I noticed Cartagena, in particular, has been a hot spot for travelers in the past year or so, so I was excited to finally check it out for myself!
Upon landing in Cartagena, I quickly met other travelers who shared that this was their umpteenth time in Cartagena and could even tell me all the hot spots! Now, I've frequented Miami, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and heck, the Poconos, but I haven't been to any one country more than twice. So what's the deal on Cartagena?? Well, let me dive right in and say prostitution is legal in Cartagena, and all these travelers I met were male (sorry, not sorry for insinuating). So there you have it, that's the hype! (JK...I hope).
Anywho, this is clearly not why I was here! As always, I came to explore the culture, food, and what this unique city had to offer! Also, this was a joint trip with my friend and fellow travel blogger - Away With Rai - Check her out! ;)
We spent 3 full days, 2 half days, and 4 nights in Cartagena.
Flight - LGA (New York) to CTG (Cartagena) with one hour stop in MIA (Miami) for $517 roundtrip on American Airlines
As of 9/17/22, no COVID testing was required to enter for vaccinated travelers - upload vaccine form. Negative test required for unvaccinated travelers 48 hrs before.
Must complete Check-Mig form with details of your stay in Colombia before boarding flight.
Accommodations - all booked through Airbnb
Casa Helda - highly-rated, affordable bed & breakfast in the Walled City. 2 nights cost $127.
Edificio Alta Mar - beautiful 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom high-rise with balcony and amenities overlooking the beach, 10 mins from the Walled City. 2 nights cost $283 (This was split between two of us).
Currency - 1 USD ~ 5,000 Colombian pesos
Transportation - Uber is available and should cost an average of 1,000 pesos per minute (If cabbing, ask for the price before getting in).
Itinerary by Category
Click any of the below attractions to jump to that section, or just keep scrolling to read about it all! This is a synopsis of what we actually did. If you want final recommendations, skip to My Top Recommendations.
What I Did
Brunch and Paint - create a lovely personalized souvenir for yourself or someone else!
Explore Getsemani - loaded with colorful street art and hanging decor
Get pics with Palenqueras - Those are the colorful ladies with the fruit baskets
Palenque Tour- learn about the first free African community in the Americas!
Where I Ate/Drank
Quero Arepa - amazing assortment of arepas
Cancha Restaurante - wonderful ceviche!
Ana Restaurant Bar- swanky restaurant and animated drinks
Marisqueria Buena Vida - colorful, lively, and great food
Gelateria Tramonti - interesting gelato flavors
I love Getsemani - cheap drinks and quick bites
Epoca Espresso Bar - for breakfast
Itinerary by Day
Day 1 - An Evening Stroll through the Walled City
We landed at CTG around 12pm and made our way to my friend's Airbnb. BRING CASH to convert at the airport. Taxis want pesos, not USD. I only learned this later, but Uber is also an option.
Anyway, I, personally, was confused on the price of the taxi aka whether he wanted $10 USD or 10,000 pesos (~$2 USD). In retrospect, I believe we were taken advantage of, handing over about 50,000 pesos for such a short ride. Every ride after that was about 10,000 pesos with the exception of my 25-min ride into the Walled City from this Airbnb (~$10 USD). We also used Uber as much as possible to ensure a fair price!
Rai and I booked separate spaces for the first two nights, as we each wanted a different experience. Her Airbnb was lovely: a bright, beautifully furnished apartment with a balcony, pool, gym, and more, but it was about 25 mins drive from the Walled City. I opted to stay at a bed and breakfast in the Walled City (more on that later).
We grabbed our first lunch at a restaurant called Fish House at the nearby resort. Our first meal consisted of fish, brown coconut rice, patacones (tostones, for us island folks), and pina colada for me! It was a wonderful introduction to Cartagena, and little did I know, I would be having a lot more of this meal throughout my trip!
After lunch, I Ubered to the Walled City and checked into my Airbnb at Casa Helda, a charming, vibrant, and quaint BnB in the heart of it all. I was greeted at the front gate, led to my room, and offered a welcome lemonade. The room was pretty rustic and lights were dimmer than I expected, but in addition to its great location, past guests raved about the hospitality and outstanding breakfast. And man, do I love my breakfast!
For the rest of the evening, I just strolled the city to the plaza of the Clock Tower where I spotted my first Palenqueras! Rai and I checked our saved lists of restaurants and opted for Quero Arepa. It was delicious and filling - so many arepas to chose from! I definitely recommend coming here for a good arepa! And they were cheap...I would soon learn, first-hand, that Cartagena is a very affordable place for vacationing compared to Costa Rica or even Mexico!
Day 2 - Brunch & Paint, Getsemani, Ceviche, and Nightlife
My first morning in Cartagena greeted me with a downpour, but that didn't stop Casa Helda from serving that amazing breakfast, as promised!
Fresh fruits, coffee, fresh juice, and plenty of fried savory cornmeal bites with different fillings.
I was scheduled for a 10AM rooftop Brunch and Paint, booked on Viator, but the rain was still going around 9:40. After confirming we would now be painting in the living room of the home instead of on the rooftop, I took a taxi for convenience through flooded streets to Getsemani neighborhood and enjoyed two hours of instructor-led painting along with a plate of eggs and fruits (I barely ate since I had just had breakfast). This makes a wonderful souvenir for yourself or someone else!
Sadly, I am pretty sure I left my painting behind at the airport :( Hoping to paint a new one soon!
Since I was in the area, I strolled through the streets of Getsemani, this time during the day. It's a vibrant neighborhood full of street art and hanging decals. A local boy saw me taking selfies and offered to take my photos, for which I tipped him, of course. Here are the results!
We ended our mini-shoot at I Love Getsemani restaurant, where I had a nice, cheap margarita. Then, I met up with Rai, and we explored more of the town. For lunch, we opted for the highly-rated cevicheria, Cancha Cevicheria - I LOVE ceviche, and this one was IT! I heard another place, La Cevicheria, is really good, but I didn't have time to try it, and Cancha was rated much better on Google reviews.
That evening, we definitely wanted to experience some nightlife! We started at Delirium, a hip hop club, and weren't really feeling the vibe (no one was dancing!). So we paid 45,000 pesos (~$10 USD) to enter Seven 7 Times lounge. Entry included a free welcome drink and seven different party rooms (including a rooftop) to satisfy anyone's musical mood!
The big surprise came in the main room, when suddenly curtains were drawn revealing a stage and some sensually-dressed male and female dancers. This went from raunchy to fun within a few minutes, with one woman performing covers of popular songs and an explosion of confetti into the crowd!
It was a great time! Apparently, there are different themes every night, so we planned to go back another night.
Day 3 - Photoshoot, Emerald Shop, Beach, and FLOODS
When I travel, my preferred method of getting photos is through Airbnb photoshoots. I wrote about this in the past - read up on this and other ways to capture photos when solo! So on Sunday, I met up with my photographers at 8AM. I booked Karmen on Airbnb. I was guided through all the popular neighborhoods with my own background music (literally) and ended in Getsemani, where I got more photos with umbrellas, flags, and Palenqueras! They also filmed video, but I LOVE my photos!
Funny enough, we ended at I Love Getsemani again, where I had an arepa con huevos (I had never heard of this kind of arepa!) and a fresh fruit drink - great, since breakfast at Casa Helda ended at 10AM. :(
I returned to the Airbnb to check out, as Rai and I chose a second Airbnb together, about a 10-min drive outside of the Walled City. More on it later, but for now, I wanted to visit the Emerald Museum in Boca Grande, and possibly the beach. Casa Helda was kind enough to hold my bags until I returned and by 11AM, I was en route by Uber to the Emerald Museum.
Now, there are several emerald stores in Cartagena. Colombia is the leading and best quality producer of emeralds in the world - they produce 60% of the world supply! Emeralds are my birth stone, so I was adamant about taking one home (as long as the price wouldn't break my bank). I chose to go out of the way to Boca Grande due to the very positive reviews about this particular store.
Guests enter through a workshop and are taken on an optional tour where they learn about emerald production, their history, and the cultural/economical significance.
At the end, you can shop for emeralds! There are all types of jewelry set in yellow and white gold, but the cheapest jewelry piece to buy was a silver ring - that's what I opted for. It cost about $250 USD and comes with a 3-year warranty. I will say, I noticed the silver began to scratch soon after. So if you can invest in gold for 4x the cost, maybe do so.
Me: Are you sure this is in pesos??
Also PRINT the QR code that they send to your email for VAT tax refund at the airport. The receipt is NOT enough - I watched a lady get turned away without her QR code.
Following the museum, I was able to get a hookup with a local tour guide who arranged for me to take a boat to Tierra Bomba, an island beach about a 10-min boat ride away. He charged me $50 USD which included transport, a welcome drink, and lunch. He also promised I'd be able to return by 3:30PM so that I could make my sunset cruise at 5PM....
The boat ride was choppy - thank God for life jackets! The water was significantly bluer than back on the mainland - so far, so good! My guide didn't come with me but promised someone on the island would "take care of me."
There were several different sections of beach chairs and umbrellas - all for different companies I assume. I had zero phone service on the island, and one woman tried to charge me for the Wi-Fi password! I ended up wandering for 10 mins before someone recognized the tour guide in the pictures I showed them who had promised me everything was already included.
I relaxed in a beach chair under an umbrella, drinking my welcome drink, and waiting for my lunch to be served. I was also given the Wi-Fi connection for FREE. I attempted to read, but there was very loud music playing, so I spent some time in the water instead. I kept an eye on my belongings, as there were so many people around, and I trusted no one at this point! I, eventually, had to check in on my food, which I finally received around 2:30PM.
More whole fish, coconut rice, and patacones!
Ready for a funny story? If not, skip this paragraph. While eating, the man "taking care of me" asked me out to dance (using Google translate). Not wanted to reject him, I replied that I had a boyfriend, to which he replied he had a girlfriend. I, then, replied "you should take her dancing then" to which HE replied "you're mean" and walked away. Around 2:50, I decide to check on how I will catch a boat back, but he was nowhere to be found. After frantically harassing many other guides on the beach, they found him, and he sloooowly assembled a group to take back to the island.
I did make it back to the mainland by 3:30, thankfully! BUT that experience was stressful and disorganized! I would recommend, instead, booking a beach day/island hop with a reputable agency and giving yourself the day!
I taxied to Casa Helda for my bags and made my way to the new Airbnb at Edificio Alta Mar. I do like to change up accommodations and neighborhoods to get a different experience! It was a beautiful 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment with balcony with a full ocean view and hammock.
Next on schedule was a sunset cruise, but we missed it (more on that in the Lessons Learned section). So we headed for dinner and ended up at Ana Restaurant, which has a gorgeous interior and really cool animated drinks!
We opted to go elsewhere for food and ended up at Marisqueria Buena Vida where I switched up my usual arepa or fish and patacones for octopus and a fancy beer.
By now, it was again pouring outside...to the point that water was coming into the restaurant!
We spent about an hour waiting for the rain to let up and for the flood to drain and were able to Uber back at a decent time.
Day 4 - Palenque and Cooking Class
It was very important I get some sleep, because the next morning, I was picked up at 7AM for a guided tour of Palenque, the first free African village in the Americas! I booked the Freedom Tour on Viator. I was joined by five other Black Americans, three guys my age (I think) and a middle aged couple.
We were welcomed by a beautiful performance of African dances and then led out to tour the town on foot. Palenque is where the "Palenqueras" come from BTW. In addition, we learned about the history of the founder and other town heroes, tried some local herbs/alcoholic remedies, and toured a home/museum. I don't want to spoil the experience by sharing all we learned, but just know it was a fun and valuable experience when visiting Cartagena!
We ended with a typical lunch, where I, of course, chose fried fish, coconut rice, and patacones!
We returned to Cartagena around 3PM - just in time for me to catch my 3:30 cooking class. I booked this Airbnb Experience. Five of us attended, and we each contributed to making coconut rice, empanadas, patacones, and a panela drink (panela is a block of sugar). We also each seasoned and dressed our own whole fish!
And OMG it came out SO GOOD! I was eager to recreate this meal at home. Still waiting on the recipes from the host....Also, add rum to the panela drink to create what's called "afloja chocho." LOL look it up....
The food was so filling that we went back to the Airbnb for a nap and didn't get up until the next morning!
Day 5 - Cartagena Sign, Infinity Pool, and Shopping
I woke up bright and early around 5:30AM (I'm used to Eastern Standard Time) and relaxed on the balcony in the hammock with a book. Around 7:30, we took a 5-min walk to the nearby "Cartagena" sign for a photo op!
Then, we headed to a recommended breakfast spot in the Walled City, Epoca Cafe. It's a nice vibe with great food, but the service was SLOW! My coffee took like 20 mins to come - TWICE (because I re-ordered my honey oatmilk latte, minus the honey - too sweet the first time)!
Finally, we grabbed some last minute souvenirs and returned to the Airbnb to check out. With the one hour we had left, I checked out the amenities. Edificio Alta Mar promised a pool, hot tub, gym, steam room, and sauna! While I forgot to look for the steam room/sauna, the other amenities were dope!
Upon check-out, I was able to get my VAT form printed at the Ibis hotel next door, no questions asked about whether I actually stayed there! We arrived at the airport 2 hours early, I went to the DIAN desk to submit my VAT form (expecting ~$40 USD back for that emerald ring!), and filled out the Check-Mig form (this wasn't listed in the American Airlines app the way it was when we departed).
The airport is pretty small! There were two Duty-Free shops, a jewelry shop, a gift shop, a deli, and a low-key counter for baked goods (more arepas)! I picked up a couple of bottles of Ron Medellin, the same rum used in the panela drink at the cooking class, but they didn't supply a Duty-Free bag. So I had to purchase a cheap bottle of wine at Duty-Free so that they could bag all of my bottles, especially since I had a connecting flight! You don't want your bottles confiscated at the airport for not being in a Duty-Free bag!
My Top Recommendations
I listed a whole lot, so here is what I feel you should not miss!
Colombian Cooking Class
Brunch and Paint
Seven 7 Times
Local Foods to Try
Baked or fried white fish - like mojarra or red snapper
Coconut rice - Before coming to Cartagena, I'd only ever seen it white, but they make it brown, too!
Patacones - tostones for us, island folk!
Empanadas - not unique to Colombia, but every Latin American country's is different
Arepas - arepa con huevos (eggs) was new to me!
Ceviche - raw fish cured in citrus juices, one of my favorite dishes these days!
Lessons Learned and Things I Missed:
Sunset Cruise - We booked a sunset cruise on Viator and expected a smaller, more intimate catamaran. The start time was 5PM and we pulled up at 5:02 only to watch our SHIP inch away from the dock. Nowhere on Viator did it say to show up early, but the same tour on Airbnb Experience mentioned boarding starts at 4:30. There were plenty of other ships still looking for more passengers, but we declined.
Beach Day - As mentioned, I would avoid Tierra Bomba. I also heard many times that Playa Blanca is beautiful but crowded and full of rip-off vendors. If I could re-do, I would plan a full day tour of the Rosario Islands, which I hear are lovely with less crowds and a more luxurious feel than Tierra Bomba with turquoise waters and white sand.
City Tour - I would allot more time to explore the monuments like San Felipe Castle and the Monastery of La Popa either on my own or with a guide to learn the history. I could've spent less time in Getsemani since I went three times (once on my own, once with Rai, and once with the photographer).
Restaurants I wanted to try (all highly-rated):
El Bololo Bowls del Caribe
Baruco by Cuzco
Overall, I got a whole lot out of my trip to Cartagena! I'd like to think I walked away a better artist and cook, AND I have my birthstone from the best place to get it! For more pictures, see the photo album Vibrant Cartagena!
Have you ever been to Cartagena or Colombia? Please share your experience! And don't forget to subscribe below for emails when the next post is published on my next trip! Expect at least 3 more posts by the end of 2022 covering Miami Carnival, Cancun, and Napa Valley, CA!