This Spanish colonial gem, with some of the hemisphere’s loveliest architecture, built right on the brilliant blue Caribbean, should already be a world-class destination. And, certainly, it already is one of Colombia’s most popular cities, but the nation’s reputation has for decades kept the vast majority of travelers away.
That’s changing. This city has something for everyone, and all the outdated travel warnings in the world won’t keep the crowds at bay much longer. Culture lovers will find museums, live music, and other delights, while epicurious travelers in search of fine dining, excellent hotels, and glittering nightlife in unusual places will find Cartagena worth writing home about. And, while beach lovers may be less than impress with the city’s public stretch of sand, an array of perfect islands just offshore beckon with white sand, cold coconuts, and incredible snorkeling and diving.
Keep in mind that Cartagena is a city in transition, a classic adventure destination busily ramping up to international standards. Thus, there’s a great deal of construction in and around the city, and luxury lovers, in particular, might find things a tad more chaotic than more established Caribbean resort towns. Relax. Cartagena is worth it.
Day 1: Explore the Old Town
Begin within the old walled city, an impossibly lovely maze of quaint colonial casitas and perfect little plazas that photographers will almost need a fisheye lens to capture properly. You’ll almost certainly get lost, which is part of Cartagena’s charm; maps are available around town, or just anyone for the Torre Reloj (pronounced “Tor Raelow”), to find your way back to the original city gates.
There are several museums and churches to explore, but sure to schedule time to simply relax in the tropical heat, at one of the Cartagena’s lovely little restaurants or sidewalk cafes. Try to spend sunset atop the sea wall, or (better) at El Convento de la Popa, with its amazing city views.
Day 2: Head for the Islands
Cartagena’s best beaches are along Boca Grande, the skyscraper-studded stretch of sand jutting out just across from the old city. While the broad and breezy expanse of gray sands is pleasant enough, with covered chairs and cold drinks on offer everywhere, it’s worth taking a day trip into the offshore islands.
The most popular excursions visit the Islas de Rosario, an attractive archipelago atop the third-largest barrier reef in the world. Most daytrippers are shuttled to a few different islands, including an open-air aquarium and at least one attractive beach. Travelers-in-the-know often pay a little extra to stay all day at a private island, or book a hotel for the night.
Day 3: Relax and Enjoy
It’s back to Cartagena proper for your final day, for one last whirl through the old town to take in any museums or other sites you might have missed. But be sure to take a stroll around the rest of this beautiful city.
The architecturally interesting old neighborhood of Gesthemani, just beyond the city walls, was once where Cartagena’s poor, including freed slaves, stayed; today it’s home to the vast majority of the city’s hostels and budget hotels, as well as inexpensive restaurants, Internet cafes, and a glut of tour operators. The Isla Manga neighborhood (incidentally, no longer an island) was once a refuge for Arab immigrants, and is home to some spectacular Moorish-style buildings. The ritziest part of town is Boca Grande, where the Colombian upper crust is stacked in glass-walled condos above the city’s best beaches.
No matter where you go, spend your final sunset at San Felipe, the enormous Spanish Fortress just outside the city walls. Then, find your favorite plaza for one last Caribbean-style seafood dinner and begin plotting your return.