I think there are some places in the world that you just don’t really connect with, and for us, Cartagena is one of those places. It is a beautiful city and a lovely introduction to Colombia, but despite a pretty great week there, we just didn’t love it.
Arrival in Cartagena
When we chose Medellin for our second half of this leg, we knew we wanted to see at least one other Colombian city and Cartagena seemed like a great choice with its history, unique culture and the beach. Of course, we’d just spent 7 weeks at the most beautiful beaches in Mexico.
We arrived in Cartagena from Florida after squeezing a in quick two-day trip to see Chad’s folks. We found a taxi and had our first experience of the crazy Cartagena traffic and of the difficulty negotiating Cartagena taxi rates. The driver wanted to be paid in US cash and more than what we’d heard a ride from the airport would cost (about $10). But he got us to our building in the El Laguito neighborhood where the best beaches are and we got checked in. Our apartment was nice (though pricey) and had a bit of a view to the sea. But, if I were doing Cartagena over again, I think we would stay in the Getsemaní neighborhood closer to the walled city.
One of the reasons we chose Cartagena is because we really enjoy walled cities (Carcassonne, France, and Campeche, Mexico, are two great examples). The walls somehow make a city center feel extra-historic and charming, and this is certainly the case in Cartagena. We enjoyed walking the city walls and seeing the distinctive colonial architecture within the historic district. It all felt pretty tourist-y but was generally very nice, especially in the evening. Another reason we might have been better off situating ourselves closer to this part of Cartagena. It was about an hour walk up from our neighborhood to the city walls and we always wanted a taxi home, which meant a negotiation (no Uber in Cartagena when we were there).
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
This former castle and fort is a bit out from the historic walls, but not a bad walk from there. I think the fort was our favorite sight in Cartagena, at least it was mine. It was fun to explore and they had a very well-done animated video that explained its significance in a fascinating way. It also had a lovely view out over the city and tunnels to wander through out of the sun.
Near the fort is a statue of big shoes (called The Old Shoes) that people like to photograph in Cartagena. They were certainly big and gold.
We didn’t try to swim on the beach but did enjoy a couple of walks along it from our neighborhood up to Bocagrande. Honestly, it looked a bit dirty compared to our lovely Mexican beaches and was certainly crowded. And, as I’ve said in other posts, we were a bit beached-out by this point after seven weeks in PE, so we didn’t feel like we were missing anything skipping a day at the beach in Cartagena. They also have islands with beaches nearby that are supposed to be nice, but kind of pricey to get to.
We did eat lovely fresh seafood during our time in Cartagena, as well as one of the local specialties, posta negra (a beef in a mole-like sauce that is apparently made with Coca-Cola). We also had some fun cocktails out. Prices were on the high side, especially within the city walls, but we successfully found some affordable healthy meals, as well as cooked in our Airbnb. There was a Carulla grocery store nearby, which is the same brand we later patronized in Medellin. Groceries too were higher in Cartagena than in Mexico (and we were relieved in Medellin to find that it was Cartagena pricing, not Colombia pricing). Again, I think this is all a function of being a more tourist-based city.
I’m glad we visited Cartagena, since we were both very curious about it, and overall we enjoyed our week there, but we definitely didn’t love it. There were charming parts and definitely great history, but on the whole we weren’t able to have the same ease and quality of life as other places. I’d consider it for a night or two as part of a wider Colombian itinerary (it is also a cruise port, so could be a good day excursion for a South American cruise), but we both felt a week was a bit too much. However, Cartagena provided further clarification for us on what our needs and values are for travel, and I can’t regret the time we spent there.
We stayed for a week and were very comfortable in the space. Love the modern furnishings. Although it is technically a studio, the bedroom area feels separate, which is nice. There are manyf great restaurants nearby and the kitchen is well-equipped for cooking simple meals. All the taxi drivers knew the building by name so it was always easy to navigate back from the centro historico. We even walked to the centro a couple of times and it took less than an hour and was very pleasant. The wifi worked well the whole week we were there except one morning for about 20 minutes. This building like several others in this neighborhood puts a plastic wristband on you for your stay (I guess for security). This seemed to be very common, but my husband didn’t like it. Just good to be aware of before you begin your stay. The building staff was very friendly and nice and the pool was well cared for.
Here is a link for photos of our apartment: