Cartagena, Colombia Travel Recommendations.
We just returned from 4 nights in Cartagena, Colombia and it was incredible. Like, wayyyy exceeded expectations. I will share the details on our favorite spots below- but the important point- one worth making “above the fold”, if you will- is this:
It is a shockingly easy travel destination that allows you to check 2 boxes: cultural city experience and beach relaxation (or revelry, your call).
The trip is especially if you are on the East Coast. A direct flight from JFK is only four and a half hours- and, there is no time difference! So, no jet lag. Which means from the moment you step out of the airport, your vacation can begin. Which is HUGE, right?! (Especially since, given the insane shopping to be done, there truly is not a minute to waste- check out some of my favorite boutiques in my Insta highlight story HERE.)
A little backstory to set the stage for this particular itinerary— we have a group of friends that we travel with often, and every couple of years in early November we do a big adults-only trip. Our last 2 trips involved chartering a catamaran around the British Virgin Islands- but , given recent hurricane damage, that template had to change this time around. So, when planning our 2018 getaway, we somehow settled on Cartagena. A place that I really knew nothing about. And, since other members of our crew had more knowledge of the destination and/or a natural flair for planning amazing travel experiences, a place I didn’t look into much before boarding the flight at 6am last Wednesday. (Hence I had no idea the flight would be so pleasantly short and the time change a non-issue! Fortunately I did find out from my friend who went a year ago around the same time that the weather is CRAZY hot- so I packed accordingly. But that was seriously the one piece of intel I had before zipping my suitcase and walking out the door.)
Cartagena feels like 2 places in one: The “Old Town” features narrow streets dotted with beautiful Spanish-Colonial architecture (and the most vibrantly colored doors and flowers) as enclosed on all sides by a charmingly weathered wall. Outside the walls, Bocagrande looks kind of like Miami from afar (when you get close, you see that many of the high-rise buildings which look shiny and new from afar, are actually stuck in half-built purgatory!). This is where you find chain hotels, lots of traffic and huge, modern shopping malls. We stayed inside the Old Town, but did venture outside the walls on a few occasions- and in both places, I always felt quite safe.
We stayed at Casa San Agustin, a beautiful boutique hotel inside the historic walled city, perfectly located near shops, restaurants and nightlife. It has a small pool smack in the middle, which is not heated but is always warm as a bathtub, and thanks to incredibly thick walls, you can sit on a lounge chair (preferably with one of their artisanal gin & tonic masterpieces in hand) and relax in peace and quiet, even though mere footsteps away the streets are boisterous and bustling.
Our days were split- Wednesday and Friday were spent in the city, walking around, enjoying long leisurely lunches (highly recommend La Cevicheria - I worried after being featured in many a travel magazine it would feel touristy but it totally didn’t!) and boosting the local economy with retail therapy (a perfect combo of trendy boutiques and souvenir stalls that could maybe feel annoying in other places but here, manage to have unique offerings and, thanks to a nice conversion rate, good prices).
On Thursday and Saturday, we ventured off-land in private chartered boats to two VERY different destinations (again, the theme of “best of both worlds” comes up- it really is the best way to describe my Cartagena experience!).
We spent Thursday at Isla Rosa in the Rosario Islands (you can learn more about the Rosario Islands in this Vogue article). Isla Rosa is likely the most instragrammable place that has ever existed (maybe second only to The Color Factory exhibit in NYC which I have yet to visit but feel like I have been a hundred times over via my Instagram feed!)- a bright pink house set smack in the middle of beautiful blue water- complete with hammocks, seating nooks topped with fluffy pillows in watercolor Ikat fabrics, and a full staff that set out a meal featuring the most delicious ceviche and then some.
On Saturday, we went to Cholon, which, in some article I read, was (accurately!) referred to as the “Lake Havasu of Colombia”. I am fairly sure that we were the only people in the vicinity with children- but, I gotta say, our crew shows well! Within minutes of dropping anchor we were boat hopping with the best of the bachelorette parties, swigging out of bottles and doing flips into the water. When lunchtime rolled around, we did as the locals do (there were VERY few Americans to be seen, this is definitely more of a Colombian twenty-something day trip destination it seems)- ate grilled shellfish and rice off a table brought out to us in waist-deep water- a very cool experience. Still not so sure what I thought of the aggressive in-water masseuses that provided neck and back massages while we ate, but…when in Cholon, right?
Other things that may be of interest should you plan a trip down there—-
Dinner Spots: We did seated dinners each night- usually around 9:30/10pm to allow downtime after the activities of the day for everyone to do their own thing (key in any grown up group trip, right?) Usually the guys had drinks while hanging in the pool, while the girls either joined in or took naps, checked in with the kids at home, or, in a very fun college throwback moment, relished in being able to get ready together and play around in one another’s closets and makeup bags (ah, the things we miss when we are married with children living in single family houses, right?!). My favorite meal was either at Carmen- which feels like it could have been in New York City in some ways, but the contemporary cuisine on the menu also had a decidedly local feel or at VERA, a spot tucked inside the Tcherassi hotel (another place to consider staying- stunning!) with insanely good Italian. We were 50/50 on the food quality at Don Juan, but all did agree that the vibe and decor of was perfection.
Shopping: OMG where to begin? This deserves its own post, but three boutiques that you MUST visit are Agua de Leon (it has a bar hidden in the back and the most gorgeous swimwear and jewelry selection), St. Dom and Casa Mulier. Click on over to my Instagram profile and check out the Cartagena highlight story for an inside peek at the shopping scene.
One week ago I couldn’t even point out Cartagena on a map. Now, I have morphed into an unofficial (and very outspoken) advocate for it’s tourism industry. If you have specific questions, feel free to drop a comment below or shoot me an email- happy to share more details, tips, highlights and yes, because there are always are in any trip, low points :)