An easy four hours flights from New York, Cartagena (also known by romantics as Cartagena de Indias) is really, as Lonely Planet puts it, the Queen of the Carribean coast. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its cobbled streets, horse drawn carts and 16th century plazas transport you back to this port city’s fabled past. Alive with a pulsing zumba beat in every street corner, it’s a place to get lost in, to sit under an umbrella with an espresso and a cigar, and revel in its history and modern day cheeky charm.
01. The streets of Old Town
Throw away the map and just wander. Make the effort to just go into every cafe you like for 3 hours, ask someone else for a recommendation, and see where the conversation takes you. The old town of Cartagena is small enough that you’ll walk the streets in a day, and its nice to orientate yourself to the town before checking out the usual sights like Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and Convento La Popa.
TIP: Sunset atop the old fort walls is a must do. Accompanied by a cigar of course.
02. Rosario Islands
A short one hour boat trip away, this feels like a must to get an idea of the seas around this port city. National park since 1977.
03. Santa Marta and Tayrona
From Cartagena it’s 5 hours to Santa Marta, and from there another 1 hour to Tayrona National Park. If you have the time, go. Santa Marta is a real Colombian town, less touristy than Cartagena and some may say, less pretty, but it provides a look into Colombian culture that hasn’t been glossed up. Its the kind of place you can have a coffee with your B&B host about the politics of local drugs and politics.
Tayrona National Park – some people choose to stay in the park while others do a day trip. it depends on what’s your enjoyment of roughing it, as staying in the park is mostly a hammock and fan affair. Nonetheless, trekking the waterfalls and forest along the coast is an unforgettable experience.
TIP: It. Is. hot. Bring sunscreen, a massive hat, wear long sleeved tops.
In the street or in one of the many classes held in the area (ask your hotel), the zumba is a dance that you simply must do even if you’ve got two left feet. Its a dance and sport that Colombia loves, and gives insight into their fun loving and passionate nature.
TIP: Ask for when they do it in the square in front of the main Church. Much more fun than in a studio and all are welcome.
Home to the mochila, a woven bag that resembles a basket with an open top. Shop the streets and see the many colorful designs that reflect where the mochila was woven.
As always, streetside eating is the best in terms of knowing what the locals go for. Meat and carb heavy, it’s not exactly a diet for the fainthearted.
Choosing where to stay is not hard, and is based more on where you’d prefer to be and what kind of experience you’re looking for. There are a huge number of beautiful hotels and hostels. Make sure its a safe neighbourhood, and if you’re out walking at night, ask the hotel reception first on where is safe to walk or not. There are usually blackout blocks where tourists and travellers are not advised to go.
07. Casa Verde
08. Alfiz Hotel
09. Casa Pombo
TIP: There is no shortage of amazing locations and old hotels to stay in. If you’re staying in one with unique rooms, (i.e. 6 rooms only and all are different) which is most likely the case, make sure to do your research on which room you’d like to stay in or ask for one if you want a balcony, natural light, roof access and so on.
10. A Spanish handbook.
It pays beyond smiles to know some of the local words, and it’s possibly easier than English to learn.