Upon venturing to South America for the first time, Cartagena set my expectations for the rest of this continent incredibly high. While it's rich history dates back to the 1500s, today it's evolved into a diverse destination with something for any type of traveler. The historic Spanish-Colonial architecture within the old walled city is just a few kilometers away from Bocagrande's contemporary skyline. You can snack on fresh cut fruit from a vendor off the street for pennies, but you can also partake in the blossoming culinary scene that's being made famous by former Michelin star chefs.
Looking for beautiful beaches? A day at sea? A rooftop pool with a view? Or perhaps you're seeking vibrant cultural experiences like salsa dancing late into the night? Whether shopping, dining or any of the aforementioned activities tickle your fancy, you'll be pleased to know Cartagena has it all.
I spent many hours reading and researching to create the itinerary for our trip, and there is a lot of information I could share. So to spare you from doing the same, let's keep this succinct and consolidate the priorities. Here's what you need to know to have an amazing trip to Cartagena:
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
LANGUAGE: Spanish, although loads of the locals we interacted with spoke English. Nevertheless, I always encourage trying to use as much of the local language as you can while traveling (brush up on some basic phrases before you go using an app like Duolingo.
CURRENCY: Colombian Pesos. We found most places we went took cards without issue (really the only exception was our taxi fare and buying anything from street vendors). I’d suggest taking some cash out upon arrival at the airport. If you want a bit more information about currency, read THIS ARTICLE by Lonely Planet.
GETTING AROUND: Honestly, we walked just about everywhere (which is easy to do when you’re staying in the Old City like we did). The only time we did take a taxi was to/from the airport, and then to/from our day at Blue Apple Beach (and taxis are readily available should you ever need one). You will need cash (as mentioned above) so again-I’d suggest taking some out at the airport upon arrival…unless you take an Uber, which is also available depending on your phone’s internet capabilities while traveling.
WHEN TO GO: We went in February (which was perfect!) but really, anytime between December and March is ideal (otherwise you’re more likely to experience summer rain storms, thus high humidity- as you might in a destination like Miami).
PHOTOGRAPHY: There is so much to photograph in a beautiful destination like Cartagena! With that said, there is a lot to be mindful of as you do. This trip compelled me to write THIS POST on photography etiquette while traveling. I recommend giving it a read before pulling out your camera.
SAFETY: While Colombia's drug reputation has created some legitimate reason for concern, this isn't a blanket statement that applies to the entire country. Cartagena is a perfectly safe destination (and crime rates have dropped significantly in recent years). You're far more likely to experience petty theft like pickpockets (which you'll find in any tourist destination) than you are any kind of violent crime.
While Colombia does have a lower gross GDP than the US, it's an emerging market and the fourth largest economy in Latin America. Life here may look a bit different than yours does everyday, but remember that the disparity in average wealth doesn't directly correlate with safety.
Simply stay alert of your surroundings, keep a close eye on your belongings and you'll likely be just fine! With all of that said, it’s always smart to look at the US Department of State’s site for more current information, as things are always changing.
WHAT WE DID
While we did want the majority of our trip to be spent exploring the historic part of Cartagena, we still wanted some beach time (we were in the Caribbean after all!) And while we enjoyed the skyline views of Bocagrande from rooftops within the walled city, we never did venture over there (although it's meant to have some nice beaches- we just heard it was kind of a Miami vibe so we wanted to try something different.) Enter Blue Apple Beach:
Just 30 minutes from Cartagena by boat on the southern shore of Tierra Bomba Island, Blue Apple Beach is a private club, restaurant and boutique hotel (I personally would only stay here if you want to really unplug and aren't looking to explore a city- it's not super convenient to Cartagena. If you did stay here, I'd do it for a night or two but then spend some time staying in Cartagena proper). Blue Apple Beach is the perfect alternative and allows you to enjoy a day at a private beach with incredible cocktails. You have to book in advance, as there are a limited number of spaces each day (and you need to notate if you want to have chairs by the pool, the beach, or a cabana- I definitely recommend being by the beach in either a chair or a cabana).
Everything I read about visiting Cartagena kept insisting we take a boat out to the Rosario Islands: some of the most stunning white sand beaches and turquoise waters you'll find in this area. If you're traveling with a big group, there are loads of companies that you can charter your own boat with for a reasonable cost. Yet if you're traveling with a smaller number of people, that price gets steeper and steeper. Since it was just Haley and I, we wanted to find a trip that would give us a beautiful day at sea without being shoved on a crowded boat full of strangers. We found Bona Vida Catamaranes who hosted us, and it was exactly what we were looking for (we met some girls from New York who went a few days before us and they were so excited when we told them that's the company were using because they also had such a great experience).
The boat is MASSIVE (can hold up to 100, but there were only around 20 of us). So even though there were other people on board, we always feel like we have plenty of space to ourselves (and the other people we met were really great - we made some friends throughout the course of the day!) The experience (which started around 8 and ended around 4) includes lunch cooked on board, snorkeling equipment, fun inflatable floats and had fun music playing all day. I highly recommend booking this (but do so in advance!)
SUPPORT THE LOCALS
Connecting with locals is one of my favorite things to do while traveling, and supporting the local vendors is a great way to do this in Cartagena! I read mixed reviews about eating the fresh fruit (some people reported they got sick from it) but in my experience, so long as you watched the fruit being cut fresh and ate it straight away (not sitting out in the sun for a questionable amount of time) there was no issue (and I loved drinking coconut water straight from the source!) If you'd rather play it safe, there are loads of artisans selling jewelry, shoes, handbags, etc. you can also purchase to support the locals livelihood. And if you prefer not to shop? You can still pose for photos with locals in exchange for compensation as pictured above (but read THIS POST first, please!)
NOTE: You’ll need cash in all of the cases mentioned above, so plan accordingly.
WATCH THE SUNSET
MOVICH HOTEL ROOFTOP BAR: We couldn't get enough of this place (thanks to my friend Chelsea for the recommendation!) It has the best view of the city by far, combining the modern skyline of Bocagrande in the distance, the historic dome of the cathedral in the old city and the sparkling coastline all in one shot! Furthermore, they had some of the most delicious cocktails I drank on this trip! I definitely recommend getting here a bit before sunset begins, as it's a popular spot and the best seats in the house will be the first to go!
NOTE: This also made a great lunch spot! The food we had was delicious (albeit, a little overpriced— but worth it for more of these views!)
SUNSET ALONG THE WALL: I read loads about Café del Mar: a bar built into Cartagena's historic wall that's famous for it's sunset views. Cocktails were said to be rather lackluster, and it seemed to be a place you definitely went more for the views than the quality. Upon arrival, we didn't stay long (it was SO busy, you could barely move!) So instead, we opted to buy cheep beer from a local vendor (you'll need cash for this, or in hindsight- we probably would have brought our own!) and stand just outside the bar for the same views without all the chaos and overpriced drinks.
WHERE WE ATE + DRANK
You could plan a trip to Cartagena for the restaurants and bars alone! I couldn’t believe how evolved the food scene was here (and I’m so thankful we had an entire week to try as much as we did!) While I didn’t get to everything on my list, here’s where we ate + drank:
This was hands down the best place for cocktails (we came multiple times throughout the trip!) I found this in a GQ article, and it certainly lived up to the praise that I read about. With inventive cocktails, courtyard seating in Plaza of San Pedro Clave and an insanely smart staff, El Baron is practically a guaranteed great experience. If you're adventurous and appreciate smoky flavors like Mezcal, try the "Pure" (which has caramelized onion syrup and tobacco smoke - even a leaf from the plant!) A few other things I loved about this place? The menu is modeled after a map to point you to cocktails based on various parts of the world (right up my alley!) And on these darling menus, they share that a percentage of all their profits go to Green Apple Cartagena, which advocates for sustainability among businesses and tourism in the area (more information here).
Another watering hole we loved was Alquimico (we came here a couple times over the course of the week). Each of their three stories provides a unique ambiance, serving up whatever you're in the mood for! I'd definitely recommend checking out the rooftop at some point (it was my favorite level!) but wherever you sit, the cocktails are great and the atmosphere is fun.
We came to the Sofitel a handful of times throughout the course of the week (there are several bars and restaurants to try!) My favorite of everything we tried was El Coro Louge Bar for salsa dancing on Saturday night, which you definitely can't miss! This property used to be a nunnery (dating back to 1621!) and was the source of what inspired Gabriel García Márquez to write Of Love and Other Demons. They still light candles in the crypt as part of a ritual ceremony everyday to pay homage to it's history- so don't be alarmed if men in cloaks suddenly parade in!
We came here for pisco sours on our first night and had the best time! While it's comprised of three kitchens, we spent our time in the main restaurant (where the open air bar and live music is!) Highly recommend coming here for a drink set in a lovely ambiance!
We didn’t love the drinks here, but we did enjoy the ambiance. We came here briefly on our last night (because a lot of other places had already closed and it was still open) but I’d probably give it another shot… I’ll just try something other than a pisco sour next time.
While we actually came here for lunch, I’d instead recommend coming for a cocktail (it’s a bit pricy and there is so much other delicious food in Cartagena!) Even still, the atmosphere in this courtyard is absolutely beautiful and shouldn’t be missed!
This might have been my favorite meal of our trip (definitely a top contender, anyway!) The coconut ceviche is unlike anything I’ve ever tasted and arguably the top dish of all the ones I tasted in Cartagena. But honestly, all the food was wonderful. In addition to the flavorful food, the ambiance is beautiful (and they had live music to add a cherry on top! ) Book in advance- especially if you come on a weekend.
I found María in this Vogue article and am so glad I did! This was one of our favorite restaurants we tried (largely because of the grilled octopus and the steak empanadas). We made a booking in advance (which I would recommend). It was fairly empty when we arrived, but it slowly filled up as the night progressed.
We both heard about Carmen over and over in the lead up to our trip, so we knew we had to visit. We sat in the lush, open-air courtyard (which I would recommend requesting when you make you're booking) and sampled a variety of cocktails and menu items. I can certainly see why it's received so much press and would definitely check it out for yourself (I don't think you can go wrong- regardless of what you order!)
This seafood-dominated menu was another of our favorite meals (and one that I'd recommend you make a booking for). Both Haley and I ordered the octopus risotto, which was really nice and worth trying yourself!
A friend I met in London (who is the head chef at one of my favorite restaurants, Maison Bab) recommended Celele to me, and it was such a cool experience. It definitely skews more "foodie" and inventive, but I quite enjoyed that about it (just keep in mind if you're less of an adventurous eater). It's facade is unassuming, but the interior (especially the cozy courtyard where we sat) is absolutely darling.
As previously mentioned, we came to the Sofitel a handful of times over the course of our trip, including Restaurante 1621 for dinner one evening. Set in an outdoor courtyard, it was definitely a beautiful atmosphere (however I personally felt it was pretty overpriced and not worth the money spent- there are plenty of other places you can get just as nice of an ambiance for a lot less money). Regardless, I stand by the recommendation of coming here for drinks at El Coro, or try a more relaxed meal here at the hotel for a better value (like breakfast or lunch).
Similar to my thoughts above, this was a spot that was perfectly fine, but not my favorite. It was a nice atmosphere and the food was decent, but not anything to rave about compared to other meals. I'd definitely recommend that you prioritize some of the other restaurants above (but if you happen to land here for a meal, I still think you'd enjoy yourself!)
We came here for lunch at the recommendation of Anthony Bourdain on a former visit. It’s definitely not a hidden gem (we waited for over an hour) but nevertheless, the ceviche truly was fantastic. I’d recommend coming right when they open for an earlier lunch to avoid long waits (but even if you find yourself standing around for a while, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the end product!)
We may have been suckered in because of the beautiful flower wall, but the food is absolutely superior to the Instagram-able vibes. This darling little taqueria in Getsemani was a great little lunch spot with incredible tacos (and such a sweet wait staff!)
I loved so many things about Beiyu straight away- especially when I saw the words “Slow Food” on their menu! I first learned about the Slow Food concept last year in Trieste, and was so excited to see that they abide by these practices as well! The "Slow Food" movement has multiple meanings, but essentially promotes the delight of human activities and taking your time (which is very counterintuitive to today’s world of fast food and constant busyness). This plays out in everything from sourcing the ingredients (responsibly and with care, even if it happens less quickly) to preparing the ingredients, to taking your time while sitting down to a meal and enjoying it (and those around you!) without distractions or rush. We had a nice slow morning here indulging in our fresh açaí bowls, sipping Colombian coffee and enjoying the tranquil jazz soundtrack playing in the background. I loved supporting them and would encourage you to do the same (but plan ahead, this is one of the few spots that is cash only!)
Even though we had an entire week in Cartagena, there were still a handful of places I didn't get to try (as previously mentioned, the food scene here is simply exploding!) Next time I definitely plan on visiting:
Next time I want to try…
INTERNO (voted one of the top places to visit in the world, this recently-opened restaurant is famous for the employees, who are women currently imprisoned, but about to be released. Working here helps them gain skills that will benefit them as the reintegrate into society— plus I hear the food is delicious!)
OH LA LA (tried coming here for breakfast but they were closed for a cooking class)
LA VITROLA (one of the hardest reservations to get in town and frequented by tastemakers all around the world).
DEMENTE (a dimly lit "hipster haven" with a Spanish-tapas style menu)
VERA (we were meant to come here but traded it for DonJuan, which we heard we couldn't miss!)
Since we were staying for an entire week, we didn’t want to front the bill for a nice hotel (that adds up over 7 full days!) I found a more affordable Airbnb listing that kind of served as an “in-between” of the two: Soy Local Cartagena. It ended up surprising us with a lot of amenities we were really thankful for (24 hour front-desk staff, an elevator, etc.) but still saved us a lot of money compared to what we would have spent on a luxury hotel. The decor was cute, but still no-frills. Furthermore, it was in such a prime location (we could walk to EVERYTHING). For seven nights, we spent under $700 USD (and split that between the 2 of us, making it really affordable). If we were only staying a few days, perhaps we would have splurged more but I think this spot is so perfect if you’re looking for something more on the affordable end!
While I’m so glad we stayed here, I do think one of the perks to staying at a place like the Movich would have been access to their rooftop pool (while we did manage to get a pool day in, unfortunately it’s not open to the public- just the rooftop bar). Their pool in particular is just really amazing, but in the same breath I don’t think if I only stayed for a few days that I would have wanted to use my time at the pool- we only did so because we had a full week! There are pros and cons to consider on either end, but for me if I were to have picked a more upscale hotel option, it probably would be the Movich (which was less than a 5 minute walk from us- so equally as convenient of a location).
There’s lot more I could say about Cartagena, but a lot of how you plan your trip honestly depends on your personal preferences. Other than providing the information that I already have, the next thing I would suggest if you still have questions is to book a travel consulting session with me (which allows me to help cater the itinerary to your budget, timeline + other preferences! I planned this entire trip for Haley and I having not visited before, and I have loads more knowledge now having spent a full week that I’d be more than happy to talk through with you! You can learn more about my services and book a consulting session with me HERE.
Thanks as always for reading, and I hope this information helps guide you to colorful Cartagena!