Caribbean Guides Latin America

Insider Guide: Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia is the vibrant walled city. Walking through the wide cobblestone streets of Cartagena, you will soon realize why this Spanish Colonial city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The houses in the old city are painted in vibrant hues. The city is surrounded by defensive walls, built to keep out pirates. The walls have somehow captured an air of romance. The days are hot and humid yet the nights get even hotter as lively Latino music bursts through the squares. The heat is easy to escape due to Cartagena’s location on the Caribbean Sea and just as tempting to embrace with a cold Aguila beer by the city walls. As you hear the pitter-patter of horses hooves as a horse drawn carriage pull by, you realized that you have stepped back in time within the walls of Cartagena.

It isn’t necessarily about where you eat in Cartagena, it’s about what you eat. The main ingredient in all the food in Cartagena is coconut! There is coconut shavings and coconut water. Expect coconut in everything: in the rice, in deserts and even raw coconut. If you are crazy for coconut, this is the place for you.

The most authentic dish in Cartagena is fried red snapper with coconut rice and plantains. It looks intimidating; the bones and the eyeballs are still intact when the fish is served. It doesn’t look good but it tastes delicious. It is one of the freshest, most salty fish you will ever have. The best place to have this dish is in the Rosario Islands. Most of the Islands will serve snapper for lunch. (Substitutes for chicken are available at some locations). To get the full experience, have you snapper served to you at a table in the sea. Nothing beats eating seafood in the sea!

If you are looking for a snack, look no further than the streets. There are stands everywhere, selling everything from coconuts, fried food and fruit. Don’t pass up the fresh, exotic fruit. The fruit serves as a refreshing afternoon snack under the hot sun in Cartagena. The fried food on the other hand is a favorite for the late night crowd. Try the arepas filled with queso and the beef empanadas. These make for a great lunch or late night snack.

The best place to get a drink in Cartagena is at Cafe Del Mar located on the city wall. Here you can enjoy a glass of wine or a cold Aguila beer while watching the sunset over the Caribbean Sea. It’s a relaxing spot to unwind after a long day of exploring. Or you can have a few drinks at Cafe Del Mar before your night out.

To experience the nightlife in Cartagena take a chiva, a colorful wooden bus with on-board music. The chiva has a lively atmosphere and brings you all around the city. You can bring your own booze on the bus or you can buy some from the hawkers on the streets. They will come up to the chiva to sell you beer through the windows. After riding around for a while, the chiva will stop to let you out at the city wall. Here you can drink more, eat some empanadas and watch the street dancers. Lastly, the chiva will bring everyone to one of the many nightclubs in Cartagena where you can dance the night away.

Everywhere you look in Cartagena, there is someone selling something. You don’t even have to go inside a store to do your shopping. While walking the streets, keep your eyes peeled for canvas city painting and vibrant accessories. The top items to look for are patterned espadrilles and mochilas, hand-woven purses. The best spot to shop is Las Bovedas, a market under the wall in the old town. This market is open daily. If you are in Cartagena on Sunday, a market is set up outside Torre Del Reloj, the clock tower. Here you can find traditional clothing and souvenirs.

Take a horse-drawn carriage ride to get acquainted with the walled city. For 50,000 Colombian Pesos, the carriage will take you around Cartagena for 30 minutes. In that time you are able to see most of the walled city. It will bring you past the main sites of Cartagena, including the clock tower and the Heredia Theater. Taking a carriage ride through the cobblestone streets is a very fitting way to see the city that has been so well preserved in time.

Explore Castillo San Felipe De Barajas, a Spanish fortress strategically built on a hill to protect the land and the sea from attack. Be sure to arrive in the early morning to escape the crowds and the heat. The fortress includes intricate underground passages that you can walk through. The passages are dark and cool. Some are even so dark that you need a flashlight to navigate through them. Once you’ve seen the fortress from below, you have to see it from above. Take the steep steps up to the highest lookout point you can to get a better vantage point of the fort and Cartagena.

Spend a day in the Rosario Islands, an island chain off the coast of Cartagena. You can either rent a boat or take a ferry to the islands. Either option will allow you to swim in the warm, blue, Caribbean water. Renting a boat will allow you to island hop through the Rosario Island chain and to have access to swim in the coral reef. The second option is to take a ferry boat to a resort, such as Hotel Isla Del Sol. The resort excursion costs approximately 150,000 Colombian Pesos per person. This price includes hotel transfer, ferry ride, access to the resort and lunch.

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