Ahhhh Cartagena! I have so much to tell you in this post. Honestly, this was an amazing vacation and you should probably just copy our exact trip. I went for 5 nights with three friends and there are very few things I’d change about our itinerary. (Nothing here is comped or sponsored – I’d tell you if it were.) And sorry that these are just iPhone photos; I really treated this like a vacation and not a blogging trip BUT we had so much fun that I wanted to share everything we did!
I was shocked by how inexpensive everything was. I came a year ago as a part of a press trip (for just a night), but must have forgotten. The exchange rate is really good right now. I think we probably did the trip exactly right. I had a few people tell me that 5 nights would be too long but with the travel days, it was really perfect. We did two big day trips, had a day to explore the city, and did a relaxing pool day. The only thing I would change about our trip is that I would have spent more time in Getsemani (the “Williamsburg” of Cartagena, I fell in love with it… but more on that later) and gone to a night club or two (we booked our trip during the elections – oops, haha – and the city goes dry for 48 hours. You can still drink in some restaurants (the really nice ones seem oblivious to the rules) but all of the bars shut down.
Where to Stay: You definitely want to stay in the walled city in either the Centro or San Diego areas. Getsemani would be cool but I don’t know enough about the area to make a solid rec.
We stayed at the BEST Air BnB ever* (best, meaning it’s pretty awesome but it had a few small faults which I will detail at the bottom of the post). It’s in a great part of town in the Centro area (right above the Choco Museo** and around the corner from several hotels which is helpful when you’re trying to get a taxi). Rates might fluctuate but four of us shared it and, it worked out to less than $400 per person for the whole trip – and we each had our own room. It’s a very spacious two floors (3 bedrooms up top – though one isn’t a true bedroom, it’s more of an open area with two twin beds pushed together), and one bedroom downstairs. The apartment is fully air conditioned, it has two bathrooms, it’s nicely decorated, and had a huge balcony with hammocks. I highly recommend it and would definitely stay there again. It was a popular time to visit and most of the hotels I looked at were around $500 a night. It definitely depends what time of year you go though. Other great hotels to check out are The Santa Clara (go for at least a drink, it’s the fanciest hotel in the walled city and has an amazing pool), The Movich (across from our AirBnB – has a great rooftop (and you can buy pool passes for the day), Casa La Fe (my friends just stayed there), Casa St. Augustin (so so pretty and on my list – I was going to stay here if I didn’t like the AirBnB my friends picked, yes I can be a bit of a diva when it comes to accommodations haha), or Ananda (I stayed there on my last trip and loved it!)
Every morning we got iced lattes at Juan Valdez Coffee (basically the Starbucks of South America but their lattes are so good – and yes I know that there’s one in NYC but it’s not the same!!) and pastries from El Pandequeso. El Pandequeso has these amazing cheese rolls which are literally $.40 each. You can smell them baking from the street. Heaven.
My top above is from Mirth Caftans – love.
On our second day we rented a private boat. My friend Hart and her boyfriend were also in Cartagena so the six of us chartered a boat via Botas de Bahia. It was pretty amazing. They pick you up at 8am and drop you off at 4pm. We went to the Rosario Islands (which are beautiful!) making 3 stops. The first was the most stunning private beach, the second was another beach area where we all dined on fancy lobster for lunch, and the third was a spot in the middle of the ocean where we could swim, snorkel, etc. etc. SO FUN. The cost to charter the boat is around $540 which worked out to $90 each for the whole day, but you could do it with more people (I’d say it would comfortably fit 8 normal sized adults… maybe 1-2 more).
Blue Apple Beach Club was probably one of my most favorite parts of the trip. I had stalked their Instagram account before we left and was very excited for it. It’s on a beautiful island called Tierra Bomba which also is home to a 400 year old castle. We booked a 10am ferry and came back at 4 and it was such a fun little day. For 70,000 pesos (about $25), you get transportation to the island, a day bed, and a towel. On top of that there is an 80,000 peso food and beverage requirement (pretty easy to hit). We spent the day reading in the sun, drinking fresh watermelon juice, and playing in the waves of the ocean. Our entire day (including food + drinks and transportation) only cost about $50 per person. We had a leisurely lunch up by the pool (paella + fried sea bass). In all honesty the food was not my favorite, but it’s more about the atmosphere (which gets an A+++). The whole place is very Instagram-worthy (and you can check them out on instagram here!) Oh and they have a cute cat that lives there.
As an aside, they have 6 rooms which all look amazing… the vibe reminds me a lot of Tulum. If I came back to Cartagena I would definitely consider staying there a night or two. It’s very remote but so, so pretty and such a relaxing spot.
Notes, if you go to Blue Apple:
- Some of the boats are just bad. If you get seasick (I do), come prepared. The boat on the way out was tiny and really low to the water and just… bad.
- Don’t wear a white bathing suit. The sand is dark grey and you’ll ruin it (I wrecked mine).
- We didn’t request a certain type of daybed but were assigned one by the ocean. I’m so happy we got this one and would recommend requesting that if you’d like a more quiet day (the music they play by the pool is pretty loud) or to be by the ocean – I know everyone has different preferences but I’d so much rather be by the beach than by the pool.
La Vitrola is the nicest/most fancy restaurant in Cartagena (at least debatably). It’s in the Centro area (really close to where we stayed). I had a delicious seafood stew. I really liked it – everything we ate was delicious, the music was great… but to be honest I preferred the more hole in the wall spots we tried like La Mulata.
La Cevicheria is our favorite restaurant in Cartagena. It’s SO GOOD. It’s in the San Diego area, right across from the Santa Clara (so go there for a drink before you eat!) We went twice – both time for late lunches that turned into cocktails. The lobster + fish of the day ceviches are both amazing but the most amazing thing we ate all trip is something called “Lovely Wet Lobster Rice.” I can’t make this stuff up! It’s served warm and is basically a really delicious lobster risotto.
La Mulata – This is a little local gem. It’s a little dive-y and not very pretty or anything but the food is seriously good. We had one of our favorite ceviches here and I had an amazing shrimp dish: Camerones Mulata. It’s also cheap. Dinner + drinks (I think we each had two drinks) was only $30 per person.
Alma is in Casa St. Augustin (the hotel) and is seriously pretty. I went here the first time I visited Cartagena (last year) Sit outside by the pool if you can. Their food is really good and they have what I’m certain is the best sangria I’ve ever had. You’ll want to make a reservation.
Di Silvio (in Getsemani) has amazing pizza and pasta. We went here on our last night and it was really, really good. It feels a bit weird recommending pasta in Cartagena but their homemade ravioli are so good… it can be a nice break from all the fish! I’ve heard the pizza is very good but we stuck with pasta.
Oh La La (in Getsemani) is fab for breakfast, and it’s basically made for Instagram – everything is so pretty. It’s Colombian + French fusion. My friend Alex had the winning meal (an Arepa with an egg inside of it and these crazy good tomato fritters) but the omelette + pancakes (so fluffy) were also really good.
La Palleteria is not a restaurant but it’s a popsicle store. It’s WONDERFUL.
St. Dom is a GORGEOUS concept store. It’s really expensive (didn’t buy anything) but filled with inspiration –so many amazing Colombian designers + pieces.
Casa Chiqui is fab. I got the most gorgeous gold chandelier earrings here. They were a little expensive but I’ve never seen anything like them!
There are some great finds to be found on the street! I bought a cool straw box bag and some beaded bracelets.
Things I wish we did:
I really wish we spent more time in Getsemani, especially in the day – it is SO COOL. So much interesting street art, tons of cool restaurants and bars, etc etc. It’s a very quick walk from the center of town and super cool. My friends went to Demente one night (a fun sounding bar) but we didn’t plan on the city going dry for the last two nights so I missed out on that.
There’s a castle which sounded really cool. Sophie (our AirBnB host) recommended going in the morning and getting a guide if you go.
La Movida – for dancing
Café Havana – dancing, live music, Cuban salsa
What to know if you visit Cartagena:
It’s really, really safe. I got asked this a lot but the walled city (and Getsamini) are both very safe.
That being said, I probably wouldn’t do Cartagena alone unless I was only staying a night or two. It would be boring on your own for more than one or two nights. The best part of the trip for me was the group trips we took and the big dinners we had. When I travel alone I like to either do a lazy beach vacation or a city like London or Paris where I can go to tons of museums and be a culture nerd.
Both Wifi and cell service are pretty spotty. They both literally have a mind of their own. One minute you’ll be on LTE, the next you will have no service.
Speaking of service, the service at pretty much every restaurant is pretty terrible. You just have to go with it.
Do your research when you pick your travel dates. Cartagena has strange rules. There was an election while we were there which meant that the entire city went dry for 2 days.
I majorly over packed. I didn’t need my curling iron, didn’t bother with makeup after the second night, and I ended up wearing my flip flops mostly everywhere (no need for the 3 pairs of heels I brought), and I mostly just wore cutoffs and tees during the day and cute bright dresses out at night.
Most of the locals don’t speak English so it really helps to go with someone who speaks Spanish. My own Spanish is pretty rusty but my friend is near fluent. Or at least learn a few key phrases before you go!
Street vendors will come out of nowhere and stalk you to buy their products. They can be really, really really aggressive! They’ll come up to your table at a restaurant, they don’t care. They’d even leave things on our table. It feels like a gift but it’s not. And if you touch it, you buy it. So don’t touch anything and practice your “no nonsense New Yorker” faces before you go.
Our exact itinerary (you should copy our trip):
* Weds: checked into AirBnB, went to La Cevicheria for a late lunch. Napped, went to Alma for dinner.
* Thurs: Got pool passes at Hotel Sophia. Ate lunch there; took a nap at home, had dinner that night at La Mulata.
* Friday: All day Boat Ride. Napped. Dinner in Gestemani
* Saturday: Spent the day exploring the city and shopping. Cocktails at Santa Clara. Ended up at La Cevicheria again, came home and napped and did La Vitrola for dinner.
* Sunday: Day Trip to Blue Apple Beach Club. Dinner in Gestemani. (Pasta!)
** A word about our Airbnb. There was a problem with the hot water and the general showering situation. When we arrived the hot water was broken. After a quick call, our host, Sophie, was great and got it fixed but the showers weren’t awesome. The downstairs one didn’t have any hot water (even after it was fixed) and the upstairs shower door didn’t quite close so water would get everywhere and got a little mildewy. We all ended up just opting for cold showers downstairs which wasn’t the biggest deal – it’s so hot that the cold water felt good!
Also, just something to know – the chocolate at the Choco Museum is not very good. Last year I made the mistake of buying it for everyone as a gift. It made for a disappointing gift.