Your ultimate travel guide to Cartagena.
I thought that I knew what to expect from Cartagena, by looking at photos and reading different blog post while doing research. My experience in Cartagena went above and beyond what I could have ever expected from the moment that I arrived.
Where to stay:
Let’s go ahead and get this one out of the way. Remember that Secret Service scandal, involving some ladies of the night in Cartagena before President Obama‘s arrival? Well, that is where we stayed. Hotel Caribe is the oldest hotel in the Bocagrande area of Cartagena and it was fabulous! With a 5 star category, this luxury hotel in Bocagrande is considered one of the national monuments of Cartagena de Indias, due to its spectacular colonial architecture with a Spanish style and big corridors and arches, its gardens and historical elements. Be sure to schedule time in your itinerary, to enjoy the hotel and it’s amenities.
What to do:
I definitely wish that I had more time to spend in Cartagena, and I do plan on going back, but I maximized the moment and saw as much as I could while we were there.
Take a stroll through the walled city and enjoy the sights and sounds of the locals. The walled city is absolutely gorgeous and is filled with so much history. I would recommend that you take a walking tour so that you can get a quick overview of the history, then stay down there a little longer and explore the area on your own. Take a 5 minute walk outside of the walls and enter Getsemaní. Getsemaní is the neighborhood that African slaves lived in when they landed in Colombia. This neighborhood is life! The streets are filled with brown people dancing, eating, drinking and living their best lives, on any day of the week. Beautiful murals cover the walls and help add to the party atmosphere. Getsemaní is the definition of being free.
End your day by enjoying a mojito and watching the sunset at Cafe Del Mar.
I searched high and low for companies in Cartagena, that would provide a customized tour, that would take me exactly where I wanted to go and give me the cultural experience that I was looking for. Alex Rocha of “Experience Real Cartagena” came highly recommend from several travel groups that I follow. I reached out to Alex via Facebook messenger, and told him what I wanted to do for the day and he responded almost immediately to let me know that he could make it happen. Alex also quoted the best price.
I paid a deposit online to secure our date and everything was set! I checked in with Alex on the day before we arrived in car Cartagena and we were good to go. Around 8 AM that morning, Alex‘s son-in-law Boris, picked us up from the hotel and drove us to the mud volcano. The treatment that we received was top notch from the beginning until the end. We are arrived at the mud volcano and were the only ones there. We had the whole place to ourselves and he even took us through a few indigenous communities along the way. There are so many mixed reviews on the mud volcano. Some people think it is the nastiest thing ever and others are annoyed with the amount of tipping that has to take place. We had a wonderful experience and took advantage of the massages. We felt like we were at the spa for the day. The tips that we gave were earned and I appreciated. The people at the volcano did everything for us from caring our clothes, taking photos and videos, to giving us a good scrub down and making sure that the mud was gone from our bodies and clothing.
Our next stop was the beach! Now there is a beach of sorts that many people within the city of Cartagena visit, but it is not nearly as beautiful as Playa Blanca. The trip from the mud volcano to Playa Blanca Was about a one and a half hour drive. We had a car to ourselves and we were able to relax and enjoy the countryside along the way. On our hey there, our guide Boris stopped to let us try the best empanadas in the city. We also stopped at several Afro Colombian communities that had been established hundreds of years ago when the slaves were freed. We were able to get out and speak with the people in the town and support their local economy.
Playa Blanca was absolutely gorgeous. It was crystal clear blue water and white sand for miles. Our private tour including lunch that was prepared freshly for us by one of the local merchants. We had fish, rice, plantains and the best fresh squeezed juice. Our tour also included our beach chairs and umbrellas. We only had to bring our towels. The only thing that I regret, is not having one whole day to just relax at the beach. The time that we had there just makes me want to go back for more.
Alex‘s tour company also operates a party bus each night that is called a “Chiva”. We didn’t really have anything planned for the night but knew that we wanted to go out. We traveled to Cartagena with an amazing group of people that all got along so well. I reached out to them and everyone wanted to come. We booked about 12 spots on the Chiva bus for that night. The bus picked us up around 8 PM, right outside of the walled city. We did not really know what to expect, but we were in for a treat. The party bus experience came with an open bar, that served us Colombian rum and Coke the whole night and it included a stop at a local park where we had Afro Colombian dance lessons from a group of people from Venezuela. We got back on the bus and it took us to a club where we danced for another hour or so after that. Four hours of straight drinking and partying for only $20! Riding the Chiva is a must do while you are in Cartagena.
Where to eat:
I never had a bad meal during my visit to Colombia and could not get enough of the fresh seafood. There was a hut on the beach directly across from our hotel in Cartagena, that had the best Mojito that I had ever tasted and fresh red snapper.
Besides Café Del Mar, I would recommend having dinner at Café Havana. Go late, and end the night by dancing salsa.
Alquimico is a beautiful restaurant that serves tapas and craft cocktails. I know, it sounds fancy and expensive. It was definitely fancy, but very cheap! I had a drink, shared an entrée and had dessert for only US$12, with the tip included. One drink will cost $12 in the states!
I enjoyed my time in Cartagena so much, that I am already looking at my schedule to see when I can make another trip. I will be adding Medellin to the list as well.
I hope that this guide helps you with your planning. Happy travels!