Cartagena de Indias, “the walled city,” is one of Colombia’s architectural and cultural treasures – a stunning and colorful city, packed with the country’s oldest historic and colonial buildings, surrounded by the clear waters of the country’s Caribbean coast and more seafood restaurants than you can count, this romantic city is the ideal place for a picturesque weekend getaway.
Get up bright and early to head to Playa Blanca, one of the region’s most beautiful beaches. Cartagena proper has its own beaches, but they tend to be crowded and not particularly aesthetically pleasing. Playa Blanca, across the bay, can get busy too, but there’s guaranteed to be enough space on the 3-kilometer stretch of soft white sand for your towel and a tropical drink. Boats start leaving from the Muelle Turístico between 7-8 am – you can either do the trip there and back, 35-60 minutes each way, or add in a stop at the nearby Rosario Islands and make a day of it. Be warned, though – all negotiations of ticket prices are done at the docks, so sharpen up your Spanish and be prepared to haggle!
Boats leave from Muelle Turístico pier, Avenue Blas de Lezo, departure 7-8 am, return 3-4 pm. Boat trip avg. $15-30. website.
It would be a crime to stay in Cartagena without enjoying the excellent seafood offerings in a classic form – ceviche – so grab a late lunch at one of the city’s many lime juice-soaked locations. You can find ceviche everywhere from handcarts on the beach to restaurants with white tablecloths, but a few of the best options are the informal and beloved El Boliche Cebichería, the Peruvian-influenced and impeccably decorated La Perla, and the easy-to-remember La Cevichería, a noted haunt of everyone’s favorite rogue traveling chef, Anthony Bourdain.
El Boliche: Calle Cochera del Hobo 38-17 (Centro), 310 368 7908, Monday – Thursday noon – 9 pm, Fridays noon – 1 am, Saturday 4 pm – 2 am. website
La Perla: Calle de Ayos 4-42 (Centro), 5664 2157, open daily noon – 11 pm. website
La Cevichería: Calle Stuart 7-14 (San Diego); 5664 5255, Monday – Saturday noon – 11 pm, Sundays noon – 10 pm
Stroll along the wall and take in the sights and sounds of the city center. Stop to buy hats, jewelry or artwork from local vendors, or duck into the many shops selling high-end emerald jewelry, artwork, handicrafts, clothing and hats. Make a point to stop by the shop of international designer Silvia Tcherassi and save some time for Colombian swim- and resort wear lines Onda del Mar and Agua Bendita, which specialize in Caribbean-ready prints.
Silvia Tcherassi: Carrera 3 31-11 (Centro), 5664 9403, open daily 10 am – 8 pm website
Onda del Mar: Corner of Calle Santa Teresa and Calle Las Damas, 5668 5226, open daily 10 am – 8 pm; additional boutique in Bocagrande website
Agua Bendita: Calle de La Estrella 4-16 (Centro), 5664 1254, Monday – Saturday 10 am – 8 pm, Sundays 11:30 am – 7 pm website
Music and Mojitos
Dinner starts late in Cartagena, so don’t worry if you need to take a nap before heading back out. Hit up bistro-jazz club La Vitrola for a romantic dinner, complete with live musical accompaniment from a Cuban band. If you’re in the mood for drinks after dinner, head to Sibaris Wine Bar for a glass (or three) of quality vino, and a few tapas – that is, if you saved any room in your stomach!
La Vitrola: Calle el Baloco 2-01 (Centro), 5660-0711, open daily from noon – 3 pm and 7 pm – midnight
Sibaris Wine Bar: Playa de la Artilleria 36-86 (Centro), 5660 1771, Monday – Saturday noon – 11 pm, Sundays noon – 8 pm
Swinging Salsa in Getsemaní
If you can’t wait to hit the dance floor, strap on your shoes and get ready to party at one of the city’s red-hot clubs. For salsa, you can’t go wrong with the classic Café Havana or popular Quiebracanto, both in the older neighborhood of Getsemaní right beyond the walls. For a different style of music, check out Bazurto Social Club, a lively nightlife spot that offers the best in cumbia and champeta, two fast-paced styles of music that originated in Colombia’s Caribbean cities.
Café Havana: Corner of Calle Media Luna and Calle Guerrero (Getsemaní), 310 610 2324, open weekend nights (Thursday – Saturday) 8 pm – 3:30 am website
Quiebracanto: Camellon de los Martires 25-110 (Getsemaní), 5664 1372, Tuesday – Sunday 7 pm – 4 am
Bazurto Social Club: Av del Centenario 30-42 (Getsemaní), 5664 3124, Thursday – Sunday 7 pm – 3 am website.
Spoil your taste buds with a leisurely breakfast at charming Mila, an all-day bakery and dessert spot around the corner from the Cathedral. With its eccentric chicken décor, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had accidentally stumbled into a French bakery. The pastelería, owned by Bogotá native and Cartagena transplant Camila (Mila) Vargas runs the gamut from tasty sandwiches on fresh-baked bread to decadent brownies.
Mila: Calle de la Iglesia 35-76 (at Calle de Ayos), 5664 1347, Monday – Saturday 8 am – 10 pm, Sundays and holidays 10 am – 10 pm website
Work off all those breakfast calories on a bike! Cartagena has seen a recent explosion of bike rental companies, making it easier to get around the city without needing to bargain with cab drivers. Enjoy an hour or two of exploring the city on two wheels before the sun hits its peak and the heat becomes too much to handle. While you’re sightseeing, take in some of Cartagena’s history at one of its several museums or by exploring the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a 477-year-old Spanish fort (entrance $9, guided English tours $17). The museums are located within the walled city – the castle is a little ways away, but a $4 cab ride (or a short bike ride, if you’re feeling sporty!) will get you there easily.
Several companies rent bikes in central areas including Plaza del Centenario, just outside the city walls, while Bike Flag takes care of the Bocagrande crowd and Roda Bike Tour has Getsemaní covered. Most companies are open daily. Bicycle rental: $2-4/hr for a single bike.
Fill up on coastal flavors at Carmen, one of Cartagena‘s top-ranked restaurants (currently reigning #1 on TripAdvisor). The classy spot, located inside the Anandá Boutique Hotel, is the second restaurant of a father-daughter team specializing in elegant dining. While the original Medellín location goes for earthier ingredients and Asian-influenced plates, the Cartagena location is all about highlighting the delicious local seafood, from a stunning grilled baby octopus to the perfectly cooked catch of the day. If you aren’t ready to leave after the last course, hang around until cocktail hour, which runs from 3-7.
Carmen: Calle del Cuartel 36-77 (Centro), 5660 6795, open daily: breakfast 7 – 10:30 am, lunch noon -3 pm, cocktails and appetizers 3 – 7 pm, dinner 7 – 10 pm website
End the day savoring Basque-influenced food with a Colombian twist. The trendy Donjuán bistro, which opened in 2009, has become one of the city’s most popular spots for pre-dinner drinks and appetizers and has even catered for the president of Colombia. The menu has an extensive list of tapas-sized plates (and some tasty entrees as well, for the hungry folks), desserts that earn rave reviews and a solid drinks menu. The restaurant also has a fancy European pedigree – chef and owner Juan Felipe Camacho learned his trade working at three different restaurants with three Michelin stars each in the Basque city of San Sebastián.
Savor the end of your magical weekend with drinks that allow you to soak up the tropical sights and sounds of the city from the walltop Café Del Mar. This Cartagena institution is the place for the city’s beautiful people to see and be seen – preferably with a mojito or two in hand. The bar, located on the corner of the seafront wall, provides a beautiful view of the expensive high rises of Bocagrande, winding narrow streets of the Centro and the sparkling Caribbean just on the other side of the wall.
Cafe Del Mar: Baluarte de Santo Domingo (Centro), 5664 2945, Tuesday – Saturday 5 pm – 2 am