This beauty looks better at night. Because of Cartagena’s miserable and oppressive heat, most people hibernate during the day, but the city comes alive in time for a sundowner on the old city walls.
Cartagena’s got a vibrant Afro-Latin-Carribean vibe, the result of disparate people and cultures thrown together through Spanish colonization, piracy, and the slave trade and left to stew for a couple of centuries. It’s a lot like St Augustine, Florida, another Spanish colonial town with a fort and located close to the beach, but Cartegena feels more wild, more vibrant and colorful.
Cartagena’s got three general areas where you can spend your time. There’s the Old City, romantic old colonial buildings still nestled within 16th-century Spanish fortifications; the funky up and coming Getsemani neighborhood; and the beaches and high rises along Bocagrande, along with the beachy islands nearby.
The Old City is made for wandering around as dusk turns into night — the old streetlights come on, horse-drawn carriages clip-clop through the narrow streets, and every few blocks it seems there’s a picturesque square where you can stop for a drink or a coffee.
Getsemani is a bit scruffier and rough around the edges. It’s got most of the bars and nightlife, but it can also offer a glimpse of non-touristy Cartagena. We wandered into Plaza Trinidad one Sunday night and it was one of the best experiences we had on the Caribbean coast. Kids were running around the square, families strolled by, and vendors sold snacks as everyone hung out and talked with their neighbors. A horse pulling a simple buggy loaded with local kids went in circles around the square, a pint-sized driver at the reigns. Then, suddenly, a dance party breaks out on the square and everybody — locals, tourists, kids, old folks, get down and boogy! I love this town!
Although we stayed in Bocagrande, we didn’t explore the beaches around Cartagena. From what we saw, the beaches here are nothing spectacular and we’ve got some unspoiled, beautiful Caribbean beaches to share with you (posting soon!) just a few hours east of Cartagena. The best part about staying in Bocagrande is we were right down the street from my favorite Colombian restaurant Crepes and Waffles (yes, it’s really Colombian!). They do yummy salads, such a nice break after all that starch, and they have a great version of limonada de coco –– lemonade with coconut, a refreshing Cartagena specialty.
All this charm comes with a price tag of course. Cartagena is not a budget destination, but there are ways to save your pesos. Instead of shelling out $10 for a sunset cocktail at the famous and famously expensive Cafe del Mar situated on the old city walls overlooking the water, you can grab a seat right next door to the cafe on the wall and buy a few beers from the wandering vendors. There are tons of expensive seafood restaurants, but La Mulatta in the Old City ($8 set seafood lunches!) and the Blue Lagoon in Getsemani ($10 for a huge plate of fresh ceviche) each offer stellar seafood at reasonable prices. Still, Cartagena would be a great place to splurge.
We’re already planning a post-employment Jordan and Skyler seafood-feasting, mojito-drinking, beach-lazing, Sunday-night-dancing Long Weekend in Cartagena!