A port city on the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena, Colombia is a meeting place of Caribbean, African and Spanish culture. This gorgeous, coastal city is brimming with history, but you'll also find incredible beaches, beautiful street art and delicious national foods. Walk the cobblestone streets of the walled Old Town, stopping in squares and to gawk at the colourful colonial buildings. Cartagena is also a great jumping off point to access other areas, like the Rosario Islands, a snorkelling haven just a short boat ride away.
Cartagena, Colombia: What to see
The Rosario Islands
Take a 45-minute boat ride off the coast of Cartagena and set foot on The Rosario Islands, a vibrant archipelago of 27 separate rocky islands surrounded by protected coral reefs and the Caribbean Sea. Isla Grande, the largest island in the chain, boasts a range of accommodations ranging from hostels to luxury hotels, along with Caribbean restaurants and lavish beach clubs featuring DJs spinning dance beats reminiscent of those found in Ibiza or Mallorca.
On the outskirts of the walled city, the budget-friendly Getsemaní neighbourhood beckons tourists with its lively cocktail bars and bistros, art galleries and labyrinthine alleyways decked out in vivid Afro-Caribbean and Colombian murals. Suspended umbrellas and bunting in every colour are strung to create a canopy through the streets, with impromptu salsa dancers and energetic cumbia musicians serenading the streets come nightfall.
Castillo San Felipe De Barajas
Check out San Felipe Castle, an impenetrable triangular fortress resting atop San Lázaro hill. Built in 1536, the castle, deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, served as the site for several significant wars and raids throughout the centuries. Dish out the best CAD $8 you’ll ever spend to explore the myriad of identical, narrow tunnels with low ceilings and stifling corridors — purposely designed to confuse potential attackers.
Cartagena, Colombia: What to eat and drink
Di Silvio Trattoria
Stop by to split a bottle of wine on the back patio, or chow down on a number of regional Italian specialties, just like the ones that nonna used to make. If it’s the mussels drenched in butter, white wine and garlic you’re after, prepare for an audience: The owner’s cat, Moustachio, also made the journey to Cartagena from Italy and now it’s not uncommon to have several second-generation feline guests join you at your feet for dinner.
El Arsenal: The Rum Box
Crowds of cocktail connoisseurs gather at this laid-back tapas bar to taste a series of signature drinks done with unconventional ingredients. Try the Black Pudding — a sausage-infused Scotch whisky with thyme syrup, egg white and lime — or opt for a rum-soaked cocktail. The bar also offers an awesome signature rum and chocolate tasting, letting guests relish eight different rums, while learning about Colombia’s rich rum-making history.
Loncheria Polo Norte
All day long, Munol Van Mah’s empanadas attract a lineup down the street. A local favourite, Mah’s humble, no-frills joint puts a spin on the traditional Colombian snack. An homage to the Chinese recipes that his ancestors brought to Colombia, Mah stuffs his empanadas with chopped carrots, onion and cabbage inside a pastry shell that resembles an egg roll. The best part? They’re only CAD $1 each.
Cartagena, Colombia: Where to stay
Armería Real Hotel
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Rumoured to have been an armory during Spanish colonial rule, this charming, terracotta-coloured, three-storey hotel is walking distance to some of Cartagena’s best restaurants and bars. The reception area leads to a romantic courtyard, essential for enjoying a complimentary breakfast spread of fresh fruit and fried tamales, while the rooftop bar and pool provide unparalleled skyline views of the Bocagrande promenade. Wind down with a drink (try an Aguardiente, neat) or take a dip — actually, why not do both?
Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena
Steeped in more than 400 years of history, this 124-room former convent turned luxury hotel has preserved its original architectural essence. Think echoey, vaulted ceilings; colonial arches; and corridors framed by stone columns. At 1621 Restaurant (named for the year that meals were first eaten here), chef Julien Bernard curates tasting menus revolving around French haute cuisine. Enhance the experience with South American wine pairings from the restaurant’s wine cellar. Be sure to come hungry and set aside about three hours for the gastronomic encounter from start to finish.
Gente De Mar Resort
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Wake up to waves as an alarm clock. This eco-friendly hotel on Isla Grande is home to a handful of lofty bungalow suites mere steps from the Caribbean Sea. WiFi can be spotty, but an abundance of outdoor activities like snorkelling to search for giant sea turtles provide a welcome distraction.