72 Hours in Cartagena
Presiding over northern Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, Cartagena de Indias is one of South America’s best preserved and most breathtakingly beautiful colonial cities. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Cartagena’s charming “Old Town” is the city’s beloved heart and soul. Also known as the Walled City, it consists of a maze of cobblestone streets zigzagging beneath bougainvillea-enveloped balconies and colonial architecture dating back to 1533.
Boldly colored, vibrant Old Town is nestled within the confines of massive stone walls constructed more than 500 years ago to protect the former Spanish colony’s many treasures. Today, Old Town remains Cartagena’s biggest attraction, but there is plenty more to see and do there, even if you’re limited to just a few days of exploration.
Walk the Walled City
The enchanting Walled City is entirely walkable and best explored leisurely by foot or from one of the ubiquitous horse drawn carriages trotting across the cobblestone streets from dusk to dawn. Stroll past meticulously preserved buildings shrouded by curtains of bougainvillea and painted vivid yellow, purple, orange and pink hues. Meander through tree-lined, 16th century plazas flanked by historic churches, museums and buzzing cafes. Lively, local merchants abound at all hours peddling cold beverages, exotic fruits, sweet smelling arepas (corn pancakes cooked street-side and stuffed with cheese or meat) and intricately designed handicrafts. Find respite from the humidity under a sliver of shade in the Plaza de Bolivar or Plaza Santo Domingo, quench your thirst with a freshly squeezed glass of juice and stretch out for a brief afternoon siesta.
Eat, drink and savor the sunset
Sip a mojito while lounging atop the centuries-old city walls. Glamorous, open-air “see and be seen” bars such as Cafe del Mar and La Casa de la Cerveza draw tourists and locals alike at sunset thanks to their prime waterfront locations and sensual atmosphere. Drinks aren’t cheap, but the panoramic Caribbean views and glimpses of trendy Bocagrande’s glittering skyline can’t be beat. After sunset, grab an outdoor table at La Cevicheria for a nibble of Cartagena’s best ceviche and views of the pristine Plaza de San Diego. In the mood to splurge on a candle lit dinner in a lush, tropical garden that feels downright magical? Head next door to the luxe Restaurante 1621, in the Hotel Santa Clara, a former 17th century convent used as the setting for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel “Of Love and Other Demons.”
Travelzoo Tip: Malanga, a quaint restaurant perched just across from Plaza de San Diego, is a charming spot for dining alfresco and stirs up out of this world sangria.
Totumo Volcano mud bath
Venture out of the city on an unforgettable daytrip to the Totumo Volcano located approximately one hour from Cartagena. Climb up the dormant volcano’s peak, accessible only by a steep 50-foot staircase, and dive into the therapeutic mud pit below. Renowned for its healing mineral properties, the warm, volcano mud bath is a unique, once in a lifetime experience made all the more indulgent by onsite masseurs delivering rejuvenating full body massages while guests float around the volcanic crater.
Travelzoo Tip: Guided tours – many of which include additional activities like lunch and a short beach visit – can be reserved easily online or through most hotels. Avoid booking tours led by Ruta Ecologico Los Pinos, which – based on my experience — does not provide the quality or informative tour it advertises and disappoints in just about every way possible.
Leave the pricey tourist traps behind and venture out of the Old City to up-and-coming Getsemani for an exhilarating peek into a nightlife scene that exudes cool. Until recently a gritty neighborhood generally avoided by travelers, Getsemani has been heralded as the city’s hip, new home of some of the hottest bars and restaurants in town. Don’t miss Demente, a dimly lit, divey-chic tapas bar built out of an 18th century ruin overlooking Plaza del Trinidad. Mouthwatering tapas, an eclectic playlist, rocking chairs and top-notch service without pretense create a relaxed ambiance that makes you want to stay put all night. Next, stop for a drink on Gastrolab Sur’s intimate back patio, an unexpected delight hidden within the Ciudad Movil Cultural Center, which impresses with killer tunes, delicious cocktails and a casual, quasi-private “secret garden” vibe.
Cool off on Playa Blanca and the Islas del Rosario
Beat the heat by strolling along Playa Blanca’s sugary, white sand with a frosty beverage in hand and take a dip into the crystal clear water lapping along the shore. Arguably Cartagena’s most picturesque beach, Playa Blanca is a tropical gem located on Baru Island and most easily reached by boat. A sightseeing cruise to the Islas del Rosario — a magnificent archipelago where the color of the water varies from rich purple, turquoise and deep blue — is another “must do” and many of these tours include a stop at Playa Blanca. These are generally all-day trips, but what better way to spend your final hours in Cartagena than cruising around some of Colombia’s most impressive natural wonders?
Travelzoo Tip: Bocagrande, the trendy Miami Beach of Cartagena, is just 10 minutes from the Walled City and provides a convenient alternative for travelers who want to hit the beach without wandering too far off the beaten path. Keep in mind that Playa Blanca is far and away the more beautiful and relaxing beach experience and worth the trip if you have the time.