This is the sixth in a series of posts chronicling my January 2018 trip to Colombia. You can read an overview/preview here.
Cartagena has become a very hot destination over the past few years, with easy access to the Caribbean Sea and some nice beaches, a colonial walled city, and a lively food and music scene. It’s pretty easy to get to with direct flights from the US on Jetblue, Spirit, Avianca, American, and Delta, and it’s a big port of call for Southern Caribbean cruises. Due to the shape of the coastline, it’s actually north of Panama City and just a bit southwest of Aruba. Unfortunately, the popularity of the city has some drawbacks – namely crowds during peak season. In addition, it was *super* hot when I was there, with temperatures around 100 and humid. The heat and the crowds definitely had a negative impact on my time, but I found some highlights, and some lessons that may be helpful for you. (And I didn’t have as bad a time as the Real Housewives of New York.)
As a general note, the two main areas you’ll likely encounter as a tourist are the walled city (sometimes referred to as Old Town, the Old City, or the neighborhoods of El Centro and San Diego) and Bocagrande, a narrow peninsula stretching south into the Caribbean Sea with a beachfront and high-rise hotels. A lot of people told me to stay in the walled city, but most of the options there are smaller hotels or Airbnb. The few full-service hotels are very expensive, including the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara. Since this was the warm part of my vacation, I wanted a hotel with a pool, gym, etc., so went with Bocagrande – spending my nights at the Intercontinental and Hyatt Regency. I’ll review those separately, but generally it was both easier to get to the walled city from Bocagrande than I’d thought – a short taxi ride of about 10 minutes – and a bit more frustrating, as the taxis are not metered and you have to do some negotiating and you may get ripped off, as I did on a few trips. (Apps don’t work great.) The other area worth knowing about is the Rosario Islands – an archipelago off the coast in the Caribbean, and an area worth exploring on a day trip if you want some good beaches. I am going to cover my day trip in that direction in the next post.
There isn’t much to see in Bocagrande. Carrera 1 is the street along the beach, that also houses a bunch of high-rise hotels, including the Hyatt Regency towards the north end, and the Intercontinental towards the south. There’s a Sheraton under construction in between, and the Hilton is allllll the way down at the southern tip of the peninsula. (There are a number of local hotels as well, and a Hampton Inn on a side street.) A lot of the hotels are connected to malls and casinos, but they’re mostly pretty small. The one connected to the Hyatt was actually pretty big, but note it’s not great for early morning eats.
The beach itself is very crowded and not that deep; it reminded be a bit of Miami or some other urban Florida beaches. It’s nice for a walk, particularly as the sun is going down, but it doesn’t strike me as a relaxing beach to lay out on.
In terms of eating, it’s probably worth going into the walled city for dinner. But on some of the non-waterfront streets, mostly Carrera 2, there are a lot of eating options – tons of fast food, in particular. For dinner one night I ate at Da Pietro, an Italian place connected to a hotel of the same name on Carrera 3, which was basic and homey Italian, nothing fancy. I rarely eat pasta I had a good and fresh fettuccine carbonara al mar. It’s a small place and I had a reservation, but I probably didn’t need one.
For breakfast I recommend La Brioche, a bakery that also serves some good hot options. Importantly, it was air conditioned! I had a good omelet with pan tomate and some crispy potatoes, along with an iced coffee for about $8. (Free wi-fi too.)
Otherwise, Bocagrande is mostly a place to sleep, not to explore. (Though the hotels are quite nice.) There are a lot of tourist-oriented shops, with resort wear, souvenirs (“crafts”), etc. There are also a number of 24-hour or late night full-service supermarkets, the nicest being Colombian chain Carulla.
The Walled City
Technically my day in the Walled City started outside the walls, at the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a fortress on a large hill just outside the city gates on the other side of the Walled City from Bocagrande. Honestly, it wasn’t worth it. It was about a 25-minute taxi ride with a fair bit of traffic, through the old city itself. Hailing a taxi from Bocagrande I asked what the cost would be (it’s not metered) and I agreed to 15,000 COP – which was too much (but still only about 5.50 USD). Even worse, when I got out, I realized he had shorted me on change, so it cost me 25,000 COP (9 USD).
As you pull up the fort in a taxi, you’re immediately confronted with aggressive salesmen offering water, hats, umbrellas, and trinkets. There’s then a long line to buy a ticket (25,000 COP), followed by a walk up a long ramp — also lined with salesmen — to the fort itself. The sun is strong and I was already feeling hot and sweaty in the humid air. There isn’t much to see on top of the fort itself, though good views towards both Bocagrande and the old city, but, nothing amazing.
From el Castillo, I headed on foot towards the walled city, with a stop at the statue of India Catalina, an indigenous woman said to have served as a translator to Spanish colonists. At this point I was drenched in sweat, but it was a pretty little park. From there, I crossed the street and walked along the wall surrounding the old city, which is cool. Walking along the wall allows you to see both the sea and some of the pretty streets of the city.
But as I moved southwest towards the more touristy part of the town, the streets became unbearable. There were cruise ship passengers everywhere – on foot, and riding in horse-drawn carriages. Nearly every picture I tried to take has a bunch of old white people in it. Combined with the heat, it was just unpleasant.
I tried to go to the museum at the Palace of the Inquisition, which covers Cartagena’s history. But after a long wait at the ticket desk, the woman told me she couldn’t take credit cards (despite the signage). I didn’t have enough cash because of the taxi rip-off, and she said “Well if you wait…” And then I just gave up. By the time I fought my way through crowds and heat and found a bank/ATM, I was definitively over it. I did get to peep into the Cartagena Cathedral (full name Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría de Cartagena de Indias), built in the 16th and 17th centuries.
By 12:30, I was exhausted and had sweated through a second shirt, so found a place for lunch. Few of the places are air conditioned, and the place I ended up – Pata Negra – was quasi-outdoors with courtyard-like seating, but then had a row of seats in the shade. Seeing my condition, the waitress volunteered to turn on some A/C units they had. “Pata negra” means black hoof, and is often used to refer to Iberian Pork, so there should be no surprise that it was a pork restaurant. I had a pretty good, not too-expensive pork tenderloin and two of the most refreshing, coldest beers of my life. The restaurant was all tourists, including lots of cruise passengers.
After lunch I tried to explore a bit more, but there isn’t a ton to see – lots of tacky souvenir shops, small museums, etc. I did however stop at La Paletteria, an artisanal gelato place I had read about in the New York Times’s 72 Hours in Cartagena. It was the most delicious $2 of my life – 5500 COP for an ice cream bar. I went with dulce de leche flavor and it was so good. So good that when I was in Cartagena the next night for dinner, I stopped by and got the exact same thing again, not even bothering to risk it on another flavor.
Full and tired, I made my way towards the Plaza de la Aduana, which still had some Christmas lights and decorations up, then to Plaza de los Coches- the closest to an entrance to the city that there is – filled with performers and souvenir sales, and out the Clock Tower Gate (there is a clock tower there). I grabbed a taxi and when I asked how much it would be back to Bocagrande, he asked me how much. I said 10000 COP which was probably still too much, and he said okay. Whatever, its only about $3.
On my last night in Cartagena, I went back into the old city for dinner and the city is much more pleasant at night. (And I was able to get my taxi for 8000 COP.) First of all, it’s prettier. The city is well-lit and the old buildings really pop. The Cathedral’s tower is lit with multi-colored lights and is gorgeous. Second, it’s less crowded and less warm— though still very crowded, and still very warm.
There are tons of fancy restaurants, and reservations are recommended for most of them. I went with El Baron, which was fine but not what I intended – more of an American-style gastropub/tapas place. Inside, there are only four small tables and a bar – each of the tables was occupied by English speakers (Americans and Australians). While there is outdoor seating on the plaza outside, eating outside did not strike me as pleasant. There’s a great fancy cocktail menu and I had two punches served in tiki glasses, along with a mushroom appetizer and basically a beef panini for 110,000 COP (~$39). The punch was more than the sandwich, I think. I’d recommend stopping for drinks or a social meal, but not a great eat alone and read place.
After dinner, I walked around a bit with my La Paletteria gelato and took in some more of the city before a taxi back to Bocagrande, this time only 7000 COP. I did make a little video of nighttime in Cartagena: