Time moves slower in Cartagena. The sun starts bearing down on you in glorious fashion by 10am, and would almost be unbearable if the city's streets weren't so beautiful. Each day can be filled with leisurely strolls around the walled city, boat trips to neighboring islands, or sampling the street food from the brightly colored food carts dotting the streets. I spent 4 days here, and it easily felt like 2 weeks. But I was never bored! Here are some of my trip highlights that I highly recommend you add to your Cartagena itinerary. Visiting this city should be considered a mandatory activity.
My crew and I spent plenty of time wandering the streets aimlessly, stopping to sample arepas or fresh fruit or pose for selfies among the countless brightly colored walls. Every turn we stumbled upon something striking, either a gorgeous street with bold purple flowers spilling from every balcony or a sprawling, stunning plaza. You may have an itinerary of set things you want to see, but be sure to leave room to discover.
Plan to shop, but not in markets
While there are hundreds of vendors selling crafts on the streets, I was most impressed by the stuff I saw in boutiques. Everything from swimwear to high end costume jewelry to jarred salsa, and of course coffee was begging for room in my suitcase. There are even amazing galleries with work from talented artists that can easily unstretch a canvas for you to bring a piece home. If you really want to bring back souvenirs that impress avoid the knick knacks and go for food, fashion or art.
Sample street food and fine dining
My food experience was hit or miss, but the best meals were at buzzy, fine dining establishments, home made or off the street. Everything mid tier was kind of meh. Have one splurgy meal at a place with a leading chef. And if you are staying in a house or villa like we did, consider hiring a chef. The woman who cleaned the house made a fabulous breakfast daily, with arepas, tostones, eggs, sausage, fruit and fresh squeezed juice. We also bought in Chef Maria Delgado from Caffe Lunatico for a cooking class and private dinner for my birthday. Those meals were the most memorable along, with the insane street cart empanadas.
If you want to rent a boat, private is the way to go
I was lucky enough to be traveling with a group of 8 so renting our own boat was actually half the cost of the group tours, per person. And we had unlimited freedom over the stops we wanted to make, how long we stayed at each, and very important things like bringing on your own booze and music on board. However even if it's only 3 or 4 of you it's still worth considering - tours averaged $175 to $200 each but boats can be rented for as little as $500-600 per day.
Go to El Totumo
Its touristy, messy, slightly smelly, and downright weird, but was still one of the highlights of my trip. The experience is really like no other and a great way to bond with your travel buddies as you slosh around like sea creatures.
If you've been to Cartagena, let me know what I missed or left out of this post! And if it's not already a destination on your list, make sure you add it! If you are thinking about customizing a Cartagena itinerary or one for another destination, get in touch!