Cartagena should be on any travelers’ bucket list, and the new direct flight by Jetblue from JFK just made realizing that dream a heck of a lot easier. Driving in through the old city walls is a transporting experience. Cartagena comes alive with bustling streets full of cafés, music, and vendors selling fresh fruit juices and savory cheese arepas. The Spanish colonial town is charming beyond expectation, with beautiful architecture and vibrant Caribbean colors on every street-front façade.
What to DO in Cartagena
Explore the Old City: The Old City is still walled in by the grand fortress built by the Spanish in the 17th century. An alluring and untainted step into the past, the Old City is what you come to Cartagena to experience. With quaint boutique hotels, cafés full of fresh seafood and neighborhood squares alive with vendors and music, the Old City is simply magical.
Cafe Havana in the Getsemani: Evocative of the up-and-coming Lower East Side days, the Getsemani neighborhood is worth an afternoon of exploration. Demente is a cool tapas & cigar bar in the neighborhood’s main square. Just down the street is the famous Café Havana, which our non-English speaking cabbie simply described as “Hillary Clinton”. Long regarded as the best late night party spot in town, Café Havana more recently garnered headlines as the establishment where Hillary Clinton knocked back a few cold brewskies and, even more recently, where the Secret Service found themselves in a bucket of trouble. Ladies of the night, anyone? Come well rested because the party really doesn’t start until midnight, when the live salsa music roars through the dancing, rum-filled crowd.
The Beaches and Baru: While Cartagena is a charming port town, the best beaches with the clearest waters are a short boat ride out to Baru or the Rosario Islands. It’s an easy and recommended day trip. Your beaching options range the entire spectrum from cheap-and-a-little-more-crowded to a-little-more-pricey-but-isolated-and-serene. Either way, the water is nice and the atmosphere fun. Some of the larger main beaches can be packed with bartering “beach boys”, which is sometimes annoying but part of the gig. We recommend hooking up with some of the nicer boutique hotels, to join their secluded beach day trips. Casa San Agustin runs a nice little day trip to their sister property on Baru.
Convento de la Popa: High on a hill above the city lies the enchanting Convento de la Popa. The old convent is as beautiful as it is rich in history. It has a chapel, a courtyard draped in purple flowers, and an awe-inspiring view of the city below.
San Felipe de Barajas Castle: The imposing fortress of San Felipe has stood protecting the city for centuries. Many consider it to be the most impressive fort constructed by the Spaniards outside of their homeland. As a key gateway to their colonies, Spain spared no expense to defend a city that was of the utmost strategic and geographical importance to the success of its empire. Both the fortress and the city were granted the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
Partake on Chiva Bus ride: Okay, so this is obviously a little on the touristy side of the experience spectrum, but it would be shameful to leave out. The Chiva bus is a party bus – and party bus is always an amusing thing. They take fun-loving (rum-imbibed) folks around the city in the evening with music playing and the occasional instrument onboard. With their signature bright colors and eclectic decor, Chivas were originally rural transportation buses unique to the Andes region.
Sunset Cocktails: Cafe del Mar is famous for its sunset mojitos looking out onto the ocean from its location atop the fortress wall. It’s a great place to stop by, but our favorite cocktail spot was a five minute walk away. Near the wall and across from the Hotel Santa Teresa is a picturesque outdoor bar situated on a raised promenade. You can sink into one of their wooden rocking chairs and soak in the magical city buzzing around you while sipping slowly on some choice local rum.
Where TO eat IN CARTAGENA
How do we even begin to delve into that food experience that is Cartagena? We’ll start with the best of the best…
El Boliche Cevicheria: Affectionately called “El Cevicheria”, this small laid-back
local joint serves the most brilliant, flavorful and fresh ceviches you will ever feast upon. It’s a world-renowned restaurant, but the chill vibe in this 14-seat space makes it feel as if you just happened to stumble into a secret little ceviche Heaven.
La Vitrola: This is another can’t-miss restaurant in Cartagena. Reminiscent of old Havana, La Vitrola is a place where even the Who’s Who of town have to put in a little effort to score a reservation. The food is good, but the atmosphere and live jazz is what brings the patrons, from dignitaries to tourists alike, coming back for more.
Mila: Mila is a delightful café and coffee shop in old town. Breakfast is what they do best, and we recommend ordering any one of their savory breakfast arepas.
Casa San Agustin: Words cannot describe our love for this hotel. It captures the colonial charm of Cartagena in a effortless and luxurious way. Everything about the hotel, from the open-air courtyard with its heavenly pool to the breathtaking guest rooms, makes Hotel Casa San Agustin one of our favorite hotels in the world.
Hotel Tcherrassi: Another favorite of ours is the Hotel Tcherassi. This little boutique was recently named on Travel & Leisure’s Best Tiny Hotels in the World. The beautifully restored 250 year old mansion has been transformed into a magnificent boutique hotel by local fashion designer Silva Tcherassi. In late 2015, the talented Tcherassi will open her second hotel, and we can’t wait to see what she comes up with this time.
Safety is always an admissible concern when considering Colombia. However, the perils and tribulations of the old Escobar days seem as distant in Cartagena as they do from New York. As with any city you visit, it’s good to keep your wits about you and be aware of your surroundings. But we felt beyond comfortable strolling the vibrant streets of old town, meeting fascinating fellow travelers and locals along the way.
A LOVE LETTER TO CARTAGENA
We really can’t say enough about Cartagena and the Hotel Casa San Agustin. The boutique hotels are what make the experience complete. We say go now, because just around the corner is a big hotel boom. With the destination quickly rising on travelers’ radars, names like Starwood, Intercontinental and the Four Seasons are all set to break ground shortly. The good and the bad always accompany an increase in tourism, but the intangible charm that defines Cartagena is best captured sooner than later. See ya there.
Photo Cred:Colombia Direct, Ultimate Jet Vacations, Viator, and Compass + Twine
New favorite finds....
A Perfect Day in Oslo, Norway
Stroll around Oslo you'll enjoy a unique amalgamation of old and new architecture, art, style,
Chasing the Northern Lights at Camp Nikka
If chasing the Northern Lights isn't on your bucket list, grab a pen and add