After visiting Cartagena I can see clearly now why it is one of South America’s most visited cities. As this was my first time visiting Colombia, and the continent for that matter, I figured I’d see exactly what people have been raving about. I was charmed almost immediately, and the more I experienced, the more I wanted to taste a little more. (Keep reading to learn more about why I say almost immediately.) 

Located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, for me, it had the energy I love most about experiencing a new destination – sprawling beaches, lovely people, amazing food, and a unique vibe all its own. A city so rich in history, culture, and beauty, it’s hard to even know where to begin. So, my review will commence with our home for seven days.

Accommodations

Consulting with a Cartagena native as I was planning my trip helped me tremendously in determining the best place to stay. I absolutely adored the charming Walled city, which I’ll talk about later, but I’m grateful I didn’t stay in any of the hotels located inside the wall. Being the “water girl” that I am, I enjoyed having the prime ocean views of the Bocagrande neighborhood, while also being close enough to the walled city to travel there by taxi easily and inexpensively.

Our living area looking out to prime ocean views.

We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Cartagena, one of the city’s nicest hotels. In addition to the location, the rooming options were also a factor. This is one of the very few hotels that offer residences with multiple bedroom suites, which worked out perfectly for my family. At times feeling more like a resort, the Hyatt Regency offers four swimming pools (one of them designated for children), a world-class spa and fitness center, and two restaurants and bars. 

 

As the multiple bedroom options were part of the residences, we enjoyed a separate living and dining area, a full kitchen, and a private balcony boasting high-rise views of the city. Note, if you have an issue with heights, the residences are all on the top 17 floors of the 40-story building. For a frame of reference, the lobby is on the 12th floor, so it only goes up from there!

Speaking of heights, I loved everything about this hotel – the location, the classiness, cleanliness, the pools, the customer service – but the elevators. One set of elevators took you to the lobby and another set of elevators took you to your rooms. That wouldn’t have been so bad if when trying to leave the 40th floor, the elevator would not let you go to any other floor but 15. That meant we had to take three separate elevators down every time we wanted to leave the hotel. Super annoying, but that’s also what happens when you have fancy elevators!

The Walled City

I believe this is where most of the magic lies in Cartagena, hence why we spent a lot of time there. This is probably also why a lot of travelers opt to book a hotel in this area of the city. It depends on what your priorities are. The architecture is unbelievable. If you stay in this part of the city, it’s likely that your hotel, mostly boutique, and luxury, will be a refurbished mansion from more than 200 years ago. The best shopping, restaurants, nightlife, art, and photo ops are inside the walls…and you’re going to pay for it if you choose to stay here. This part of town has more expensive accommodations than the city’s other neighborhoods, including Bocagrande’s beachfront hotels where we stayed. But it’s important to note that your American dollars will take you very far in Colombia. More on that later.

There’s a lot of history here, and while fascinating, I won’t get into it all. Just know that this historic part of the city, also known as the “old city”, is enclosed by 400-year-old fortified stone walls. Spanning eight miles, they were built to protect the city from pirate attacks. I definitely recommend one of the walking tours to learn more about the history of this gorgeous city and the diverse people that make up its culture. 

Today this section of Cartagena, lined with narrow cobblestone streets and uniquely stunning architecture, boasts beautiful plazas filled with street vendors, artists, and musicians at nearly every corner. Visiting during the day offered a completely different, yet equally enjoyable experience than visiting during the night so I recommend indulging in both!

Aside from the food experiences, which I’ll get to next, I was most blown away by the art. There were so many beautiful pieces lining the streets I was overwhelmed. I literally wanted to take all of them home with me! And I’m not just talking about the paintings for sale, the mural-filled walls were breathtaking as well.

The cuisine

When I heard that Cartagena was a foodie town, I was sold even more on the idea of visiting. And let’s just say, Cartagena did not disappoint! This is not a comprehensive list but here’s a quick rundown of some of my favorite experiences:

  • Celele: This quaint, charming restaurant was my absolute favorite food experience in Cartagena. And I was grateful to experience it for lunch on my actual birthday. Happy Birthday to me! I recommend trying multiple shared appetizers and getting different entrees. You definitely want to taste as much of this yummy goodness as you can!
  • Casa Don Luis: This was one of the few restaurants we went to that served something other than Colombian food. This fine-dining Italian experience was created by the ambiance as much as it was the food.
  • La Vitrola: This intimate restaurant in the heart of the Walled City was perfect for my birthday dinner. We enjoyed not only a tasty meal but authentic, live music! This classic old-school restaurant received five stars in my book!
  • Street Food: You can’t go to Cartagena without enjoying piping hot arepas from the street vendors. They are small “cakes” made with ground corn dough filled with your choice of cheese or meat (typically chicken or beef). Occasionally they are served with an egg inside. They are delicious and super cheap!

The beaches

Transparently, Bocagrande beach is not one of the best beaches I’ve been to, by Caribbean standards. However, not all of the beaches in Cartagena are created equally. That’s why I was grateful for the experience of visiting one of the islands off the coast of the mainland. The Rosario Islands came highly recommended, but we ended up going to Tierra Bomba Island, which I thoroughly enjoyed! 

Many of the islands offer day passes where locals or visitors who are staying on the mainland can experience the amenities of the resort without having to stay overnight. Tierra Bomba was a quick 15-minute boat ride away and offered a completely different experience from the city vibes offered on the mainland.

We lounged at the Eteka Hotel Boutique and Slow Beach Lounge, which was a whole vibe! The food here was delicious as well. If you are a beach bum like me, having this experience is a must while visiting Cartagena. 

As you can see, there’s a lot to love about this beautiful city. And I’m sure I didn’t see the half. You know what that means…a return visit is necessary!

Here are some other important things to note:

  • Getting there: I mentioned earlier that I was charmed by the city almost immediately. I stated that because we had a not so great experience at the airport arriving from the United States. I don’t know if this happens often or if our experience was an anomaly, but it took us hours to even make it into the airport after landing. We deboarded the plane outside on the tarmac and had to wait in a long line to go through immigration. This forced us to stand outside in the heat for at least an hour. In case our experience was not an anomaly, be sure to dress in layers you feel comfortable removing and have plenty of bottled water!

Also note: At the time of our travel in February, full vaccination was required for U.S. travelers. 

  • Currency. At the time of visiting, the exchange rate of US dollars to Colombian pesos was approximately 1 to 3500. As a reference point, our 10-minute taxi rides to the Walled City from our hotel were 10,000 pesos each way. That means we were spending roughly $3 each way. Pretty awesome!
  • Safety: Cartagena in general is one of the safest places to visit in Colombia. As with any type of international travel, beware of your surroundings and be smart with where you carry your money. Also, some of the street sellers and musicians can get pretty aggressive walking up to you and hassling you to pay them for their service or trinkets. The best thing to do is to give them a firm no and keep it moving.
  • Language: While many of the locals spoke some English, especially in the brick and mortar stores and restaurants, it’s a little hard to navigate if you do not speak Spanish. Many of the street vendors did not speak English or spoke very little, which makes it very difficult to negotiate. Visiting with our own Colombian, Spanish-speaking guide was very helpful to our experience.

 

When in Cartagena be sure to try aguardiente, which might be described as Colombia’s version of tequila.