The moment we touched down at Cartagena’s cute little airport, I knew it was going to be something special. And the moment we entered the gates of the walled city, I was convinced that it was magical!
I thought such a place only existed in fairytales – tiny cobbled streets, colorful houses covered by pretty bougainvillea, lovely doors, interesting fruit carts on every street corner and charming little shops and restaurants. If this sounds like somewhere you’d like to see – keep reading! I have all the details on how to spend two perfectly delightful days in Cartagena, Colombia.
Where to Stay
If this is your first visit to Cartagena, you must stay within the walled city. True, accommodations in Getsemani are cheaper, but the fairytale magic of Cartagena is within the walled city, and best experienced before 10 am.
Tip : Beware of Bocagrande. It houses the big name hotel brands and is a soulless place, like Miami, but with not as great beaches. Trust me, stay in the walled city.
We stayed in a renovated 16th century house called Casa Don Sancho. It is a boutique hotel, with six beautiful rooms, an amazing staff and lovely balcony and rooftop. You definitely won’t go wrong staying here! It’s amazing value for money if you visit from the US, because the exchange rate is very in your favor.
The balcony overlooking the historic Calle Don Sancho was probably my favorite spot at Casa Don Sancho. It’s right outside the breakfast room, which is also such a pleasant place to sit and read a book during the hot Cartagena afternoons.
The rooftop is gorgeous, and almost private because there are only 6 rooms! It’s especially lovely to sit there with a fresh juice and enjoy your first sunset in Cartagena.
If, unfortunately, Casa Don Sancho is not available during your visit, I heard that Casa San Augustin or Hotel LM are also great options!
I recommend staying closer to the San Diego quarter of the walled city. It gets too busy near the main touristy areas like the church and museums.
Where to Drink Coffee
One of the main reasons that Colombia was so high on my list of places to visit is my obsession with Colombian coffee. It is by far one of my favorite coffee regions, and probably yours too, if you are a bit of a coffee snob like me.
When I was researching the best coffee shops in Cartagena, I was disappointed to read that Colombia actually exports its best coffee beans (which is probably why the Colombian coffee beans I get from my local Toby’s Estate are SO GOOD!). A lot of people seemed wary about drinking coffee in Colombia, stating that it is a disappointing anti-climax. I think they just didn’t go to the right places.
Save this list of coffee shops – I personally tried them and went to coffee heaven! Don’t discount Cartagena when it comes to coffee – the scene here is amazing!
- Epoca Cafe (both Arzobispado & Artilleria locations) – this is perfect early in the morning for breakfast (because it does get very crowded later in the day). The coffee is supremely delicious, and if you opt to share a Chemex pot of coffee, they’ll bring out the grounds for you to smell! Spoiler alert : they smell divine!
- Abaco Libros y Cafe (Abacus Books & Coffee) – Abaco is the book and coffee shop of my dreams! Books line the walls, the smell of delicious coffee wafts through the shop. Students from the university nearby can be found here at all hours, but there’s always space at the bar for a quick cortado! Fun Fact : The cover picture of this blog post is taken on the street right outside this cafe at about 7:30 am in the morning!
- La Presentacion – is inside an art museum, but is free to enter. The space is gorgeous, an indoor – outdoor garden, perfect to while away the hot afternoons.
Where to Eat
Cartagena is a foodie paradise! There is so much delicious food to eat, so many gorgeous restaurants to visit, and so little time! Here are some of our favorite places to eat!
- El Boliche Cebicheria – this is a block away from La Cevicheria, the Ceviche place that Anthony Bourdain made famous. Unfortunately, La Cevicheria is now over-run by tourists, so pop over to the cute little El Boliche. The ceviche is divine – I got the tamarind one, and the plantain chips that come with it are even better! The chef was actually sitting right next to us and taught me that ceviche is enjoyed better with a spoon than a fork!
- Carmen – A couple doors down from El Boliche is a lovely restaurant where you can try a 5 course meal for a fraction of the cost in the US. Throw in a 5 course wine pairing for just $20 (but don’t expect too much from the pairing). You can read more about Carmen, and look at some gorgeous pictures on my friend Croissants and Caviar’s blog post. I recommend making reservations for Carmen, you can book online and specify your dietary preferences!
- Alma – has a gorgeous outdoor garden with live music in the evenings. It also has the best crab burger that my husband has ever tasted! I thought the food other than the crab burger was a bit meh, and would definitely not recommend this place for vegetarians. However, if you like meat, go for the crab burger and the ambiance!
- Demente in Getsemani – we heard that this is the most happening tapas bar in Getsemani. Getsemani was named one of the hippest neighborhoods in the world in 2018 – so definitely don’t miss this!
- Lobo de Mar – right next to Carmen, this is a fun, pretty place for a casual lunch or an early evening gin cocktail!
In general, it’s perfectly safe to eat the fruits / drink coconut water from the ubiquitous street carts all over Cartagena. I really enjoyed eating ‘Mango Biche’ – sour green mango with lime, salt and chilli powder.
The ladies pictured below come from the villages to sell fruits, wearing their traditional, colorful dresses. Of course, tourists love to photograph them, so now they charge for pictures as well as fruits. I think this is totally fine, why not capitalize on this?!
If you want a photograph, I urge you to buy something from them (such as the Mango Biche I described above!). You’ll pay a little more, but what is really insignificant to your pocket is worth so much to them!
What to See & Do
The best thing to do in Cartagena is to just walk around the walled city in the early AM. I repeat myself here, but it truly is like a fairy-tale. Here are some pictures that speak louder than my words. I also have a detailed post on where to find these pretty spots!
One of the most fun parts of Cartagena is that you experience a perfectly preserved but living city inside a walkable wall. Cartagena in the 16th century had the dubious distinction of storing all the gold from the neighboring areas. Of course, this opened up the city to multiple pirate attacks and so they decided to build a wall around it. Did the wall keep the pirates out? Not quite, but it does make for a beautiful walk, with stunning views of the old city, the new city and the beautiful blue sea.
Tip : Don’t plan to walk during the afternoon, the Cartagena sun is very strong. Early mornings or evenings before sunset are the best times to go.
I recommend a visit to the iconic Cathedral as well. Its always so busy and bustling outside, but a sense of calm prevails once you enter. It is also a good escape from the heat.
We heard that the fort, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, is also worth a visit. The 20 minute walk there isn’t too bad either.
Spend an early morning walking around Getsemani and then head back there in the evening for drinks and dancing! We walked to Getsemani through the Parque del Centenario, a little park that houses some iguanas, a family of sloths and a few naughty monkeys! If you don’t see any of these, ask a guide to help you find them. It’s totally worth looking at the cute little sloths!
Walk through the park to Getsemani, and you move into a different world of Cartagena. This one is slightly grittier, more real, and houses more locals. Getsemani is a top area for backpackers and has a dense hostel scene, but you get glimpses of the local life by wandering into the side streets. There are just as many flowers and an abundance of colorful houses, but also a lot more street art!
Optional Day Trips
We took a day trip to one of the Rosario Islands called Coralina Island. Our wonderful hotel arranged everything for us, and although I was a bit skeptical, it turned out amazing!
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Reason # 10 to visit Cartagena : A day trip to the Rosario Islands!⠀ I was almost set on not doing this, based on some negative reviews I’d read. However, we got lucky with our hotel (another shout out to Casa Don Sancho @hotelcasadonsancho ) who helped us book a day trip directly with Coralina Island. ⠀ Coralina Island is on a bed of corals – not much white sand, but with decks that go straight into the delicious blue water.⠀ And such blues 😍 I’d never seen the Carribean before – and now I’m dying to go back!⠀ I think the most fun part of our day trip though was the boat ride to and from Cartagena – one hour of pure, unadulterated rollercoaster style rocking, with Colombian dance music playing in the background! ⠀ .⠀ .⠀ .⠀ .⠀ .⠀ .⠀ .⠀ .⠀ .⠀ .⠀ .⠀ #cartagenadeindias #cartagenacolombia #cartagena #colorfulcartagena #visitcartagena #visitcolombia #explorecolombia #colombiatravel #travelcolombia #discoversouthamerica #colombiaissabrosura #colombiaessabrosura #loves_colombia #topcolombiaphoto #iamatraveler #lppostcards #TLPicks #traveldeeper #prettylittletrips #iamtb #passionpassport ⠀ #tandrewtravels #coralinaisland⠀ #pursuepretty #mytinyatlas #rosarioislands #islasdelrosario
Another option is to head to Tayrona National Park. This will be at least a 2-3 day trip. You could either take a bus (not recommended), rent a car and drive yourself, or rent a car and driver. The last option is actually not very expensive, especially if you can fill the car and split the cost!
If you have even more time, check out this awesome One Week in Colombia itinerary for more ideas for Colombia’s Caribbean Coast!
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