My Favorite 13 Things to do in Cartagena
My Favorite 13 Things to do in Cartagena - Understand
Cartagena has several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is THE place for a beach vacation for Colombians. The town is split into the historic Old Town (Centro Historico), the sandy peninsula called Bocagrande where most hotels are, and the rather industrial port town of Cartagena. For most visitors, only Bocagrande and the Old Town are of relevance.
Cartagena gets a lot of sunshine and is usually sunny and very humid. There is the occasional afternoon shower, but it is less likely than in other tropical destinations.
The bad news is that's usually too hot to spend a decent amount of time outside during daytime hours. You are better off at the beach or the pool or inside with a powerful AC. The time to explore is just before or after sunset, when most places open in the Old Town; it's blocked off to private vehicles at night (but still jammed up by horse carriages and taxis) so prepare to walk then, however.
Colombia is great value right now (with an exchange rate of 1:3000) and prices are moderate. Great food and hotel rates are almost at US levels and most other things tend to be much cheaper than you may be used to.
Most staff and locals in Cartagena only speak Spanish and while credit cards are accepted everywhere (with no minimum), the banks will use Dynamic Currency Conversion for most credit card terminals by default. It's almost impossible to explain to a waiter what this is and what you would like him or her to do, so just count on the 3.5% charge before you sign that credit card slip.
My Favorite 13 Things to do in Cartagena - Safety
Bocagrande and the Old Town are extremely safe by Colombian standards. You won't have any safety issues during the day and minimal precautions are needed during the night.
My Favorite 13 Things to do in Cartagena - Get Around
Uber is in town and most rides are under $3. Both UberX and UberBLACK are cheap and so there really is no reason to engage in the hassle with taxi drivers or the crowded buses. However, both of these are safe as well in Bocagrande and the Old Town.
My Favorite 13 Things to do in Cartagena - Things to See
Cartagena Old Town
The Old Town of Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it's in fantastic shape. It shares lots of history with other Spanish colonial towns around the Caribbean.
The buildings are colorful and the city is chock full of everything that can get around the tiny one-way streets and on the minimal sidewalks. This also makes it a rough exploration, however, as there is always a crazy horse cart, a manic taxi driver or just an obnoxious ice cream seller behind you.
It's still worth the hassle, though, and especially so if you go on a cooler day and later in the afternoon.
There is no special navigation needed here - just follow your sense of direction to get around and mark these spots on the map. Always try to peek into the courtyards as they can be incredibly beautiful.
Plaza de San Pedro Claver
This pretty square has a lot of outside seating and the El Baron Cafe and Liquor Bar is a great place to relax in the afternoon or evening.
Plaza Santo Domingo
Another main square which you should head for when in the Old Town.
Palacio de la Inquisición
I never actually made it here, although I've always wanted to learn more about that grisly time. The building is one of Old Town's finest.
Plaza De La Trinidad
This square is a bit outside of the hectic and touristy Old Town and is the center of the more down-to-earth, hipster Barrio Getsemani.
My Favorite 13 Things to do in Cartagena - Eat & Drink
Colombia is not exactly a foodie's heaven, but Cartagena has some pretty upscale fine dining options that seem geared towards the tourist who has been everywhere. It's hard to find something geared towards locals that is fresh and cheap.
La Diva Pizzeria
This offshoot of the Bogota La Diva Pizzeria has serious style, although I was at loss to define it, as it is an eclectic mix of disco and Napoli. The staff are friendly and the pizzas large and original in taste.
Awesome-looking desserts await you at this Old Town bakery and the menu also has a large number of savory options. The food does not taste quite as good as it looks, but hey, let your eyes eat for you here!
Cafe San Alberto
I had high expectations for this 'third wave' coffee shop in the middle of Old Town. It looks great and the service was friendly, but, alas, it all fell apart when we tasted the coffee. It's just too acidic. I would go back and keep trying, though; that's how much I liked everything else here.
Restaurante Donjuán is likely the best rated restaurant in Cartagena Old Town - I did not make it there, but the reviews sound awesome. Give it a try, but take some patience!
Cafe Del Mar
Cafe Del Mar has a fantastic setting on the old city wall of Cartagena. It gets most of the ocean breeze, which makes the hot nights much more pleasurable here. True to its Ibiza theme, it has great DJs every night and the drinks are moderately priced.
El Baron Cafe and Liquor Bar
As mentioned above, this is an almost perfect cafe/bar; the setting is fantastic, the drinks are strong and the prices are moderate. How much better can it get?
In Bocagrande, you are largely limited to chain restaurant food or hotel food, though I liked the salads at Gokela and the espresso drinks at the two Juan Valdez outlets. Omnipresent Crepes & Waffles also has a solid outlet in a lovely old building. I felt that the sweet options were much better than the savory ones, though.
Cartegana is a great beach destination with a lovely Old Town and provides great value, especially compared to most pricey Caribbean destinations. It's not the 'real Colombia', but it's cleaner, safer and much easier to access than other places there. Get there before it goes full-scale touristy and looks like the rest of the Caribbean.