Cartagena (3-4 days) is Colombia’s Caribbean pearl and unquestionably the most beautiful and picturesque town in Colombia with otherwordly good food to top things off! I loved the cCrribbean flair, the colors, the good vibes, the abundance of excellent restaurants, and colonial buildings. Only downside? The cruise ships and herds of tourists! While Cartagena is without a doubt an adorable place, it is also one of the most overcrowded (and unfortunately expensive) places, if you happen to be around on a day a cruise ship docks. On days like these, there is no getting through in the small streets of the old town, there are long lines in front of restaurants, and the small shops are jam-packed with gringos eager to buy Panama hats (which are actually produced in Ecuador, but nobody seemed to care anyway). This changes in a blink of an eye as soon as the ships are gone and everything goes back to normal. So here’s a pro tip for you: do yourself a favor and plan a couple of days around town and ask the locals about the days the cruise ships dock to plan your activities accordingly.
A brief bit of history (spoiler alert: pirates!)
Cartagena was officially founded by the Spaniards around 1533, after various indigenous groups had left the place to settle elsewhere. After the word spread that gold had been found in tombs of indigenous people, Cartagena experienced its first wave of immigration, allowing it to grow into a small town. Spain decided one day (in 1561, in case you wanted to know) that Cartagena was a major port, which led to remarkable funds from the Spanish crown and an influx of pirates. After one of the first pirate attacks, the city started to build walls around the town and became known as the walled city. The walls understandably took some years (over half a century, to be precise) to complete and some of the most famous pirate attacks like the one from infamous Francis Drake took place while those walls where being built. After the completion of the walls, Cartagena became known as one of the best-protected towns in the Spanish Empire. You can still visit the city walls and see the remnants of this interesting time in history when you walk around the old town.
What to do
In Cartagena, just as in Santa Marta, the heat can become almost unbearable during the day and your activities should be planned around the morning or late afternoon hours if you don’t want to melt in place.
So what should you do while in Cartagena? There aren’t a lot of things to do, actually. And this might very well be what makes this place so charming. There is a public parc with a sloth family, some monkeys, and an iguana, that will keep you entertained for an hour or so (if you like those kinds of animals). I’m not a huge animal-loving person, but the sloths sightings in the park turned out to be the best ones we’ve had in whole of Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. And since Oliver loooooves sloths, we spent
way too much time trying to find them 😉
There’s also a castle you can visit and from where you’ll have a great view, as well as a walking tour.
You don’t have to pack your days with lots of activities and you’ll have (or take) the time to just wander the streets, sit in little cafes, watch life go by while sipping on a beer or ice-cold, freshly pressed lime juice.
I fell in love with colorful doors, walls and windows in Colombia and Cartagena proved to be an endless source of photo ops, which might one day become a separate blog post, if I get around to sorting through the thousands of pictures. Here’s already a small sample of what you can expect around Cartagena.
Where to eat
What you should definitively do while you’re in Cartagena is this: EAT! There is a myriad of world-class restaurants in town and one is seriously better than the other. We usually had to skip lunch because of the heat, but once the sun goes down and temperatures settle to an agreeable level, there was no stopping us! Since you’re at the sea, I’d recommend eating as much fish and sea food as you can possibly fit into your stomach and – trust me on this one – never EVER leave out a chance to eat Ceviche! I’ve had some of the best Ceviche along the Caribbean coast and loved every single one – and never got sick!)
To spare you from bad experiences, here are some restaurant recommendations:
- El Kilo – awesome fish and meat restaurant
- Cevicheria Trattoria Donde Wippy – Ceviche and Italian food, two of my favorite foods combined
- Beiyu – great breakfast or coffee stop
- Di Silvio Trattoria – bretty good Pizza option, if you get tired of all the fish
- La Perla – absolutely delicious fish!
If you get the impression, we only ate fish and Italian food in Cartagena, you’re in fact absolutely right. I honestly couldn’t pass up an opportunity to eat fresh fish, ceviche or – finally available – fresh pasta!
If you’re not on a tight budget, or simply love delicious food, I’d recommend you read the blog post about Cartagena’s food scene from my friends Veronika and Martin, who have slightly gone mad about the food in Cartagena and write about it in this post (Unlike me, they usually even take pictures of their food before they eat it ;-))