Last December I washed up
on the shore of Cartagena’s harbor.
With vertigo after fifty hours of sailing
and five days without a shower
I wobbled down the maze of docks
uncertain as to where they might lead me.
But inside of Cartagena’s protective castle walls
I found refuge.
I found beauty.
I found wonder.
I found Colonial buildings washed in colors
with the vibrancy of the Caribbean.
Cobblestone streets leading to squares
guarded by the noblest of statues.
under the scorching summer sun.
Carts brimming with Colombian treats.
Streets flooded by tropical fruit.
with inspired interiors
and international cuisine.
I found a world beyond the wall
If I ever needed an escape
with white sand and turquoise water
more tourists than I could ever heed.
And in a life that constantly moves
for better at times for worse
Cartagena showed me
that everything is beautiful
and everything is always all right.
Where to Stay in Cartagena
$15 dorm, $30 private double
Located in the hip and affordable Getsemani neighborhood, Media Luna is the only hostel in Cartagena that has a pool. A big kitchen and plenty of outdoor lounge space makes it a great budget place to hang out. The rooms are clean, spacious and beautifully decorated and the staff is incredibly helpful and friendly. Every night of the week there is something going on from poolside BBQs to rooftop live music and dancing. The hostel also books tours and transport to other parts of Colombia.
$15 dorm, $30 private double includes breakfast
Rated the best hostel in South America, El Viajero has a serious following. The location is ideal, right in the center of town, and the dorm rooms actually have air conditioning. This is a serious life saver as the city can get so hot it’s impossible to sleep at night. Breakfast is also included in the rate.
Rooms starting at $135 per night includes breakfast
The rooms are simple and homey but you really can’t beat this price smack dab in the center of the city. The terrace has a swimming pool and jacuzzi and a lovely breakfast is served every morning. Some rooms have their own private balconies with views of the public square.
Rooms starting at $140 per night
For an entirely different experience, head a bit out of town to the Karmairi beach resort. This stunning resort is right on the beach for those interested in peace and relaxation a short drive away from the amazing city. The facilities include a full bar and restaurant, spa, swimming pool, and beach club. Free activities like exploring the mangroves and outings with local fishermen are included. A rental car will certainly come in handy if you’re interested in spending time in the city center.
Rent an Apartment
The most comfortable and affordable option is to rent an apartment right in the city. Many are ideally location and include maid service. If you have a group you can potentially get deals comparable to a hostel! Look on airbnb.com, vrbo.com, and tripadvisor.com to see what is available. This is my top recommendation for any city if you plan to stay for more than a couple of days. What could be better than coming home to your own space with a well stocked kitchen?
For more hotels in Cartagena you can search on this Latin American hotel finder.
What to Eat in Cartagena, Colombia
Cartagena has an excellent variety of street food which graces every block. Big bowls of fresh tropical fruit are impossible to miss and make a great last minute breakfast or snack while you’re out enjoying the city. Be sure to try an arepa which is a classic snack in Colombia made from cornmeal and stuffed with either egg, meat, or cheese. For something sweet head to El Portal de los Dulces where you can find all sorts of local treats made from coconut, tamarind, and cacao in big glass jars.
$3-8 for gelato
I think I came here all five of the days that I spent in Cartagena. My friend Sara could not end the night without at least two scoops of this incredible artisanal gelato. The line is long but don’t let it intimidate you, it moves quickly and the ice cream is sooo worth it!
$3-5 for breakfast
For an inexpensive and lovely breakfast head to Gato Negro in the Getsemani neighborhood. Crepes, fruit salads, and eggs with toast are served in a darling courtyard.
$5-10 for smoothies, wraps, and salads
Places like Gokela are an oasis for me when traveling in developing countries. I love to eat street food and decadent meals but at least once a day I need something really healthy. Gokela offer organic health food in a casual setting, great for meals to go to enjoy in one of Cartagena’s lovely squares.
Throw a rock and will hit the glass of an amazing restaurant. Seriously this city has an abundance of incredible cuisine. However, it comes at a cost. Many restaurants are comparable to those in New York City… in taste and in price. Peruse the menu, scope out the atmosphere and choose what you’re vibing with. You really can’t go wrong! If you’re on a budget stick to street food or one of the many casual restaurants in Getsemani offering wood fired pizza or whole chickens to share.
What to Do in Cartagena, Colombia
Explore the city walls
For the best view of the city and the sea you can walk or bike (rentals available at some hotels/hostels and in shops in the old city) along the old city walls. There are a few bars and restaurants along the wall that make a great spot for having some happy hour while enjoying the sunset.
Tour of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
$9 to enter, $15 for a guided tour, free the last Sunday of the month
Explore this important landmark in Cartagena’s history. You can wander through tunnels and climb to the top to see views of the sea and Cartagena.
Wander the lovely streets
Take in the architecture. Look at street crafts. Try some street food. Sit in a park square. Perfection.
Party with the locals
Cartagena is known for having some pretty wild nightlife. In fact Hillary Clinton was even seen partying at Cafe Havana in the up and coming Getsemani neighborhood. Media Luna hostel, also in Getsemani, hosts a hugely popular rooftop party a couple of nights a week with free entrance for hostel guests. Mister Babilla in the center of town is one of the most popular spots with locals and gets crazy late into the night on weekends.
Take a day trip to Playa Blanca
$15-25 for round trip transport and lunch
Cartagena has its own beach, but the sand and sea are nothing compared to nearby Playa Blanca. White sand stretches for miles and the sea is so turquoise it’s hard to believe it’s real. Many people show up and decide not to leave, sleeping in one of the beachfront shacks or hammocks. Be aware of what time you come, as the week following New Years (when I was there) the beach is so crowded with tourists and vendors it’s nearly impossible to relax. For more information on booking a tour, which can be confusing and stressful… downright impossible for those who don’t speak Spanish… read about it here.
Swim in mud at Volcan Torumo
Half day tours for $20 with lunch, $15 without
The sight of the volcano itself is not much to write home about; the healing mud that lives in its crater is the real appeal. Jump in and notice how no matter how hard you try, you just can’t sink!
How to Get to Cartagena, Colombia
from all over the world to the international airport in Cartagena and take the 20 minute taxi ride into the city.
into the harbor after spending two days on sea, three in San Blas, Panama.
$350-$500 depending on your boat
around the country in mini buses.
$35 and 12 hours from Medejin