Travel Colombia. The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Cartagena

The Andes, the street art in the capital city of Bogota and picking red coffee cherries are the reasons that brought me to Colombia. A friend reasoned that if I visit Colombia, I have to see Cartagena too. Glad I followed his sage advice. A holiday in Cartagena conjures up images of colourful and picturesque streets. Cartagena is a dream come true for fans of city trips and the Caribbean lifestyle. When travelling to Colombia at least one week in Cartagena is a must. My friend said three days would do it and I'm glad I didn't believe a word. I found that the best way to explore Cartagena, a UNESCO world heritage site, is to get lost while walking her pretty streets. 

Travel Colombia. The Complete Beginners guide to Cartagena de Indias

Cartagena in the 16th Century

Ever since 1500 and something, when the Spanish started to build fortifications to protect Cartagena from enemies and pirates, Cartagena’s historic centre has been divided into three boroughs: San Pedro, with its cathedral and palaces from Colonial times, was an area where the rich and famous lived. San Diego was the hood for artists and the middle class. Getsemani was the poorer area where slaves, prostitutes and trades people lived. Looking at Cartagena today, I can safely report that she still is what she was 400 years ago. Essentially and on principal...

Vintage Wooden Door and Blue Facade under a blacony in Cartagena
Vintage Wooden Door
A Maria Mulata on a city wall. The black bird Quiscalus Mexicanus is the symbol of Cartagena
Maria Mulata - Quiscalus Mexicanus the symbol of Cartagena

Cartagena in the 21st Century

In San Pedro residences and palaces have been turned into boutique hotels, restaurants and lovingly curated local-run artisan shops. In San Diego houses are smaller, there are bars, antique shops and you also find language- and dance schools. In Getsemani the arrival of street art, backpackers, bars and fun little restaurants lets the area flourish economically but the downsides that come with gentrification are somewhat apparent. It is yet to be seen, whether the lower-income locals will participate. There are many components involved and things can change any moment.

Walking through Cartagena is like going back in time, all the way into her Spanish colonial days. I want to show the authenticity and the natural beauty of the town, she has a rather intriguing personality. Here are the Cartagena things to do for your trip to Colombia. 

Pink and yellow houses with white balconies and a male cyclist on the road
Pink and yellow houses in the walled city of Cartagena

Street sceny with pedestrians on a colourful decorated street lined with yellow, green and red houses
The Streets of San Diego in the walled city of Cartagena

The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Cartagena

Spanish is the Official Language

There is no denying it, Spanish is the official language. Buen dia, buenas tarde, buenas noches, gracias, no muchas gracias, adios and delicioso are all words that can take you a long way in most situations. Attempt basic Spanish, keep smiling and you will have the very best experience no matter what. 

A grey haired man sitting on a chair in front of the yellow facade of a hairdresser's
Barber Shop with outdoor waiting area in San Pedro

Cartagena - Take a Million Photos and Take the Time to Listen

Cartagena is a photographer’s dream. You could spend a week alone taking photos of happy looking entrance doors. There are also door knobs, straw hats, churches, balconies, flowers, statues, cats, street art and lots of colonial architecture, and they are all patiently waiting to have their photo taken.

I make it a habit to walk around at night and listen to the loud salsa music coming from windows which were probably left open to let in the sea breeze. There is one night with torrential warm rainfall while I walk the streets of Cartagena. Slightly flooded streets, the faint lighting from street lamps, the sound of rain on the thick walls and vociferous music in the air. The infectious sound of salsa music is coming from a window on the third floor of a house opposite from where I'm standing on a street corner; motionless and amazed. Absorbing the atmosphere of this scene in silence but with a throbbing heart. The surrounding streets are empty, I’m all wet, I have no umbrella, and I feel like being an extra in a film. These moments are priceless, and for the rest there is...

A thick wooden door of a pink house with a balcony decorated with green plants

Ginger cat looking curiously towards the viewer.

A classic white car in front of the ornate white doors of a facade covered in plant leaves.
Classic Car in San Diego

A palm tree, plants and a barrow load in front of light blue and yellow houses with green wooden shutters and a thick wooden door..

Go for a Walk Along Las Murallas

It sounds like straight from a fictitious tale, but the walled city still looks almost the same as it did (when it was build) all these hundreds of years ago. Walk the four kilometres that surround the historic centre to see the Caribbean Sea and the town from a different angle. At one point you will reach the Clock tower (Torre del Reloj) which is the entrance to the walled city. From another point you have a view over Avenida Venezuela from where you can see India Catalina, a tall statue that commemorates the 14 year old indigenous girl that was kidnapped by the Conquistador. Years later she returned home to Cartagena and worked as a translator in peace negotiations. The statue is a tribute to the Caribbean Indians who lived in the region before the arrival of the Spaniards.

Start the walk either in the very late afternoon or carry an umbrella to avoid being barbecued by the Caribbean sun. There is no shade at all on top of this wall. Do yourself a favour and put on a sufficient amount of sunscreen and a hat and drink an ice cold jugo de Maracuja or Agua de Limon before you start your walking adventure.

Cut lime slices, floating in ice-water.
Agua de Limon

Pedestrians strolling in front of the lit main city gate of Cartagena de Indias, during the blue hour.
Torre del Reloj. Cartagena at night

Statue of India Catalina in front of a thick green coverage of trees
Statue of India Catalina
Red rooftops of Cartagena behind the thick city wall.
Walking Las Murallas in Cartagena

Drink Limonada de Coco

A favourite drink in town is Limonada de Coco, anytime, everywhere. Try one at Crepes & Waffles. I’m usually not a fan of franchise cafés but this is one of Colombia’s most exciting business stories. The husband-and-wife team started with opening a single Creperie in Bogota and foremost employ single mothers, as they see it as a good way to help women out of poverty so that they can create their independent economic stability.

Here is how to bring this Cartagena lifestyle into your home. I asked for the ingredients of Limonada de Coco at one of the local cafés, and luckily for us, it is easy to make at home: Place 1 cup coconut cream, ice cubes, the juice of 3 limes and sugar in a blender. Press crush until smooth. Drink. 

Limonada de Coco

A cafe with a wooden floor pink and white chairs whereas some are sculpted in the form of a face.
At Crepes & Waffles in Cartagena

Watch the Sun Set over the Caribbean Sea from the Wall

Take a seat on the wall or make your way to Café del Mar for a sundowner. The bar is a meeting place for all sorts of people, families, parents and toddlers taking their first steps and lots of tourists like me. There is music and a view over the Caribbean Sea all the way to nearby Kingston, Jamaica. Ok, the view rocks indeed, but I got carried away here and slightly exaggerated with that last bit of info. Café del Mar: Baluarte Santo Domingo. Hours 5pm to 2am. 

Have a sundowner at Cafe del Mar, Cartagena

A Trip to the Beach: Isla Grande

Relaxing, dreaming, reading, snorkelling, sup'ing, swimming, taking photos, getting a massage, drinking Limonada de Coco. I found another paradise. The island in the Caribbean Sea is part of a National Park that aims to protect coral reefs and sea grass. You will travel to Isla Grande for one hour by speedboat. Before the engine gets started, each one of the passengers and crew has to put on a life jacket. It is plain sailing and magnificent to feel the wind on your face and to know that, at least for the time being, to be a part of a system of oceans that cover more than 70% of the planet.

Make your way down to the port at the clock tower and get a ticket there from one of the tour operators. Tours start at 9am and you will be back in town at around 5pm. Tickets are +/- COP 150,000 plus conservation fee. If you aren’t too sure about a trip, it might be an idea to ask for options at the local tourist office

Isla Grande: On the beach in Colombia

Isla Grande in Colombia

From Isla Grande to Cartagena

Buy a Wayyu Mochila Bag

Crocheted or woven Wayyu Mochila Bags are 100% handmade by Wayyu people. Each one is a unique piece of art. The Wayyu’s live in small communities in La Guajira in the north of the country; close to Venezuela. One seller tells me there is never enough water, the region is of exceptional beauty but living conditions are rather harsh. For most visitors to Colombia these bags are so inexpensive, and nobody would get anything like them at home for the same price. But still, they play it hard, and start haggling. Traders depend on the sale of the bags, it is their livelihood. Please read my thoughts in my article about haggling Why astute travellers won’t haggle at all costs

Cartagena: Where entrance doors become perfect showrooms

Wayyu Mochila Bags

Visit the Museo Historico de Cartagena de Indias

See what the Catholic Church did during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. In days gone by you could have been killed for the mere fact you weren't a fan of the Catholic Church, for example if you were a witch, Jewish or a solicitor. Absurd, right? Sadly in a way people still do it today. Everybody who is different or foreign gets frowned upon, and will be treated as suspicious. Judging others, back-stabbing, scaremongering... some really thrive on it. Visit the history museum of Cartagena to see what the Spanish Inquisition did and what we can learn from it for the future. Do not simply believe all these self-appointed leaders who love to gossip to shine bright, be brave, form your own view; we do not live in medieval times anymore. We can do better. The history of the Slave trade is also explained in detail and the Colonial Architecture is beautiful too look at and worth a visit alone. Explanation is mostly in Spanish, some of it is translated into English.

Info Museo Historico de Cartagena de Indias Plaza de Bolivar, 130012 Cartagena. Tickets COP 19,000. Hours: Monday to Saturday 9am to 6pm. Sundays 10am to 4pm. 

Museo Historico de Cartagena de Indias

Cartagena’s Restaurant Scene: Cooked with Love

There are hundreds of restaurants in this town. Cartagena is surely one of the most exciting foodie destinations right now; try food-creations that are a fusion of indigenous, Spanish and African flavours. What is the point of eating out, if you won’t get the most amazing experience? The look of restaurants is just as important as the food. Restaurants, often on main streets, feel hidden and tucked away; the ambience in town is simply magical, and restaurants understand how to mirror their cooking skills in the design of their dining rooms (or probably vice versa). Please read the full guide Where to eat in style in Cartagena de Indias.

Spend an Afternoon at a Bookstore

Abaco Libros Y Café is a book shop lover’s heaven. The atmosphere is welcoming and friendly. Here you will find a wide range of books (to improve your Spanish language skills), freshly brewed espresso, homemade cakes, juices (jugos naturales) as well as Limonada de Coco (as I said it gets served all the time and everywhere). There is also air-conditioning (walk around town for a few hours and you will understand, drenched as you are, why you need this) and Jazz music. What is not to love?

Abaco Libros Y Café. Calle de la Iglesia corner Calle de la Mantilla. Hours Monday to Saturday 9am to 9pm. Sunday 3pm to 9pm.

Street Food: Arepas, Plantains and Niño Bananas

Try arepas de queso, cheese arepas. These cornmeal flatbreads are a Colombian breakfast staple but you can also eat them almost everywhere during the day too. Another thing I fell in love with are plantain crisps, buy them in small bags from carts on the street. To me plantains look like super-sized bananas, but as I learned they are actually vegetables and not fruit. They are widely used in Colombian cooking, and as far as I understand mainly in savoury dishes. Speaking of bananas, you should also try the niño banana, a banana fruit, as small as the plantain is giant, sweet and delicious and native to Colombia. 

Plantain delivery in San Diego

Look at Street Art in the Cartagena Borough of Getsemani

As one walks through the borough of Getsemani, you stumble upon lots of street art around the Church of the Holy Trinity and Calle 29, Plaza del Pozo and the adjoining side streets. Casually dressed locals sit on porches, kids kick a ball on the plaza in front of a church. I'm honestly not bold enough to walk down a few of the lanes I'd like to walk down. I would feel like an intruder. Small children driving around on their bicycles (bicicleta, thank you Shakira), chickens running around, the seducing sound of music. I just want to go there ... so badly. Just as I'm about to leave, a photographer and his model plus a few lightning assistants arrive on the scene. She's sporting an afro and wears the hottest dress. My lucky moment, I sneak in and walk down that lane. All the while the photographer whispers "beautiful, beautiful, simply beautiful ..." and as I shoot away I think "I bloody well know." Happiness is... finding that beautiful street scene. Soon after another hot afternoon in Cartagena turns into night.

You can walk from the clock tower to Getsemani in about ten minutes. Most street art tells about the history of Cartagena, local culture and there are lots of big and small messages about gentrification. All murals are great conversation starters; why not have pizza and drinks at Basilica (Plaza del Pozo) to discuss things? 

Vintage Front Door in Getsemani

Restaurants on Plaza del Pozo in Getsemani

Find Felicity while you Stay at Ananda Boutique Hotel

The remaining question is where to stay in Cartagena. If it is intense happiness you are after, I can recommend a place. The 23-bedroom Ananda Boutique Hotel is housed in a restored 16th Century mansion in the walled city. The colonial style hotel has a courtyard- as well as a rooftop pool with a view over Cartagena and the Caribbean. Oversized mirrors, lavish flower arrangements, high ceilings, dark wooden beams, rainforest showers and the cooling effect of starched bed linen create a traditional Cartagena vibe. Every day starts with a sumptuous breakfast. Enjoy a fresh juice while you choose from a wide choice of breakfast delicacies, think warm croissants and artisan breads, homemade jam, fresh fruit or a full Colombian style breakfast. All gets freshly cooked when you order it. When I eventually have to leave for the airport, a deep sadness overcomes me but the joy I felt throughout my stay remains.

Info Ananda Boutique Hotel. Calle de Cuartel #36-37, Cartagena, Colombia. Rooms for up to two people go from EUR 277/ AUD 415/ USD 260/ GBP 244 per night, breakfast and rental bikes included. Best to book well in advance for December and January.

Ananda Boutique Hotel

Colombia - Cartagena – Good to Know Before you Go

Getting there
Several options to get to Cartagena’s International Airport Rafael Nunez (CTG) from Europe and the US. Take a taxi from the airport to the city; it is a ride of only a few minutes. Best to use white taxis.
Best travel time Cartagena
You can travel to Cartagena at any time of the year; it is most often humid and hot.
There are enough ATMs to withdraw cash in Cartagena. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Tip ten percent (or more) of the bill. Tips get added to the bill, in most cases the waiter will ask you whether you’d like to pay the tip.
Public transport/getting around
Use white taxis only, let your hotel or restaurant ring a taxi for you. Hotels don’t mind if you just pop in and ask at reception to order one for you. Cartagena is small enough to walk everywhere.
Time Zone
COT (UTC-5hrs)
Passengers from countries that require a Visa need to apply for one at the Colombian Consulate in their home country. Best to check with your Ministry of Foreign Affairs or airline.
There is the risk of yellow fever and malaria in some parts of the country, please check the website of the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Colombia before you book your trip and take all recommended precautions.
110V AC, 60 HZ.
Plug: Two flat inputs.
Horse carriage rides
It looks romantic, especially if you book a ride with one of these singing guitarists that entertains you but you won’t harm animals, do you?