White sand beaches, fiery sunsets over the ocean, salsa and reggae dancing – Colombia’s coastal city of Cartagena de Indias is the perfect getaway for those wanting to experience a tropical vacation while staying within a reasonable budget.
Recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cartagena is perfectly tailored for savvy explorers, combining history, terrific food, a friendly atmosphere and beach weather with the prices of a developing country.
Located on the northern coast of Colombia on the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena was once a haven for the freed African slaves of Central and South America, making the city an ethnic melting pot of Latino, African and Caribbean cultures. Just as dramatic is the city’s history as a Spanish colony defending itself against pirate attacks, earning it the nickname “Cartagena, la Heroica.”
The main sites of Cartagena can be found inside the Walled City, a labyrinth of restaurants, shops, bars, cathedrals and museums with colorful Republican and Baroque architecture that is a mix of Havana and New Orleans. An entire day can be spent simply exploring the area inside the walls, chatting with the locals, shopping for handicrafts and tasting street food. “Las Palenqueras,” or street vendors, are extremely friendly and often happy to pose for photos – especially the women in traditional garb walking around with bowls of mangos on their heads – it’s generally good karma to buy something or offer them money for it. Alternatively, there are places all over the city to rent bikes, generally around $2 – $3 an hour. Cartagena is the ideal city for bike-riding, being flat and practically without hills, and if you go for a ride up around the wall you may even be able to escape the heat for a short while.
For those interested in the cultural side of Cartagena, there are quite a few museums in the Walled City, all within easy walking distance of each other. The Gold Museum and Emerald Museum are both worth a visit if you’re interested in the history of pre-Hispanic Colombia as told from an artistic and archaeological standpoint – the Gold Museum is free, and admission to the Emerald Museum is $3 for adults. The Museum of Modern Art, which costs $2.50 to enter ($1 for students and seniors), is a small, intimate exhibit of artwork by Colombian artists, and provides a fascinating insight into the lives and values of people from Cartagena and the surrounding countryside. For the more militarily inclined, you can visit Castillo de San Felipe, a military fortress built in the 17th century to defend the city against pirates (Admission $9).
There are many century-old churches and cathedrals inside the wall, including Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, Iglesia de Santo Domingo and La Catedral, which is right across from the Gold and Emerald Museums on Plaza de Bolivar. These are free for tourists to enter, but keep in mind that they are still functioning churches.
Sooner or later in Cartagena, you will have to hit the beaches. For the quintessential island experience, book a day trip to Playa Blanca. Most tours booked in advance will cost $25 – $30 with a traditional lunch included, but if you ask around on the street you can bargain down to $20. Just make sure you have all the details ironed out beforehand or the tour guides may try to charge you for a “docking fee,” or you may end up going without lunch. Playa Blanca, while packed with vendors trying to sell handmade jewelry, coral and coco locos (coconuts filled with rum cocktails, delicious and dangerous), is undeniably beautiful, and if you wish to stay overnight there are plenty of beach cabins to rent from islanders. The Islas del Rosario are a chain of islands, which most Playa Blanca tours will also briefly visit. They are surrounded by coral reefs ideal for snorkeling, and a more thorough trip to the Islas can be booked through your hotel or tourist agencies throughout the city. For a less costly trip to the beach, Bocagrande is a short walk from the Walled City, though overshadowed by a strip of high rise condominiums. Here you are sure to be accosted by very persistent vendors and women offering massages, but if you tell them, “No, gracias,” enough they will leave you alone.
Eating & Drinking
No visit to Cartagena is complete without sampling its intense fusion of Latin-Caribbean food. Luckily, food in the city is pervasive and inexpensive, from the high-end restaurants specializing in everything from Creole dishes to Peruvian cuisine to gourmet thin-crust pizza to the street vendors selling char-grilled shish-kebabs of beef and vegetables to the empañadas deep-fried in front of you. A must for those new to South American food is a seafood dish cebiche, originally from Peru, which has spread to coastal cities all across the continent. It consists of raw seafood, such as shrimp, lobster or octopus, marinated in fresh lime juice and garnished with finely minced onions and cilantro. You can buy it anywhere in the city, but beware of vendors selling it on the beach; their coolers aren’t properly refrigerated, which can lead to spoiling.
If you want to sit down to a hot meal, practically every restaurant and café in the city offers a house lunch running from 12pm – 3pm, offering soup, your choice of chicken, beef or a filet of fish, (it’s best to opt for the fish, which is bound to be the supremely fresh), plus salad, coconut rice and some variety of fried plantain. Within the Walled City, you can buy most of these for around $5; you can find them cheaper outside the wall, but the amount of walking you do might not make up for the dollar saved. And, of course, the pride of Cartagena is its limitless variety of fruits. Vendors on the street will sell you whole fruits, cups of mango wedges, watermelon slices, fruit salads of pineapple, melon and papaya, and exotic fruits that are virtually unseen in the United States. All of these can be sampled for around a dollar a piece, as well as fresh fruit juices that you can find in any café or shop. Tap water in Colombia is perfectly safe to drink, so there is no need to worry about drinks mixed with local ice or water. You can also order a batido, which is fruit puree mixed with milk to get a sort of smoothie.
The nightlife of Cartagena is second to none; for a city that experiences sweltering temperatures from dawn to dusk, night is when people go out for drinks and dancing until late. Salsa, of course, is the national dance of Colombia, and every local you meet will seem to be an expert at it. Many of them will be eager to give you an off-the-cuff salsa lesson out on the dance floor, but it might be a good idea to take dance lessons for $10 to $35 an hour, depending on whether you want private or group classes.
There are plenty of bars and clubs within the walled city, but for a real taste of Cartagena’s vibrant nightlife, you’ll have to visit Getsemaní, the bohemian neighborhood a five-minute walk outside of the Torre del Reloj, a yellow section in the wall that leads to the outer city. A bit rougher than the center of town, Getsemaní is safer visited in a group during the night, though during the day it’s fine. There you will find Calle Media Luna, a long strip of café-bars, discotheques and music venues alive with tourists, locals and palenqueras grilling food for passersby. If you wish to sample the local drinks, try anything with rum or aguardiente, a clear anise-flavored liquor. Many bars will offer specials on Mojitos and Cuba Libres, and if you’ve never tried a caipirinha, (technically Brazilian, but adopted by the rest of Latin America), which is a cocktail made of squeezed limes, ice and cachaça, a drink made of fermented sugar cane juice, you’re in for a treat.
Where To Eat
La Cocina de Carmela (San Diego Calle del Santisimo #8-10)
Serves traditional gourmet Colombian food at around $12 per dish
El Boliche Cebicheria (Centro Historico, San Diego, Calle Cochera del Hobo #38-17)
Serves some of the best cebiche in Cartagena
Quebracho (Centro Historico, Calle Baloco #2-69, Website)
Traditional Argentinian restaurant, dishes around $18
Krioyo (Calle de la Mantilla #3-49)
Serves fresh seafood cebiche and fish filets
Where To Stay
Casa Marta Cartagena
Carrera 10 (Calle San Antonio) #25-165 Getsemaní, Website
Room for four, one king sized, two twin beds from $105
Hotel Casa del Curato
Carrera 7 #38-89 Barrio San Diego, Website
Double rooms from $135, Suites from $170
Hotel Boutique Cochera de Hobo
Calle Cochera de Hobo #38-55 Barrio San Diego Centro Historico, Website
Rooms from $130
Hotel 3 Banderas
CalleCochera de Hobo #38-66 Barrio San Diego Centro Historico, Website
Standard room from $100, Suite from $160
Getting There: Flying to Cartagena is a fast and easy trip from anywhere in the United States, with Spirit Airlines offering round-trip flights through Fort Lauderdale from $500. Similarly, Copa Airlines and Lan offer inexpensive flights into Cartagena. Alternatively, there are several private ferries you can take from Colon, Panama to Cartagena. A one-way ticket can range from $375 to $500 and the trip can take five days, so this is only for the more adventurous. A taxi to the historic center will cost about $4.50.
Visas: Americans do not need visas to visit Colombia for stays less than 90 days. Be prepared to show proof of departing flight when arriving at immigration.
Getting Around: Cartagena is best explored on foot or by bicycle, but for those wishing for a more idyllic approach combined with a personal tour of the walled city, you can hire a horse-drawn carriage to take you up and down the streets. Buses run throughout various parts of the city and are quite cheap, as are taxis. Colectivos are taxis which run fixed routes in the city center, and you can travel in one for around $1 to $2. For private taxis in the city center, it is best to negotiate the fare before you get in as they don’t run on a meter, or else you may end up paying something exorbitant.
Safety: Colombia has made a remarkable turnaround in the past twenty years, developing from one of the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere to being perfectly safe for tourists. The majority of guerrilla activity has been quelled, and what remains exists only in distant, rural pockets of the country. That being said, treat Cartagena like you would treat any large city—exercise caution at all times, carry your purse hanging over your neck rather than off one shoulder, and if you can, carry money in a money belt. Do not brandish expensive cameras or jewelry in the streets, and keep an eye out for pickpockets, especially late at night. And, obviously, stay away from drugs at all times—Colombia is only just recovering from decades of terrorism perpetrated by its drug cartels and any involvement by foreigners with the drug trade will be dealt with very severely by police. Speaking of police, it is within their rights to search the bags of any person at any time and they will sometimes target foreigners, especially at night. If this occurs, there is no need to panic—just cooperate and show them whatever papers you have. Given the possibility of pickpocketing, it is unwise to carry your actual passport around with you, so a color photocopy will be enough, and the police will let you go your way.
Health: There are some mosquitoes in Cartagena, but they are an annoyance more than anything. There is no risk of either malaria or yellow fever, so you don’t need to worry about vaccines or tablets unless you’re planning to travel elsewhere in Colombia. However, it may be worthwhile to bring bug repellent with you as many restaurants and clubs in the city are open air. You should also be aware that if you arrive during the summer, basically December to March and then July to August, you will be subjected to temperatures of 90+ degrees, with humidity of around 80%. While most hotels have air conditioning, make sure you wear loose, breathable clothes and lots of sunblock while walking around in the city.
Currency: $1 USD is equivalent to roughly 1,900 Colombian pesos. (An easy way to translate prices is to take the Colombian price, cut it in half, and ignore the last three digits.) ATMs are easy to find scattered throughout the city and most of them should take American and European bank cards. The foreign transaction fees vary. Credit cards are not widely used except in more expensive, upscale restaurants and boutiques, so make sure you have enough cash with you.
Language: Spanish, but many people in the city speak some English.
Tipping: Tipping in Colombia depends on the type of establishment – some add a service charge of 10 – 15% (look for the word “propina”). Leave 1,000 or 2,000 in a casual restaurant, 10% in high-end restaurants. Taxi drivers don’t expect tips. Tip hotel staff as in the U.S.