cartagena city guide
There is no other way to describe Cartagena other than vibrant. The culture is full of energy, the streets are lively, and Walled City of Cartagena is bursting with more colors than the rainbow. It is the quintessential Caribbean beach town, and if I could have stayed within the confines of the old city for longer, I most certainly would have.
Hidden from street view by thick walls built to protect the old city against enemies, are plaza’s surrounded by brightly painted mansions with overgrown greenery. Cartagena was almost completely unprotected, until Francis Drake’s attack on the city in the late 15th century. It took two centuries to complete ‘Las Murallas’ due to pirate attacks and storms, but was finally completed in 1796. 25 years later Cartagena declared it’s independence from Spanish rule.
The colonial architecture sends travelers through a time machine with it's hints of Spanish influence. Wandering through the cobblestone streets, with horse-drawn carriages, it is hard to believe it’s the 20th century in Cartagena, Colombia. It is also hard to believe that this city was once tainted by Colombia’s infamous drug trafficking. The country’s violence associated with drugs is on the decline, and Cartagena continues to be one of the safest cities in Colombia. In my opinion, also one of the most beautiful.
The local beaches outside of old city are not quite as picturesque, nor are the modern buildings encompassing Bocagrande. The highlight of Cartagena is the old city, and luckily there is plenty of exploring to do, but if by chance you spend more than enough time there, the Rosario Islands and Isla de Baru are just at your fingertips.
The endless possibilities! Cartagena is a dream for boutique hotel lovers. I could go on forever about hotels in this gorgeous city, but the most important advice is that you choose one within the old city. There are plenty of hotels outside of old town, but to get the feel for Cartagena, inside the walls is where its at!
We stayed at the Casa San Agustin, which boasts a stunning courtyard pool that illuminates the frescoes walls at night. It's a bit of a splurge but completely worth every penny!
A few other spots worth resting your head at...
Tcherassi Hotel is on par with Casa San Agustin, if not, more luxe than most hotels in Cartagena. The hotel is owned by fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi, which doesn't go unnoticed when the first thing guests see is a giant portrait of the designer in the lobby. Way to make a first impression!
Tcherassi Hotel is also home to Vera, a local italian restaurant that has received a lot of hype. We did not have the pleasure to dine with Vera, but Italian would not be my go-to while in Cartagena.
For a much more economical option, stay with Hotel Boutique Santo Toribio. We stayed there before venturing to Barú, and not only was it less than $100 a night, but it was a very comfortable stay!
Plantains, coconut rice, margaritas, ceviche... these are just a few of Colombia's favorite things. The food in Cartagena is fantastic, if you know where to go.
Our favorite restaurant, Malanga Bar Restaurante, is a little spot right across from the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, an iconic Cartagena hotel, and in Plaza San Diego. Malanga is owned by a sweet Colombian family, whose daughter attended university in the States. The food is so delicious and true to the culture in Cartagena, that we dined with them multiple times!
Malanga is not to be confused with the popular Malagana Cafe & Bar, which is also fantastic. However, I'd suggest Malagana more for rooftop drinks and happy hour.
Like most hotels and restaurants, the nightlife in Cartagena tends to occur in the courtyard of a colonial mansion. La Movida is no different. Hidden during the day, this little spot comes alive at night. It looks like an old house, with locked doors, but you can't miss the crowd of people huddled around waiting to get in after the sun is long gone.
Abaco Libros y Cafe is hidden down winding side streets in the old city. It sits on a corner, tucked away behind a beautiful white archway, in a building the color of the sky during an orange sunrise.
The library is filled with novels and history books on Cartagena. Sip on coffee and liquor, or both! And enjoy pastries to enjoy during your time reading up on the history of Colombia.
There is so much sightseeing and shopping to do in Cartagena, beaches to visit and delicious Colombian food to taste. At the end of the day though, all that walking and exploring can really tire one out!
Did someone say, spa day!?
Yes! The Sofitel Legend Santa Clara has a wonderful spa!! The So Spa is the perfect spot for rest and relaxation. We had a couples message and jacuzzi, then hit the awesome pool at the Sofitel.
Lastly, you can't travel to Cartagena without visiting the nearby beaches. Unfortunately, I wouldn't recommend the local beaches in Cartagena, rather enjoy the old city and it's boutique pools. However, Barú is just a short drive away.
We were lucky enough to come across a quiet little spot called, Aquazul Beach Resort. The whitest sand, and bluest water, we could find in the surrounding area was at this mansion turned beach resort.
Enjoy jet skiing, kayaking, and delicious local seafood! It's a great way to end your trip!