Our Insider Guide To CartagenaOur Magazine
Cartagena de Indias is arguably the crowning jewel of the Caribbean, and unsurprisingly also Colombia’s top destination for visitors. This stunning 16th-century Spanish fort city is superbly preserved with cobblestone streets filled with colorful colonial homes whose terraces overflow with lush bougainvillea flowers. Here, the climate is warm and tropical all year – though with lower humidity and a cooler feel in the “winter” months – so you’ll want to allow a few nights for a more leisurely pace, stopping to feel the Caribbean breeze while sipping a Club Colombia beer or craft cocktail on one of the city’s many rooftop terraces. Cartagena is easier than ever to get to, with hourly flights from the capital Bogota as well as nonstop service from the U.S. from New York, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Atlanta.
Our founder Joe Sandillo is just back from his latest visit to Cartagena and shares some tips to help you enjoy this tropical gem to the fullest.
WHERE TO STAY
Cartagena is blessed with a number of good luxury hotel options for every style, but we do have a few favorites. For those seeking full-service luxury but with a more intimate feel, the boutique hotel Casa San Agustin (just 33 rooms), with its excellent Alma restaurant, is our top choice in town.
Another great luxury boutique option at a slightly lower price point is the cozy yet refined Bastion Hotel, which perfectly incorporates contemporary elements while preserving its historic character, and also has our favorite rooftop pool in the city.
If you’re bringing along the kids or looking to soak up some sun with a cocktail poolside, the larger Sofitel Legend Santa Clara is a good choice with its expansive pool and spa area on the edge of the Walled City.
Finally, if a sleek, modern feel is more your cup of tea, we suggest the new (November 2016) addition of 42 rooms and suites to the Tcherassi Hotel + Spa, owned by local fashion designer Sylvia Tcherassi.
We have great relationships these and other luxury options, and can easily incorporate the best fit for you into any custom, private journey to Cartagena.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
- Explore the historic Old Town - Centro & San Diego
Encompassing the two areas called Centro and San Diego, the colorful streets and plazas of the old city are made for aimless wandering on foot. That said, there are a few spots of particular historical value to make sure you visit.
Built between 1586-1633, the walls still surround the historic center and are perfect to climb and walk around, particularly as sunset approaches.
Palace of the Inquisition
Originally built for a gruesome purpose, this gorgeous palace on Bolivar Square also features an interesting exhibit on the city’s history and rotating art exhibitions.
The Spaniards came to Colombia in search of the mythical golden city of El Dorado. If you’re not going to Bogota with its larger collection, we recommend this charming palace housing a smaller exhibition on pre-Colombian civilization.
Iglesia Santo Domingo
This is the largest of the walled city’s churches and today is the preferred venue the city’s most glamorous weddings and special events. The adjacent cloister has been restored with support from the Spanish government and this is well worth a visit along with San Pedro Clavier church, dedicated to the Americas’ first saint because of his work with slaves.
Named for the revolutionary general Simon Bolivar, this tree-filled square is always an interesting mix of foreign visitors and locals playing chess or taking a respite from the afternoon heat on one of the square’s many tree-covered benches. On days when a cruise ship is in town, we wait until after lunch when most of the large groups are gone.
Casa Museo Arte y Cultura
This hidden gem was originally a convent and school, and today the large complex hosts art exhibitions and antiques.
- Foodie experiences
Colombia’s coastal cuisine differs markedly from the highlands, and there are ample culinary experiences to incorporate into any exploration of Cartagena.
Local market + cooking class
Join a local chef for a morning visit to the bustling Bazurto market, where all the best restaurants source their fresh seafood, meats and produce, before a private cooking lesson using items purchased at the market.
Expert-guided foodie tour
Prefer to skip right to eating? No problem! Join our local chef for a sampling of the city’s most typical and tasty street food, or take a gastronomic tour of four top restaurants for a progressive lunch.
Private coffee tasting workshop
Not enough time to visit the gorgeous Coffee Region to see where Colombia’s most famous export is grown? Head to the San Alberto coffee shop, an outpost of one of the country’s top producers, for an expert-led lesson on how the top-quality beans are grown and roasted to produce the world’s best coffee.
Caribbean cocktail class
Looking for something with a little more kick? Join one of the city’s top mixologists, formerly of El Baron, for the chance to distill rum yourself from start to finish, and of course taste enjoy a tasting.
- Historic Getsemani
Getsemani is just as old as Centro and San Diego, but because it was not where the upper classes lived in colonial times you’ll find different architectural styles. As you explore this gritty neighborhood (we love doing this by bike), you’ll find lots of residents who’ve lived here for generations alongside the newer cafés, restaurants and artist studios opening as the neighborhood becomes a bustling cultural area. (New luxury hotels are expected to open here as early as 2018.) It’s also where you’ll find the city’s most famous salsa club, Café Havana!
- La Popa Convent
Founded by Augustine priests in 1607 atop a 492-foot hill–the highest point in Cartagena–the convent offers spectacular views of the entire city. (Note: it’s currently closed for repairs to the foundation, but expected to reopen by the end of 2017.)
- Castillo de San Felipe
This was the largest fort built by the Spanish in South America, to defend one of their most important ports from onslaughts by rival colonial powers and pirates. We recommend visiting right when it opens in the morning, to avoid the midday heat and arrive before most of the crowds during cruise ship season (October-April).
- Rosario Islands
The best beaches are not found in Cartagena itself but rather on the islands off the coast. The Rosario Islands are a coral reef comprising 27 islands, located about one hour by boat from Cartagena. Its natural landscapes, crystal clear water and coral reefs, home to diverse flora and fauna, are of course the main attraction and make for an unforgettable day!
The ultimate option is the charter a private motorboat or yacht for a day of snorkeling swimming and sunning, with a chef onboard to prepare cocktails and snacks before lunch and beach time on one of the less-visited islands. For a less costly option that visit less crowded islands, there are a few small group (up to 20 people) day trip options to either Isla Grande or Tierra Bomba that we trust and offer to our clients (as the majority of the group options take you to overcrowded beaches, often not even in the Rosario Islands.).
- La Boquilla
Looking to go beyond the historic center and see and learn about a different side of Cartagena? We work with several community groups and foundations in the nearby fishing village of La Boquilla that are working to improve the lives of locals.
You can meet with a group of women who’ve joined together to create jewelry from coconut shells as a source of income and empowerment, or hop in a canoe with a fisherman to explore the mangroves and learn how the community is working to adopt more sustainable (and profitable) fishing and distribution practices.
This humble community is warm and welcoming, so this is a great way to have meaningful contact with everyday Colombians while also supporting initiatives that are making a difference the lives of this poor community.
WHERE TO DRINK
- El Barón
Open for a couple years now on the square facing San Pedro Clavier Church, this small bar and restaurant is one of our favorite spots for a craft cocktail, combining house-made local infusions and top shelf spirits. It’s also great for a small bite on their outside terrace, or a late afternoon coffee. (Plaza San Pedro Claver, Cra. 4 No. 31-7)
This three-level restaurant and bar features some pretty terrific cocktails as well, and we love popping up to the rooftop bar at night after dinner for a great mix of locals and visitors. (Calle del Colegio #34-24, Centro Historico)
This small tapas bar in Getsemani, right on Plaza de la Trinidad, took this hip neighborhood to the next level when it opened a few years ago. Enjoy some delicious small bites, or just pop in for a fantastic cocktail or two before heading over to nearby Café Havana for some salsa dancing. The tacos at Maria Bonita next door are also delicious, if you feel like hopping around a bit! (Plaza de la Trinidad, Cra. 10 #29-29, Getsemani)
WHERE TO EAT
Fantastic blend of Italian and Colombian influences at the stylish eatery inside the Tcherassi Hotel + Spa. (Calle Plaza Fernández de Madrid, Cl. 38 #6-21)
- Juan del Mar
Although it’s been around for a while, Juan del Mar still delivers tasty fresh seafood typical of this region. (Plaza de San Diego, Cl. 39 #38-18)
The husband and wife owners honed their skills at Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco, and their menu expertly combines traditional Colombian ingredients with international cooking influences to provide an exceptional dining experience. (Cl. 38 # 8-19, Calle Del Santísimo)
- El Boliche
This is definitely our favorite place for ceviche in town – fresh, inventive and delicious! (Calle Cochera del Hobo #38-17)
- La Cocina de Pepin
For something casual and local, but delicious, head to this cozy (just 8 tables) spot in Getsemani. (Cl. 25 #10B-6)
For waterfront seafood dining in Cartagena, look no further than this airy outpost of Colombia’s most well-known names in dining, Jorge & Mark Rausch. (Cartagena Convention Center, just between historic center and Getsemani)