I have innumerable fond memories of those days growing up on the coast of Columbia and spending time in “La Cuidad Heroica” (“The Heroic City”): Cartagena. The sound of the restless breezes during January;
padding down bright, cobblestone streets; the sight of white beaches dotted with awe-inducing coal reefs; eating Arepa con Huevo for breakfast (a corn pancake filled with eggs)—these tantalizing recollections still fill my mind with joy and inspiration. It’s exciting to see how the city has been able to revitalize itself and become one of the hottest, trendiest destinations in Latin America.
After so many years of those childhood memories, Cartagena is still that magical place that inspires me to come back and experience its extraordinary culture and all the city has to offer. Cartagena’s transformation started about ten years ago, and with the recent peace deal with the FARC, tourists are discovering this trendy budget-friendly tropical city in Northern Colombia. Visitors are flocking Cartagena from all over the world to experience its peculiar colonial architecture, white-sand beaches of Baru and Islas del Rosario, one-of-a-kind nightlife, and the exquisite Colombian cuisine. (Make sure to try the Sancocho-Delicious beef stew).
The history of “Cartagena de Indias” is remarkably rich, with a significant colonialism background that visitors will experience especially while visiting the old town or “Ciudad Amurallada”. Where does all the rich history of Cartagena start?
Cartagena was a Spanish settlement founded in 1533 and named after the Port of Cartagena, Spain. Back then, the Spaniards built a fortress to protect the city against the attacks from foreign pirates who had their eyes on the tremendous trading wealth Cartagena experienced in the 1500s’. Cartagena developed rapidly into a slave trading business. The city was considered one of the very few cities to be named as the official slave trading place because of its prime location. Soon enough, the city became prosperous with pirates coming into the City in search of wealth. Thereafter, Cartagena splurged into an armed conflict and declared its independence from Spain. Shortly after independence from Spain, Cartagena recovered and attracted trade ships from Europe where many Italians, Jews, and French settled here.
I was recently in Cartagena and these are my top 4 not-to-miss attractions while visiting the city:
1.Castillo de San Felipe: The castle is one of the greatest fortress built by the Spaniards. Spend about two hours touring each corner of the fortress, walking inside many of its tunnels and ramps to get a feel of how the troops moved around the fortress without being seen by the enemies. The castle is open every day from 8 am to 6 pm and the cost of the entrance is about $6 dollars. Be sure to take lots of water to alleviate yourself from the humidity and heat present in Cartagena mostly all year round.
2. Playa Blanca Day Trip: The best beaches are outside the city limits. Playa Blanca located in Baru is one of the best public beaches around Cartagena. There are several ways to get to Playa Blanca. If you are going with a group an option is to take a Taxi from Cartagena (which will cost around $20) to Pasacaballos and from there take a motorcycle taxi to Playa Blanca.
I recommend taking a boat to Playa Blanca to start an adventurous day taking in the warm sea breezes with its pristine blue crisp water. The waves may be a little strong especially on the way back to Cartagena. There are many tour operators running a boat to Playa Blanca and Islas del Rosario. Once in Playa Blanca, you’ll find many food options with fried fish, fried plantains, coconut rice (my favorite), and salads. This is the dish I always eat when I go to Playa Blanca.
3. Cartagena’s Old Town: The old town with its cobblestone streets, colorful buildings with bungalows type balconies is simply magical. One of the best things to do in Cartagena is to walk around the Walled City (Ciudad Amurallada) with its beautiful colonial-era mansions, churches and plazas. Come here without a map and simply get lost taking in the sights. You can also take an evening horse carriage ride through the streets of Old Town.
4. Experience the churches and sacred buildings: Cartagena has a few impressive churches and sacred buildings that dates back from the 17th The Church of San Pedro Claver is one of the most impressive churches in the city. Its name “San Pedro Claver” is in tribute to San Pedro who fought for the liberation of the oppressed slaves.
The Cathedral of Catherine of Alexandria is another important part of the city’s architectural heritage. Beyond being a historical landmark, the cathedral is one of the most important in Colombia.
Where to stay:
Hotel Estelar is a new hotel that was opened in 2016 and one of the tallest buildings in Cartagena facing the beach. I had the opportunity to stay at Hotel Estelar in 2017. The hotel is located in Bocagrande about 10 minutes away by taxi from the old town. The hotel has about 330 guest rooms many facing the ocean. Ask for a high floor to get a panoramic view of the city. The hotel’s infinity pool is the highlight of the hotel keeps guests cooled off despite the humidity. The pool bar has the most delicious pina colada to help you stay cool in the pool.
Where to eat:
Colombia has one of the best cuisines of Latin America and if you love food Cartagena is the place to immerse yourself in the local food. Arepas, seafood, ajiaco, and sancocho are all food you should try.
My favorite restaurant where you can try Colombian cuisine is Karib located inside the Arsenal Hotel Boutique. At karib they have a variety of small tapas dishes to sample Colombian and Caribbean classics. The service is outstanding with a wide selection of wine to choose. Items in the menu not to miss include the arepas, ceviche, fried yuca, and crab claws.
Jimmy Mckenzie is the founder of Paradise Digital Agency. With over 5 years in implementing Digital and SEO strategies for small and large businesses, I have mastered the latest SEO and digital strategies that result in improved online branding and search rankings.