Cartagena and My Guide to Romancing the Stone

 

cartagena guide
Colorful Cartagena

As a visual person, I’m always drawn to colorful and vibrant destinations – one of my favorite trips ever was in 2013 to Morocco. Cartagena has been on my wishlist for years and when the opportunity presented itself to go this year, I was all in.

cartagena guide

cartagena guide

cartagena guide
Colorful streets of Cartagena

Cartagena is the perfect location  for 9-to-5ers tight on vacation time. The flight time is under 5 hours from the east coast and the city can be seen in a long weekend. There are also so many flight deals there! I landed in Medellin and used it as a starting point to hopscotch around Colombia. Via The Flight Deal, we scored tickets from NYC to Medellin for $271 roundtrip – and with our LAN & Avianca flights to both Bogotá and Cartagena, the total for airfare was under $530.  Not bad at all! When you take into account the exchange rate ($1USD = $2,900 COP) and the cheap cost of living, Cartagena is a enjoyable quick trip that can be done cheaply.

cartagena guide
Entering the walled city in Cartagena

Where to Stay

Within the Walled City is where you want to stay in Cartagena. Considered one of the safest areas in Cartagena – it also has a lot of great hotels!

We checked into our hotel and automatically I knew I picked the right hotel. The Bastion Luxury Hotel is centrally located within the Walled City of Cartagena, also known as the Old City. They greeted us with a freshly squeezed juice cocktail and although we had to wait for our rooms to be ready, they made sure we were comfortable.

cartagena guide
Lobby/Courtyard area of the Bastion. You can choose to have your included breakfast here or in the dining room.

In addition to the great breakfast at this hotel, there’s also a beautiful rooftop pool. The views are amazing and the it’s the perfect place to relax after a day of sightseeing in the sweltering heat.

cartagena guide
The rooftop pool at the Bastion! Oh how I wish I were still there.

Unbeknownst to me, we got a complimentary upgrade! Situated at the end of the hall,  the superior room is large & cavernous, with high ceilings and french doors opening to a small courtyard. After unpacking and refreshing, we set out to see what Cartagena had to offer.

cartagena guide
If you’re staying at the Bastion, upgrade to the Superior room – it’s worth it!

Other recommended hotels:

Sofitel Santa Clara

Tcherassi Hotel + Spa

What to Do in Cartagena

Our intro to the vivacious Cartagena way of life was quick – we stepped out of hotel into a wedding procession!

cartagena guide
You’re doing it big if you have dancers and men on stilts at your wedding!
cartagena guide
We stumbled across a wedding next door to our hotel!

There’s lots to do in Cartagena, but one of the best things to do is just walk around.

  1. Explore. We set out on foot on the narrow and oft-confusing streets, looking for nothing and everything at the same time.Cartagena is a full on sensory overload. Delicious scents of Colombian cuisine fill the air, wafting from restaurants and street carts. Salsa music blares from shop windows, and it’s not uncommon to see dancing in streets. Stop for a moment to take in the colors of the Caribbean – from the Palenque fruit sellers’ dresses to the architecture around you.
Cartagena guide
Cartagena is full of narrow streets where each building has its own flavor. If you get the chance to peek inside, you’ll see that many of the buildings are much bigger inside than they appear.

The Walled City of Cartagena is relatively small – with a couple of days clear of activities, you could explore the entire area.

cartagena guide

2. Check out the various markets within the Walled City. Like to shop? Then Cartagena is for you. Around every corner, there’s someone peddling their wares – food, sunglasses, bags, etc. There are several outdoor markets to visit – one of the most popular being Las Bóvedas. There you will find lots of handmade items and souvenirs (if that’s your thing). Check out all the stalls first – a lot of the stalls have similar items and you may find something cheaper down the way.

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cartagena guide
Las Bóvedas – do some shopping here!

There are also outdoor markets similar to street fairs you’d see in NYC. These markets carry different items than Las Bóvedas, and I liked these items more. The items tend to be cheaper as well. But don’t forget to bargain! No price is set in stone, so haggle to get a good deal!

3. Hit the beach! There are lots of beaches in or near Cartagena, including the famed Playa Blanca. If you don’t want to travel that far, there’s also the Bocagrande beach in Cartagena. This beach is teeming with activities, from volleyball to dancing.

cartagena guide
Magic hour at Bocagrande Beach, Cartagena

If you’d like to make your way to Playa Blanca and the Rosario Islands, there are plenty of ways to have a day trip to these gorgeous beaches. I did just that with my crew – more on that in an upcoming post!

cartagena guide
Isla Punta Arena – one of the Rosario Islands I saw on my trip

Things I Didn’t Do, but Recommend:

Mud Volcano

Palenque tour (this tour is a must for people of African descent! Check out why, here.)

Where to Eat in Cartagena

I had lots of good meals in Cartagena – some places we stumbled upon and others were recommendations.

cartagena guide

Our first night, we ventured outside of the Walled City to Demente, a restaurant in Getsemani. Our cab ride was “interesting” to say the least – not only did our driver get super lost, but he was driving us around on E the entire time! Our meal at Demente made up for it. Located off of Plaza De La Trinidad, there’s a lot to keep you entertained if you sit near the window. Even if you don’t, you can enjoy the kitschy artwork scattered on the walls – you’ll have fun picking out the familiar faces (hint: they’re all portraits of random famous people – from Edgar Allen Poe to Lady Gaga). There’s also a backyard with a biergarten, if that’s more your style. We all opted for different dishes and no one was disappointed!

If you’re a meatlover, you’ll love Marzola Parrilla Argentina Steakhouse. What first drew my friends to this place was it’s exterior – it’s decorated with mirrors of all shapes and sizes.

cartagena guide
The restaurant’s exterior is definitely attention grabbing!

If you walk by the restaurant at night, the intoxicating smell wafting from the outside grill will undoubtedly draw you in. I was in a celebratory mood that night and ordered one of their large meat platters. I’m not sure I’ve ever had that much meat in my LIFE, but all of it was tasty. Nothing was overcooked or undercooked and it was seasoned to perfection. Also, if you’re craving some Malbec on your trip, you know this is the place to go! Another cute touch – the menu is written on wine bottles!

cartagena guide
Onions, peppers and a rack of ribs being cooked out front on the grill – I’m hungry just looking at this!

Two of the ladies on my trip also traveled to Peru with me in 2014. Being back on the continent together had us craving Chifa, a Peruvian/Chinese fusion cuisine that we loved in Lima. Next thing you know, we’re headed to Peru Fusion! In my attempts to keep it 100 at all times, I must admit that the service at Peru Fusion was slow slow SLOW. Maybe they were just upping our appetite for what was to come? Peru Fusion is ranked as one of the top 10 restaurants in Cartagena according to Trip Advisor and once we got our food, I could understand the ranking. The menu is huge, so you may get overwhelmed!

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Recommendations I Didn’t Try:
Alma
Espirit du Santo

Where to Hang/Chill/Party

Everyone knows about Cafe Havana – it’s a legendary spot in Cartagena – even Hillary Clinton did a two-step there! If you’re not into salsa, it’s not the place for you. We ended up skipping this spot and going to a few others.

For a Low-Key Rooftop Night

cartagena guide
The view from Mirador Cafe Bar

Mirador Cafe Bar is one of the top 10 nightclubs on TripAdvisor for Cartagena. It came highly recommended from our young hotel concierge. How did I like it? The views of Cartagena were beautiful – Mirador is right near the front of the wall, so you can see beyond the walled city and even a partial water view. However if you’re looking to turn up, I don’t suggest you come here. Mirador is great place to have a drink with a nice view – but make sure you come with a group of friends because that’s the only people you’ll be socializing with. There’s no stand up bar area, so you’re shown to a seated area for your group. The night we went, the crowd seemed to be lots of local groups of friends, either celebrating life events or having low-key evening. Mirador did play great music – a mix of Colombian hip hop that we hadn’t heard other places. That was my favorite thing about it! We discovered so many artists that night!

 

If You Want Something Out of the Norm

Across from the Bastion hotel, there’s a little bar called KGB.Before you freak out – it stands for Koffee Gallery Bar! But honestly, who are they kidding? KGB is the type of bar you’d never see in the States, as it’s decorated with KGB uniforms, articles, even dummies wearing gas masks. The tv in the bar plays (on a loop) archival black and white Russian newsreel videos. To be honest, I was a little freaked out. The decor was a bit much, but the vibe is chill and it’s a great place to kick back after dinner. Don’t believe me? Check out KGB’s instagram and see for yourself. If you’re completely confused by this whole thing and have no idea who the KGB are – check out this link for starters.

To be honest, I wasn’t blown away by Cartagena’s nightlife. We tried several other places and between super long waits, exorbitant covers and rude run-ins, Cartagena’s nightlife wasn’t for us. If you have a suggestion on where I should go for my next visit, please let me know!

cartagena guide
Living off the wall 🙂

Check out my other post about the 10 Best Things I Ate in Colombia!

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