8 Reasons why you should travel to Cartagena, Colombia
Cartagena de Indias, a city full of color, romance and a vibrant culture all nestled behind its historic walls. Its a city that pleasantly surprised me and left me head over heels for the Colombian culture. Cartagena is a dream that perfectly blends the old and new and, unlike popular American belief, is safe.
As soon as you step foot in the Old town, you will be immersed in bright colors and a rich history. The city was founded in 1533 as a Spanish fort and the Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old fort was well-maintained and most of the walls are in tact which adds to its romantic charm.
Our family traveled to Cartagena and we spent five days within the historic walls strolling through the beautiful streets. If you or your family are avid travelers, then you need to visit Cartagena and experience one of the most visited cities of the Americas.
8 Reasons why you should travel to Cartagena, Colombia
By far, my favorite thing about Cartagena was its vibrant, and brightly painted buildings. The locals love color and its obvious as you stroll through the historic Old Town. The Spanish-colonial homes have gracefully aged and the pastel colors and bougainvilleas hanging over the balconies add a touch of glamour to the city.
Every where you turn feels like it came straight from a postcard. Its a photographers dream and my camera was full of pictures every single day. I couldn't capture enough of the ornately designed doors and bright buildings. Colombia's love of color is evident and after you visit I'm sure you will have dozens of photos of one of the most photogenic cities of the world.
The food scene
Whenever I travel to a new country, hitting up the local food scene is the first thing on my mind. And Cartagena satisfied my foodie cravings, and then some! Cartagena boasts some of the best restaurants in all of Colombia and they have access to some of the most colorful and tasty fruits in the world. Whether you prefer high-end dining or to hit up street food, the city of Cartagena has the best of both worlds.
While you walk along the streets, local vendors set up their stands selling freshly cut pineapple, watermelon, mango, etc. and its some of the best fruit I've ever had. They are cheap snacks to help you cool off while you stroll through the hot city. Where else can you get an entire pineapple for 70 cents?!
I found love in Cartagena in the form of a flatbread. What can a girl do?
Along with fruit stands, locals sell arepas throughout the day and they now know our family by name. Ryan and I fell in love with the arepas con queso and would scour the streets every day to get our "fix". This local staple is a flatbread made of cornmeal that has a crunchy exterior and can be filled with eggs, cheese or even meat. Our favorite was filled with a mild cheese that was melted and coated with a huge spoonful of butter. Paula Dean would definitely approve!
And the best part? They were less than $1. So not only were they delicious, they were a cheap eat that filled us up for next to nothing.
What I loved most about eating the street food was sitting on the old, crumbling steps completely immersed in the Cartagena's culture. Cartagena is so different from my home and I loved the spirit of this historic city. Our sense of taste can bring us a strong connection to places we've traveled to. It allows us to have a keepsake to destinations we have fallen in love with, and the arepa con queso is a dish that will always remind me of our trip to Colombia.
It wouldn't be a trip to Cartagena without having ceviche. After living in Costa Rica for some time now, our family trio eats ceviche at least once a week. So we were curious to see the different flavor of Colombian ceviche. One of my friends from high school reached out to me during our trip and told me of a restaurant she tried during her trip to Cartagena. Her exact words, "it was the best ceviche I've ever had".
I wasn't about to ignore her suggestion, as we were planning on heading to the famous, yet super touristy, restaurant La Cevicheria. Made famous by Anthony Bourdain, La Cevicheria is at least worth a trip to see its outdoor wall which is beautifully decorated. But it is very touristy which I feel makes it lose its charm that I'm sure it once had. So I jumped on the chance of trying this hidden gem my friend recommended, El Boliche Cebicheria.
Located in one of the most beautiful, and quiet parts of the city, El Boliche Cebicheria is tucked away on a colorful street and is a quaint room decorated in local art. We arrived as soon as it opened and were happily greeted by the staff. Traveling with a spirited toddler can be difficult at times, especially if we are heading to a fancier restaurant. But the staff at El Boliche Cebicheria were so accomodating and brought Milena popcorn and bread to please our picky eater.
Ryan had the tamarindo ceviche while I opted for the coconut ceviche and both were bursting with freshness and flavor. Our dishes were the perfect pairing of acid and salt that gave us a taste straight from the ocean. It was delicious and I'm so glad I listened to my friend's suggestion.
Colombia has some of the best coffee regions in the world, so when we booked our trip to Cartagena, my heart was set on getting to try some amazing coffee. Coffee and I go hand-in-hand. I love it, not only for its caffeine bonus but the whole culture around it. Slow mornings, sipping a hot cup of coffee with Ryan is my favorite part of the day.
Throughout our time in Cartagena, we tried several cafes and fell in love with the bold flavor of Colombian coffee. It was surprisingly stronger than Costa Rican coffee and for the first time in years I had to reach for the sugar. But it was so good! We found a few bags of coffee beans we took home with us and have been enjoying the tastes of Colombia in our own kitchen.
Some must see coffee shops are starting with my favorite:
Old meets the new
The history that was made behind Cartagena's walls can be felt as you take a minute to slow down and simply watch the people go by. The blend of old and new is seamless in Cartagena. As we toured historic Cartagena, we were welcomed by Spanish-Colonial architecture that are mixed with hip restaurants and high-end boutique hotels. The old, crumbling streets were being renovated during our trip in order to maintain the charm of the city. From what I gathered, the locals have a lot of pride in keeping the historic buildings in tact in order to be enjoyed for many years to come.
A short taxi ride from the historic downtown, Bocagrande scours over the landscape. Shiny skyscrappers, casinos and upscale restaurants fill the neighborhood and are a sharp contrast to the old walls. While many tourists know Cartagena for its historic buildings, Bocagrande will remind you of its modern ties.
Friendly, diverse, and persitent. Those three words sum up the impact the local culture had on me during our week in Cartagena. Every store clerk, vendor, hotel employee and even police man wore a smile and offered a helping hand. I had heard from fellow travelers that people in Colombia, and especially in Cartagena, were friendly and I was relieved to find out that it rang true.
The mix of diverse cultures in Cartagena has spread its influence throughout the city through attire, food, music and attitudes. The palenqueras are Afro-Colombian women that sell fruit in the city and wear bright dresses. They have become an iconic image for Cartagena and if you spend a few dollars you an take a picture with them.
It only makes sense that a colorful city like Cartagena would have equally beautiful souvenirs. Stands selling unique knick knacks, colorful purses and more hats than you will ever need fill the streets. Everywhere you look, souvenirs are displayed waiting for you to haggle a good price.
I normally avoid kitschy souvenirs and prefer to take home food items or artwork but Cartagena had so many things that lured me in. The purses were handmade and full or interested patterns and colors which I just had to have. Also, I've started collecting hats throughout our travels in Central and South America so I couldn't pass on the unique panama hats in Colombia. Anything from local artwork, to baskets, magnets to shoes Cartagena had it all.
Get ready to say "no gracias"
I have few negative things to say about Cartagena, but the street vendors persistence is one thing I couldn't stand. There is a 100% guarantee you will be approached multiple times by street vendors selling hats, purses, and even knock off sunglasses and it will take several no's before they leave you alone. As soon as we would stop to take a picture or figure out directions, we felt swarmed by vendors trying to pitch us on their product. They even started putting hats on Milena and bracelets on Ryan's hand, it was ridiculous. We had to remain firm and simply say "no gracias" several times before they got the hint.
At night the vendors sell light-up toys that make noise and they will walk up to your child, shake the toy in their face enticing them to grab it. We had had it by that point. Ryan literally had to swat the guys hand out of Milena's face which I was afraid was going to turn into an altercation. After a firm "no" from Ryan, the guy finally left us alone, but Mama and Papa bear were not happy.
Towards the end of the trip, we were exhausted with constantly being pitched and avoiding the vendors. We just wanted to enjoy walking along the streets and taking in the beautif of the city but every where we turned, it was another hat, magnet or purse being put into our face. I understand they are trying to make a living, and it takes a lot to be told "no" throughout the day, but there has to be a better and non-intrusive way to sell the souvenirs.
One of Colombia's coolest, and most hip neighborhoods is only a quick walk from Cartagena's walled city. Getsemani is a so unique and the place to spot some of the best street art in the country. Like all of the up and coming neighborhoods of the world, Getsemani is known for its turbulent history ladened with prostitution and petty crime. Its dangerous past is behind it and now its a must-see for all visitors of Cartagena.
Grafitti and street art cover the already bright walls of Getsemani and the central Plaza Trinidad is the life of the neighborhood. At night street performers, tourists and locals all gather to relax and drink a cold beer.
Some of the best and most overlooked restaurants and bars are in Getsemani and we made sure to visit the neighborhood several times to try and see them all. After doing some research online, I stumbled upon a rooftop bar called Malagana Cafe & Bar so we decided to check it out for dinner to watch the sunset.
It was by far my favorite evening of our stay in Cartagena. The bar is run by two sisters and they have put together a chic rooftop lounge that is perfectly decorated. The music vibed with the decor and overlooking the quirky buildings of Getsemani added to the ambience of Malagana.
Ryan and I ordered their sangria blanca and relaxed with Milena while snacking on their coconut shrimp. For most of the evening we had the rooftop to ourselves and we just reflected on what an amazing trip we had experienced in Colombia. While this cafe is definitely a tourist hot spot, it isn't to be missed. I couldn't take enough pictures of the tiles, pottery and the sunset and I was able to get some inspiration for our future home.
I'm going to get some slack for this, but we never made it to one of the beautiful islands surrounding Cartagena. I know, I know... Its a must see if you are visiting the historic city. Cartagena is located on the Caribbean coast and boasts some pretty spectacular beaches. We just couldn't fit it into our schedule.
From what I've heard and read, you can easily rent a boat to jet off to multiple islands that have white beaches, sunshine and more rum than you can ever consume. Playa Blanca is by far the most popular, but there are plenty of beaches you can choose from. Isla Grande, Tierra Bomba or the Rosario Islands are just a few. So while the historic city may be on the top of your list, don't be like our family and overlook a day of sunshine and relaxation at one of Cartagena's beaches.
Cartagena was a pleasant surprise for our family full of color, tasty food and a culture that left a lasting impression. I couldn't stop smiling about our trip to the historic city and even though it was just a glimpse into the country's culture, I know for sure we will love the rest of beautiful Colombia!