Since returning from Cartagena, I have recommended it to countless people. I think it is perfect for travelers who want to visit somewhere exotic and international without taking a full week off work. For Joe and I, Cartagena was the perfect long weekend, we stayed in both Cartagena and Isla Baru, and truly felt we had enough time to see everything. (To be fair, some may consider 5 nights more than a long weekend, but hey it was president’s day, so we had a bonus day.. It would be fine for a 4 day trip too!) When I say Cartagena, I should say “Walled City of Cartagena” or “Cartagena Old Town.” There is a huge resort strip just southwest of the walled city that looked like Miami Beach. I think there is where more of the night life, clubbing atmosphere is, and we did not step foot near it. If you are looking for a more ritzy vacation with a day trip or two into the Old Town or to Isla Baru, this could be perfect for you!
If you visit elsewhere in Colombia before heading to Cartagena, they may tell you that Cartagena is touristy. But, the magical part of that, is that it’s touristy with other Colombians/South Americans/Central Americans who are on vacation, and hardly any Americans! I am just fine with hanging out with other people who are taking a break from reality , and to me Cartagena didn’t have any of the negative connotaions that come with the word “touristy” as long as I’m not surrounded by McDonalds, giant English speaking tour groups, and a thousand people just like me.
One thing that did help me a lot, that not all of my readers have, is a basic understanding of Spanish. Don’t get me wrong – if you don’t speak Spanish, please still visit Cartagena. I would just make sure you’ve done your research in advance – know where you want to visit, have some restaurants in mind that have English menus, and maybe don’t stumble upon Tierra Bomba alone (read more on that below in my hungerlust highlights!) If you don’t speak English, I would recommend a hotel over an Airbnb. Most hotels will have English speaking staff and will be able to give you recommendations, tips, and guidance that you can understand, the kinds of things we loosely translated from our Airbnb host upon check in!
The night life in Cartagena is amazing – dancing, small spots with live music, people dancing in the street. Although Joe and I are not clubbers, we walked past a handful of these as well, so the option is certainly there. I specifically remember lights cascading off club balconies in the Plaza Reloj. The daytime was equally amazing, just walking along the colorful streets, stopping for a few day drinks, browsing the various vendors, and exploring nearby areas like the Convento de Santa and the Castillo de San Philipe.
Hunger: Favorite meal
Wanderlust: Most picturesque location
Travel: Favorite activity
Hunger: Malagana Cafe Bar
We had this restaurant in the Getsemani neighborhood recommended to us a few times. It's very small, has a few tables on the ground level next to the kitchen, and about 5 tables on the 3rd floor rooftop. pictured here The rooftop gives you a birds eye view of the streets around you and was very quaint. Best for a relaxed dining experience when you are not in a hurry - since the restaurant is on multiple floors you have to be patient with the waitstaff! Would recommend for couples or small groups due to the limited number of tables. The rooftop was a beautiful intimate setting!
Note: photo is from restaurant management - I was too busy eating to capture one!
Wanderlust: Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría
This cathedral is the postcard image from Cartagena. Stunningly different whether you're looking at it in the day time or at night. The view of its spire across the town when it's lit up against the sky is breathtaking as you can see here! Luckily since it's taller than most of the Cartagena skyline it's pretty easy to capture a photo with it's spire in the background.
Travel: Mercado de Bazurto
Outside the touristy area of town, but an absolute must see. It's a fish/meat/fruit market utilized by the locals. We took a cab out here, and the driver was convinced we were trying to go to the tourist mall a few blocks down, since Bazurto is apparently not a place many tourists come. The market was authentic, bright, and bustling. I was a little glad we came here on our last day as the lack of refrigeration at this raw meat market was a bit unsettling!
Our big adventure was two days in Isla Baru. Joe and I basically never relax on vacations. However, whether you’d consider Isla Baru relaxing VERY much depends by person. For us, it was. Waking up, having no plans for the entire day, and knowing you’ll be going to sleep in the same bed that night is unheard of for us. (On vacation at least!)
First – what is Isla Baru? It is a peninsula (technically not an island…) about an hour’s drive south of Cartagena. It is very popular for day trippers from Cartagena – as such, it’s very crowded from 11am – 4pm or so. For this reason, we read if you wanted the true Isla Baru experience, you had to stay overnight. The beach is serene in the morning hours and during dinner, and the “night life” involves dancing barefoot in the sand with a handful of other people, drinking straight from a bottle of rum, and knowing your hut is a few steps away when you want to go to sleep.
But back to why others may not think it’s so relaxing – there is no running water! For drinking of course it’s only bottled water (we did this in Cartagena as well.) The hostels have freshwater delivered by the barrel, and usually at the nicer hostels you are allotted a barrel/day to “shower.” We were there for two nights but only one full day so we stuck to one “shower” our full day after we were done swimming for the day. It would be a little hard if you were a solo traveler. or traveling with platonic friends.. but you’d figure it out! Don’t worry, they give you a small scoop so you don’t have to list the whole container above your head!
Needles to say, since there’s no running water, there’s no A/C. However, we really did not have a problem with the heat. Make sure you stay in a room facing the water, as you’ll get breezes, and we were lucky enough to be provided with two fans. The electricity only runs during the night for the purpose of the fans and the lights (and if you need to charge a phone/camera) but it is a bit of a warm wakeup call in the morning when the fan turns off!
We stayed at the Hostal Parador Playa Blanca. While it was described as a “rip off” compared to some of the other hostels on the beach, it provided us a few things that we were VERY happy to pay an extra $20 for. We were able to reserve ahead of time, via WhatsApp. This ensured us an ocean-view room with a raised balcony, and being able to wake up to that view and sit outside truly made the experience. They even have an instagram. This is pretty drastic compared to some of the hostels which rely solely on foot traffic to book their rooms – most people show up with no reservations. It was also one of the only hostels on the beach that provided locks on the doors. Even though I only had 1 normal sized backpack, it would have taken away from my relaxation to have to worry about our possessions, since we didn’t normally take our electronics on the beach. Plus, I probably wouldn’t have slept a wink if I wasn’t able to lock us in at night. Oh by the way, when I say lock, I mean a padlock..! It really was an experience.
For anyone planning a trip, BRING CASH to Isla Baru. More than you need. Who wants to turn down something you want that costs $2 because you don’t have enough cash!?!? We were incredibly lucky to find 1 restaurant on the entire beach that took credit card, and ate there multiple times as a result.. I love talking about this trip (well… all my trips) so if you have any questions, please leave a comment below, send me an email, or a DM on Instagram and I will get back to you right away!
Isla Tierra Bomba
The most unique thing we did in Cartagena was accidentally a happy accident. We traveled back from Isla Baru by boat. This is fairly informal, you just walk up and down the beach until you see (well, hear) a boat with it’s driver shouting “Cartagena, Cartagena, Cartagena.” Naturally, we assumed this was a direct route, which was very wrong. About 45 minutes into the journey, we were dropped off at a dock on Tierra Bomba for a boat change. We gathered that the rest of tourists and ourselves would be picked up by another boat in 20/30 minutes. We made a brave move and decided to get out and explore after talking to a few other tourists who were in the waiting area.
A man who was hanging out at the boat dock saw we wanted to look around and offered to take us around and ended up giving us a tour. It was in Spanish, but he was good at elaborating with his hands! If you speak no Spanish though, this would not be a helpful option for you. We were in the Bocachica neighborhood (I believe there are 4 on the island) which had another cool fortress.
Walking around Tierra Bomba felt like what I imagine it would feel like to be dropped in the middle of Africa. The houses are very basic but it felt safe; people there seem happy and very proud of living on the island despite being poor. The vibe we got from our tour guide was truly not that he was a loiterer, looking for every tourist dollar he can scrape up (there were lots of people like this in Cartagena and Isla Baru.)
He truly felt like he wanted to enhance our experience on Tierra Bomba so we would encourage others to return. We felt horrible as we barely had any cash after being on Baru where there were no ATMs, but he did not seem upset by the amount of our tip. (it was more us feeling guilty and wishing we could have done more to help – but hopefully this blog post will bring someone else to the island!)
Anthony Bourdain also visited Tierra Bomb if you want to watch his episode before going (he goes to Colombia in 2 shows but Cartagena only in No Reservations, season 4 ep 12.)
We eventually returned to the port and got on a later boat to Cartagena, our original group had left by the time we returned. (If you do this in this manner, make sure you get confirmation from your original captains that they actually paid the ticket lady for the second leg of the journey, because we were asked to pay again!) You can also get boats to Tierra Bomba to and from Cartagena.