Welcome to Cartagena, Colombia!
Updated: May 1, 2020
Hi guysssss! woho! …
it’s been over 5 years that I haven’t been back to hometown and gues how excited is this gir?!!
This IS the Cartagena travel diary … coming at you a little over a week after returning from this magical destination, my hometown South America. This is the fastest I’ve ever gotten a travel diary to y’all and it’s because I am SO excited to share this gem of a place with you. This diary got really long so it will be followed by other posts that will serve as a resource to you when planning your trip to this particular destination.
This is where you’ll find all the action within the walled city! You’ll find fresh fruit vendors, local women dressed in traditional clothing ready to snap a photo with you, and colorful colonial architecture intermittently draped with vibrant bougainvillea making this area extremely picturesque. Luxury and boutique hotels, restaurants and shops are plentiful – this area will certainly keep you busy and make it hard not to fall for this little city!
SAN DIEGO – Located just north of Centro, this area makes up the other half of the walled city, albiet much smaller, and offers a bit more a relaxed, local vibe. The houses are less grand but more colorful than those in Centro, and harbors some of the best restaurants in the city. While we didn’t make it here, I’ve heard exploring the Las Bovedas Market, a craft market located inside an old jail within the wall, is an experience not to be missed
GETSEMANI – Welcome to Cartagena’s hipster haven! Located just outside of the wall, this area offers its visitors a bit more of an edge than Centro as it’s the street art mecca of the city. It looks a bit rough around the edges but if you meander through, you will find the same colonial architecture [as you do in the walled city] and just as much charm. There’s also an overload of bougainvillea! You’ll also find a bustling night scene where tourists and locals collide to enjoy the days’ end. Plaza Trinidad is the center of the action but don’t miss the infamous Café Havana if you’re wanting a fun salsa dancing experience!
BOCAGRANDE – If you’re wanting a more luxury beach experience, this area might be more suited to you. It’s the Miami Beach of Cartagena with an endless number of high-rise buildings and a long stretch of beach, although I’d argue the beaches you venture to by boat are much dreamier. Personally, I think this area lacks the authenticity I was craving to find here in Colombia. While Centro and San Diego are very touristy, I do feel like there was much more to enjoy in Cartagena than just the beach.
MANGA – This residential neighborhood is located just outside of the walled city and south of Getsemani. It embodies a much more laid back vibe than the hustle and bustle you experience immediately within the wall. If you’ve been to Cartagena already and looking for something close by but a little more low-key, I’d consider this area.Stay in!
BEST AREA | I highly recommend staying within the walled city, also known as the Old City, most especially for your first time in Cartagena. Otherwise, you may feel a bit removed from the action. The walled city is comprised of the San Diego and Centro areas that I outlined above. While Cartagena is located on the coast of the Caribbean, the walled city doesn’t necessarily have a beach that you would go lay out on, so-to-speak. If you’re wanting a ‘beachy’ vacation in Cartagena, you may want to stay in Bocagrande OR stay at a hotel within the wall that has a nice pool and plan for getaways to nearby islands.
WHERE WE STAYED | While there are plenty of accommodation hotels in Cartagena, It’s located outside of the wallet city called the GHL Corales, There was always someone in the lobby and an elevator. They offer breakfast, the hotel as all amazing amenities and it’s very familiar friendly! We’re pretty easy going about most things in regard to accommodations as we aren’t there much. Personally, I loved the location the most. It’s very close to the walled city , along the edge of which made it equidistant from a lot of the places within the wall that we wanted to go to and Getsemani, which is a such a cool neighborhood. Think like ( wynwood in Miami) If you look at where it is on a map, you can see it’s literally in the middle of everything!
OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS | Some spots within the Walled City that I’d recommend looking into
Sofitel Legend Santa Clara[formerly a nunnery], Tcherassi Hotel [only seven rooms available located in a completely renovated colonial mansion], Movich Hotel, Casa San Augustin, Ananda Boutique Hotel, Townhouse Boutique Hotel & Rooftop, Bastion Luxury Hotel, Casa Macia Hotel Boutique. These are all inside the walled city. Being that I’ve been before, I’d be interested in stay in Getsemani so I can explore it a little more than I did this time, because we only went there once. If you’ve been before and looking for a cute spot in the area, I have my sights on Allure Chocolat! Also Selina it’s a big hit in town ! If you’re a budget traveler, Cartagena is chock FULL of hostels, so you have plenty to research and choose from.
Hungry For more .?
MARIA – If you’re a sucker for psychedelic and vibrant interiors, creative cocktails and innovative seafood dishes, this might be your little slice of heaven on earth. Our dinner here was certainly one of my favorite meals of the trip. The grilled octopus, steak empanadas [accompanied by the freshest pico de gallo I’ve ever had!], and the fish risotto, and tataki are not to be missed. Don’t forget to make a reservation for this spot! since it’s one of the most popular restaurants within the wall.
RESTAURANT 1621 AT SOFITEL LEGEND HOTEL – Make a reservation for this spot, brimming with upscale sophistication, and ask to sit in the courtyard. I got a steak and it was certainly delicious but I’d say we were more impressed by the ambiance than the meal compared to others!
BOHEMIA RESTAURANTE – The courtyard is so dreamy! Highly recommend stopping in for a pre-dinner cocktail one night!
Harry's also there’s live music here on the patio such a fun time! AT HOTEL CHARLESTON SANTA TERESA –
IN SAN DIEGO
LA CEVICHERIA – Deemed one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorites in Cartagena, and for good reason! You’ll likely not eat fresher or more delicious ceviche than right here! Although, I did hear that El Boliche Cebicheria is quite the contender! So, if there’s a line, head there!
CARMEN – This is likely the hottest restaurant in Cartagena and it lived up to the hype! If I could choose to only enjoy one cocktail for the rest of my life, their Catrina tequila cocktail would be it! Don’t like tequila? They have quite the list of creative cocktails so get excited! I don’t, for the life of me, remember what I ordered but I do remember it was very tasty! You will have a wonderful experience here! Make a reservation ahead of time!
MARIA BONITA – This little gem is a MUST for lunch! Their tacos, salsa and guacamole spread, and sangria are all not to be missed. Sit next to the flower wall to enjoy it all just a little more! The service here was one of the best we experienced in Cartagena!
RESTAURANTE CELELE – This is a newer restaurant in Getsemani that was recommended by a restauranteur in London that Whitney knows. He had recently been to Cartagena and had the most amazing experience here. The staff was wonderful and the dishes are certainly innovative, I didn’t walk away with the same experience. It was just okay for me.
As a way to thoroughly enjoy ourselves and the city, and in effort to ensure YOU do as well, Whitney and I definitely did our best to try out the bar scene in Cartagena! Here are the ones we checked out:
MOVICH HOTEL ROOFTOP [Centro] – This spot wins best view in town! I absolutely love how, from here, you get to enjoy views of the gorgeous colonial architecture [it’s pillar being the dome of the Catholic church], the ocean surrounding the unique layout of the city, and the modern skyscrapers of Bocagrande behind it all in one striking landscape. And, what makes a stunning view more enjoyable? A delicious cocktail! This spot has that, as well.
CAFE DEL MAR [Centro] – One of the things we were told we must do is to ‘walk the wall’ and enjoy the Caribbean sunset from Cafe Del Mar being that it has the best view, for watching the sunset, but we never ended up going, and the day we went at night it was closed for a weeding party. While it certainly does offer a great view, its usually really, really crowded. Crowds are one of my least favorite things so get there early and enjoy the sunset standing along the While it wasn’t a fancy cocktail, We also heard Getsemani has a pretty great bar scene but, being that it’s outside of the walled city, we decided to drink in an area we knew was completely safe.
I’ve traveled enough to know that not all coffee around the world is created equal. The coffee in Colombia is some of the best you’ll find! I don’t think we had a bad cup. Here are some of our favorite spots
JUAN VALDEZ [all over Old Town] – Our hotel concierge suggested we go to Juan Valdez one morning when we asked where her favorite coffee shop is. We came to find that it’s essentially the Starbucks of Colombia. We didn’t hate the coffee and pastries, though. It does get busy in the mornings, though, so get an early start !We didn’t go to Cafe Del Mural in Getsemani but we heard great things. It’s a bit of a hole in the wall but the reviews rave about it!
Honestly, just walk around Centro, San Diego and Getsemani. It’s super easy to find good spots to take photos. I will mark the spots where I took my Instagram photos in the Google Maps I am sharing with y’all at the end of the post!PRO TIP | Get out early to snag the best photos in these areas with the least amount of shadows and people!
ENJOY A STUNNING VIEW
I’m sure I will not be able to give you an extensive list here but my favorite was – hands down – the Movich Hotel Rooftop. It’s another great spot to enjoy sunset. I’d also recommend venturing up to the top of Crepes & Waffles we had our first dinner here! 🤤🤤
[the one next to El Baron] to enjoy a stunning view of the prominent yellow dome atop the Church of San Pedro Claver. There are, of course, so many other great views to enjoy. I’d suggest also checking out your hotel’s rooftop, if there is one. It seems like many have stunning views of the city!
What To Do
Whitney and I stayed busy during our week in Cartagena! There’s tons to do in the area and I’ve already laid out a few ideas throughout the post already. Here are a few more:
Blue Apple Beach, Bona Vida Catamaranes SAS Don’t forget about Rosario Islands! The catamaran is large and fits about 100 people and is manned by a large crew. They provided drinks throughout the day and lunch. There were clean bathrooms to use as well as snorkeling equipment & flats to enjoy if you so inclined. They have this experience, which lasts from 8:30am to 4:30pm, and a sunset cruise, as well! I loved it because we got a lot of relaxation and sun time, and also got to meet other travelers, which is always fun!
Make sure you book these experience ahead of time and make note of which dock you need to meet at in the morning before departing! Set up transportation to dock the night before with hotel concierge, if necessary.
HEAD TO THE WALL FOR SUNSET
This is super easy to do and was also one of my favorite parts of the week we spent in Cartagena. I’m a sucker for beautiful architecture, color and fresh blooms. This place was truly magical. I couldn’t get enough and with every turn of a corner, it seemed to get prettier and prettier. It was easy to fall head over heels for this place! San Diego and Centro are the obvious areas to find these charming bits but don’t forget Getsemani! It’s edgy. There’s tons of graffiti and street art but there is so much color and charm mixed in!
SUPPORT THE COLOMBIAN ARTISANS AND VENDORS
I’ll admit. Being approached by people I don’t know has long been something that intimidates me. It makes me nervous and I, generally, just don’t like it. So, getting used to street vendors in places like Cartagena and Rome always takes some time. What I appreciate about the ones I came across in Cartagena, though, is how sweet they are when you kindly say ‘no, thank you’. They don’t get mad. For the most part, they smile and walk away looking for the next person to ask. I’m someone who really values common courtesy and, while I know it’s not something I can expect in other countries due to cultural differences, I was so happy to find it here. It made me extra excited to support the vendors that I did choose to support, like the ladies in traditional Colombian garb earlier in the post. [That’s how they make a living for themselves. Make sure you settle on a price per person ahead of time! Cash only.] You can’t support everyone who offers you a hat, sunglasses, headbands, a water bottle, etc. but do try to invest in a few. I knowit likely makes a world of difference to them and their families.There are vendors who do not approach you, though, like the men and women who cut up fresh fruit and coconuts.
The not pretty side .. To be honest, I found myself to have let the beautiful photos that I had seen of Cartagena somewhat blind me to the fact that Colombia is still developing in many ways, I was so used to it when I was a child that going into a another country has changed my mind in many ways.. to be in line with what you see in America. However, you will see and experience things like a lack of trash bins around the city so there is trash in the streets and sidewalks. The sidewalks are also very small and the quality isn’t the best. The streets and people in general on the walled city are noisy and the cabbies exercise an irrational use of their horn. You’ll smell some bad scents walking through certain areas thanks to all of the horse drawn carriages. You’ll see people who are clearly very poor on the streets at night .. and families sitting on the side of buildings begging with their children in their laps. So, just know that while the photos you see here are beautiful, colorful and interesting, you may see things that are hard breaking and that’s sometimes just the reality of venturing to other countries! Do what you can to not let it stifle your experience and opinion of the place.