Cartagena Travel Guide
After one week on being immersed in the city of Cartagena, Colombia, I can honestly say it is one of the most impactful, beautiful and memorable places I’ve ever been to. For a trip that started with a “just do it” mentality with no expectations, I was delighted and wowed by the city, the culture, the cuisine and the history of this 500 year old Caribbean treasure of 2,000,000 people.
Let me paint the picture for you. When you arrive, you are surrounded by murmurs of Spanish among locals combined with the intoxicating sound of local Colombian music that is lively enough to make you want to salsa in the colorful streets. Food vendors entice you with fresh fruit at the price of a mere $1 or less and everyone is eager to show you their part of this South American city. Everywhere you walk is old buildings with character, originally built by rich Spanish settlers who came here in quest of gold. The old city is surrounded by a 500 year old wall, which back a half a millennia ago served as protection to the people and wealth of Cartagena. Now, it serves as the perfect place to park it for a sunset with cocktails in hand.
What I love most about this city, especially in comparison to other places I’ve traveled, is that it feels so authentic and untainted. People hardly speak any english, the food isn’t Americanized and hardly anything is, which is lovely.
The city itself is on the Caribbean Sea, but a 5-50 minute boat ride could have you feeling like you are in Bora Bora, or somewhere completely tropical and isolated. A 20 minute car ride will leave you in an abyss of local fishermen, pulling in nets for the morning or carving out their next boat from a hollowed tree. For 25,000 Pesos, you can have the most awe-inducing experience of having a local push your way in a boat they made, through mangrove trees and natural tunnels while the splashing sounds of crab enchant you. It’s like Venice, but without the grande cliche and in a tropical setting.
Needless to say, this place is incredible.
When we moved out of Seattle, we really did it so we can choose adventure and wanderlust over a high-end lifestyle. This trip completely validated that decision.
I’ve always wanted to find a flight to somewhere I had never heard of before, just type in the city to Google images, love what I see and then book it. Well with our Cartagena trip, that is exactly what we did.
I’ve always felt a pull to South America. The vibrant culture, the lively streets, the inspired cuisine and the people as a whole had me wanting to go there for quite some time. I always thought my first stop would have been Brazil, but after finding a rather inexpensive flight to Cartagena and looking at travel guides from Vogue and Free People saying it was the “jewel of the Caribbean,” I was already sold. Oh, and did I mention that Lady Gaga bought a house here?
Like many of you are probably thinking (much like my parents), “are you crazy, Colombia?!” The country has a stigma to Americans for being very hostile and unsafe. After spending a week in Cartagena, I can speak for this city and say I’ve really never felt more safe abroad (I felt much more secure here than in Mexico or Florence).
My Outfits and Packing Strategy
We flew here on Spirit Airlines, which is basically a budget airline that is the Ryan Air of America. Everything is extra and there are no frills, which is fine if you want cheap airfare.
But they charge you extra just to have a carry on! $45 per person, per way to be exact. To me, I’d rather pack light in a large purse and have $90 for experiences instead and that is exactly what I did. I packed two dresses, three pairs of wedges and sandals, one romper, one pair of shorts, two tops, two belts, three bikinis and some accessories. You may notice below, I only wore 5 looks, but the other days were strictly bikini-only.
Advise about packing for Cartagena: pack chiffon blouses and dresses because they breathe nicely, don’t take up a lot of room and flow beautifully in the sea breeze. I brought a straightener and curling iron which was a mistake. Unless your hair naturally has no frizz, I swear you can not wear your hair down. My curls last for up to a week in the U.S. and seriously lasted 15 minutes in this climate. Braids, buns and up-dos were my friend. It actually gave my hair a nice break from heat damage.
Shop The Look
Shop The Look
Shop The Look
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Where to Stay
Thanks to conversion rates being in our favor, everything in Cartagena was so affordable. Currently, there is about 3,000 Colombian Pesos to $1 U.S. dollar. We payed 1.1 million pesos for a week at our Hotel, Casa de Abril, which is a bit over $330, all taxes and fees included.
If you come here, I would highly recommend not staying at a U.S. hotel chain like the Hilton. They are far outside the old city and lack the personality and experience you get with many boutique hotels. I’ve seen hotels go for up to $300 per night to $15 per night in a Hostel (which all had amazing ratings by the way). Zach and I wanted an inexpensive hotel with charm that was conveniently located and that’s exactly what we got.
This hotel has only 5 rooms and the staff is very warm, but speaks zero english. The Wifi was surprisingly good (I read tons of reviews saying many hotels here boast they have WiFi, but then it “isn’t working” when you get here). We had the luxury of having the only room on the third (and top) floor, but that meant the wifi only extended to one square foot in our room, which meant I had to go down to the main area to plan our day. This wasn’t the worst thing because the complimentary breakfast was fresh and the open-air sitting area was lovely.
You need a hotel with good A.C., the humidity here is so real. I can only describe it as when you go to the “tropical” section of the zoo where you instantly start to sweat and breathing gets harder. It’s fine when you are out and about, but when you sleep, you really need A.C., so make that a priority. Ours was amazing, was impossibly clean and there wasn’t a single mosquito, cockroach or salamander in sight. The only thing – which is quite common – is there is no warm water. There is slightly luke warm water, but that is it. It sounds horrible until you’ve had a day in the heat, then it is quite refreshing.
This is by far the best hotel for the price and the rooms are really charming and stylishly done. The location is right in the heart of the city and about a 5 minute walk from the beach. I would say the best length to stay is 6 days, spend 4 in the old city and 2 at Playa Blanca.
The City Itself
As Zach and I were trying to find our way around this Spanish-speaking city, we had our fare share of “where the heck are we” moments. But what I always said is, “this is the one place I don’t mind getting lost.”
The colorful streets, the urban meets rustic dynamic and the overall ambiance is almost as intoxicating as their world renowned rum. Beautiful blooms, charming cafes and once in a lifetime experiences seem to be at every turn.
1. A Day at Playa Blanca
We saved this for our last full day in Cartagena and it was incredible. The blue Caribbean waters and white sand had me feeling like I was walking in a screensaver. I wish we could have stayed the night at a hostel on right on the beach. It is about $10 per night and includes your meals and you wake up to paradise.
Spend the day sipping pina coladas out of a carved out pineapple while swinging on a hammock. Swim in the bath like water and invigorate yourself by soaking in the sunshine and gentle waves. Rent a jet ski for $30 for a half hour and explore the shoreline. This is the most relaxing and gorgeous areas in Cartagena that are a must. The Rosario Islands are a part of the Caribbean edge of Colombia that can not be missed.
2. The Mud Volcano
Both Zach and I agree this is seriously one of our most memorable moments of all of our travels. You drive about an hour outside Cartagena (by tour bus or taxi) and arrive at this volcano that is run by locals. You climb up the steep, hand made steps to arrive at the top, with a beautiful view of the foliage and ocean below.
From there, you enter the mud bath and something crazy happens… you float! It is 2,000 meters deep, but you literally can’t help but hover among the surface. Locals then push you around like a log and get a massage. You are allowed to linger, apply the mud to your face and bask in the skin rejuvenating mixture of volcanic ash and rain water.
Then comes one of the most special parts of the experience. I know this may sound weird, but once you slide down the muddy steps (carefully), local women grab you by hand and lead you to a river where they wash you off from head to toe. It is one of the most incredible experiences and leaves you with the feeling you’ve been reborn. Maybe it is the language barrier creating silence, but if you allow them to do their thing and just take it in, you will have memories that last a lifetime.
Being candid, they do say “naked, naked, naked” and will take your swimsuit off to clean it for you. The water is murky with mud from people washing off, so you can’t see anything.
The services listed above cost about 10,000 pesos – about $3ish dollars.
3. A Canoe Ride With a Local Through The Mangrove Trees.
This is the most awe-inducing experience we had on this trip. About a half hour outside of Cartagena sits this rural-feeling fishing town. For about 50,000 pesos for three people (roughly $16), you can have a local take you on a ride through the mangrove trees, in a boat made of a hollowed out tree that they built, being pushed by a stick.
The only way to describe it is that it’s like a gondola ride in Venice, but with out the cheesiness. You get to hear exotic birds, see crabs climbing up trees and enjoy Colombian tradition and nature in peace.
5. Visiting the Choco Museo.
We stumbled across this our first day in Cartagena. We were a bit jet lagged and chocolate sounded amazing, but what we found was no ordinary chocolate shop. They had chocolate everything.
Indulgent desserts, chocolate tea (which was amazingly good, so much so, we brought some home with us) and chocolate liquor. At 35%, you literally could hardly tell there was any alcohol, which is a bit dangerous if you ask me.
If you want to splurge, you can buy a behind the scenes tour of how everything gets made. It was about $50 for a half hour.
6. Seeing and Eating at Boca Grande
They call Boca Grande “little Miami” for a reason, it has a very similar vibe and look. Sea front property littered with modern skyscrapers creates a great climate for night life and an upscale area of the city. Dine on the water for gorgeous views and Caribbean eats.
7. Simply Getting Lost in the Colorful Streets of the Old City
I would recommend staying within the historic walls of the city and simply getting lost. Every single nook and entry way of these streets are overloading with character and color. Beautiful flowers, bright doors and lively personalities line the streets. This may be the first time that you actually try to get lost.
8. Going to the Monastery (and Soaking in the Views).
We hired an english-speaking local we met to drive us around and give us the authentic tour. We saw the devastating poverty and the ultra rich (including Lady Gaga’s vacation home). We ended the day with a tour of the 500+ year old monastery that sits atop the city and offers incredible history and 360 degree views.
9. An Evening at Cuba 1940s
Transport yourself to Cuba just by stepping into this lounge within the old city. They have live Cuban music every night, a wading pool (which you can putt your feet in as you drink their amazing pina coladas or mojitos) and of course, Cuban cigars. The atmosphere is relaxed, the food is tasty and it feels very authentic. We came here four nights in a row because we loved it so much!
The Best Food
The food was absolutely incredible and it is definitely a part of the culture. Tons of Caribbean influence, ceviches, a surprising amount of good Italian food and lots of wine.
Here is what we ate all week and loved and what we will be craving long after we leave Cartagena.
1. Eating a Bowl of Fruit From the Senioritas
Fresh fruit is somewhat a luxury here in the states. A bowl of fruit can easily run $12. But to have over 10 types of fruits in an overflowing bowl, cut right in front of you for 10,000 Colombian pesos (about $3.30) is downright amazing! I made it my breakfast every day and enjoyed every bite while I wandered the streets.
2. Lobster Ceviche at La Cevicheria
It’s hard to pass this place without wanting to stop. The exterior is mint and white and a whole lot of adorable. There is great outdoor seating that just calls you in. I found this spot by chance, but was told by one of my Colombian followers that it was a must. I had the cool-served lobster ceviche twice with a side of coconut rice and still am craving it.
Update: Yes, I was vegan for 5 years. Two months before my wedding, I started loosing weight and decided to incorporate seafood and it has been working wonders for me. Thank god I did it just in time for this trip!
3. Italian Food at Bacco Trattoria
Right off the plane, this coral and mint exterior (right down the street from our hotel) was calling our name. This place is run my a Venezuelan woman, but it is seriously some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had – and that’s saying a lot because I lived in Florence for 6 months!
I had a lobster and salmon pasta dish that was one of the best meals I’ve ever had and Zach had the best pizza of his entire life. The wine is abundant, the staff is so friendly and the atmosphere is intimate and quaint. This is a must stop (and eat) if you are in Cartagena.
4. The best french toast of your life at La Brioche.
This was one of the most unexpected surprises, food wise, during our trip. We wanted a spot that served coffee and a hardy breakfast (which is incredibly difficult here) and La Brioche seemed like just the spot.
I got a marshmallow latte and Zach got a Nutella one. I actually cheated for this french toast (something that I only do about once a year due to my skin problems I have with dairy). It was crispy on the outside but soft and pillowy inside with a caramelized topping. Oh my goodness, 100% worth it.
The Coffee (or lack there of).
One thing I was so excited about when I went to Colombia was the coffee. I am straight up addicted and drink Colombian coffee almost daily. But to my dismay, it was so hard to find! There was Juan Valdez, a commercialized chain (that was very good), but I was on the hunt for a single shop full of character and was really let down.
Of course, on the taxi ride out, I saw the coffee shop I had read reviews of in the old city, whizzed by me. It is Cafe Liengo for those of you wanting to know,
They almost exclusively speak Spanish.
This may been naive of me, but I thought if I knew basic phrases, I would be fine getting around. Everywhere else in the world I had been, speaking some English was extremely common. But that was not the case here. Learn some Spanish and don’t rely on others knowing English.
In the end, I actually loved this. It made the experience so authentic and un-Americanized, which was such a refreshing thing compared to other travels.
Have any of you ever been to Colombia or Cartagena? I’d love to hear! Also, we want your opinion, where should we go next?!
Also, make sure to check out my Florence, Italy Travel Guide.
As always, thank you for reading.