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A few months ago, TPG Contributor — and former Travel Editor — Melanie Wynne pounced on a sweet JetBlue flight deal to Cartagena, Colombia, and spent six days wandering between the past and present in this elegant, sexy (and crumbling) city on South America’s Caribbean coast. She shot all the photos too.
Ask a cross-section of Americans what the word “Cartagena” invokes for them, and chances are they’ll mention the movie Romancing the Stone or their fears about Colombia’s long-running drug war. In reality though, the 1984 adventure-comedy was filmed in Mexico and Michael Douglas’ pronunciation of “Cartageña” was incorrect. Cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar’s mansion, located an hour off the coast, has been steadily decaying since his death in 1993 and the drug war itself, never centered here, has been steadily losing steam for a few years now.
These days, beautiful, safe Cartagena — a 2.5-hour flight from Miami — is an increasingly popular tourist destination for travelers from South America and the States.
Founded as an important Spanish port in 1533, the Old Town of Cartagena de Indias — a UNESCO world heritage site — remains largely intact behind high stone walls that peer out over the Caribbean. A visit here isn’t your typical beach vacation, as you can just as easily immerse yourself in history, art and theater as you can take a dip in the sea. Imagine a less crowded New Orleans or San Juan without the glitz. Here’s what I loved about Cartagena and I’m sure you will, too.
1. The Juxtaposition of Old and New
Old Town and Bocagrande are the two main tourist neighborhoods in Cartagena, but aside from being partially set beside the sea, they have little else in common.
Within the weathered walls of Old Town, you’ll see Spanish-Colonial architecture that’s been either lovingly restored or left to crumble, and a few mom-and-pop places that are still mixed in with hip new restaurants, shops and boutique hotels.
Immerse yourself in the 16th century for a few hours, then climb the northern ramparts to greet the sunset with a cocktail and lounge music at Café del Mar, an extremely popular open-air bar that looks out on the sea, the traffic on Avenida Santander and the modern skyline of Bocagrande.
Designed as a mini-version of Rio’s Copacabana, Bocagrande is lined with a jumble of high-rises, chain hotels, often congested traffic, pockmarked sidewalks, gleaming shopping malls and casual beach-shack cafes. Its shore is dotted with umbrellas and lounge chairs (for hotel guests) as well as lawn chairs beneath canopies emblazoned with cell-service logos (for lower-income locals). Note that you’ll find a similar mix of new construction, scruffy local vendors and wealthy Colombians on the prettier beach at La Boquilla, a Miami-esque luxury condo and hotel district emerging from one of the oldest, poorest neighborhoods in the city.
To get a fuller sense of Cartagena’s era-spanning sprawl, head up to Convento de la Popa, a huge convent built by Augustinian monks in 1607 atop the highest hill in the city. Bypass the souvenir kiosks in the dusty parking lot and head to the brick-paved walking path that runs almost all the way around the convent to be rewarded with gorgeous, wide-reaching views of Cartagena.
Within the convent walls, you’ll find a small chapel decorated with gold and a romantic, gently eroding courtyard rimmed with potted palms and draped with bougainvillea.
Closer to sea level, take in city views from the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. Meant to deter foreign armies and hordes of pirates during the 17th and 18th centuries, this mega-fort took roughly 120 years to build and is still amazingly intact today.
If you go with a chiva tour (see #3), you’ll be allowed access to tunnels here that were designed to keep soldiers safe during battle. When you emerge, peek over the walls at the leafy urban sprawl of this still-prosperous city.
2. Blazing Bright Colors
Cartagena isn’t kidding around when it comes to color. Wake up your sense of alegria — Spanish for “joy” — with a stroll past the vividly-painted Spanish-Colonial houses of Old Town, which lend a little glamour to the gracefully decaying streets.
On almost every street in Cartagena — in Old Town, Bocagrande and beyond — you’ll find Colombian-made bags, scarves, shoes and more in a slew of shades.
In artisan shops and galleries, you’ll also find rainbow-hued beaded jewelry, leather goods, papier-mâché masks and miniature versions of local scenes. Also keep an eye out for fruit vendors in traditional yellow, blue and red dresses, as well as huge jars of shredded-coconut patties called cocadas, which are as cheap and delicious as they are colorful.
3. Chiva Tours
Speaking of color, these wooden-framed buses painted with vibrant murals of Cartagenian scenes are hard to miss. Formerly used for public transport in rural areas of the country, chiva buses have been given new life as tour buses in major Colombian cities, including Cartagena.
Climbing a chiva bus’ side-ladder, sliding across a pew-like row of seats and letting a PA-amplified guide show you some of Cartagena’s best attractions (like those listed in #1) can be a fun way to get the lay of the land. However, if you tire of the sometimes-bumpy ride’s hip-to-hip proximity to other people, simply get off at the next tour stop and summon a cab or Uber to continue your sightseeing.
Some chiva buses are exclusively used for daytime tours while other, wilder versions come out only at night stacked with boozing partiers and festooned with pulsing lights, tweeting horns and cumbia dance beats blaring from loudspeakers. Chiva tours are offered by several local companies and generally cost about $12 per person — if you’re staying at a hotel, your concierge can easily schedule one for you.
4. Everything That Helps Keeps You Cool
By the time the second cartagenero told me I was lucky to be visiting during a breezy, cool week, I chuckled to myself while simultaneously sweating at rest in the relentless heat. You can certainly expect high temperatures here year-round but fortunately, you don’t have to wait for the sun to set to enjoy yourself.
Splash in the Caribbean on a handful of palm-lined beaches, relax beneath an umbrella in a courtyard café, duck into the cool foyer of a hotel or simply cross to the shady side of any street. Better yet, do all of these things every day that you’re here to stay cool.
You’ll also find delicious relief among the faux butterflies and flowers in Gelateria Paradiso — give the passion fruit gelato a whirl — and the popsicle heaven of La Paletteria, which has, in addition to stacks of icy treats, the strongest air-conditioning I found in Old Town. A popsicle trend seems to be sweeping through Cartagena, so keep an eye out for new shops popping up around the city.
Buy these treats — and anything else you eat in Cartagena, for that matter — with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card to earn 2x points for each dollar spent on dining.
5. Limonada de Coco
Love lemonade, but just don’t feel it has enough coconut cream? Tired of over-sweet piña coladas and looking to step up your resort-drink game? Cartagena’s favorite beverage has you covered — and is so tasty that it deserves its own listing. With or without a jigger of rum, a glass of refreshing limonada de coco (coconut lemonade) is an utterly delightful way to beat the Colombian heat.
6. Delicious Seafood Dishes
Cartagena is chock full of delicious stuff to eat, from dishes that reflect the city’s 16th-century Moorish influence to vegetarian spins on Spanish paella, but the ideal local meal includes fresh seafood.
To check out the city’s best assortment of Caribbean-caught creatures, put on your least-fancy duds and catch a ride to the bare-bones Mercado de Bazurto to see the fresh local fish and shellfish brought in. Or, skip the side-trip and simply tuck into the best lobster mac-and-cheese you may ever have, served with a whole — and perfectly baked — lobster tail at Old Town’s airy and stylish La Teibol.
For the Holy Grail of local seafood dishes, though, be sure to try the ceviche at the aptly named La Cevicheria. Decked out with mermaids and nautical prints, this casual, tightly-packed eatery isn’t exactly undiscovered — the chef is a pal of Anthony Bourdain’s, who featured the restaurant on an episode of No Reservations — but it’s definitely worth the trip. Ceviche options are generally served with a side of Peruvian choclo (crunchy corn nuts), but they pair equally well with a glass of limonada de coco.
7. Modern Colombian Art
If you’re an art lover, you’ll want to visit two different spots in Old Town. Located in the former Customs House in the Plaza San Pedro de Claver and featuring huge canvases, technicolor graphics, powerful sculptures and intricate mixed-media installations by Colombian artists, the Cartagena Museum of Modern Art has everything going for it — except air-conditioning.
Stay as long as you can at the museum, then enjoy the near-freezing AC at nearby NH Galeria, a glassy, modern gallery stocked with cutting-edge, tongue-in-cheek works by artists who largely hail from Colombia, as well as South America and Europe.
Be sure to also visit the Teatro Adolfo Mejia (Teatro Heredia), where the ceiling, also painted by Enrique Grau, looks like this (see above). First opened in 1905, the theater hosts stage productions, film and music festivals.
Stop by the Plaza Santo Domingo to see Colombian sculptor Botero’s bronze “La Gordita Gertrudis,” who’s happily basking in the sunshine.
8. The Funky Vibe of the Getsemaní Neighborhood
Across the street from Old Town’s tall, yellow Clock Tower, you can either stroll through a leafy little park or march past the massive, rearing legendary horses of Pegasus Wharf to enter Getsemaní, an emerging neighborhood full of artists, poets and writers that blends the charm of Old Town with the former rubble of New York’s Lower East Side. Visit during the daytime to check out cool street art and graffiti that cover almost every brick and concrete wall, but know that this area really comes alive at night.
Ease into evening with some fish tacos and mojitos on the tiny rooftop at Malagana Cafe & Bar, where happy hour lasts from 4:00pm-8:00pm. After nightfall, head to the Plaza de Santísima Trinidad — home to a seriously bright yellow church — and try to nab a rocking chair with a view of the plaza at Demente Tapas Bar. Local kids play soccer here, adults watch and visit with each other while dancers and singers sometimes perform. In this shabby-chic hotspot, go for the fried local cheese with onion marmalade, the Aguila beer on tap or Colombian-Caribbean cocktails served with big, round ice cubes.
Later in the evening, you can salsa your feet off to the Afro-Latin-Cuban rhythms at the well-known Cafe Havana or stay up even later and hit the dance floor at the bright, buzzing Bazurto Social Club.
Getting to Cartagena
Rafael Núñez International Airport (CTG) is just a 10-minute drive from Old Town, and a taxi will cost you about 10,000 Colombian pesos (~$3) — happily for American travelers, $1 = about 2,861 Colombian pesos.
Star Alliance flyers can fly nonstop on Avianca from Miami (MIA) or New York (JFK), while SkyTeam loyalists can fly nonstop on Delta from Atlanta (ATL).
Additionally, JetBlue often offers flight deals from the US with nonstop flights from New York (JFK) or Fort Lauderdale (FLL). You can also fly Spirit Airlines nonstop from FLL, but you might want to read this low-cost carrier survival guide first.
Where to Stay
In Bocagrande, at the far end of the El Laguito Peninsula, the huge, family-friendly Hilton Cartagena Hotel is like a crisply refreshed time capsule of the 1980s, with bright blue swirled marble, a sprawling multi-pool complex with a swim-up bar and its own private beach. Rates start at about $116 or 40,000 Hilton HHonors points per night in June.
Right on the main drag, the glossy InterContinental Cartagena de Indias offers high-end design, an infinity pool with a glass-wall view of the sea, and umbrellas and lounge chairs for guests across the street on the sand. Rates start at about $125 or 35,000 IHG Rewards points per night in June.
You’ll also find a Hampton by Hilton Cartagena — rates generally start at about $62 or 30,000 HHonors points per night in June — and the Holiday Inn Express Cartagena Bocagrande, where rates start at about $99 or 20,000 IHG Rewards points per night in June. A Hyatt Regency Cartagena is also slated to open in mid-2016 (prices TBD).
Back toward the airport, the beach at La Boquilla attracts families and beautiful young people from other parts of Colombia and is home to Holiday Inn Cartagena Morros (rates from $108 or 25,000 IHG Rewards points per night in June) and the Radisson Cartagena Ocean Pavillion Hotel (rates from $174 or 44,000 Carlson Gold Points per night in June.
Old Town is also home to a few Visa Signature Hotels, including the elegant Hotel Casa San Augustin, pictured above. The hotel features a sexy, low-lit bar, beautifully prepared food and a romantic pool in the central atrium, with rates starting at about $400 per night in June. Visa Signature cardholders can earn perks like free room upgrades (when available), food and beverage credits and complimentary continental breakfast when booking through the Visa Signature Hotels portal.
A Final Tip
While Colombian pesos will be welcomed by cab drivers, street vendors and some smaller shops and restaurants, credit cards are accepted just about everywhere in Cartagena. Cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express and Citi ThankYou Premier Card don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use on your Colombian-Caribbean vacation. For more fee-free credit card options, check out this post.
Have you ever been to Cartagena? What are your favorite things to do there?
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