto Rico vibe. If you travel just a bit outside the city into La Boquilla or the island of Tierra Bomba, it feels like stepping back in time to old fishing villages. Cartagena, the chameleon.
In the historic, walled city. When the cruise ships aren’t in port, it’s incredibly walkable and you can wander the streets enjoying the colors and flowers spilling from every building. On the smaller, boutique side, we prefer (in order) Casa San Agustin, Casa Pestagua (quiet and private, with only 11 rooms), Tcherassi Hotel and Spa, or Tcherassi Mansion.
On the bigger/luxury side, Sofitel Legend Santa Clara is housed in the old convent portrayed in Gabriel García Márquez’s book Of Love and Other Demons. It’s a bigger hotel, but the historic rooms are grand. The pool area can be quite a scene, so be prepared. Hotel Charleston Santa Theresa is the grande dame on the opposite corner of the walled city from the Sofitel. Bastión has a great location near the Sofitel and gives a luxury experience.
One of the best parts of Cartagena is getting out of the city during the day, then coming back to enjoy the nightlife at the restaurants of the old walled city and neighboring Getsemani neighborhood. Depending upon what you like to do, there are tons of options. A boat ride from La Boquilla through the mangroves, watching the locals fish with giant nets and crab pots, gives a taste of the past. A visit to the island of Tierra Bomba and the village of Boca Chica is a glimpse into small-village life with the big city literally in the background. We mountain-biked through the island, ending with lunch at the lively Blue Apple Beach House. It was an amazing day.
If you’re a snorkeler, you can take an hour-long boat ride to Islas Rosarios to see where Pablo Escobar was building his vacation home (and snorkel near the plane he had crashed into the water to avoid the government).
Definitely spend a few hours walking the city and exploring the squares, grabbing a drink or coffee and sitting down to people-watch. It’s just a nice city to hang out in, and when the sun goes down at night, there’s nothing better than sitting outside.
Where to Eat:
Most surprising for us were how many great restaurants and bars there are in Cartagena.
- Celele: The Getsemani neighborhood is a cool, hip area where more and more great restaurants are popping up, and Celele is right in the center of it.
- Carmen: The most popular and most-recommended spot for a reason, boasting incredible outdoor courtyard dining and one of the rare restaurants in the city with a bar and bar seats.
- Moshi: Carmen’s next door Pan-Asian sister
- Donjuán and/or María: Sister restaurants right next door to each other. Both popular, quality crowd-pleasers with nice designs.
- La Mulata: Still feels like a local neighborhood place.
- La Boliche and/or La Cevicheria: If you like ceviche, not to be missed.
- Mila: Great local place for breakfast.
- El Baron: Great cocktails. Don’t miss sitting outside in the square here, with a great view of the San Pedro Claver church. You might be lucky enough, like we were, to witness the giant celebration in the streets that come after one of the many weddings there. El Baron also offers a great rum tasting to get a sense of the best and brightest Colombian rums.
- Alquimico: Great cocktail bar vibe with the best display of infusions.