If you are tired of heading to the Caribbean for a beach vacation and are ready to move on to somewhere new and different, why not give Cartagena a try? This northern coastal city in Colombia is the perfect mix of old with the Spanish Colonial architecture featured in the old town area to new with the modern and updated buildings in Bocagrande, leaving you with a Miami feel. Not to mention, the restaurant scene in this vibrant city is on point and growing, and the city itself is relatively inexpensive. So again, why not go?
The one drawback of this city is that you have to travel a bit to reach the beautiful beaches, as the water surrounding the port city is heavily polluted; however, the distance is not unbearable and completely worth the journey.
For your first day, book a trip through This is Cartagena, one of the local tour groups, to head to the Rosario Islands by speedboat. The secluded beach and clear turquoise waters will have you emailing your friends in no time to let them know you are never returning home. Upon reaching Isla Grande (the larger island of the Rosario Islands), you will be greeted by one of the hosts and more importantly, a welcome drink. From here, take your drink and head down to the beach to soak up some rays.
After a little relaxing, lunch is served–a buffet-style midday meal which features some of the fresh local fish, coconut rice and fried plantains. After lunch, take one of the complimentary kayaks out on the water to complete the trip. The day tour is a 6-8 hour excursion getting you back to the city just in time for dinner.
After returning to Cartagena, shower and change before making your way to Vera for dinner. This chic, Italian restaurant located in the Tcherassi Hotel and Spa is quite the show stopper. The fine dining locale not only offers beautiful ambiance with outdoor seating, but also exquisite cuisine. Of note, the “Penne alla Bolognese” is a must.
To end the night, head over to Demente, one of the local bars serving up snazzy cocktails with an eclectic atmosphere. This neighborhood watering hole has a retractable roof and has replaced some of the ordinary chairs with rocking chairs at some of the tables, making it a unique and fun venue. So grab a drink while listening to some music and even enjoy a delicious tapa featured on the menu, if you happen to still be hungry.
For your second day, plan a trip to “Playa Blanca.” This can be made in advance if you like, but I found it easier just to book the day before with a local travel office (which helped bring down the price a little as well). Twenty-five dollars included a bus ride (approximately 45 minutes), a small breakfast (think: a Danish and a soda), and lunch (Fish and rice). Of note, this beach is rather touristy, but the scenery makes it completely worth it. To avoid local vendors and to escape some of the noise, walk down a bit away from the main area to find some quietness. On your walk, make sure to grab a “Coco Loco.” This rum-based Colombian cocktail served in a coconut will be sure to quench your thirst on a warm day.
After your trip to Playa Blanca, make your way to La Cevicheria for dinner. This quaint restaurant located within the walled city features some of the best ceviche in the area. If you are a fan of lobster, the lobster ceviche should not be missed!
After dinner, take an evening stroll over to the Getsemaní neighborhood to catch some of the street graffiti and art murals featured in this area. If you find yourself with some extra time or staying an extra day, look into doing a street art tour to learn about the culture and ideologies behind the magnificent artwork.
If you’re not too tired after wandering through the streets of Getsemaní, head over to Cafe Havana to end your trip on a high note. Known for its salsa dancing and live music, it is claimed to be one of the best bars in town. Even if you’re not a dancer, it is a great place for people watching and a night cap.
Things to know before leaving:
Currency: The Colombian currency is the Colombian Peso. Most places in Cartagena accept all major credit cards; however, it is never a bad idea to exchange at least a little money in advance to be on the safe side (think: taxis).
Tipping: In Cartagena, many of the restaurants will add a voluntary tip of 10%. You will see it marked on your bill as “Propina Voluntaria,” so just let the waiter/waitress know whether or not you want to include this amount when paying–although it is customary to keep it on there if the service was up to par. Also of note, it is not necessary to tip taxis.
Heads up: Given its location, Cartagena is one of those cities that is extremely warm year-round and can be very humid. When it comes to packing, best to pack clothes that are breathable as well as wicking.