In February we spent a few days in Cartagena, Colombia, famed for its colorful old city inside a fortress-like wall. February we discovered was summer, the dry season when the city receives the most tourists, driving prices up and making Cartagena Colombia’s most expensive city.
The buildings are undeniably photogenic but the walled city has been Disneyfied; it feels like one big playground for tourists. If you like that kind of experience, you’ll really enjoy it here. There’s no shortage of elegant restaurants, artisan boutiques, and high end fashion.
Though I loved taking early morning photos of all the colorful buildings in the walled city, I also felt quite disconnected from the local community. Cartagena is like two different universes inside and outside the wall.
But you can’t skip it, so here are a few tips for visiting.
Where to Stay
You can find many nice hotels inside the old city, hostels for backpackers in Getsemane, or Airbnbs in Manga, a residential neighborhood just a 20 minute walk from the old city. You can also find high rise apartments in Bocagrande, the Miami of Cartegena, but it’s a bit far from the old city for a short stay.
Young people seem to converge in Getsemane while retirees tend to stay inside the walled city.
Tip: Not all accommodations have hot water, so if you don’t want to take a cold shower, make sure you double check before booking.
Where to Eat
Eat in Getsemane, a lively boho neighborhood just outside the wall. The restaurants inside the old city are very refined but perhaps a bit boring; they all end up serving a piece of fish over a bed of potatoes.
The food in Getsemane is much more diverse, innovative, and affordable. A beer inside the wall costs 10,000 pesos but quickly drops to 3000 or 4000 just outside the wall.
If you’re vegetarian or just looking for healthy eats, try Café Stepping Stone in Getsemane – the Vietnamese bowl, carrot cake, and grilled banana bread are all really good.
What to Do
Visit the beautiful green and white house of Colombia’s former president, Rafael Núñez. Even though it’s free, we were the only ones visiting at the time. The original furnishings have been well preserved and take you back in time to the 19th century.
Get to the walled city early in the morning to beat the crowds and the heat. By 9am the vendors will have set up shop and the heat index will be ticking towards 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pay attention to the fanciful door knockers inside the walled city. A mermaid means the person living inside is involved in fishing, a lion means they’re in the military, and a lizard means they’re very wealthy.
Take a tip-based free walking tour to learn about the major sites inside the old city, but also explore the side streets on your own. You’ll find the most charming doorways and bursts of bougainvillea on these quieter, less crowded streets.
In the evening, enjoy the first lights blinking on as the air cools with the last light of day. As soon as it’s dark, you can catch a folk dance performance in one of the many squares in the old city or in front of the clock tower. Look for women in long white dresses. They put on a beautiful show depicting a traditional courtship.
Two or three days is enough to see Cartegena as a tourist. From there you can take a bus to Barranquilla or Santa Marta, two other cities along the Caribbean coast, or fly to Medellin, a must visit to understand Colombian history and to see the works of Fernando Botero, Colombia’s most famous artist.