Cartagena: Welcome To Colombia
Cartagena is one of the most uniquely beautiful cities we’ve ever visited. This “jewel of the caribbean” is sure to charm…if you can get past the sensation of broiling in the heat. The colonial architecture, friendly locals, delicious local fare, pulsing nightlife, new, exotic fruits, and refreshing mojitos were just a few of our favorite things about this magical city. The heat was not one of our favorite things about this city. Not at all.
There were two things that caught us off guard before we even left the airport: 1) the exchange rate at the airport is a total rip off and 2) you’ll most likely be approached by someone asking you if you need a taxi.
1) Based on the exchange rate offered by your bank, we’d recommend exchanging cash before arriving in Cartagena. Otherwise, just exchange enough to grab a cab to get to wherever you’re staying. The taxi from the airport to Urbanizacion La Espanola cost us $11,000 COP in July of 2017.
2) While exchanging cash, we were approached by a gentleman asking if we needed a taxi only to walk outside and see no car in sight. Just then, another taxi driver arrived and urged us to get in his yellow cab. Due to our frazzled state and confusion as to what was going on, we got into the yellow taxi. We asked our taxi driver about what had just happened and he cleared up the confusion for us.The unofficial taxis aren’t allowed into the terminal so it often involves walking to a separate parking lot to get in your taxi. We opted for an official taxi because we were unsure but a friend of ours took an unofficial taxi the night he arrived in Cartagena and lived to tell the tale. Use your own discretion if you find yourself in a similar situation.
Where We Stayed:
Since we had roughly a week until our van arrived at the port, our accommodations needed to be affordable and comfortable. We found a great hotel, La Espanola Boutique, through Booking.com. For just $25 USD /night, we got a double room + private bathroom and air conditioning (for an additional fee of $15,000 COP or $5 USD per day). The extra cost is well-worth it. Trust us. Cartagena was HOT. Be sure to check and double check that whichever accommodation you are booking a) has air conditioning b) if there is an extra cost for it. We saw plenty of great deals through Booking.com but some of them only had a fan in the room.
The hotel is located inside of an adorable and peaceful barrio called Urbanizacion La Espanola, which is east of the El Centro and Getsemani areas. Being here allowed us to escape the influx of activity and noise in the the hot spots of the city while still being a 10-15 minute walk or short (cheap) cab ride away. It is also walking distance to two grocery stores, an enormous, overwhelming shopping mall plaza, ATMs, banks, panaderias, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and more. The nearby Olympica is a very small grocery store where you can get the basics. The Jumbo inside the mall plaza is a larger grocery store for speciality items and anything else you couldn’t find at the Olympica. The convenience and ease of the location was perfect given that we just wanted to be able to unwind and get some rest after a very busy few months of trip preparation.
- WIFI only works on the ground floor of the hotel so we specifically asked for the double room w/ private bath on the ground floor which still allowed us WIFI access from the privacy of our room. Otherwise, the only way to get access would be to sit out in the common area. Since our stay was extended and we planned on working, this option was desirable for us.
- Using the shared kitchen allowed us to save a bit of cash on eating out. Plus, having our meals in the common area allowed us to make some great new friends who also happened to be staying here.
- You can do laundry there for a small convenience fee of $20,000 COP and drying is done by clothing line so be sure to plan accordingly for drying time. We’d hate for you to leave with soggy clothes.
What We Did:
We found ourselves in the vibrant, art-strewn Getsemani barrio most often. Shortly after arriving and (an afternoon nap), we walked the ten minutes to Getsemani to see what was happening. Plaza La Trinidad was our very first stop. This is a great place to people watch, grab happy hour mojitos and take in some entertainment. Happy hour prices for cocktails in this area were usually two for anywhere between $16,000 - $20,000 COP. There were plenty of restaurants in the area offering great food and happy hour drink specials so you won’t have to look very far. If you’re looking for cheap, local eats, there are plenty of street food options set up in the plaza like arepas, kebabs, burgers and Colombian hot dogs. It was fun to see what the newest additions to the street food cart scene were each time we made our way into the neighborhood. There’s a little corner store in the plaza where you can purchase a variety of beers for around $1 USD and other beverages to enjoy while you sit in the square. This neighborhood is hostel/hotel/party central so you’ll mainly see other travelers and Colombian tourists. Typically, we’d start our walk to here around sunset and take a short cab ride back to our hotel at the end of the night. We also walked back to our hotel a couple of times when it wasn’t terribly late (before 11pm) and it was fine but use your discretion and comfort level when it comes to this.
+ Pizza Carbon: the margherita pizza was super tasty. Opt for outdoor seating for a view of all of the action in the plaza.
+ La Cocina de Pepina: the mote de queso here is a must-try and the fresh guava juice we had with it was fantastic! This was on the pricier side of what we typically spent on meals but worth it for the opportunity to try some comida tipica. Meal portions were generous and came complete with a side salad, coconut rice and plantains. Plenty to share!
Yellow Fever Shots
We had heard a rumor about free yellow fever shots being available somewhere in Cartagena and, to our luck, it was true. All you need to bring is your passport. We made the walk to a health center in Getsemani early in the morning to avoid the heat and were in and out in less than 20 minutes. Walk down Carrera 10B (by the intersection at Calle 25) and look for this door:
Check in at reception, let them know you’re there for fiebre amarilla and they’ll set you up with a ticket number. They’ll call your number, fill out a little yellow WHO booklet with general info, give you the shot and you’re good to go. After you’re finished, grab some fresh squeezed orange juice from the fruit cart next to the clinic and go on with your day. Easy!
Stroll El Centro
A walk around this beautiful part of town is well worth it- even in the heat of the day. The colonial-style architecture is absolutely lovely and the atmosphere pairs wonderfully with that loveliness. Walking around in the evening after the heat settles is just as lovely if you prefer not to sweat through your clothes. There are plenty of great places to duck into to escape the heat. Epoca Cafe (hello, cold brew and chocolate croissants), Mila Vargas (hello, chocolate cake with dulce de leche + gold dust topping) and El Barón (looking at you, tiki cocktails) were a few of our favorite respites from the heat. Be sure to call ahead and double check hours before you get your hopes set on a place, though. We discovered this the hard way when walking to La Mulata in hopes of a fantastic dinner and arrived to locked doors instead. Bummer.
Walk The Wall
The Old Town of Cartagena is surrounded by a massive wall, which you can walk onto for gorgeous views of the Caribbean, sunset and the city. We did a few long strolls from our hotel room to one end of the wall to the other, which takes you all the way into El Centro if you keep following it. We’d start the walk from Urbanizacion La Espanola to Avienda Pedro de Heredia. Once you reach a busy intersection near Monumento India Catalina, you’ll have to cross the street and you’ll see the wall to your right. Walk up the ramp to the top of the wall and you can follow it all the way to Parque da La Marina. From there, it wasn’t a long walk into Getsemani and then back to our hotel. This was a great way to see Old Town via leisurely stroll and catch the sunset. Despite it being described as a ‘must-do’ on so many travel guides, we skipped the crowd and over-priced drinks at Cafe del Mar and took in the sunset from our own perch on the wall. We’d suggest grabbing some beverages from one of the tiendas or stores along the way and cozying up in one of the many ‘cubby holes’ along the wall. The sunset will be just as fantastic. Promise.
Cartagena was our very first experience of the beauty and liveliness that is Colombia and we’re really glad to have ended up there first. It was a great place to get our feet wet in Spanish speaking, make lots of new traveler friends and get our bearings before moving on. Despite it being such a heavily covered city as far as things to do, the possibilities for the sort of experience that you’d like to have are endless! No matter how much research we did, we weren’t prepared for just how charming and inviting this city was- like a big, sweaty hug. Cartagena pulses to the head-spinning beat of its own drum and the best thing you can do is try and keep tempo.