Surprisingly this was my first trip to Colombia. I was eager to leave the cold December in NYC behind to land in hot, steamy Cartagena. The best part – it was so simple – no super long flight, and no jetlag. Poof! A quick flight from Miami and I was transported to a new culture.
I wasn’t expecting to be wowed by Cartagena. In fact I was sort of expecting it to be an over-touristed cruise stop, that had been cleaned up and wrapped in a pretty bow that really wasn’t representative of the rest of the city, country, or culture – sort of like old town Dubrovnik. But from the first night when I found myself having dinner with locals oozing hospitality and authenticity, I realized I had Cartagena all wrong.
In my 5 short days there, I did a lot – some more traditional tourist experiences, some local experiences, and some ‘are you sure you should do that’ experiences. A perfect mix of things to do in Cartagena that has nothing to do with cruise ships.
What to do in Cartegena on a First Time Visit
Get Oriented and Enjoy the View
If you are anything like me, then you love to read a map when you arrive in a new destination. And it’s even better, when you can get an aerial view of a place to help you understand where you’ve been and where you are yet to go. Be sure not to miss the ‘penthouse’ view at the top of La Popa in Cartagena for the best view in the city! Standing 150 m high, you need to traverse a number of switchbacks to reach Convento de la Popa at the top of the hill. You can simply enjoy the views of the city or go inside the convent to see artifacts and learn of the history of the area. Whether you go in or not, the view is heavenly.
More Info: Convento de la Popa
Buy Fruit from a Palenquera
Your eyes are immediately drawn to the bright primary colored dresses peppered around the Old City of Cartagena – the customary attire of Palenquera women. They sit in the shadow of the old city walls in Cartagena selling fruit which is precariously balanced on their heads. The palenqueras represent the difficult, complicated history of their ancestors and the history of slavery in Colombia.
But on a lighter note, they also sell delicious fresh fruit; they speedily cut up a platter of fresh fruit for you from their large basket. A great cool snack for the afternoon heat and a glimpse into Cartagena’s past history.
Don’t Just Eat Salsa, Learn How to Salsa
It was a hot steamy night as I walked up the stairs into the dance studio and startled the tall man lounging on a metal chair. He didn’t speak English, but that was ok as all I had to do was follow his lead. He turned on the overhead fans, looked at me, smiled, and a barrage of Spanish started flowing. I just smiled and followed his steps. I learned different salsa steps including the Colombian and Cuban versions which seemed to me to have subtle variations, but to the locals it was very clear delineations. My hips seemed to loosen up as the music got louder and finally after following his every movement in front of the class he took my hand and we danced together.
More Info: Crazy Salsa Salsa School Website
Request a Miracle at Convento de la Popa
Charms hang from the wall enclosed in glass because they are special – each representing a miracle come true. Every Feb 2nd the miraculous power of Convento de la Popa is celebrated through an elaborate procession up the tallest point in Cartagena. Traversing multiple switchbacks the procession stops at each of the stations of the cross along the route to say prayers and ask for miracles to be performed. The charms hanging in the chapel represent miracles that were answered.
Entry in to the convent – aprox. $5
Visit a Castle Without a King
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is not and was never a castle. It was actually a fort masquerading as a castle. With 53 canons and massive walls – this was not a place for fairy tales. The fort, which took 104 years to build, was created to defend an attack from the North and East. However, today it’s a major landmark of the city which has a lovely view of the city and provides a glimpse into Cartagena’s colonial history. Wander through the tunnel system and be sure to take aim with one of the big canons!
More Info: Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Visit Bazurto Market to go Hyper Local
We had all the usual warnings from locals – beware of pick pockets, don’t flash your phone around, and take off all of your jewelry before you go. I find the best places to visit in the world are the ones that people give you warnings about – Bazurto Market in Cartagena was no exception. You can listen to the warnings, but don’t let them stop you from going to one of the best markets I’ve ever been to in the world.
A market full of gory, gritty, pungent animal parts, but mixed with smiles, dancing and enthusiasm like no other. Impromptu jam sessions, children running around playing, people drinking beer and socializing, men using razor sharp knives while not even looking at what they were cutting.
Go early in the morning, don’t wear flip flops (like I did), and walk through the market sharing lots of smiles – you’ll get plenty back. End in the prepared food section and eat with the locals with newspaper for a plate!
More Info: Mercado de Bazurto Cartagena
Watch the Sunset with a Drink
The sun dips down into the Caribbean Sea leaving the sky in a pinkish glow as the music in the background warms the scene. Sunset looking over the old city wall in Cartagena Colombia is something not to be missed. To take part in this daily ritual head to the far corner of the old city wall and head up to the top to Café Del Mar. The drinks are pricey, so grab your sunset cocktail and then move on after the sun has disappeared for the day.
More Info: Café Del Mar
Visit a Library – Yes, Library
You’ve heard of food carts that you need to try when traveling – but what about a book cart? You’ll find a library on wheels in the beautiful Parque de Bolivar in Cartagena. Martin Murillo will be pushing the cart and he’s hard to miss. Dressed in a white shirt with logo’s all over it, he reminds me of a NASCAR driver.
Martin pushes a wagon full of books that acts as a mobile library & pulpit. He borrows to locals and tourists (free) to promote reading and literacy and often you’ll find him reading stories in the park to whomever will listen. His cart and mission is sponsored by various companies and when he’s not traveling the world spreading his literacy message, he’s entertaining famous Colombia guests like, President Clinton, with his mobile library in the park.
So take a break from sight seeing, grab a book from Martin, a coffee from a street vendor and take a seat on one of the many park benches and enjoy a chapter or two!
More info: Visit the Mobile Library
Get your ZZZ’s at the beach
The breeze gently rocked the hammock back and forth. As I lay there with my eyes closed swaying, I could hear the familiar sound of drum music wafting through the little village of Manzanillo. I imagine a giant speaker somewhere in the town center providing the beat of the village 24/7.
Khosamui boutique hotel was simple and outfitted in bright colors with white backgrounds. There were only 4 rooms which kept the whole atmosphere cozy and chill; it was designed with relaxing in mind. A big open-air lobby was filled with colorful flowers and throw pillows and just steps from the beach cabanas.
However upstairs is where the real lounging happens. The patio overlooked the beach and came with a fabulous and constant sea breeze. Hammocks and cloth swinging chairs hung from the rafters providing the perfect place for a lazy nap while lunch was prepared.
Dance All Night
It was as if the Pied Piper were luring in the dancers around the Old City late into the night as the restaurants closed. I followed the beat of the music around the corner of Plaza de la Coches and found a lively colorful scene with women moving their hips like I never knew was possible.
The Colombians made it look so easy and carefree, like they came out of the womb moving their hips and feet in a rhythmic fashion.
I sat at the bar content to watch the sites of young, old, tourists, and locals all intermix in salsa beat.
There was no real dance floor, but no one cared, whatever space was available was used. People bumped into each other and no one minded as eternal smiles seemed to be on their faces. It took exactly two songs before I was beckoned to join. I knew the locals wouldn’t let people sit around for long and just be a voyeur.
More Info: Fidel’s Salsa Bar
Have Dinner with a Local Family
I was expecting a handshake and I received a powerful, emotional hug – one that in my culture is normally reserved for close family or friends. I quickly learned being hugged with gusto was a normal greeting in in the Perez-Cuesta family.
Upon arrival in Cartagena, my first exposure to the local culture (besides hugs) was to actually set foot in a local’s house and be treated to one of the most genuine and heartwarming nights I can remember in my travels.
As Ruth was busy cooking dinner, the daughters entertained us showing us the small but lovely 3 bedroom home and answering my many questions about life in Cartagena.
The music was playing, the plantanos were frying up, and we all barely could get a word in edgewise while we had the ultimate night of cultural exchange learning about family traditions and food in our respective countries.
This was a unique chance to see how the a typical local family lived, and understand neighborhood and family dynamics in Cartagena. As well as have a fabulous home cooked meal!
More Info: Customized/Organized by Metropolitan Touring
Escape the City…For the Beach
A short boat trip from Cartagena will deposit you on the beach surrounded by turquoise water. A great chance to get away from the city bustle and enjoy a slice of paradise. You can lay on the beach sipping drinks, snorkel, kayak, play beach volleyball, or just make sand castles. I went for a day trip to the Rosario Islands, but you can also stay overnight on the islands – there are lots of options from budget to luxury.
Take a Walk on the Wild Side – Getsamani
If you want to get away from the tourist shops and cleaner side of Cartagena – then you’ll have to leave the old central city walls and take a walk. Head across the main street to Getsemani – a diverse neighborhood where locals still outnumber tourists. I walked around during the day taking in the smiles of locals, watching delivery men prepare for the coming night, and enjoying the eclectic street art.
At night the neighborhood comes alive as the hip part of Cartagena with the best night clubs, live music, and restaurants.
Put on your hippest outfit and head to Tcherassi Hotel in Old town for a high end Italian meal by Chef Daniel Castaño, a former Mario Batali acolyte. The hotel itself is a vision in white by fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi. A modern inside to an old Cartagena home. Eat aside a waterfall, surrounded by starchy-shirted waiters. The food is about as pretty looking as the interior of the boutique hotel.
More Info: Vera Restaurant at Txherassi Hotel
Drink the Night Away on a Chiva Bus Tour
Putting the RUM into RUMba, try out one of the Chiva bus night tours; a bar on wheels. Live music and all the rum you can drink can only make this an experience not to be missed. The Chiva takes you around the old colonial city with a quick stop to sample the famous fried snacks of Cartagena (filled empanadas, corn arepas with egg, manioc cakes, etc.). A fun, rum filled way to feel the rhythm of the city.
More Info: Chiva Rumba Bus
I was a guest of United States Tour Operators while in Cartagena, however all opinions here are my own.