When I decided to fly to Cartagena on a whim two weeks ago, I had no idea what was in store. I’m so glad I followed my gut and booked the flight because Cartagena took my breath away! This city is so full of energy, culture, and incredible beauty. The word whimsical comes to mind. You could spend an entire day just aimlessly wandering about the old city “Centro Historico” which is surrounded by a wall that served as a fortress from invaders in another time.
Each street is lined with colorful colonial-style homes and shops, brightly colored flowers, and beautiful street art. Horse-drawn carriages meander up and down each narrow street and music can be heard in every corner.
Street vendors, artisans and food carts selling fruit and juices line every street. Cartagena was the major port for the transatlantic slave trade in South America, so there is a very strong Afro-Colombian presence that is both felt and seen. Beautiful brown smiling faces are everywhere and it made me so proud to see us celebrated in a way I hadn’t experienced at home.
What struck me was just how visible black culture is in Cartagena. In America, I often feel like black people have to fight to be seen, heard and regarded as important. You have to seek out black spaces and black art. Here blackness finds you at every turn. Much of the street art you see is inspired by Cartagena’s African ancestry. The food and the music pay homage to the prominence and steadfastness of African culture in this region. If your skin is brown, you’re likely to hear, “Aye, mi color!” from a local on the street. To them, we’re all family. Our African bonds could not be broken through time, bondage or geography. They embraced me like family and I embraced them back! I felt so much love and pride walking the streets of Cartagena. It was an experience I didn’t know I needed.
Book your trip to Cartagena in 2020. You won’t be disappointed. Here are some great tips to help you plan!
How long I stayed: 4 nights
Where to Stay:
I booked this trip on a whim but was able to find a beautiful oceanfront condo on Airbnb in the Palmetto Beach high rise in Boca Grande. Palmetto Beach has INCREDIBLE oceanfront views and is a very secure building with lovely helpful staff. Boca Grande is lined with high rise condos and hotels, with restaurants and shops within walking distance and is about a 10-minute taxi ride to the old city (Centro).
If you want to be in the heart of the action, I suggest finding a location in Centro Historico or Getsemani. Even though these properties won’t be beachfront, you won’t be far from the water at all. Casona del Colegio is a beautiful boutique hotel set in a traditional Colombian compound that I toured privately and I would definitely stay here next time. Highly recommend.
- How much cash I brought: $400 and it was the perfect amount
- Currency: The official currency is the Colombian peso. Unlike most South & Central American countries, very few establishments accept the US Dollar.
- Tip: I prefer to order my currency through my bank in advance and they deliver it to my front door via FedEx. This is super convenient and the exchange rate is much better than what you’ll get at the airport.
Things To Do:
- Explore Centro Historico (aka the old city/the walled city) by foot. This is the place to get lost and just take in everything around you! Listen to street performers, stop into a café for lunch, people watch and see all of the historic sites.
- Visit the Palacio de la Inquisición (Museum of the Spanish Inquisition). I think it’s important to spend time learning about the history and people of wherever I travel. This is how travel enriches us and leaves us smarter than we came. While some of the museum content was very jarring, I learned a lot about how my ancestors persisted with their spiritual practices despite persecution.
- Spend a day away at Blue Apple Beach House. This beach club set on an island off the coast of Cartagena is the perfect getaway during the week. You’ll be picked up at the marina at 10am and can stay until 4 or 5:30. Click here to book your excursion.
- Take a walking tour around the city with a local professional photographer to catch some candid moments in beautiful places for you to take home with you. Learn about the life of the local people and see the city before it fully wakes up and have Hector take some amazing photos along the way!
- Go salsa dance the night away at the famous Café Havana in Getsemani.
As soon as you open the doors the energy of Café Havana will take over you! A live salsa band envelops the room with soul waking music and locals move in ways and at speeds I didn’t know were possible. You can instantly see how much history was created in that place as the walls are lined with framed photographs of famous Cuban performers who had passed through its doors. Even if you can’t salsa dance, watching the locals dance is a treat in itself. If you’re brave, you can even get up and fake it ’til you make it and let the rhythm wash over you.
- Grab a drink and listen to live music at El Coro lounge. This upscale lounge is part of the beautiful Sofitel boutique hotel in Centro is a great place to go solo or gather with friends to listen to live music and dance. If you’re lucky the Seis Señors will be performing that night, which is a real treat! Their love of music is palpable and they have so much fun performing…smiling and dancing through every set. They’ll mesmerize you with an upbeat fusion of Cuban, Latin and Afrobeats.
Where to Eat:
The food in Cartagena was amazing! The convergence of African, Spanish and Caribbean flavors sent me to foodie heaven! Because of its location in the Caribbean sea, seafood reigns supreme in Cartagena. As a pescatarian, I couldn’t ask for much more and made sure to eat as much as my stomach would allow! 😂
- Cilantro in Boca Grande is a must! The food was so good I went there twice in one day! Their shrimp ceviche is a some of the best I’ve ever had! I also ordered the catch of the day which was a local fried fish accompanied by their coconut rice, fried plantains, and salad. INCREDIBLE! Easily one of the most flavorful fried fish dishes I’ve tasted!
- La Cevecheria in Centro is an incredible place to go for an open-air dinner and take in the sounds of the old city! What’s better? It’s directly across the street from El Coro, so you can head in for some live music after your dinner! My new girlfriends from Mexico and I shared a bunch of plates and everything we ordered was incredible! You can’t go wrong with anything here.
- Varadero bar & restaurant in Centro boasts Cuban vibes, fresh seafood live music, and dope artwork! I highly recommend their pineapple cake with vanilla ice cream if you’re looking to satiate your sweet tooth and their fresh seafood dishes will not disappoint!
- Try Costa in Centro for lunch or dinner! Part of an upscale bohemian boutique hotel with impeccable service and a fantastic menu. Try the crab patacones! The jumbo lump crab salad was so fresh and flavorful with fried plantain patocones for dipping!
- Nestle into Ely in Boca Grande for brunch. This stylish café has a great brunch menu with blueberry pancakes so light and fluffy they truly melt in your mouth. I also had my first Golden Chai tea spiced with turmeric to give it that golden hue. I’d love to find a golden chai back home because it tasted delicious!
Tip: Try the local drink “limonada de coco” which is limeade blended with coconut crème that it is to die for! My favorite version was from Costa! So tasty!
- Local taxis are your best bet for transportation around the city. The prices are really affordable and you can find them pretty much anywhere.
- Tip: Always verify the price upfront by asking “Cuanto pesos?”. Most taxis will give you the right price, but a few enterprising locals may try and take advantage of your tourist status.
- For reference:
- A taxi from Boca Grande to Centro should cost you no more than 10,000 pesos which is roughly $3.
- A taxi from Boca Grande to the airport should cost you 20,000 pesos ($6).
- For reference:
I could talk about Cartagena for hours on end! If you have any questions, feel free to drop a note in the comments below! I hope you’ll add Cartagena to your 2020 travel list!