At the time that my two girlfriends and I booked our trip to this colonial city, Cartagena had yet been written about and published in the various travel magazines, highlighted in the travel sections of New York Times and had yet been a chosen destination for major international events. The city was still a hidden gem, known only to a small group of well-advised travelers or to locals of the surrounding region.
We had heard of it because of a friend we had studied with in Argentina traveled through South America making Cartagena one of her stops. Her pictures forged envy and a desire to explore this unfamiliar place. So when we spotted cheap tickets over our spring break period, we quickly purchased without a where or how.
Our families were concerned; our friends looked at us with bafflement; and many others thought we were naive, young girls who were heading off to a situation of kidnap and death. It didn't help that a month before leaving, then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez threatened war against Colombia over some spat between the countries. After much consideration, we decided to continue with our trip and didn't regret a moment of it.
When I tell people about Cartagena, I always begin with 'I left a piece of my heart in Cartagena.' After 12 days, I fell in love with the city, the people, the food, the vibe. In the years since traveling to that gem in the Caribbean, Cartagena has exploded as a top destination for all types of travelers. My friends and I enjoy feeling smug that we made it there before the mass exodus of tourism. I plan to travel there many more times in my lifetime, but I will never forget my first trip.
The best way to see the historical Old Town, the historical part within the fortress, which has put Cartagena on the map, is to walk it. Get lost without a worry of where you are. Enjoy the vibrant colors and the daily life of the people. Have a licuado, a Latin American handmade blended smoothie, made with milk or water and fresh fruit to help cool you down from the heat. By the end of my trip, I managed to have over forty licuados.
Convento de la Popa sits on a hill and dates back to 1607. The convent offers vast views of the city as well a quiet, shady sanctuary from Cartagena's heat.
It sits on a hill and offers views of the city and the sea. Though a short walk from Getsemaní, I recommend a cheap taxi ride.
Getsemaní is located outside the old city walls. In 2008, it was the neighborhood where low-budget travelers stayed and where a careful eye was always needed to watch out. It was also the neighborhood where we went out and spent our nights at lively salsa clubs, sipping mojitos till the sun rose. Cafe Havana (where Hilary Clinton pulled out her salsa moves) was one of our favorite places to watch couples of all ages move together in perfect sync.
Today, Getsemaní has become one of Cartagena's hippest neighborhoods.
Bypass the beach at Bocagrande and instead head out to the Rosario Islands for picturesque Caribbean islands. Our hotel in Cartagena had a property located just off Cartagena on a small little island. We decided to spend two nights there.
Cartagena has become a foodie destination. There are many great restaurants and I recommend reading up on what is new and trending. Sometimes the best way to stumble on great places is to exactly just stumble on them. Here are just a few recommendations:
La Vitrola is possibly the city's best restaurant. Reservations are required and you should make them as soon as you arrive. We had the good fortune of getting this advice and as soon as we got to our hotel we made reservations for the only available time which was at the end of our trip. The restaurant serves up delicious Cuban food with excellent mojitos in a Havana style atmosphere.
Quebracho Argentinean Grill: coming off of a semester in Buenos Aires, we were craving for a good Argentinean parilla. Quebracho supplied our cravings with mouth-watering meat and Malbec from Argentina.
Loncheria Bolívar is located off of Plaza de Bolívar and is a great place to get licuados, arepas and other snacks.
Crepes & Waffles is a chain in Colombia but it also became our favorite place to have breakfast and lunch. It serves crepes and waffles but also licuados, cerviche, wraps, and fresh salads.
La Cevicheria offers diners fresh seafood and Caribbean cuisine.
Staying within the Old Town walls was a must when we went. Now days, I've read that Getsemaní is a rising star in 'the place to stay' area. Regardless of where you stay, there are plenty of cute boutique hotels. So many times we came across the cutest courtyards and realized they were hotels. There is also the Sofitel Santa Clara, the former convent converted into luxury hotel. In addition to hotels, Cartagena has many beautiful homes tucked behind mysterious walls. Airbnb is a great way to stay at one of these beautiful homes.
We stayed at Hotel 3 Banderas. It was a budget friendly boutique hotel, well located, clean, and with friendly staff.