Cartagena: “The Magic City”
Updated: Mar 27
The coastal breeze that sweeps through the old colonial city is instantly welcome by one and all, providing a brief respite to the stifling heat. Palenqueras sell fruit dressed head to toe in vivid colours of red, yellow and blue underneath the shadow of the old city walls standing proud in the Carribean sun. Old men sit together reminiscing on past glories whilst a street vendor sells cold, fresh limonada to tourists. Welcome to Cartagena, Colombia.
The first destination in my tour of South America, Cartagena is a beautiful city romanticised in the literary works of the famous Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. Located on the north Colombian coast and once one of the most important trading posts in the Spanish Americas, the city has been revitalised in recent years with the pastel-coloured hues of old colonial townhouses becoming a firm attraction for both domestic and international visitors. From the walls of the old town to the colourful murals lining the streets of the adjacent neighbourhood Getsemani, the city is awash with colour.
I spent four days in Cartagena - here are some of my favourite things during my time:
Take a free walking tour
I’d met Fillipe and Ignacio, two solo travellers from Brazil and Argentina respectively, at breakfast in the hostel that morning, when Fillipe mentioned he would be doing a Free Walking Tour that day. It was something I had in mind too, so we decided it would be good to go together.
Numerous tours can be found assembling throughout the day at Camellon de Los Martires; the plaza outside of the old town walls dedicated to the leaders of Cartegena’s independence from Spanish colonial rule. Beyond Colombia run numerous tours of the area and we opted for a two-hour walk around the artsy, bohemian district of Getsemaní. Our tour guide, Mercedes, assembled the group and began to explain what the tour would entail. Whilst it would no doubt encompass some of the wonderful murals on display throughout the neighbourhood, she also wanted to educate us on the history of the area and the socio-economic issues it’d experienced throughout its history. We began with a walk through the park adjacent to Camellon de Los Martires - Parque del Centenario. Here, Mercedes gave a very detailed insight into how Cartagena gained independence in the early 1800’s and how the figurehead statues on the Main Street leading into the old town commemorate the executed rebel leaders. She also taught us that the giant obelisk in the centre of the park is in memory of the independence movement and the eagle atop of the monument was a gift from the British upon gaining independence.
With the history lesson complete, we walked into Getsemani which is the fifth most visited neighbourhood in the world. Throughout the tour, we stopped to admire some truly breathtaking street art adorning the walls in this area of Cartagena. Without doubt one of my favourite streets was Calle de San Juan, home to an epic mural consisting of famous salsa singer Joe Arroyo and a sea turtle. According to Mercedes, the turtle is a nod to a legend that claims a giant, mythical sea turtle settled and became the shape of the island. There were some incredible murals on other streets too, including one consisting of three children dedicated to the continuing fight against child abuse. The moral and ethical messages behind the art are as prominent as the art itself.
Away from the art, there was also some time for a quick dance class, with Mercedes teaching the group how to dance to Champeta next to artwork of the Colombian music legend, Mr Black!
After completing the two-hour tour on the riverbanks opposite the castle, it was time to provide a tip. The recommended amount was 30,000 COP (£6.78). Worth it? I’d say so. For me, the information provided and the locations shown throughout the trip made it a fair price. If you want a tour awash with colour and education, mixed in with some fun, then it’s worth giving this a go.
Walk around the old city
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the walled city is a major tourist attraction with an increasing presence on more and more cruise ship itineraries. That doesn’t mean you should avoid it though, it really is beautiful. Whether you’re exploring the streets lined with old colonial houses, discovering bustling plaza’s or walking along the famous city walls, there’s plenty to do and see.
One of my favourite locations was Catedral de Cartagena - the outstanding cathedral at the heart of the old town. With huge, wide-arch doors, yellow exterior and a stunning clock tower, it is a beautiful building. Walk in for free and admire the reverence inside the basilica, as locals pray in silence and visitors respectfully take pictures of the intricate interior.
If you want a break from the hustle-and-bustle of the street vendors, tourists and taxis, retreat to the city walls for a gentle stroll around the exterior. Watch the waves lash against the shore, occasionally spraying the passing cars and find yourself at Cafe del Mar, a popular spot to watch the sunset at dusk. The walls played an integral part in the defence of the city during the days of the Spanish empire in the Latin America’s, holding off attacks from the likes of the British Navy in the process. Keep an eye out for the little culverts likely used for cannons or other artillery; I noted multiple people relaxing inside these to escape the sun. They’d also be a great spot to watch the sun set if you want to avoid the crowds and prices at Cafe del Mar; grab some beers and some snacks to make a picnic instead!
The walls also offer a great spot to look over into modern Cartagena - a sprawl of high-rise skyscrapers along the coastline that very much remind me of my time visiting Miami.
Getsemani was my favourite location in the city. As described above, it really is a unique neighbourhood home to some of the most colourful, beautiful streets I’ve ever seen. The graffiti murals splashed across the neighbourhood are true works of art, complimenting the pastel-coloured hues of the local houses.
Plaza de Trinidad is a hive of activity with some great restaurants within the vicinity - check out Chàchara for some excellent food. I loved it so much, I ate there twice! Pizza Getsemani also make, you guessed it, a wonderful pizza. The restaurant was packed full of locals as we enjoyed a highly entertaining game live on television between Colombia and Uruguay - however there wasn’t much cause for cheer amongst the home crowd with Uruguay running out 3-1 winners on the night.
I’d also recommend eating at Espiritu Santo in the area, which was opposite the accommodation I used for the duration of my stay - Life is Good hostel. You always know a restaurant is good when there’s plenty of locals eating there and Espiritu Santo is no different. The grilled chicken, fried plantain and coconut rice were simply incredible whilst the staff were very friendly. This was another restaurant I visited twice.
Eat street food at Colombitalia
It’s Friday night. An electric atmosphere fills the streets of Getsemani as Colombians celebrate the end of the working week and travellers socialise. As you turn the corner into Carrera 10 in Getsemani, there’s a delicious aroma of street food wafting into the air. Colombitalia are doing a roaring trade. Three waitresses take orders as multiple chefs cook arepa’s in their tiny, box-like kitchen. Customers line the curbs eating their arepas or patiently wait for their order to be fulfilled. It’s one of the main attractions on the street, with passers-by stopping to see what all the fuss is about.
The food here was very good. I had a mixed meat arepa for $10,000 COP and it was one of the best things I ate throughout my time in Cartagena. If tasting this wonderful Colombian dish and watching the wonderful array of characters passing by wasn’t enough, an amazing street dance act came out of nowhere to put on a jaw-dropping performance. Flipping and tumbling through the air, the show of sheer athleticism was thoroughly impressive. I particularly recall one of the dancers doing a one-armed handstand and hopping about for what must have been 30 seconds. Incredible.
Visit Casa en el Agua
Ever wanted to get off-grid for a couple of days away from the internet, texting and all other forms of modern technological distraction? How about throwing carribean sun and sea into the mix? Then Casa en el Agua is the place for you.
Based just off the island of Tintipan in San Bernardino National Park, this eco-hostel can be reached via a two-hour speedboat ride from Cartagena. There’s a thoroughly sociable, friendly vibe so it’s a great place to meet new people.
I’ll be writing a full article on Casa en el Agua in due course.
Visit Playa Blanca on Barú Island
We’d managed to assemble a four-man squad from the hostel and decided a day on the beach was in order. We’d all heard about Playa Blanca and made it our destination of choice. On our way into town, we found a tour with La Benedicion de dias offering transport to and from Playa Blanca, as well as lunch, for $40,000 COP each. We were originally told the bus was departing at 09:00am but, in classic Colombian fashion, it didn’t leave until 10:00am as it waited to entice more customers. After battling through some heavy Cartagena traffic, we finally made it to the beach.
If you’re looking for a quiet, secluded beach then Playa Blanca isn’t for you. However, it is beautiful. As a location, I must say it’s like no other beach I’ve ever been to before. Tightly-packed wooden hostels and bars two-tiers high hug the beachfront as they back onto thick forest and mangroves behind. Be aware that there’s no free space to set your towel down for the day; you’re going to need to rent a sun bed. After negotiating a price upfront with a bar owner, the four of us settled down for an afternoon of relaxation and a few beers. Emerald-green Carribean waters lap the white sand as vendors pass by selling their wares.
As ever, I want to highlight the negatives of a location as well as the positives. Truth be told, although it’s a beautiful, relaxing location with good people, I’d never get complacent about leaving valuables on show. We were warned not to do so by the tour operator and I did get the vibe that there could be opportunists in the area. I’d also be careful of getting overcharged for beds and drinks. The people we used (who were independent from the tour) tried to charge us 34% tip. Thankfully we’d been sensible in writing down every drink we’d purchased and the agreed bed price - the owner actually looked a bit embarrassed and ashamed when this was questioned and told we’d pay a maximum of 20%! Therefore, be prudent about recording everything that should be on your bill.
For those travellers who’d want to stay the night, I have mixed thoughts on what that would be like. Whilst it would be awesome to wake up in the tree house-style wooden hostels to the sound of the sea lapping against the shoreline, I’m not entirely sure how secure your most important valuables such as your passport, cash etc would be. I’d come for a night or two but if you’re able to, leave the backpack and any valuables in a secure hostel storage facility back in Cartagena. For peace of mind more than anything.
One benefit to staying at a hostel on Playa Blanca would be that you’d have the beach to yourself early in the morning and late afternoon. By 16:30, day trippers such as ourselves on organised tours were starting to depart, leaving the beach substantially quieter than when we arrived. I can imagine it’d be wonderful to lie there in the late afternoon sun as the beach quietens down before enjoying the beautiful sunset.
One quick tip - purchase plenty of water/snacks etc before you leave Cartagena as it’s a lot more expensive at the beach.
Cartagena is a beautiful city with great people, buildings and food. Whether, like me, it’ll serve as the opening destination at the beginning of your trip or be the final act in your epic adventure, it’s well worth your time.
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