I went to Cartagena de Indias to celebrate my mom`s birthday, and so we could have some much-missed mother-daughter time since I live an ocean away all year. Cartagena was on the top of my mom’s bucket list, but I have to admit, it wasn`t on mine. I’m delighted that this time I followed her advice and went with her on this trip. Cartagena de Indias is a beautiful, happy, colorful city with a lot of contrasts but an enchanting atmosphere. Here`s a list of what not to miss when exploring this captivating Colombian city.
Cartagena de Indias, the ultimate what not to miss list:
Walk the colorful streets of the old town
Cartagena’s most beautiful area is the old colonial town, inside the city walls. Everywhere you look, there`s an explosion of colors. With every little house painted a different color, this vibrant neighborhood is a happy maze that you may never get tired of photographing!
Houses in the old town of Cartagena de Indias.
Colors and flowers. How beautiful is this?
Be amazed by the wooden balconies covered with flowers
I just love colonial architecture, and Cartagena de Indias is one of the most beautiful examples of that. That being said, I still feel a warmth in my chest every time I remember just how stunning the wooden balconies of the houses in the old town, some painted white, some in natural wood tones, but all covered in flowers, were. That was my favorite view of Cartagena!
Colonial balconies and a eternal spring!
Every time you look up, there`s a photo waiting to be taken.
Eat on a restaurant`s terrace
Cartagena de Indias has the luck of having great warm weather all year long, so enjoy this natural feature by choosing one of the many restaurants with tables outside, on the street. Just be prepared to have to deal with some very persistent and annoying street sellers, but eating under the stars is worth it!
Restaurants at Plaza San Diego, in the old town.
Try the local food
This could become a whole other post, and I don’t ever get tired of saying this: Try the local cuisine, wherever you are since food is a massive part of a country`s culture. Fishes and seafood are some of this city`s musts, either being prepared grilled, accompanied by coconut rice, patacones (fried banana), and salad (a classic combination that you`ll find almost everywhere) or served like a ceviche, both delicious ways to eat it. For an afternoon snack, try the “pan de bono” (a delicious cheese-bread, very popular) with a coffee (or if you`re not a fan of coffee, like me, a fresh tropical juice), and when lying on a Caribbean-like turquoise beach, a Coco Loco, the local drink with coconut water, rum and a touch of lemon, served in a coconut (hellooo Instagram shot!).
The ceviche is a very popular dish – and La Cevicheria, a very cool place to eat it!
Enjoy the beach at the Baru Island
Like I mentioned before, the beaches in the city of Cartagena de Indias are not very impressive. Worry not, because Cartagena is surrounded by beautiful islands with the most amazing Caribbean sea, all tones of turquoise. One of the most famous is the Baru Island, and here comes the catch: Avoid the over-touristic-over-crowded beach of Playa Blanca (you will have to fight for a piece of sand to lay at while being elbow to elbow with families full of small children barbecuing on the beach and listening to reggaeton the whole time in really high volumes). Instead, take a fisherman’s boat north to a much more quiet beach, where you find the same infrastructure of restaurants on the sand offering chairs and a bar, but with half the people.
I tell all about it in my post about The Baru and Rosario Islands, a turquoise paradise in Cartagena de Indias.
Isla Baru with its wood bungalows on the sand!
I have no words for this water… Paradise!
This is an (almost) impossible scene at Isla Baru: Deserted beaches. Here I`ll tell you how you too can live this experience!
Take a boat to the Rosario Islands
Talking about boats… Take at least one day to jump into onto one to the Rosario Island, which is actually an archipelago of 28 smalls islands, most of them occupied by private hotels surrounded by nature and the most stunning turquoise sea. You don’t need to be an experimented sailor to get there: boats leave from the city`s harbor every day. Just make sure to book in advance, especially during high season.
The private beach of Isla del Sol
The hotel of Isla del Sol
I recommend going to Isla del Sol, a small island with the cutest hotel where you can spend the day either sunbathing on the private beach or lounging by the swimming pool with sea views. If you want some adventure, scuba diving is one of the options they offer (I did that!), or going to the Oceanario (I didn`t go). A delicious lunch with fresh-cooked local food is included in your day-pass, and at the end of the day, the boat will take you back to the city center!
The perfect water for diving…
Where you`ll find many colored fishes!
To know more about Isla Baru and Isla del Rosario, check my photo guide to these Caribbean paradises!
Watch the sunset from Cafe del Mar
One of Cartagena de India’s most beautiful views, Cafe del Mar is a lounge bar on top of the old city walls where you can go watch the sunset while sipping a cocktail and listening to lounge music. Drinks are not super cheap, and the place gets pretty crowded, so be sure to get there at least 1 hour before sunset so you can get a table, but the cool atmosphere and having the sun setting into the sea right in front of you is definitely worth it!
Watching the sunset and drinking sangria de cava at Cafe del Mar.
Cafe del Mar, in Cartagena de Indias.
Sunset from Cafe del Mar
Walk the old town at night
After sunset, go back inside the walls and explore the old town at night. With its narrow streets and scenic lighting, the city, which can be a little chaotic during the day, takes on a completely different atmosphere. Walking around the main streets is safe and, most of the stores close at 9 pm, restaurants and bars being opened until later. Also, only at night, you can see the beautiful dome of the cathedral all lit up!
The dome of the cathedral of Cartagena de Indias.
Plaza del Reloj with the clock tower. The blue hour is the best time to photograph it!
At night, Cartagena becomes magical!
Shopping in the old town
If you like shopping, the old town is also the place for you. Around Calle 35 (35 St.), you`ll find all kinds of stores, from clothes to jewelry, from coffee and chocolate to beautiful artisanal pieces. Pay special attention to the stores that sell local home decor objects, like ceramic and wood vases and plates, and take a unique piece of Colombian art home!
Plaza de las Bovedas, a former military prison/weapons depot now converted into a commercial site with stores and bars, is the place to go if you`re looking for the more popular travel souvenirs of Cartagena de Indias.
Look at the door handles!
This may sound like a weird travel tip but, it`s not. Photographing doors is already a very nice theme, but what makes the doors of the houses in the old town of Cartagena de Indias even more unique is the crafted metal door handles. In shapes like mermaids, octopuses, and (a lot of) lizards, paying attention to those unique details turned my time in the city into a very fun and curious treasure hunt!
Beautiful, vivid doors!
Detail of one of the many lizard doors handles I saw!
Watch (and dance, if you know how to) some salsa
I was born with two left feet, and honestly, don`t be fooled by my BRazilian blood – I`m a terrible dancer, but the sounds of the salsa being played live are kind of impossible to resist, even for me. A lot of restaurants and bars showcase live music, mostly on the weekends, but you can still find many that also have live bands on weekdays. The new bohemian and trendy neighborhood of Getsemaní offers a lot of options for that, but you can also find some bars around Plaza San Diego and Plaza de los Coches, inside the city walls. So put on your dance shoes and let yourself be taken by the rhythm!
Cuba 1940, where the musicians play on top of a small swimming pool and you can sit around it with your feet inside the water!
Visit the modern all-white neighborhood of Boca Grande
In massive contrast with the old town, Cartagena`s modern and new neighborhood of Boca Grande is a collection of all-white, high buildings facing the sea. Although the beach there is far from impressive, if you wanna be close to the sea, this is where many of the most prominent hotels are. I personally think that staying in the old town will give you a more authentic experience. Still, even if you choose to stay in this area, taxis in Cartagena de Indias are not expensive and easy to find, and you can reach the old town in a few minutes.
The old town and the wall as seen from Boca Grande beach.
Boca Grande and El Laguito (the little lagoon)
1. Avoid street vendors
They can be as annoying as it gets, and sometimes even a bit aggressive. From the woman at the beach offering massages that will grab your feet, either you asked for it or not, to the street rappers outside the restaurants demanding money after their “show,” the street vendors are a serious matter in Cartagena de las Indias. Don’t bend to their insistence (unless you really are interested in buying whatever they`re selling), and don`t be afraid to be firm and say “NO, GRACIAS!” (no, thanks in Spanish) as many times as it takes. Also, always…
2. Negotiate prices
And please do note that I’m not saying this as a way to explore the local sellers with my privileged first-world traveler knowledge. I actually hate to negotiate prices, but when even the police approaches you and your mom when you’re at the beach (true story) and tells you to never accept the first price and always negotiate, you listen to them. The reason is simple: unless you are inside a store and the prices are (usually) pre-fixed, vendors are going to take a look at how foreign you look and how bad your Spanish is, and will charge you accordingly. I do know that they`re trying to make a living, but it is quite irritating to pay three times the price of something just because you have blue eyes and red hair (even though I speak perfect Spanish from living in Barcelona for the last 10 years).
Street vendor at the beach.
3. Whenever you can, use Uber
If you’re staying outside the old town, it is quite possible that you’ll take a cab to move around the city. Even though taxis are not really expensive, Uber rides were usually half the price. Also, notice that taxis there don`t have a taximeter and also operate on a “let me see how much I can charge this gringo” base, so it’s hard to know when you`re paying the right amount or when you’re being ripped off. Uber works on fixed prices, so if you have internet, call an Uber and don`t worry about negotiating the ride.
I hope you liked this post! I tried to combine here all the information that I was looking for when organizing my bucket list of Cartagena de las Indias, and put it together in an easy, organized way, with the already expected beautiful photos to illustrate each point, so you`ll know exactly what not to miss in Cartagena de las Indias, and what to avoid!
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