Cartagena: A Magical City by the Sea
By Gerrie Summers
Mention that you’re off to Cartagena, and intrepid travelers just might be a bit envious. Those who aren’t familiar with the South American city will say it sounds exotic. But then mention that Cartagena is in Colombia, you’ll probably see an eyebrow raise and hear a little concern cloaked within drug jokes.
Cartagena is as safe as any other major city or tourist destination and to miss it because of perceived dangers would be a shame.
Cartagena de Indias (Cartagena of the Indies) is located on Colombia’s northern coast in the Caribbean Sea. Several indigenous cultures inhabited the area in the Bay of Cartagena since 4,000BC, before the Spanish colonization. It was founded June 1, 1533 by Spanish conquistador Don Pedro De Heredia and named Cartagena after the city in Spain from which many of the crew hailed.
In the latter part of the 16th century due to the gold and silver pillaged from the native people, Cartagena became an attractive target of corsairs and pirates. In 1586, Sir Francis Drake of England arrived with a massive fleet and took over Cartagena, destroying about a quarter of the city. To protect the city, which was also an important slave port, Spain set about building walls and fortifications. During the 17th Century Spain hired engineers to construct fortresses an undertaking that would take over 208 years to complete and would become the impressive 6.8 miles of walls surrounding the city, including Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, designed by Dutch engineer Richard Carr, and named for Spain’s King Philip IV. With the last bastion in place the fortress became impenetrable.
The Ciudad Amurallada (walled city) and the fortress are now Cartagena’s major tourist attractions and were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. The historic area has been a Historic and Cultural District since 1991. What were once symbols of a turbulent past makes Cartagena a magical, romantic destination with colonial architecture, mansions, palaces, cathedrals, cobblestone streets and colorful and vibrant squares and plazas.
What To See
To tour this captivating city, visitors can take an old-fashioned carriage ride or explore the Old City on foot and wander into beautiful courtyards and numerous shops. The main entrance is by the Clock Tower (which is also the best place to get a taxi). The Old City includes historic districts of El Centro and San Diego, Getsemani and the modern La Matuna neighborhood. Several sites include several plazas including Plaza Santo Domingo, Plaza de los Coches (Square of the Carriages), several convents, cloisters and churches including Saint Peter Claver in San Pedro Claver Square, several museums including the Museum of Modern Art, and the Palace of the Inquisition in Plaza de Bolivar (formerly called Plaza de la Inquisicion). Across from the Government Palace is the Cathedral of Cartagena. If you take the carriage tour, you will also see the house of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Cartagena is the inspiration behind several of his novels.
Twenty minutes away from the downtown area is Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Tunnels are constructed so that guards could hear the footsteps of approaching enemy. Some of the tunnels are open for viewing.
Another way to get around is to take a trolley ride to tour the city and important neighborhoods in Cartagena such as Boca Grande (“Big Mouth”), an area with hotels, shops, restaurants, nightclubs and art galleries, located between Cartagena Bay and the Caribbean Sea. Boca Grande has gray volcanic sand beaches along Avenida San Martin. The tour also includes the neighborhoods of El Laquito (“The Little Lake”) and Castillo Grande (Big Castle) an exclusive neighborhood that is more residential than Boca Grande with new condos and a calmer beach.
Don’t miss a trip to Islas del Rosario, a set of small islands out on the coast about forty-five minutes by ferry. One island is Isla Majagua the location of Hotel San Pedro de Majagua, where you can have lunch, relax on one of two beaches (one is peaceful, the other has music and a bar), have a massage at the spa, or take excursions to snorkel or visit the aquarium.
The food in Cartagena is a mixture of Indian, Spanish and African cuisine. A couple of tasty staples found in several restaurants are arroz de coco (coconut rice) and patacones (fried plantains).
Café del Mar is a gorgeous place to watch the sunset, enjoy views of the Caribbean Sea, and soak in the city’s ambiance while sipping a tropical cocktail or Aguila beer. It’s located on top of the historical fortress walls. In the evening, the ancient buildings of the Old City are bathed in golden light. There is live music or music piped out from within a guard tower that now serves as a DJ booth.
Café de Mar is open for breakfast/brunch and dinner. I wasn’t thrilled by the drinks, but did enjoy the cozy atmosphere. It wasn’t too crowded at dusk, but it can get crowded as the evening progresses (so if you want a table closer to the water, get there early).
Club De Pesca is located on a fortress on the western end of Manga Island, a residential section of town. From the waterfront terrace are views of the sea and a marina. For lunch try the Ceviche de Pescado (fish ceviche Peruvian style marinated with lemons and tomato sangrita and garnished with avocado, cilantro and corn) as an opener and as a main meal, Festival de Mariscos (Seafood Festival) is a grilled seafood combo of lobster, king prawn, fish fillet, with calamari in onion sauce, mussels in garlic sauce, crabmeat au gratin, fresh salad, coconut rice and fried green plantains.
Café El Santisimo, considered a must-visit restaurant, serves fusion cuisine—French cuisine with Caribbean ingredients. The restaurant is housed in a former convent, which explains why the menu has such names as The Holy Trinity (the restaurants version of a traditional local dish with stewed and shredded white fish and prawns) and The Annunciation (a beef tenderloin dish), and desserts like La Gula (Gluttony) a mocha brownie, vanilla ice cream and hot chocolate sauce.
Don Juan, restaurant of Chef Juan Felipe Camacho serves gourmet Spanish/Caribbean cuisine, think local fish and seafood with sides of coconut rice with a ritzy presentation. It’s a popular spot for high-end customers as well as for wedding and birthday parties.
La Vitrola is located within the walled city and considered by many to be the best restaurant in town. It has a cozy atmosphere and live Cuban music by Grupo (a band with musicians from Cuba and Colombia). La Vitrola is a favorite of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As luck would have it, I heard a commotion and noticed the staff lined up by the entrance and in walked the author, who posed for photos with a few admirers (including me). That was a treat and so was the Ceviche de Camarones (baby shrimp, avocado and red sauce) and Ceviche de Corvina (white fish ceviche marinated in lemon) and for the main course Filete de Maro Goram Masala (Grouper Filet with Indian Spices). Not quite the masala I’m used to, but it was tasty.
General Information & Tips
Cartagena has a tropical wet and dry climate. The rainy season is typically in April-May and October-November. The average temperature is between 75 degrees and 88 degrees year-round.
Currency in Cartagena is the Peso. To exchange money, use official currency exchange services, banks and hotels for currency (don’t exchange money on the street). Several currency exchange offices can be found at the Calle de las Carretas and in the Bocagrande area.
There are Tourist Information Points (TIPS) that offer brochures, maps and other general information located in the Rafael Nunez International Airport, Cartagena Cruise Port, Plaza de la Aduana (the main tourist information center), Plaza de la Paz, Plaza de San Pedro Claver (mobile unit), and the Cartagena de Indias Convention Center (mobile unit).
Taxis are easy to find near tourist locations and at hotels. Just note that there are no taximeters. Fees are based on an official table (though not all of the drivers carry them). It’s best to ask your guide or the hotel concierge for typical fares and negotiate the fare before getting into a taxi. Use pesos instead of dollars.
For more information on Cartagena, visit www.cartagenadeindias.travel.
The Holiday Inn Cartagena Morros located in an exclusive section called Los Morros in the northern side of town. The hotel is just five minutes from Rafael Nunez International Airport and 10 minutes from downtown Cartagena. Don’t expect a Holiday Inn like the ones often found stateside.
Situated by the Caribbean Sea, the Holiday Inn Cartagena Morros has a 14-story tower with 140 rooms with ocean and Cienaga de La Virgin views. The ocean view rooms are comfortable with a modern, minimalistic design overlooking Paradise Beach and the large pool serving the condominiums (regrettably the hotel pool is much smaller, but does have a small bar).
The hotel’s Blue Restaurant Bar & Lounge, serves local cuisine with flair and great drinks. If you’re in town for business, there are two meeting rooms with a capacity for 10-12 people and also a couple of nice, cozy lounge areas. There’s also a small gym and while there isn’t a spa, you can request in-room massages or a massage on the beach.
JetBlue recently introduced a non-stop flight (about 4 hours, 30 minutes) to Cartagena from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Visitors need to bring two forms of identification (including a valid U.S. passport).
No arrival tax is collected upon entry into Colombia. Travelers leaving by plane will pay an exit tax at the airport (in cash). The exit tax is divided into two categories: Tasa Aeroportuaria – $35 and Timbre Aeroportuario – $37. There is an additional Colombian Administrative fee of $15 (which is not normally included in the tickets purchased in the US. In some cases where foreign travelers have been in the country for less than 30 days, the travelers have been able to obtain an exemption from this tax by immediately taking their documents to the Aeronautica Civil desk.
Gerrie Summers has been writing professionally for over 31 years in the areas of entertainment, beauty, lifestyle, travel and wellness. A New York-based writer, she has been the Travel Adventures columnist for Today’s Black Woman and now writes the blogs Summers Retreat and The Tranquil Traveler.