Cheap JetBlue flights from NYC to Cartagena are what brought me and my college best friends to the beautiful land of Colombia in April 2015. I know what you’re thinking–No, I never felt unsafe. Narcos aired four months after my return to the US and it was interesting to compare the Colombia I experienced to Netflix’s depiction of Pablo Escobar’s world.
Cartagena is colonial and dreamy. Old Town/Walled City is where we spent the majority of our time. Giant castle walls, brightly colored buildings, and live music make it hard to want to venture out in to the rest of Cartagena. I could get lost and walk around the Walled City for hours. And I didn’t have wifi, so I did–intentionally and unintentionally.
Though I’m sure the city has changed a bit over the last two years, here are my Top 5 Where to Go’s and Need to Knows in Cartagena:
Where to Go’s:
1. Playa Blanca. Amazing beach that’s still pretty untouched, I felt like I was in a post card and the white sand put the beach close to our Airbnb to shame. We took a dingy boat from Bocagrande (370,000 pesos) and the ride was 45 minutes. We rented a cabana mostly to keep our stuff tucked away so we could wander away/swim without appointing someone guard.
2. Volcan del Totumo. We took a van an hour away to a “volcano” filled with mud. You climb down a ladder to meet your friends/30 other tourists crammed like sardines, their white eyes being the only contrast to their mud-caked hair and skin. You float in the mud and the Volcano Men give you massages. Then you walk to a lake where the Bath Ladies scrub you clean. It sounds creepy but it’s a hilarious and bizarre experience that I highly recommend. Bring cash.
3. Getsemani. Most of the action happens in the Old City within the walls, but just 5-minutes outside is Getsemani, the “Brooklyn” of Cartagena. It’s very hipster, a bit run-down with cool graffiti, but we had no issues. Perfect backdrop for your next Instagram.
After the sun goes down, go to Cafe Havana to salsa dance. The live band goes on at 11:30 pm and you should be there by 11. My favorite night in Cartagena was at a Media Luna Hostel party in Getsemani. Every Wednesday night they throw a party, and it was bumpin’ with international travelers and locals alike. The wait in line to get to the rooftop is long but worth it. Cash only!
4. San Felipe de Barajas Castle. Incredible view of Cartagena. We didn’t stay long because it was super hot mid-day, so I recommend going first thing in the morning. Also if you have a student ID (whether it’s valid or not), bring it because you get a significant discount.
5. Restaurants & Bars in Old City. I would have made a post fully devoted to the food but sadly I waited two years to write this blog and all I have are these cryptic descriptions:
- La Cevicheria: best ceviche. Anthony Bourdain has been here. Sold.
- Agua de Mar: Gin bar and the owner was incredibly friendly. We ordered everything on the menu. Their gin and tonics were delicious and very large.
- La Vitrola: Cuban restaurant, live band, and great scene. Make a reservation ASAP.
- Oh La La: delicious lunch food in Getsemani.
- La Mulata: giant portions, best customer service of all the restaurants. Their frozen coconut lemonade drink is a must.
- El Paridisio: gelato on a hot, Colombian day really is paridisio.
- Cafe Del Mar: more of a lounge outside on the wall. We went at night but sunset would’ve been ideal with the view.
- Santa Clara Hotel: Live music and trendy bar across the street from La Cevicheria.
- Demente: Great Tapas in Getsemani plaza de la Trinidad near Cafe Havana.
Need to Knows:
1. Where to stay: Bocagrande vs. Old City. We stayed in an Airbnb in Bocagrande close to the Hilton Cartagena. It was perfectly fine for our group of seven; we were only there to get ready and sleep. There are beaches within walking distance, but we mostly ventured the 15-min and 6,000 peso cab ride to the Old City for everything else. Note, establish a meeting spot like Old City’s main entryway if your friends get split up in multiple cabs. Next time I go, I plan on staying within the walls of the Old City in a picturesque yellow-walled Italian villa or the Tcherassi Hotel + Spa. #goals.
2. Haggling: hablas español? Thankfully the majority of my friends spoke enough spanish to negotiate prices for vans, boats, etc. If you took French in high school like I did, know how to at least say “how much” and know your numbers.We were able to negotiate our boat trip to Playa Blanca from 450,000 to 370,000 pesos but we probably still could’ve gotten a better deal.
3. Money: P.R.E.A.M – Pesos Rule Everything Around Me. I converted my cash to pesos at the airport, but I probably should have done it at the bank prior to my trip. You can also pay via credit card at most of the restaurants in the Old City but for excursions, bars, and cabs, pesos were the way to go. You won’t need to exchange too much though. Everything is super cheap!
4. Beware: beach cart ceviche. This was advice given to me by multiple people so I’ll continue to pass it along. Ceviche is raw fish cured in citric juices, but the carts being rolled right up to your towel are dicy because they typically aren’t cold enough to keep the fish safe to eat. One snack is not worth the risk of multiple days of food poisoning.
5. Pre-game suggestion + safety. Let it be known I was on my senior year spring break, so cheap alcohol may or may not speak to you the way it spoke to me then. Towards the entrance of Old City, you can purchase rum and cokes from vendors making drinks out of carts. Ceviche carts = no, rum carts = yes. There are no open container laws (Viva Las Vegas) so we would sit on the wall and drink. We were a large group so it was fine but our Airbnb host advised us not to be on the wall at night for safety reasons. There are small nooks and areas that aren’t lit so be aware of your surroundings.
We didn’t have enough time to check out the following: San Pedro Church, Santo Domingo Square, Bolivar Square, Museum of Modern Arts, Gold Museum, and the Rosario Islands. Which means I have to go back.
Until next time, Cartagena!