Cartagena is a colorful, colonial city on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia. It was founded by the Spanish in 1533 and served as a major trading port in the New World. Today, it has become a trendy tourist destination and is one of the safest cities in Colombia. It was my first trip to South America and a great place to start if you’re new to the continent.
1. Walled City
The heart of Cartagena is its historic old town. The Spaniards built a wall around the city to protect it after it was raided numerous times by pirates. Many examples of Spanish colonial architecture are still intact. The main entrance is through the Torre Del Reloj (Clock Tower). The tower was begun in 1601, and the clock has been in place since the 18th century. In the square in front of the tower, you’ll find a statue of Cartagena’s founder, Pedro de Heredia.
Inside the wall, there are a variety of shops, restaurants, and museums. The Cathedral of Cartagena is my favorite building, with its beautiful bell tower illuminated at night.
The Getsemani neighborhood has a grittier, more authentic feel than the old town. Once considered dangerous and seedy, it has now become the hippest part of the city, known for its street art, live music, food carts, and traditional Colombian restaurants.
3. Colorful Homes
Residents of Cartagena are asked to paint their home in a color which contrasts to that of their neighbor and fits within their street’s overall color scheme. The brightly-colored buildings and pretty doorways are popular photo spots.
4. Castillo de San Felipe
The Castillo de San Felipe is a fortress built by the Spanish to protect the city from pirates while shipping gold out to Europe. With over 60 cannons and a network of tunnels to explore, it is one of the most popular attractions in Cartagena.
5. Cerro de la Popa
Cerro de la Popa offers the best views of the city and is worth a taxi ride up the steep winding road. The religious complex on top of the hill contains a convent, cloister, and chapel.
6. Chiva Bus Tour
If you want to have fun, the nighttime chiva party bus is the way to go. A live band plays Latin music from the back of the open-air bus as you ride around the city sharing bottles of rum and coke with your fellow passengers. Our bus made periodic stops for food, a fireworks show over the old city wall, and ended the night at a local dance club.
7. Gold Museum
The Gold Museum is free and worth a visit. You’ll learn about Colombian history and get to see hundreds of pieces of gold showcasing the goldsmith skills of the indigenous Zenú tribe who inhabited the area before the Spanish arrived. The museum is also air-conditioned if you need to get out of the heat for a bit.
8. Playa Blanca
Less than an hour by shuttle bus or ferry from Cartagena, Playa Blanca has become a popular tourist spot. The dense crowds and loud music during the day can make it difficult to enjoy, but if you stay overnight you can have the beach almost to yourself after the day-trippers leave, and wake up in the morning to the peaceful sound of waves crashing. You can rent a cabin for the night or sleep in a hammock for around $8 (I recommend bringing a blanket and pillow if you go this route as it wasn’t very comfortable). The dive shops along the beach offer nighttime boat trips to see the bioluminescent phytoplankton.
9. Mangrove Swamps
Mangroves are tropical trees that thrive along the water’s edge. Their tangled roots help prevent erosion by stabilizing sediments. This ecosystem is common on the islands, and you can book a tour to go canoeing through the mangrove tunnels.
The old city wall is the perfect spot to sit and watch the sunset. Café del Mar is located on the wall facing west and always has a crowd around that time of day.
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