Yes. Yes …
This IS the Cartagena travel diary … coming at you a little over a week after returning from this magical destination, my first in South America. This is the fastest I’ve ever gotten a travel diary to y’all and it’s because I am SO excited to share this gem of a place with you. This diary got really long so it will be followed by other posts that will serve as a resource to you when planning your trip to this particular destination. Over the next week, you can expect a post highlighting Everything You Need to Know Before You Go, a Packing List, and a review of Spirit Airlines.
It was so fun to hear the mixed reaction y’all had to finding out that I was spending my birthday in Cartagena. Many of you were curious as to how I came to choose Cartagena and what made me choose it! So, let me tell you …
If you’ve followed my travels over the last few years, you have likely gathered my love for  large, metropolitan cities and  colorful places [like Procida, Burano, Curaçao, Bermuda, Lisbon, etc]. Those are generally what draw me to a place to start. I am also a sucker for flowers and gorgeous architecture. So, when I saw a photo of Cartagena on Instagram back in 2017, I was like ‘wait, where is this?’. Since then, it’s been on my list, and being that London has a strong chance of becoming my home base by the end of 2019, I knew that ticking this lust list destination off my list was going to be more difficult after the move and, while there are SO many more places on my list on this side of the world [Aruba, Baha Mar in the Bahamas, endless spots in Mexico, the Grand Canyon, Moab, Scottsdale, Big Sur, Costa Rica, Machu Picchu, etc.], this one was at the top for this time of year!
Another reason that somewhat fueled my motivation to get here before moving abroad [God-willing!] was the fact that I wanted to combat my intimidation of South America. Y’all know I love to travel but I have really only spent time exploring countries in Europe and, the more you travel, especially a specific area, you get somewhat comfortable. Even though Switzerland and Italy are vastly different in terms of culture and geography, I don’t necessarily feel like I’m stretching myself too much by going to either place. Venturing to a new country in Europe doesn’t intimidate me and, while I don’t think a lot of people like to feel uncomfortable when they travel, I have learned that it is when you allow yourself to go outside of your comfort zone that you learn and discover new lessons and have a greater appreciation for certain things. So, I really wanted to try and make it to at least one country in South America before it is a bit more of a hassle, and more expensive, to do so.
While the initial thought of Colombia might be a bit intimidating, I found myself pleasantly surprised after taking the time to research the current safety concerns, travel guides on Pinterest and, flight prices. The more I explored the idea, the more excited I got about the idea of going here. As some of y’all know, I spent New Years Eve in Nashville and I stayed with Whitney. We were talking about the one place we each wanted to go before our move and I immediately spit out Cartagena! She wasn’t familiar with it so I showed her some photos and she was like let’s do it for your birthday! So, we did … obviously … and I’m so excited to say that it exceeded ALL of my expectations! It is such a special place and I hope that this diary inspires you to also venture outside of your comfort zone. Whether you decide to head to Cartagena or somewhere else, I know you will be glad you did! C
First things first … it’s important that I preface this travel diary by I am in no way an expert. That’s why I don’t call these posts travel ‘guides’ because, most of the time, I’m reviewing my first time to a place. This is simply a recap of my takeaways and a resource for you to use! It aims to make your trip [should you choose to book one] a breeze and equip you with knowledge you may need to make you feel a little less nervous about being somewhere unfamiliar to you! With that said, let’s get started!
Neighborhood Break Down
CENTRO – This is where you’ll find all the action within the walled city! You’ll find fresh fruit vendors, local women dressed in traditional clothing ready to snap a photo with you, and colorful colonial architecture intermittently draped with vibrant bougainvillea making this area extremely picturesque. Luxury and boutique hotels, restaurants and shops are plentiful – this area will certainly keep you busy and make it hard not to fall for this little city!
SAN DIEGO – Located just north of Centro, this area makes up the other half of the walled city, albiet much smaller, and offers a bit more a relaxed, local vibe. The houses are less grand but more colorful than those in Centro, and harbors some of the best restaurants in the city. While we didn’t make it here, I’ve heard exploring the Las Bovedas Market, a craft market located inside an old jail within the wall, is an experience not to be missed.
GETSEMANI – Welcome to Cartagena’s hipster haven! Located just outside of the wall, this area offers its visitors a bit more of an edge than Centro as it’s the street art mecca of the city. It looks a bit rough around the edges but if you meander through, you will find the same colonial architecture [as you do in the walled city] and just as much charm. There’s also an overload of bougainvillea! You’ll also find a bustling night scene where tourists and locals collide to enjoy the days’ end. Plaza Trinidad is the center of the action but don’t miss the infamous Café Havana if you’re wanting a fun salsa dancing experience!
BOCAGRANDE – If you’re wanting a more luxury beach experience, this area might be more suited to you. It’s the Miami Beach of Cartagena with an endless number of high-rise buildings and a long stretch of beach, although I’d argue the beaches you venture to by boat are much dreamier. Personally, I think this area lacks the authenticity I was craving to find here in Colombia. While Centro and San Diego are very touristy, I do feel like there was much more to enjoy in Cartagena than just the beach.
MANGA – This residential neighborhood is located just outside of the walled city and south of Getsemani. It embodies a much more laid back vibe than the hustle and bustle you experience immediately within the wall. If you’ve been to Cartagena already and looking for something close by but a little more low-key, I’d consider this area.
Where To Stay
BEST AREA | I highly recommend staying within the walled city, also known as the Old City, most especially for your first time in Cartagena. Otherwise, you may feel a bit removed from the action. The walled city is comprised of the San Diego and Centro areas that I outlined above. While Cartagena is located on the coast of the Caribbean, the walled city doesn’t necessarily have a beach that you would go lay out on, so-to-speak. If you’re wanting a ‘beachy’ vacation in Cartagena, you may want to stay in Bocagrande OR stay at a hotel within the wall that has a nice pool and plan for getaways to nearby islands.
WHERE WE STAYED | While there are plenty of accommodation options in Cartagena, Whit and I opted for an affordable AirBNB. It’s located in a managed building called the Soy Local Cartagena, which we didn’t realize when we booked it but thrilled about after checking in and putting two-and-two together! There was always someone in the lobby and an elevator. They offer breakfast but you need to let them know the day before that you want breakfast the next morning. You also need to let them know when you want your room cleaned during your stay and ask for more toilet paper when you’re low. These are things that didn’t bother Whit and I. We’re pretty easy going about most things in regard to accommodations as we aren’t there much. Personally, I loved the location the most. It’s along the edge of the wall, which made it equidistant from a lot of the places within the wall that we wanted to go to and Getsemani, which is a such a cool neighborhood. If you look at where it is on a map, you can see it’s literally in the middle of everything!
OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS | Some spots within the Walled City that I’d recommend looking into are the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara [formerly a nunnery], Tcherassi Hotel [only seven rooms available located in a completely renovated colonial mansion], Movich Hotel, Casa San Augustin, Ananda Boutique Hotel, Townhouse Boutique Hotel & Rooftop, Bastion Luxury Hotel, Casa Macia Hotel Boutique. These are all inside the walled city. Being that I’ve been before, I’d be interested in stay in Getsemani so I can explore it a little more than I did this time. If you’ve been before and looking for a cute spot in the area, I have my sights on Allure Chocolat! If you’re a budget traveler, Cartagena is chock FULL of hostels, so you have plenty to research and choose from.
Best Places to …
MARIA – If you’re a sucker for psychedelic and vibrant interiors, creative cocktails and innovative seafood dishes, this might be your little slice of heaven on earth. Our dinner here was certainly one of my favorite meals of the trip. The grilled octopus, steak empanadas [accompanied by the freshest pico de gallo I’ve ever had!], and the shrimp & chorizo risotto are not to be missed. The bread pudding wasn’t too bad, either! Don’t forget to make a reservation for this spot! It’s one of the most popular restaurants within the wall.
DONJUAN – We ate here for my birthday and it certainly gave Maria a run for its money! When you hear that Chef Juan Felipe Camacho learned some of his culinary art and skill from the likes of Gordon Ramsey – you know you’re in for a treat here. Knowing their specialty is seafood, we opted for octopus and fish atop lemon risotto. I’m confident that no matter what you order will leave you happy you stopped in! Make a reservation for this one, as well!
RESTAURANTE 1621 AT SOFITEL LEGEND HOTEL – Make a reservation for this spot, brimming with upscale sophistication, and ask to sit in the courtyard. I got a steak and it was certainly delicious but I’d say we were more impressed by the ambiance than the meal compared to others!
ALMA AT HOTEL SAN AGUSTIN – Alma is a Colombian restaurant set within a beautiful courtyard at the Hotel San Agustin. It had some of Whitney’s favorite dishes so be sure to hear more about what she ordered. Sadly, I am not a huge fan of coconut, which is within many of the Colombian dishes we came across here in Cartagena, so I got tuna and thought it was decent but, like Restaurante 1621, I may have enjoyed the courtyard ambiance more than anything.
BOHEMIA RESTAURANTE – We had planned to go to lunch here one day and we did end up stopping in for a bite but we just got an appetizer because we didn’t realize how late it was. The octopus appetizer [shocking, I know; almost turned into an octopus after eating it everywhere in Cartagena, ha!] we shared was delicious but, honestly, the rest of the menu seemed a bit ‘too’ foody for me. The courtyard is so dreamy, though! Highly recommend stopping in for a pre-dinner cocktail one night!
HARRY’S RESTAURANT AT HOTEL CHARLESTON SANTA TERESA – We went here the night before my birthday. This is a newer hotspot in Cartagena and I certainly wasn’t disappointed but had better culinary dishes elsewhere! As with many of the other large luxury hotels with restaurants in the city, the large courtyard here is also very beautiful!
IN SAN DIEGO
LA CEVICHERIA – Deemed one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorites in Cartagena, and for good reason! You’ll likely not eat fresher or more delicious ceviche than right here! Although, I did hear that El Boliche Cebicheria is quite the contender! So, if there’s a line, head there!
CARMEN – This is likely the hottest restaurant in Cartagena and it lived up to the hype! If I could choose to only enjoy one cocktail for the rest of my life, their Catrina tequila cocktail would be it! Don’t like tequila? They have quite the list of creative cocktails so get excited! I don’t, for the life of me, remember what I ordered but I do remember it was very tasty! You will have a wonderful experience here! Make a reservation ahead of time!
MARIA BONITA – This little gem is a MUST for lunch! Their tacos, salsa and guacamole spread, and sangria are all not to be missed. Sit next to the flower wall to enjoy it all just a little more! The service here was one of the best we experienced in Cartagena!
RESTAURANTE CELELE – This is a newer restaurant in Getsemani that was recommended by a restauranteur in London that Whitney knows. He had recently been to Cartagena and had the most amazing experience here. The staff was wonderful and the dishes are certainly innovative, I didn’t walk away with the same experience. It was just okay for me.
OH LA LA – Whitney and I found out about this gem toward the end of our trip. Sadly, the day we stopped by they were setting up for a cooking class so we weren’t able to check it out BUT we heard great things about it so definitely check it out if you’re spending the day exploring Getsemani!
BEIYU – When we found out Oh La La was closed we headed over to another spot in Getsemani that we heard was pretty tasty, Beiyu! It embraces a Slow Food concept, which [fights to combat the Fast Food concept and] encourages people to slow down, take their time to enjoy their food, and not be in such a hurry to move on to the next part of your day. Meals are an opportunity for connection so the slow food concept encourages you to invite that connection in versus skip it all together. Here, we enjoyed fresh juice and açai bowls as well as delicious coffee. It’s pretty tiny and doesn’t look like much when you walk in. The service isn’t the best but you will love it for the most part!
As a way to thoroughly enjoy ourselves and the city, and in effort to ensure YOU do as well, Whitney and I definitely did our best to try out the bar scene in Cartagena! Here are the ones we checked out:
MOVICH HOTEL ROOFTOP [Centro] – This spot wins best view in town! I absolutely love how, from here, you get to enjoy views of the gorgeous colonial architecture [it’s pillar being the dome of the Catholic church], the ocean surrounding the unique layout of the city, and the modern skyscrapers of Bocagrande behind it all in one striking landscape. And, what makes a stunning view more enjoyable? A delicious cocktail! This spot has that, as well. We came here on our first night to celebrate the start of the trip and started our last evening in Cartagena here, as well, to bid it farewell!
EL BARON [Centro] – This was by far my favorite watering hole. It is extremely tiny inside. The bar seats six or so and there are two booths that could fit five or six. There is courtyard seating outside with a stunning view of the face of the Catholic Church, Parroquia San Pedro Claver. I loved the laid back atmosphere and every drink we had was delicious. The Gin Basil Smash is refreshing. The Catadora De Fragrancias helped me discover what a delightful combination Grey Goose and prosecco is. Above all, though, I’d highly recommend a drink that is not on the menu, the Alacran. If you like tequila and you like spicy, it is the drink for you. Some other things about El Baron that I loved was the fact that their menu is a thin paper material, all of their drinks are inspired by a different part of the world, and $1,000 COP of all of their cocktails is donated to the Green Apple Foundation, which helps reduce the environmental impact tourism has on Cartagena.
ALQUIMICO [Centro] – This three-story cocktail bar offers a variety of ambiances and alchemical concoctions depending on the floor you’re on. We grabbed a pre-dinner cocktail on the rooftop, seen on the Real Housewives of New York if you’re familiar with their trip to Cartagena, and closed the place down on our last night in the city! Great vibes all around and the cocktails are worth a stop in, as well!
EL CORO LOUNGE BAR [Centro] – The Sofitel in Cartagena was built within the confines of an old nunnery and still the old crypt and confessional chambers in which you can see here at El Coro. We enjoyed excellent cocktails, service and salsa dancing here on Saturday night! Highly recommend this spot!
DAISY THE ROOFTOP [Centro] – We ventured up to this spot on our last night in Cartagena after seeing it from the Alquimico rooftop a few nights prior. There are essentially two more levels on top of the rooftop so that’s pretty cool but, honestly, the drinks were terrible. We also went at night and while Alquimico was poppin’ … this place was completely dead! It does have a pretty cool ambiance but … I think it’s either super new or just so bad, no one comes here. So, try at your own risk!
CAFE DEL MAR [Centro] – One of the things we were told we must do is to ‘walk the wall’ and enjoy the Caribbean sunset from Cafe Del Mar being that it has the best view. While it certainly does offer a great view, we were told not to expect much of the cocktails. We got there a little later than is suggested [over an hour before sunset to get a good spot] and it was really, really crowded. Crowds are one of my least favorite things so I started to get a bit overwhelmed so we opted to walk out, grab a beer [Club Colombia] from a local vendor [make sure you have cash on hand!] and enjoyed the sunset standing along the wall. It was honestly just as good of a view and we probably saved a little money on the drinks. While it wasn’t a fancy cocktail, I thought the beer was really tasty!
We didn’t try this place but heard great things about the Boundless Mezcal Cafe! It was actually really close to our flat. If you’re a fan of mezcal, it might be a place you’d enjoy! We also heard Getsemani has a pretty great bar scene but, being that it’s outside of the walled city, we decided to drink in an area we knew was completely safe.
I’ve traveled enough to know that not all coffee around the world is created equal. The coffee in Colombia is some of the best you’ll find! I don’t think we had a bad cup. Here are some of our favorite spots:
SE VOLVIO PRISPRI COFFEE SHOP [Centro] – Whitney and I stopped here a few times. Order a latte frappe! They’re so good! Also, don’t forget to give them a tip in the tip jar! They get so excited about it. It’s the cutest thing!
ABACUS BOOK + COFFEE SHOP [San Diego] – Said to be the best cup of coffee you’ll find in town but it personally wasn’t my favorite! It’s a must to stop into none-the-less! I love the view from just outside. Look down all four streets that lead up to it and you’ll certainly enjoy each one!
JUAN VALDEZ [all over Old Town] – Our hotel concierge suggested we go to Juan Valdez one morning when we asked where her favorite coffee shop is. We came to find that it’s essentially the Starbucks of Colombia. We didn’t hate the coffee and pastries, though. It does get busy in the mornings, though, so get an early start!
We didn’t go to Cafe Del Mural in Getsemani but we heard great things. It’s a bit of a hole in the wall but the reviews rave about it!
ST. DOM – This is a concept store comprised of items made by esteemed Colombian designers. It was my favorite shop, personally! I purchased a beautiful hot-pink clutch and a hot pink silk fan by the designer Michu.
SILVIA TCHERASSI – I’m so bummed I missed her shop in Cartagena. She is a Miami-based fashion designer born in Colombia and her designs are so colorful, innovative and fun! I love her designs [more here]. She’s well-known in the area and she has a luxury hotel in Cartagena by the same name.
LOTO DEL SUR – This shop has some delicious smelling candles, bath products, diffusers, etc. I got two sets of hand soap and moisturizing cream for my bathrooms in the Mimosa & Tangerine scent! I’m so obsessed with the scent. It’s perfect for Spring!
ABACUS BOOK + COFFEE SHOP – If you are a book lover, this shop is a must!
I got the handmade earrings you see above from a local vendor & that clutch from St. Dom!
Honestly, just walk around Centro, San Diego and Getsemani. It’s super easy to find good spots to take photos. I will mark the spots where I took my Instagram photos in the Google Maps I am sharing with y’all at the end of the post!
PRO TIP | Get out early to snag the best photos in these areas with the least amount of shadows and people in your photos!
ENJOY A STUNNING VIEW
I’m sure I will not be able to give you an extensive list here but my favorite was – hands down – the Movich Hotel Rooftop. I also loved the view from the wall, just outside of Cafe Del Mar. It’s another great spot to enjoy sunset. I’d also recommend venturing up to the top of Crepes & Waffles [the one next to El Baron] to enjoy a stunning view of the prominent yellow dome atop the Church of San Pedro Claver. For me, another favorite view was the view heading in to Cartagena on a boat. I highly recommend seeing the city from the water! There are, of course, so many other great views to enjoy. I’d suggest also checking out your hotel’s rooftop, if there is one. It seems like many have stunning views of the city!
What To Do
Whitney and I stayed busy during our week in Cartagena! There’s tons to do in the area and I’ve already laid out a few ideas throughout the post already. Here are a few more:
VENTURE OUT TO SEA
While I am obsessed with the Old Town, I can’t recommend breaking up your trip with some time on the water or the pristine beaches of a nearby island. [NOTE: You can go to the beach in the Bocagrande area, if you just want to go to the beach without leaving Cartagena. For us, when we were looking into that beach, it seemed pretty crowded and not quite the beach experience we were wanting. We wanted an experience that was elevated, a little more exclusive, enjoyable but quiet.]
• On my birthday, we spent the day out on a catamaran that took us out to the Rosario Islands. Bona Vida Catamaranes SAS hosted us, which was extremely kind. The catamaran is large and fits about 100 people and is manned by a large crew. They provided drinks throughout the day and lunch. There were clean bathrooms to use as well as snorkeling equipment & flats to enjoy if you so inclined. They have this experience, which lasts from 8:30am to 4:30pm, and a sunset cruise, as well! I loved it because we got a lot of relaxation and sun time, and also got to meet other travelers, which is always fun!
• On another day, we ventured out to Blue Apple Beach, located on the island of Tierra Bomba, just 30 minutes outside of Cartagena! While scouring travel guides and reviews, everyone seems to rave about their experience at the beach club, saying it’s a must so we figured why not? It was certainly a nice and relaxing escape after walking around for the first couple of days. I’d suggest applying and re-applying the SPF while enjoying the sunshine by the beach or pool but make sure to escape to a hammock underneath the trees when the sun is at its highest. Don’t forget your hat! The sun is strong here! The experience takes you out to Blue Apple Beach, about a 30-minute boat ride, and it takes you to a beach club equipped with sweet servers who will take your food and drink orders. Drinks can be served at your beach chair or lounge hut. Lunch is served in the dining area just next to the pool. It’s very affordable, as well! I believe we paid $30, if I’m not mistaken!
Make sure you book these experience ahead of time and make note of which dock you need to meet at in the morning before departing! Set up transportation to dock the night before with hotel concierge, if necessary.
HEAD TO THE WALL FOR SUNSET
This was probably one of my favorite things to do in Cartagena. Many suggest walking along the wall [head toward the Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa, where the restaurant Harry’s is located, to find where you can walk up on the wall] and over to Cafe Del Mar. Personally, I thought stopping just short of it, hanging along the wall and buying a Club Colombia from a local vendor was JUST as enjoyable. This is where we met our Frenchman friend, Roman!
INDULGE IN TRADITIONAL COLOMBIAN FARE
If you’re a fan of fresh fish, ceviche, coconut rice, coconut milk … literally, anything coconut … plantains, and octopus, you will eat well here in Cartagena! Their beer is tasty, as well, I must say! The best restaurants for this, I would say, are Alma, Carmen, La Cevicheria, DonJuan and Maria. I’d also recommend potentially taking a food tour with Cartagena Connections. My friend Kristin had an amazing experience with Catalina, from Cartagena Connections, despite less than average ratings on Google.
LEARN HOW TO SALSA
The best spot to do this is the infamous Cafe Havana! We opted to enjoy some tasty cocktails, salsa dancers and Caribbean music at El Coro, located at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Hotel, which was a great alternative! Everyone gets really into it!
DISCOVER CARTAGENA’S CHARM
This is super easy to do and was also one of my favorite parts of the week we spent in Cartagena. I’m a sucker for beautiful architecture, color and fresh blooms. This place was truly magical. I couldn’t get enough and with every turn of a corner, it seemed to get prettier and prettier. It was easy to fall head over heels for this place! San Diego and Centro are the obvious areas to find these charming bits but don’t forget Getsemani! It’s edgy. There’s tons of graffiti and street art but there is so much color and charm mixed in!
SUPPORT THE COLOMBIAN ARTISANS AND VENDORS
I’ll admit. Being approached by people I don’t know has long been something that intimidates me. It makes me nervous and I, generally, just don’t like it. So, getting used to street vendors in places like Cartagena and Rome always takes some time. What I appreciate about the ones I came across in Cartagena, though, is how sweet they are when you kindly say ‘no, thank you’. They don’t get mad. For the most part, they smile and walk away looking for the next person to ask. I’m someone who really values common courtesy and, while I know it’s not something I can expect in other countries due to cultural differences, I was so happy to find it here. It made me extra excited to support the vendors that I did choose to support, like the ladies in traditional Colombian garb earlier in the post. [That’s how they make a living for themselves. Make sure you settle on a price per person ahead of time! Cash only.] You can’t support everyone who offers you a hat, sunglasses, headbands, a water bottle, etc. but do try to invest in a few. I know it likely makes a world of difference to them and their families.
There are vendors who do not approach you, though, like the men and women who cut up fresh fruit and coconuts. I was a little nervous about the fruit so I opted to purchase fruit that wasn’t cut but Whitney had no problems with the coconut she drank out of!
If you’re super visual and want an easy way to let all of this sink in, take a look at the map Whitney and I created for our trip, tweaking it as we went! You can visualize all of the places mentioned within the travel diary all together or unclick certain layers to visualize on certain categories. Hope this helps you with your planning!
Need help putting together an itinerary?
These ideas only scratch the surface of all that you could do during your time in Cartagena! I have always been spoiled by my best friend Whitney’s love for and expertise in travel planning. She planned our entire trip and I’ve already shared how it was one of my favorite’s that her and I have been on together! If you’re in need of some travel planning assistance – whether you just need some answers to questions about certain areas, want to know where you should go if you’re deciding between a few options, the best route to take between cities, someone to book everything for you, or a curated itinerary, Whitney will surely be able to help you!
Want more info?
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And if you’re looking for outfit details for the outfits you see within this post, head over to THIS Instagram Roundup where most outfit details were shared!
For more on travel, be sure to explore the Travel Guides page and if you have questions about Cartagena, leave them in the comments below but also keep in mind I have a packing guide & a ‘know before you go’ post coming to you next week for this destination! xo.