I ended up in Cartagena on a whim. A friend was returning for her second time in six months, she couldn’t get enough of the city. She called. I bought a ticket. It takes very little these days to convince me to go somewhere I have never been. We spent a few whimsical days in Bogotá and then holed up in an eco hab near Santa Marta on the edge of Tayrona National Park. And then, we made our way to Cartagena for a week of heat and indulgence.
Cartagena swallowed me whole. I fell madly in love with city almost instantly. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, consumed by what it had to offer, something new around every corner, hidden behind every old warped wooden door. It was the winding streets, the bright Caribbean colors, the ceviche, the rum, the music that poured from every one window, the balconies draped in Bougainvillea. I could eat it whole.
At the the time, I was reading 100 Years of Solitude, written by the famous Colombian writer, Gabriel García Márquez – I have taken to reading work written by authors of the country I am visiting. Before my arrival, I was trying to wrap my head around magical realism, to find it’s proper place in my imagination. But, being in Cartagena for only a few hours I no longer had to try and imagine. The entire city lives in a space of magical realism, the impossible made possible and the absurd made mundane as each heated hour passes by. It is there on those streets that one can learn to enjoy life in an entirely new way. You can truly have whatever you like.
When I say this is a guide to Cartagena, I should preface with my opinion that Cartagena is all about Getsemani – an up-and-coming neighborhood that was formerly a hub for drugs and prostitution. It’s located just outside the old walled city, El Centro, just five minute stroll away. El Centro is a bit maddening and touristy, great for an afternoon walk or dinner and is where most of those brightly lined streets are. Getsemani is the perfect mix of what you’re looking for – trust me. Locals and young travelers mix in the streets, hanging out in Trinidad Plaza, marked by the presence of a yellow 17th century church, and it has the best street food around. Most of my go-to spots are in this neighborhood because it is simply better than the rest.
Where To Stay
This is where I stayed and where I would stay every single time. The farther I get from my time at Casa Lola, the more it seems like a dream. You can read all about those gilded walls, right here in my hotel tour.
I dig this spot because it reminds me of Casa Lola. It’s got a rooftop pool, interesting boutique decor, and tiled walkways that make you feel like royalty. While Casa Lola is in the neighborhood of Getsemani (outside of El Centro), La Passion is within El Centro. It totally depends on what kind of traveler you are. If you prefer to be in the crowd, opt for this one.
Rent a Plush Pad with Friends
There is a long list of plush rentals in Cartagena, many boasting private pools, gorgeous open air floor plans, and 24-hour butlers. Because in Cartagena, if you don’t have it, someone will find it for you. If you plan on traveling with more than one or two other people, this might be the ideal option for your time in town.
Where to Eat (I did a lot of eating)
These two spots were recommended to us over and over again and neither disappointed. They share an owner and are located right next door to each other. Both have incredible food (try the the octopus at Don Juan and the ceviche at Maria), fantastic drinks, and a buzzing atmosphere that will set you up for a night on the town… Assuming you don’t eat yourself under the table.
This is my favorite place to post up or grab a late dinner. Demente is located right on Plaza Trinidad in Getsemani. The inside is dimly lit and feels like a speakeasy, while the back open air patio is strung with lights and people crammed around family style tables. Don’t be surprised if you go for dinner and end up staying the entire night.
Also in Getsemani. This is my favorite ceviche in town, and that says a lot because I ate ceviche everywhere. In fact, one day I even went on a walk around the city and tried nearly a half dozen different orders in a single day. Ohlala Bistrot won me over by a long shot. It has a refreshing and bright interior, serving simple and artfully flavored dishes that will bring you back to life. They also host cooking classes here, which I discovered on my last day in town, and the whole thing was so adorable I just about missed my flight to attend. Sign up, for sure.
Good breakfast, not the quickest, but then again why are you in a hurry? They make incredible smoothies and acai bowls, espresso and omelettes. It was light and fresh and never made me feel weighed down for the day. It’s so important to get things started right in that kind of heat. Fuel up here every morning. Located right across the street from Casa Lola.
Street Food. Street Fruit. Street Coffee.
Do it. You’re seriously missing out if you skip on street food in Cartagena. It’s out of this world delicious and simple and yum. My favorite cart was in Trinidad Plaza serving meat skewers that I would hoover down between glasses of rum. Also, nothing mellows the midday heat better that some cold fruit, and nothing will pick you up quite like a quick cup of street coffee.
I didn’t get the chance to hit this spot, but I hear it’s some of the best and most authentic seafood in town. It’s located on Calle Quero, one of my favorite historical streets. It’s strung with lanterns, quiet and narrow, and perfectly captures what makes Cartagena so special.
Where To Drink
The Maracuya Spot
Often time the best spots are discovered by accident, the ones you stumble into at midnight, filled with locals, hot and sweaty, and you feel instantly like family. This is my maracuya spot, and I call it that because there we would drink nothing but fresh passion fruit mojitos and they just kept ’em coming until we’d call it quits. To find it: Stand on the steps of Demente and look to your left. There is a street that runs alongside of the yellow church. Follow that street a block until you see a blinking sign that says DRINKS, it’s painted blue and the sidewalks are filled with tables. Trust me, you can’t miss it.
This is possibly one of the best spots to get a drink. It’s a tiny little bar with exposed cement walls and gorgeous tiled floors, a signature look for Cartagena. Grab a seat inside or a table outside on la Plaza de San Pedro Claver, with a view of a massive cathedral. Their craft cocktail list might be the best in town. Be sure to try the Bonnie. They’ve also got a serious tapas menu and ceviche that will keep you coming back.
Hotel Santa Clara
A gorgeous hotel located in the far end of El Centro that makes you feel as if you’ve time traveled. Sitting in the courtyard of the Santa Clara, writing poetry and sipping a mojito is my happy place. I had an overwhelming feeling there, this is how Hemingway must have felt about Cuba. It sealed the deal with my love affair of Cartagena.
Cafe Del Mar
This is one of those spots everyone will send you to, and it’s for sure worth a visit. It’s a bar on the old wall of the city with the most epic sunset views. It is worth the novelty of sipping a cocktail while the warm sea wind blows your hair and the sun dips behind the horizon. However, it can get really busy, and the food is nothing to write home about.
Where To Dance
You will dance until your feet go numb and blistered, and you will never care for a moment. Cafe Havana, in Getsemani, is one of best places to go dancing. Although it can be busy, and a touch touristy, there is so much fun to be had. Locals and visitors crowd around the bar, and get so close on the dance floor they look like one body. You can’t help but join in.
Media Luna is a night club above one of the busiest hostels in town. Normally, for someone like me, this sounds like a million kinds of No. But, I have to admit I had an absolute time shaking it to music I couldn’t understand with travelers from all over the world. Cute girls can haggle at the door to get out of paying a cover, but boys have to pony up.
We went here on the suggestion of handsome man lounging by our pool all day, and he most certainly pointed us in the right direction. This was the most local-vibe and authentic place to dance. I spent most of the night glued to the bar mesmerized by the moves on the dance floor, the rhythm they kept, the way they could read each other. I’ve truly never seen anything like it. By the end of the night, and after a bit of rum, I had a few locals trying to teach me how to salsa. They kept telling me, slow down, you have to hear the moves in the music, slow down.
People say you can drink the water and the girls I went with brushed their teeth with tap, but I’m super crazy about things like this, so I opted not to. However, I did drink the ice everywhere I went and was totally fine.
You should day trip to an island. Getting a boat can be a little bit of madness but just get ready haggle with the best of them, everyone is trying to charge you close to double what you should pay.
Go mud bathe in the active volcano of El Totumo. It’s only about twenty minuets from the walled city and is supposed to leave your skin silky soft.
Don’t drink in the streets? I don’t know. They sell beer everywhere out of coolers and I saw plenty of people with beer in hand. I even looked it up online and found conflicting answers. I will tell you this: One night on the old walls with a couple of french boys, we all nearly got arrested when the cops used our beers as a reason to search us. So, just be careful.
You don’t need a visa if you are there for less than 90 days.
Drugs are everywhere. I thought it might just be a stereotype of the country due to it’s long history, but the coca is very present. Be very careful. The city prides itself on the massive changes it’s made and how safe it is now. They will not hesitate to throw your ass in jail. Don’t be stupid, don’t talk about it, be discreet if you’re doing anything at all. Which, maybe just don’t.
Carry with you a copy of your passport, but not the actual thing. Apparently it’s illegal there to not have ID on you.
Get out of your comfort zone. Talk to people, go somewhere new, dance even if you’re embarrassed, eat octopus, drink rum, wander casually with nothing in mind other than the moment you’re in. If you’re willing to listen, the city will teach you all sorts of new things about yourself.