The city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast is one not to be missed. Old world charm drifts down its narrow streets, each of them lined with colonial architecture, stunning churches and flowering vines cascading from overhanging balconies.
Whether you base yourself in the Old Town, or one of the beaches, it’s the perfect South American getaway. Cartagena has a little bit of everything for everyone, and if you like your weather humid, it sure delivers on that front.
Old Town Cartagena is surrounded by Las Murallas, those unmissable walls first erected to keep any invaders from sieging the city.
UNESCO declared the Old Town, and its walls, a World Heritage Site in 1984; and the city still remains one of the best-preserved walled cities in the world.
The entire 4km Las Murallas can be walked, and aside from offering views over the ocean, skyline and into the Old Town, expect to see vendors selling anything from Panama hats to tourists kitsch.
Head up there in the afternoon for sunset drinks at one of the bars and cool down with a welcomed ocean breeze.
Wandering Old Town and getting lost in its grid of streets is the best way to discover it. Much of it is still residential, but if shopping is your thing, there’s plenty of that going on.
Fashion boutiques, handicraft and art stores, food stores, tonnes of restaurants and everything else between.
Head to the northeast corner of Old Town to Las Bóvedas (first pic), or the vaults, which were once used to store ammunition and weapons, then later used as prison cells. These days they contain cookie-cutter shops that sell all things touristy.
For a quieter side of Old Town, head away from the main shopping areas and explore the less-commercial streets. You can still appreciate the architecture, just without tripping over hundreds of people. This town sure is touristy!
Street food – Arepas.
Sweet tooth? Then try some cocadas.
La Paletteria – for many flavours of frozen treats.
Checking out the cafe scene is a priority for this pair, and we can say the city definitely delivers in the coffee stakes. Not everywhere, mind you.
From the Willys coffee car where novelty overrides quality, to a full on experience with a barista that knows their stuff; there’s plenty to sample.
Ábaco Bookshop is the perfect spot to escape the heat and humidity, settle into the air-conditioned cafe, breathe in the smell of the books and sip on something caffeinated.
For the best coffee that we sampled, pay the guys at San Alberto Cafe a visit and get stuck into cold brew, a variety of filtration methods and some fab cakes.
Others worth mentioning are the very stylish Época which also does all the filter methods plus breakfast, sandwiches, salads and burgers. Try Cafe del Mural over in Getsemani – which dabbles in espresso, Turkish and Mexican coffee, plus tea.
Abaco Bookshop – Calle 36, #3-86
San Alberto Cafe – Carrera 4, #34-1
Época Cafe – Carrera 5, #34-52
Cafe Del Mural – San Juan, #25-60
The Old Town is saturated with eateries of all budgets and flavours, and you could easily get carried away hopping from place to place. We didn’t eat out a great deal in the old part of town, but one restaurant definitely worth mentioning is Az-zahr.
This Turkish restaurant is the perfect spot where you can put to rest those local Colombian dishes of protein, rice and fried plantain. Instead, savour the delights of kafta, mjadra, kibbeh and falafels in stylish surrounds with excellent service.
Even the complimentary bread with labne (below) is top notch, and don’t get us started on the free-flowing extra virgin olive oil. Wowsers.
Az-zahr Restaurant – Calle de la Artilleria, #33-24
Right by the Old Town is the charming neighbourhood of Getsemaní, once a no-go area which has since bloomed into a thriving artists community and backpacker and boutique accommodation haven.
If staying in the Old Town isn’t your thing, then I’d definitely suggest finding somewhere here. It still retains much of its grit, the streets are filled with colourful houses and some fantastic street art.
Getsemaní lacks any major sights and museums, so other than wandering around the streets, there’s the food scene to dive into.
There are enough places to eat and drink to keep you occupied for quite some time. Start off with some arepas or fresh fruit from a street food vendor and then maybe drop into Beiyú Cafe for a coffee, breakfast, a wrap or one of their exotic juices such as the vuelve a la vida.
What is it? A two-toned drink that contains both açaí and copoazú – the latter being a tropical rainforest tree related to cacao. The fruit is similar in flavour to passionfruit.
If a cold beer (by Colombian standards) is more your thing, then grab a table at Cafe la Trinidad in the afternoon and watch the world go by. Maybe even duck across the road and pick up some fresh empanadas from the very popular vendor in front of the church.
Beiyú Cafe – Calle San Andrés, #29-75
Cafe la Trinidad – Calle 29, #10-2
Plantain soup & grilled beef at Castellana DF – Calle 30, #8b-120
For a simple, yet decent lunch of local food, try Castellana DF. The regular menu has a Spanish flavour, but 16,000 pesos also buys you their lunch special of soup and main.
If some excellent Indian food appeals, look no further than Maharaja on Calle San Andrés. The bhaji (5,000) and vindaloo beef (18,000) are kind of excellent, and if the well-spiced food doesn’t keep you in the door, then the all day happy hour might.
For something a little more contemporary, Demente on Plaza de Trinidad is the perfect spot to chill with cocktails, vino or beer and chow on tapas-style plates. The deceivingly small entrance leads into a moody dining room and rear courtyard strung with lights, so choose your space and settle right in.
Bun de costillatas (14,000; bao with baby back ribs & picked onions), sea bass ceviche with avocado, chicharron & radish (28,000), pan-fried chontaduro gnocchi with honey (22,000) and grilled octopus with criolla potatoes (30,000).
Everything we tried went down a treat.
Maharaja Restaurant – Calle San Andrés, #30-36
Demente – Plaza Trinidad #10-19
Unitransco bus gets you from Mompós to Terminal de Transportes de Cartagena for 68,000 pesos per person. Departure is 6.30am and arrival 1pm.
To get from the bus terminal into Cartagena’s Old Town, a taxi will set you back around 25,000 pesos. Or try Uber.