With balconies overflowing with colorful pink and purple flowers, it’s easy to see why Cartagena de Indias is the coastal gem of Colombia. Throw out your itinerary and instead spend your sultry evenings wandering the streets within the Unesco World Heritage Site of Old Town or take in the people watching in the local squares with a cold cerveza.
The main tourist neighborhoods are Old Town and Getsemani which are right next to each other and extremely walkable. Old Town is contained within a 13 km stone wall from the days of colonial Spanish occupation. Definitely the more expensive of the two, Old Town hosts dramatic churches, plazas and mansions with balconies that are seriously to die for. One residential “palace” near Plaza de Bolivar had a personal security detail standing outside; it’s featured in my Colombia Instagram Story Highlights.
If you’re looking for a splurge, I’d stay at Hotel Casa San Agustin. This luxury hotel incorporates the city’s ancient aqueduct system over the interior pool and is absolutely STUNNING! Duck in for a quick look regardless!
During my time in Cartagena, I stayed at Mama Waldy Hostel in Getsemani which offered smaller dorm rooms and was located on a quieter street than the main backpacker drag of Calle de la Media Luna. Plus, the quaint homes that line the streets are just as beautiful as Old Town.
There’s also a Miami Beach vibe neighborhood to the south of the historic area called Bocagrande whose towering hotels and luxury condos dot the landscape. Honestly, I didn’t see a point of going there.
It seemed like most of the places in the Lonely Planet Colombia guidebook are closed, so instead spend your times scouting out where the locals are eating. Arepas – a cornmeal pancake usually stuffed with cheese – and empanadas are street food favorites.
In Old Town, I had some of the best pesto pasta (I know super Colombian right?) at Montesacro Restaurante Bar. A live music band was set up on the balcony and the views of Cathedral de Santa Catalina was lovely.
In Getsemani, walk down the flag lined streets of Calle San Andres and into The Stepping Stone cafe which hires at-risk youth from the community. The avocado toast is anything but basic. It would have also made the perfect work spot, but I was on vacation with my sister so work was at a minimum 🙂
Cool down with paletas (popsicles) and fresh juice for 5,000 pesos each or about $1.50. It’s the perfect way to escape the blazing afternoon sun. The first two nights in Cartagena, my dinner was a popsicle…
The truly only tourist attraction I did while in Cartagena was visit Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the greatest fortress built by the Spaniards in any of their colonies. The fortress offers an eerie underground tunnel system, beautiful panoramic views of Cartagena, multiple photo-op lookout points (see above) and a rather interesting animated historical video in Spanish.
While I didn’t go to any beaches around Cartagena, because I was going further up the coast later in my trip, the beaches IN town are not idyllic. If you’re looking for a little sea and sun, the popular options are the Corales del Rosario islands or Playa Blanca, both are offered as day trips from the pier outside of Old Town.
Walk along Las Murallas – the old wall – as the sun begins to set for fabulous music, people watching and sunset view. At some points, the wall is so narrow that passing another person going the other way can be quite scary from 20 feet up. Also don’t be afraid to buy a few street beers from the local vendors. Just make sure they’re cold!
The beating heart of Getsemani at night is Plaza de la Santisima Trinidad; this was a personal highlight of Cartagena for me. Buy cold beers off vendors or in the bodegas surrounding the square and take in the tourists, the entertainers and the locals all mixing together on the steps of this church. A grande bottle of cerveza will cost 3 mil and keep spare coins handy for the street performers.
After pregaming in the square, move to the local dancing hot stops that are within 2 blocks. You’ve probably already walked past these dance establishments during the day without even knowing that come midnight, the bands are hot and the dancing goes still morning. I loved Bazurto Social Club which was a 2 minute walk from my hostel. Cafe Havana and Half Moon Hostel are also options nearby.