Faded grandiosity, smells of frying butter and squeezed oranges, days heavy with heat, voices tinged with a Caribbean twang, bougainvillea pouring over balconies and unexpected archways opening up into quietly beautiful courtyards. Those are a few things that spring to mind when I think of old town Cartagena. I loved this walled city and spent five days there, despite my previous plans to venture further to Santa Marta.
Within walking distance of the old city is the oceanfront neighborhood, Bocagrande. With it’s high rises and shopping malls, this area is the closest thing I’ve seen to Miami in South America, so whether you’re looking to sink back into a glamorous past or you want to go shopping and hit the beach, Cartagena has something for you.
What to Do
Honestly, you could while away days in Cartagena simply wandering the streets and dropping into a cafes, but there are ample activities in and around the city too.
1) Spend a day at Playa Blanca
The beaches at Bocagrande aren’t terrible, but your best bet for a beach day is to head to Playa Blanca.
Most people take a day trip with a tour company, which will include snorkeling, stopping for lunch (or a packed lunch) and a visit to the aquarium on one of the Rosario islands. Please be aware that you may be asked to pay the entrance fee to the aquarium!
Many hostels will organize the trip for you and generally a shuttle will pick you up from the hostel and take you to the dock. The boat tour from my hostel cost $40 000 COP but the price can be anywhere from $30 000 – $50 000 COP. The tour leaves at 8.30am and returns at around 4pm.
You can also take a direct speedboat, which should take about 45 minutes. I was told the last boat leaves at 9.30am so be sure to set your alarm clock!
I have heard of people who were made to pay a tax of $10 000 – $12 000 COP when leaving from the main port, so make sure you pack sufficient cash.
For those keen on spending more time on the beach, I recommend the overland route. This excludes a visit to the Rosario Islands and lunch, but it only costs about $15 000 and takes one hour or so, depending on traffic.
2) Walk the Old City
For those of you wanting to learn more about the history of Cartagena, there is a free walking tour around the Old City from Monday to Saturday at 10:30am and 4:30pm. Do the 4.30pm tour to avoid being outside during the hottest part of the day. The meeting point is at the famous Clock Tower in the Old City and you can sign up online at freewalkingtourcartagena.com. If you enjoy the tour, make sure to tip your guide.
I have also heard great thing about the free street art tour that departs at 10am from Plaza de Trinidad.
Alternatively, take the completely free option and wander around the streets at your own pace.
3) Watch the dancers in Plaza de Bolivar
Every time I found myself in this plaza there was a troupe of dancers dressed in amazing outfits showing off their skills. The square is a great place to people watch too so go check it out!
Indulge in Street food
There is all manner of street food on offer in the Old City, from freshly cut fruit and coconut water to fried plantains. My favorite snacks were Arepas – ground maize flour fried and stuffed with cheese – and cut mango. The empanadas here tend to be deep fried, as do the plantains, so I wasn’t a major fan. I did love the $1000 COP (R5) freshly squeezed orange juice that vendors carted about in enormous, ice-packed jugs, but my ultimate beverage from Cartagena was the iced coconut lemonade. Try it. It’s creamy and refreshing and delicious!
Having just spent a month is the chilly foothills of Bogota, I was not ready for the forceful heat of Cartagena. The air conditioning in La Brioche saved me and I spent many mornings there. Go there for amazing pastries and great wifi!
Abaco Libros y Cafe was another air conditioned favorite of mine. Enjoy a coconut lemonade here, surrounded by books and the smell of coffee.
For pizza try the well known Beer & Laundry and for reasonably priced sushi try Pezetarian.
5) Tour the city in a horse-drawn carriage
I’m always cautious to engage in this activity as many of the horses look miserable. However, if you can find a healthy looking horse, this is a great way to see the city without breaking a sweat.
An added extra: 6) Enjoy some shopping and a movie in Bocagrande
I must confess I’m a sucker for the movies so I did indulge myself in Cartagena. Both Caribe Plaza and Centro Comercial Plaza had large cinemas and offer some movies in English.