What To Expect In A Visit To Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena fort

Cartagena, Colombia as shown above is a city of interesting contrasts and extensive history as viewed from the Walled City.

I now count Cartagena, Colombia as a “must visit” destination and here’s what you might expect. Located on Colombia’s North Caribbean Coast in the Bolivar District, Cartagena is Colombia’s 5th largest city, and arguably its most popular travel destination with so many engaging unique qualities and extensive history.

Cartagena is a uniquely delightful mix of the Caribbean, South American, Spanish, and African cultures and quickly brings to mind the best of New Orleans, the Caribbean, Colombian, and even a bit of Africa with miles of beaches and more than 400 years as one of the Western Hemisphere’s most strategic and storied cities. Besides, who doesn’t gravitate to a friendlier mix of folks and urban Caribbean beaches?

Conrad Cartagena Beach Club mod 2

Cartagena sits on the Caribbean and it’s beaches enjoy warm waters. Shown above is the beach at the Conrad Cartagena just twenty minutes north of downtown though the urban center also features an extensive beachfront.

The city features two totally different vibes, looks, and experiences with the old Walled City standing in stark contrast to the modernized Boca Grande neighborhood comprised of nightclubs, stores, and luxury hotels reaching toward the sky. Its impressive skyline is reminiscent of Rio de Janero. For what it’s worth, I much preferred the former and suggest you will too. While the Boca Grande neighborhood features areas of wealth, the beaches and sidewalks tend to be crowded and a bit less attractive. Nonetheless, wonderful eating opportunities and nightlife with Afro-Latin-Cuban rhythms exist in both areas making for some of the city’s favorite activities.

If you are staying at least four days in Cartagena, I’d recommend that you spend three of them in the Walled City to include a “walking tour” versus several hours in the modern portion. This old city is truly an impressive fortified place with over nine miles of walls – far larger than I had anticipated!

GetsemaniMural 2

Artists freely exhibit their work for sale in the up-and-coming section of the Walled City called Getsemani.

This fortress was built by the Spaniards over 120 years and helped to establish Cartagena as the colonial capital and military stronghold throughout the colonization period of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The inside is made up of stunning colonial architecture, amazing colors, vibrant shops, and restaurants, and narrow cobblestone streets utilized primarily by pedestrians and passing horse drawn carriages. The historic district in conjunction with El Castillo de San Felipe were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1984.

Yes, your taste buds will be excited for your Cartagena stay. Perhaps it is not as daunting a task as attempting to sample all the restaurants in New York City or San Francisco, but it seems as if there are so many options and cuisines in Cartagena. I felt the area to be “The Land of Ceviche” and you could easily do a ceviche tour. All were good, but locals pointed to that at La Cevicheria within the Walled City as the as the Holy Grail of local seafood dishes.


Cande is but one of many outstanding restaurants you might choose from in the Walled City. (Photo courtesy of Cande)

Suffice it to say that the culinary variety of Cartagena is richly diverse and features a fusion cuisine, combining ingredients from its African, Caribbean, and Indigenous roots as well as the food brought by Arabic and Spanish immigrants. You will even find Cuban and Italian and, of course, traditional Colombian restaurants as well.

You will often feast on dishes like fish and shellfish accompanied with coconut rice, fried plantain, and salad. The area also boasts a wide range of exotic fruits including sweet coconut, mango, pineapple, papaya, and guava among others which are sold by the palenqueras, the iconic fruit vendors that walk around the streets or beaches carrying a bowl of fruits so gracefully on their heads.

Getsemani Fruit Vendor

The weather is usually Colombia’s warmest, warm year round with little change due to its proximity to the Equator and the Caribbean. The beaches are counted among the best in Colombia with the bath water temperature of the Caribbean though the color is dark and not crystal clear and blue as elsewhere in the Caribbean. The water is to the west of the City so the sun sets over it.

While water activities such as scuba, sailing, and snorkeling are available, the water within the City is not as clean as it is elsewhere on the Caribbean, due to the Cartagena’s somewhat antiquated water treatment infrastructure. Colombia offers world renowned diving at extremely affordable prices, but if you decide to make this a focus of your trip, you would probably be better served to travel to Santa Marta/Taganga, or the Islands of San Andres y Providencia.

TPC Cartagena 18G Sunset

The sun is setting over the Caribbean at the TPC Cartagena at Karibana. The facility is the only TPC golf course in South America and was designed by the (Jack) Nicklaus Design. The challenge features two very distinctly different looks with the first nine holes situated in the flat, forest before concluding right on the Caribbean.

There are numerous recommended excursions with boat tours to the Rosario Islands or sunset boat trips around the Cartagena harbor being popular.

Art lovers will want to visit two different spots in Old Town. The Cartagena Museum of Modern Art is located in the former Customs House in the Plaza San Pedro de Claver. It features huge canvases, Technicolor graphics, powerful sculptures, and intricate mixed-media installations by Colombian artists. Secondly, visit the nearby NH Galeria, a glassy, modern gallery stocked with cutting-edge, tongue-in-cheek works by artists who largely hail from Colombia, as well as South America and Europe. And don’t neglect to visit the Getsemani section of the Walled City. Artists’ work populate the sidewalks and walls here in what used to be the impoverished area and is gradually being artfully gentrified.

Getsemani Umbrellas

I found the Getsemani area of the Walled City to reflect the vibrant colors and artistry of the Caribbean and the carefree, creative ambiance of New Orleans.

As with the neighboring communities, the family unit is an important element of life in Cartagena as well as Colombia, especially when compared to the more independent relationships in North America, and the Cartagena natives like to think they are the most friendly and outgoing folks in Colombia.

The Colombian Peso is the official currency, but U.S. dollars are accepted throughout. And while it helps to be able to speak at least a little Spanish, English is spoken at most of the major hotels and many restaurants may have an English translation menu.

Cartagena Cathedral 1

The Walled City features history, character, and color at every turn.

The Cartagena Film Festival, or FICCI, is Latin America’s longest running film festival running every year in March since 1959. The festival draws people from all over Latin America.

Hotel lodging exists in three primary choices – the high-rise chains in the modern section, upscale boutique units in the Walled City. (The Hotel Sofitel Legend is considered by many to be the finest in Colombia.) The third option is the more secluded expansive beach resorts in the countryside just to the North. I quite enjoyed the Conrad Cartagena there during my initial visit.

Conrad Carta Pool

You will discover 5-star luxury at the Conrad Cartagena.

Though Cartagena is considered very safe, be prepared for some aggressive panhandling. As always, when traveling, it also pays to watch out for pickpockets. At the present, Colombia is challenged by the mass immigration of those fleeing adjacent Venezuela so be cognizant of that. Be advised that prostitution is not uncommon in the early morning hours and police seem to target the tourists who approach them

The airport is on the north end of Cartagena and has been refurbished. You will discover direct flights there from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, New York, Atlanta, Lima, Panama City, Madrid, Paris, and Amsterdam, along with Bogata, Medellin, and Cali in Colombia. With its growth in tourism, more direct flights are likely.

So there, you have a bit of information to get you acquainted with Cartagena, Colombia. Better yet, visit there!

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