Cartagena is arguably the most popular tourism destination in Colombia. Colombians escape from the larger cities of Bogota and Medellin in favor of holidays on the Caribbean coast, and foreign travelers have followed their lead to the less-populated city, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The neighborhoods of Cartagena are diverse and offer a variety of value luxury options. Consider exploring them all, as they each hold a distinct vibe and unique sites to discover.
The Old City
Old Cartagena is a walled colonial city from the 1600s. The best way to absorb the charm in each block is to wander on foot. The narrow, cobblestone streets are lined with three and four-story buildings painted in brilliant colors and punctuated by architecturally stunning cathedrals. They rise above the city as if they’re keeping watch.
Horse-drawn carriages clippity-clop all day and into the night and are often the only sound heard when the taxis thin out in the evening. After you browse the storefronts, museums, and city squares scattered among the city, stroll along the top of the wall or perch yourself on an antique cannon and wait for a spectacular view of the sunset over the Caribbean.
To feel like a local living in the Old City, stay at Casa Boutique Veranera. A guest room in this 400-year-old home is a relaxing retreat after a day of walking throughout the Old City. Soak your feet in the pool on the mezzanine, or climb the spindly spiral staircase to the rooftop for a drink and a chat in the twilight. Katrina, the housekeeper, extends friendly personal attention and will cook your choice of American or traditional Colombian homemade breakfast when the sun comes up.
If you’d rather have a contemporary hotel experience, try Delirio Hotel one block from Cartagena Cathedral and three blocks from the wall. Lounge on the 5th floor terrace in the evening as the stars come out and the moon rises over the cathedral. Then, have breakfast in the open-air courtyard the next morning.
For a striking contrast, take a 10-minute taxi ride from the Old City to Bocagrande. This is the more modern section of Cartagena and feels more like a fast-paced city. (This is also where the US Secret Service got caught with their pants down – literally – in the prostitution scandal earlier this year.)
Bocagrande is where you’ll find high-rise hotels and the playa. The beaches in Cartagena leave much to be desired, but if you’re looking to splash in the Caribbean to ease 85-degree heat and humidity, this is where both locals and visitors go.
Bocagrande is also more touristy in the way of high-end apparel shops and American chain restaurants such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway. Don’t miss out on the many traditional Colombian restaurants, though. There are some delicious native foods to sample – from arepas and fresh fruit to bandeja paisa – a plate of assorted sausages, spicy rice, and fried plantains.
It’s no secret that Colombian coffee is some of the best in the world. You will notice though, that Colombians drink coffee in small doses. You won’t find a large 20 oz. cup of coffee; the Colombian large is about the size of an American small.
For oceanfront accommodations in Bocagrande, Hotel Almirante is a high-rise property overlooking the Caribbean and offering spacious rooms and full service amenities in the heart of newer Cartagena.
This area of Cartagena is on the far northern end, close to the airport. It’s about 20 minutes via taxi from Bocagrande and 15 minutes from the Old City. The best way to explain La Boquilla is that it’s resort central.
There aren’t many restaurants, bars or shopping opportunities in La Boquilla – it’s mostly beachfront resort properties. If you want to be in a secluded area and hang out on the beach with few locals, this is your spot. Other than soaking up the Caribbean sun, some of the other recreational options in La Boquilla include taking a kiteboarding lesson or two and snorkeling.
For accommodations close to the airport, I suggest Sonesta Beach Resort, a luxury property with ocean-view rooms, tennis courts, three pools – one of which is an infinity pool, and a sprawling courtyard that leads to the beach.
Cartagena is considered the safest city in Colombia according the U.S. State Department. Colombia’s previous reputation for kidnappings and crime is no longer a concern in tourist areas, especially Cartagena. I never felt unsafe walking the streets of Cartagena during the day or night, and I didn’t witness any suspect encounters or shady dealings in the areas I visited.
You don’t need a visa to visit Colombia if your stay is for 60 days or less. Exit taxes are usually added to the price of airfare when originating in the U.S.
All photos by the author.
Some of Christina’s hotel stays were provided courtesy of the properties however; all experiences and opinions are her own.