Why do a Cartagena Getaway?
A Cartagena Getaway is less than 5 hours nonstop from the east coast of the United States and airfare is under $500. When you get there you can enjoy delectable meals, walk most places you want to go, buy beautiful, handmade mementos, tour UNESCO sites and easily visit a Caribbean beach.
Isn’t Colombia dangerous?
If you still think Colombia is terrorized by violent drug gangs, kidnappings are common and the police are corrupt you aren’t entirely wrong. However, Cartagena, a small, walled city has mostly ordinary petty tourism crimes such as pickpocketing.
Various theories abound as to why Cartagena has a higher level of safety than the rest of the country. One is that the drug lords in Cali and Medellín agreed to stay out of Cartagena as it was a playground both enjoyed. Others credit former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe with kicking terrorism out and bringing tourism in. Whatever the reasons we never felt unsafe for a minute during 4 days in Cartagena.
Cartagena is such a rewarding and accessible destination that if you’re even reasonably sensible (the best that could ever be said of us) you should experience nothing except delight (served with a side dish of massive currency conversion confusion).
Where to stay for your Cartagena Getaway
Stay at a hotel in the walled city. We did two nights along the coast outside the walls and two inside and can save you the bother of staying outside. It wasn’t bad but it was at least a 15 minute cab ride each time to town with drivers who seemed to have been thrown out of Sicily for being too prone to anger and aggressive driving.
The restaurants and shops you want in the walled city and the beach right outside the city has unappealing dark volcanic sand. So, as we said, stay at a hotel in the walled city!
We stayed at the Hotel Boutique Ananda which is in a location that seemed to be within 4 blocks of everything and everywhere. The Ananda is a small, well-cared-for 5 star property with a lovely pool in the courtyard, free Wi-Fi and breakfast, much-needed strong air conditioning and one of the highest rated restaurants in Cartagena, Carmen. There are at least four different areas where you can sit and relax and enjoy either the pool or city views and the guest rooms are quite spacious.
They also were able to produce (on no notice) a private guide to give us a walking tour of the city on a holiday when none of the other guides were working and a reasonably priced, very cheerful, private driver to take us to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and Convento de la Popa.
What to do on your Cartagena getaway
Go on a walking tour of Cartagena’s walled city
Schedule, ideally online before you arrive, a walking tour of the walled city. We met with William Salazar who is a man worth meeting; he knows everyone, can get you whatever experience suits your interests, takes your safety seriously and will not steer you wrong just so he can make a buck. He owns and runs The Cartagenian a small company and will personally work with you to ensure that you get what you want in terms of tours, accommodations, private drivers, reservations for good restaurants and even airport pickups. (Rather unsportingly he draws a strong line against drug dealings and prostitution.)
Go to Playa Baru (about 45 minutes outside of Cartagena)
We had long-wanted to go to the Rosario Islands near Cartagena. Brunette had read about their white sand, completely transparent water and general desirability for years. The time had come to take action. We had hoped to get there by ship but were only able to find crowded party boats or expensive private charters so were discouraged. We can afford the former but would abhor it and cannot afford the latter but lust after it.
William Salazar solved the problem. He had a driver who picked us up at our hotel, drove us to a relatively secluded non-party part of the island, stayed with us for about 5 hours (and watched our belongings) while we swam, ate, got massages and bought beach jewelry. His services cost less than $100 USD total for the 2 of us. Such a deal! We bought his lunch which added some horrific amount like $10 to the deal, enjoyed our day at the beach and didn’t have to bother our pretty little heads with any of the logistics. (Or our old and less pretty heads either.)
Go on a human-led tour of the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
This attraction and much of Cartagena is a UNESCO site of “Outstanding Universal Value“. Once again we hired a private driver to go to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas (as well as Convento de la Popa which we didn’t feel was worth the trouble).
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is a fortress built by the Spaniards, or more precisely their slaves, in 1536. Cartagena was (and still is) an important port that needed to be protected. The fortress sometimes did that (against the British) and sometimes didn’t (against the French, go figure). We think it has a fascinating history but because we went on our own we didn’t learn as much as we would have liked.
When you get there you can hire a private guide at the far left window, purchase audio guide tours at the middle window (whose credit card machines don’t work) or buy an admission only ticket at the far right window. We went with the audio guide option. The recording was excellent but the map that supposedly corresponded to the numbers you punched in to play was woefully inadequate. We never knew if we were looking at the leper hospital or where Def Leopard played a concert so it was very frustrating. If we had a do-over we would see if William could recommend a good English-speaking guide.
This is an activity best not done in the mid-day sun and only for those with good mobility. There’s quite a bit of walking, some of it quite steep, that needs to be done and no accommodations of any kind for mobility issues.
Do some shopping on your Cartagena getaway
We had a ridiculous amount of fun buying linen clothes at Malvi Castameda. If you look at the link the woman in the middle picture is the one who runs and probably owns the shop. She is a retail force to be reckoned with but in a fun way. She only speaks Spanish and we only speak English (when you get right down to it) but she speaks “You look mahvelous dahling” better than anyone!
Blonde tried on a dress on our first visit (yes, there were two visits). It was too tight (would like to lie about this but what the heck). No problem, our new BFF elaborately pantomimed how she could let it out to fit perfectly by the next day. Skepticism ensued (by Blonde) followed by purchasing the dress and engaging in wishful thinking of “I weigh more than usual today so it will end up being fine”.
We went back to get it the next day and suffice it to say that Blonde bought two linen tops and an elaborate necklace/scarf sort of thing and the always more restrained Brunette bought a shirt. The dress, which is excellent quality linen, fine tailoring and made in Colombia cost $74 USD.
On our second visit we were getting into a level of shopping quantity that resulted in calling our friend Jim back in Boston (or wherever in the world he was at the moment) so he could negotiate for us in Spanish. Jim is the ultimate lifeline friend (and speaks at least 5 languages)!
If you don’t want a new wardrobe of linen clothes you can do some fabulous shopping for high-end crafts/artwork made in Colombia. There are wonderful hats, woven purses and our personal favorite; decorative objects with designs made with wheat straw. Straw marquetry uses wheat straws opened, flattened and dyed by hand. Then it’s made into clean iridescent patterns that are inlaid on boxes or other decorative objects. Blonde lusted mightily after the beautiful piece shown above but the cost (pre-negotiating) was about $500 USD so it was, sadly, an unrequited love/lust.
Where to eat on your Cartagena getaway
OK, even we can see that this is turning into a book. At some point we will write a separate post on the topic of dining in Cartagena because it’s totally worthy and because we did so much of it. But for now here’s a cheat sheet of places where you can’t go wrong.
Alma – This is the restaurant of the hotel Casa San Agustín. We spent hours there one night enjoying at least 4 courses of exquisite food and wine and practically had to be sent back to our hotel in wheelbarrows we were so full (and happy). Definitely make reservations and even if the idea of octopus carpaccio sounds unbelievably disgusting to you have it as an appetizer and you will not regret it. We both rank this in the top 10 of meals in our lives and we have had a lot of meals in a lot of wonderful places around the world. Don’t miss the chance to come here!
Cande – We went for lunch and had wonderful service from the charming (English speaking) Yusmiriam.
The eggplant stuffed with crab and cheese was excellent as was the Grouper with lime and butter. If you go in the evenings they have entertainment. The restaurant’s focus on locally sourced ingredients and Columbian cuisine.
Brujas de Cartagena – We just bumbled in here early (they hadn’t even opened yet) and without a reservation. It was a national holiday and almost everywhere else was closed so we just took a chance. Not only did we enjoy the bare-breasted wall art but our scallops, potato croquettes (nothing like you’re thinking) and vegetable ceviche were top-notch. This is where it sunk in to us that Cartagenians (and that seemed to be the crowd, not tourists like us) dress nicely for dinner. Everyone makes an effort and we admire that lost art.
El Burlador de Sevilla – This is Spanish cuisine, not Colombian, and has been a restaurant in Cartagena for over 20 years so they obviously are doing a lot right. The chef (who has only been there a couple of months) enjoys evolving traditional dishes and creating new ones.
They had fabulous Sangria and we aren’t even Sangria lovers so that’s saying something. We had croquettes made of Serrano ham, and mushrooms and fought a bit over the last one. The paella was far better than what we have had in Spain and the Crema Catalunya will result in Blonde going up a size for her next Spanx purchase. There is also excellent flamenco singing and dancing every night at no extra charge so this is a two-in-one experience.
There’s so much more we could say about Cartagena but this is our effort to give you a semi-short trip success kit. If you follow this you can have a fun Cartagena getaway, avoid some of the dumb things we did and benefit from the wonderful things we enjoyed immensely.
Impress your friends with how adventuresome you are by going to Cartagena and then indulge yourself silly while you’re there. And don’t be surprised if your Cartagena getaway turns into a South America gateway as you develop an interest in sampling other countries.
Required FTC Disclosure that we always resentfully provide: We got free dinners at Alma Restaurant, El Burlador de Sevilla and Cande. We were guests of the Hotel Boutique Ananda which is why we didn’t say anything about how pathetically small the chocolates they gave us were. So apparently we can be bought.