The starting point for my almost-a-month in Colombia, Cartagena is a bustling tourist destination that welcomes guests from around South America and the rest of the world. I spent a total of almost six days in this colonial city– here are some of the highlights.
Cartagena is on Caribbean coast of Colombia and, as a result, seafood is a tasty and popular options. If you’re hungry and on a budget search out a typical Colombian set lunch: a whole fried fish, rice, fried plantains, a bit of salad and sometimes beans. It’s hearty, tasty and will fill you right up.
Colombian street food mostly consists of arepas, which remind me of flat cornbread, and often have cheese and/or an egg in them; papas rellenos, which are like potato croquettes stuffed with various ingredients; fresh fruit like mango, watermelon or papaya. There are other treats (mostly fried), but these are available almost everywhere and worth a sample. For great ceviche, head to La Cevecheria–it’s pricey, but excellent.
For you dessert lovers, never fear. Gelato (el helado in Spanish) can be found in local flavors like Lulo, Uchuva adn others at Gelateria Paradiso and other shops. However, I stumbled upon La Paletteria, which has ice cream pops in wonderful flavors–try the guanabanana con arrequipe. You won’t be disappointed.
Cartagena is a beautiful city and one of the best ways to admire the skyline is with a drink in hand. I’m a huge fan of rooftop bars (or, really, anywhere with great views) and I found several new favorites in Cartagena. Cafe de Mar is located in the top of the wall and has great views in addition to potent sangria; seek out the Movich Hotel and take the elevator to the top floor for spectacular vistas in a swanky atmosphere. For great people watching, grab a table in front of Donde Fidel and enjoy the show– it’s a main thoroughfare and you never know who–or what–you might see. Perhaps one of the most unique bar locations that we visited was inside the El Coro Bar at Hotel Sofitel Legend Santa Clara. A converted convent, the crypt is located inside the bar; you can take a peek before you enjoy one of their expertly made martinis.
Getsemaní is a popular neighborhood for backpackers and, as a result, there are plenty of places to enjoy 2 for 1 cocktails. However, if you want something a bit more quirky and memorable, head to Demente, a new bar with great decor, tapas and a dedication to spirits right on the Plaza de Trinidad.
While Cali is known as the salsa capital of the world, there are still opportunities to dance in Cartagena. Perhaps the best known spot is Club Havana, which hosts live music on the weekends. Despite its minuscule dance floor, you’ll still find plenty of people showing off their salsa skills. Donde Fidel also has a small dance floor, but it seems like the couples were drawn together due to pecuniary reasons rather than just a love of salsa. Of course, if you can’t find a spot with other people dancing, just make up your own. We hosted an impromptu dance party at a couple of bars in the city and once in the street.
Cartagena is more than just drinking and dancing, though. Make sure to explore the history of the city at one of the many museums. I particularly enjoyed the Cathedral de San Pedro Claver and the Museum of the Inquisition, but maybe I’m just a bit gruesome. One of things that makes Cartagena unique is its African influences which come, unfortunately, through slavery. For a unique perspective on the Afro-Colombian history of Cartagena, check out Ekua’s post here.
There are plenty of opportunities to get out of the city, too. To escape the heat, head out to the Islas del Rosario, where you’ll find white sand beaches, turquoise water and lots of interesting swimwear. Just make sure to tell the taxi driver that you want to go to the tourist port–we inadvertently ended up where the commercial tankers dock.
A messy, but fun, tourist trap is the trip to El Totumo Mud Volcano. For about $25 USD, you’ll get transportation to the volcano (which looks like an anthill), the opportunity to immerse yourself in suspicious grey goo and lunch at the beach afterwards. Not included: tips for the guys who watch your shoes; $1.50 for the guy who will hold your camera and take pictures; $1.50 for the lady who will, without hesitation, try to get you buck naked to get all the mud off after you’re ushered out of the volcano. These ladies were serious about the mud removal. I’m just glad that I’m short and could duck (mostly) under the water. My tall friends? Not so lucky. Or maybe just less modest. Potential nakedness aside, it’s still a fun time a worthwhile day trip.
The Chiva Bus is a completely touristy thing to do, but so much fun. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew that it involved make-‘em-yourself Cuba Libres, a band, and a rickety bus traversing the streets of Cartagena. It’s an apt description, but doesn’t depict the country versus country dance-offs (we were the only people from the US on the bus, and the only English speakers), the stop at the wall with more dancing, and the general good natured frivolity that we encountered. Not just for youngsters, there were plenty of older folks (think grandma and grandpa) that knew how to shake it with the best of them.
The Media Luna Hostel in Getsemaní is fantastic– it has a pool, rooftop bar and is located in a great old home–but it’s missing one thing: air conditioning. It’s sweltering in Cartagena right now, so air-con was a must. If you’re more acclimated than I am, it would be worth your while to check it out. We stayed in El Viajero in the city center for the other nights, which was nice and frosty while sleeping. If you’re planning on going to sleep before midnight, ask for a room far from the bar as the music is pumping until late in the evening.
Have you been to Cartagena? What did I miss?