My dear friend, Veronica, got married in Cartagena in August 2019. Although it was towards the end of my clinical year (read: I was studying like a mad woman and scrambling to get all of my hours in), I was determined to make an extended trip happen. Cartagena had been high up on my must-see destinations for a while, and there was no way that I was going to miss out on the opportunity. Veronica and Dax were gracious enough to give me a plus-one, so I brought one of my favorite travel buddies, Miller, along for the ride.
There is no such thing as a perfect travel destination, but Cartagena is pretty damn close. My only complaints are the haggling street vendors and the unbearable humidity. However, dealing with both is relatively simple. Regarding the hagglers, just smile and keep on trucking. In terms of the humidity, if you have a little more control over when you plan your trip, December through April are said to be the best months to visit; the temperature tends to be around the mid-80s year-round, but you’ll experience much less humidity during this time.
With those two relatively minor issues spoken for, let’s focus on the countless positives that this incredible city has to offer. For starters, Cartagena couldn’t be more picturesque. Between its vibrant buildings, stunning colonial architecture, and impressive street art, I had so much fun photographing this city. It is, to date, one of my favorite destinations that I’ve photographed.
I also tend to determine the quality of a destination by its natives. Well, the people of Cartagena are absolutely lovely. I’ll be honest: being a popular tourist destination only in recent years, English is not commonly spoken here. Although my Spanish-speaking skills have worn thin since high school, it was fortunately just enough to get by. The phrase “¿Cómo se dice?” was used more than I care to admit. Still, rather than make me feel bad for making a very poor attempt at the Spanish language, Colombians were both patient and kind as I worked my way through what I was trying to express.
Another thing that I loved is how walkable Cartagena is. We caught a taxi only one time outside of getting to and from the airport. To add to the city’s walkability, the location of our Airbnb couldn’t have been better. We booked with Rafael, who offers several suites in the heart of Cartagena’s Old City (also referred to as the Walled City). The link to the specific suite that we stayed in can be found here. Miller and I had an ongoing joke that everything was a five-minute walk from our Airbnb. But seriously! Every time we mapped out our next destination it was only a short walk away. In addition to its incredible location, our Airbnb was ridiculously affordable at roughly $500 total for the entire week. Also of importance, communication with our host was top-notch, and the suite itself was both modern and clean.
What blew me away the most about Cartagena is its insane food and cocktail scene. From its street food to its fine dining establishments, there is very little room for disappointment. Fresh seafood and craft cocktails are the name of the game, and what’s not to love about that?!? As the price of our Airbnb indicates, the USD is very, very strong in Colombia. I highly encourage you to use that opportunity to eat like royalty while you’re there.
Being that Cartagena is a city situated on the Caribbean Sea, you would think that there would be picture-perfect beaches everywhere, right? Wrong! While there are plenty of beautiful beaches to be seen while visiting Cartagena, you have to be strategic about how you’re going to get to them. The only beaches located in Cartagena proper can be found in the Bocagrande neighborhood, known for its casinos, upscale shopping mall, and modern high-rises. Its beaches are public, meaning that they are packed and full of those haggling vendors I mentioned. Sorry, but that is not the vibe that I’m after while on vacation.
With all of that being said, for roughly $50 a day, you can have a boat take you to and from a nearby, private beach of your choosing, and the options are aplenty. Often, a welcome cocktail and fresh-caught lunch is included in that price. When we were trying to decide which beaches to visit, we found this overview to be extremely helpful. Booking in advance is an absolute must, and the Cartagena Connections team made that a seamless process for us. Miller and I ended up visiting three beach clubs on three different islands. If I were to recommend one, Blue Apple Beach Club would be the winner, hands down. More details to come on why.
Now, with that not-so-brief overview out of the way, let’s dive into a daily recap.
We landed in Cartegena in the early afternoon. After a 15-minute taxi ride to our Airbnb, we checked in and B-lined it to Epoca. While we had every intention of getting a good ol’ cup of joe, the menu’s coffee-infused mojitos seemed like the proper choice given our combined jet lag and excitement to be there. Epoca’s overall vibe is awesome. It showcases Colombian coffee in an exquisite way, with a stunning interior and friendly baristas to boot. You can’t ask for much else in a café.
After a pick-me-up, we headed back to our Airbnb to get ready for welcome cocktails at El Coro Lounge Bar, located in Sofitel Legend Santa Clara. This 17th century convent turned luxury, five-star hotel is strikingly beautiful. Although the bar itself is very cool, it leads to the hotel’s breathtaking central courtyard and gardens. This is where we enjoyed most of our cocktails and caught up with the bride and groom.
Afterward, we had an epic dinner at Carmen. Between it being our first night in the city and having a difficult time narrowing down which menu items we wanted to try, we treated ourselves to the eight-course tasting menu. Each and every item was beautifully executed and unique, while at the same time incorporating local ingredients and complex flavors. It was at Carmen that the we realized just how incredible Cartagena’s craft cocktail scene is. In fact, I had sipped on two drinks so delicious that I made a note of their names. La Vie En Rose features vodka, rose and cucumber syrup, rosemary liqueur, lime, grapefruit, and cardamom bitters, and the Pepino Vesper features cucumber infused gin, vodka, macerated cilantro, and lime. Yum!
We started our day with a street art tour, also booked through Cartagena Connections. I can’t recommend this tour enough! Because this tour takes place in Getsemani, a less touristy neighborhood outside of the Old City, it was helpful to have a guide. She not only led us to some of Cartagena’s most famous murals, but also shed light on the history, politics, and culture behind them. Mid-tour, we stopped for corozo (palm fruit) popsicles to help us cool off.
After our tour, we headed back to the city center and met up with some friends who had arrived that morning. We decided to have lunch at La Cevichería, a ceviche restaurant made famous by Anthony Bourdain. Appropriately enough, there are no reservations taken at this restaurant. (See what I did there?!?) Despite that, our wait wasn’t terribly long, and even if it had been, it would have been well worth it. The ceviche was both fresh and delicious, though there are other menu options to choose from.
Later that night, we went to Café San Pedro for Veronica and Dax’s rehearsal dinner. The restaurant is located in an architecturally stunning building situated in Plaza San Pedro Claver. The dinner took place on the restaurant’s rooftop, which offered incredible views of La Iglesia de San Pedro Claver. The church looked particularly stunning while lit up at night. Both the company and the countless mojitos that we enjoyed made for a very fun rehearsal dinner.
Miller and I started our day with coffee and breakfast at Epoca. Yup, one visit simply wasn’t enough for us. Unfortunately, the need to do school work didn’t disappear just because I was on vacation. With that being the case, I stuck around to study for and take a quiz while Miller ventured off to do some shopping.
Before we knew it, it was time to get ready for Veronica and Dax’s big day! The ceremony was held at Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de Santa Catalina de Alejandría, the main cathedral of Cartagena. As you can imagine, both the cathedral and the ceremony were mesmerizing. After a quick wardrobe change, we made a repeat appearance at Sofitel Legend Santa Clara for the reception, which was exceptionally beautiful. Cocktail hour took place on the terrace – complete with an ocean view – at which time the bride and groom wowed us by walking out to fireworks. A bit later, we headed to the exquisite Santa Clara Ballroom for the remainder of the reception. From the food, to the band, to the salsa dancers, every single detail was perfection.
The following morning, a large group of wedding attendees made our way to Marina Santacruz to catch a boat to Blue Apple Beach House. In the beginning of this post I mentioned that we needed to take a taxi only once, and this was that instance. The dock is simply too far to walk to. Because Blue Apple is located on Tierra Bomba, the island closest to Cartagena, a short and sweet boat ride gets you there in about 20 minutes. In fact, a boat ride is the only way to get there. When we arrived, we were led to cabanas by the pool, which overlooked the club’s private beach, Playa Mamon. Both the food and cocktails were excellent and far more elevated than what I was expecting from a beach club. Blue Apple’s proximity to Cartagena and overall luxe vibe are what made this my favorite beach club that we visited.
After freshening up, Miller and I met back up with the group for dinner at La Vitrola. I’m going to be blunt here: this restaurant comes highly recommended on countless travel blogs and I have no idea why. The service, food, and cocktails were mediocre at best. In fact, its only saving grace was the live Cuban music playing in the background. Regardless, it was lovely to have a farewell dinner with everyone before they headed to the airport the following morning.
Miller and I woke up bright and early to check out another beach club. This time we went to Islabela, located on a tiny island called Isleta. Isleta is one of the Rosario Islands, which are part of Corales del Rosario National Park. The Rosario Islands are known for their crystal clear waters and are considered a must-see when visiting Cartagena. Like Blue Apple, the only way to get to Islabela is by boat. However, the dock for this particular boat was an easy walk from our Airbnb. Unlike Blue Apple, the boat ride is not short and sweet. In fact, it took us about an hour to get there, and the ride was rough and choppy. That aside, I still think Islabela is worth a visit. Out of the three beach clubs that we experienced, this one was the most remote and by far the most chill. Outside of transportation, our day pass included a cabana, a welcome cocktail, and fresh-caught lunch. We paid a little bit extra for a snorkeling excursion, and it was worth every penny! Prior to that, I hadn’t snorkeled since middle school and forgot just how magical and meditative it can be.
That night, we had dinner at Lobo de Mar. Our experience here quickly made up for our disappointing dinner the night prior. Although considered a seafood restaurant, the menu is eclectic and fun, offering something for just about everyone. In true fashion, Miller and I wanted to try everything, so we ordered tapas style. Luckily, many items on the menu are offered as small plates, so it’s easy to order that way. Also worth noting are Lobo de Mar’s imaginative cocktails, funky decor, and charming service.
After dinner, we had a couple of cocktails at Alquímico. This drink spot has earned itself quite the reputation in Cartagena, and for good reason. Despite it being a Monday, the place was packed. Even so, we were lucky enough to snag a table alongside the upstairs balcony, allowing us to observe the lively crowd from above. When we arrived, we learned that its rooftop is open on Fridays and Saturdays only, but this view was a close second. The overall atmosphere of this elegant, multi-level bar is unmatched: the cocktails, made with house-infused liquor, were unique and delicious; the upbeat energy of its patrons was contagious; and last, but certainly not least, the music was on point.
We started our final day in Cartagena with a visit to yet another beach club. This time, we went to Nena Beach Club, located on Playa Blanca on Isla Baru. Unlike most of the other beaches outside of Cartagena, Playa Blanca is accessible by either land or sea. Still, we opted to get there by boat as the dock for this departure was walkable from our Airbnb. Aside from transportation to and from, included in our day pass was a cabana, a welcome cocktail, and fresh-caught lunch. As the name indicates, Playa Blanca is known for its beautiful white sand beaches. Although beautiful, this was my least favorite beach club that we visited. Despite being a private establishment, the beach itself is not. As such, we dealt with unanticipated crowds and were relentlessly haggled by vendors.
Later, we had sunset cocktails at Café del Mar. Situated atop the Old City’s historic walls and overlooking the Caribbean Sea, this drink spot is something special. The ocean breeze and ambient lounge music added to the café’s already cool vibe. While these cocktails were the least impressive and the most expensive out of the many that we enjoyed while in Cartagena, everything else that this place has to offer makes up for those things.
After sunset, we headed to an incredible cocktail bar called El Baron. This place is an absolute must! I made a note of three cocktails that blew me away: the Gin Basil Smash, the Cucumis Sour, and the Rosarito. Peep the details of these works of art here.
For our final dinner in Cartagena, we headed back to Getsemani to check out Celele. Speaking of works of art, this restaurant’s dishes are that in culinary form. Seriously, look at the photos on Celele’s website and prepare to have your mind blown! In addition to being visually stunning, the dishes that we enjoyed were tasty and highlighted the ingredients and flavors of the region in an extremely elevated way.
Phew! That was perhaps my longest blog post ever, y’all. However, with it being one of my favorite trips to date, I couldn’t help but share every detail. If you’ve been itching to go to Cartagena, get yourself there ASAP! (Like, when it’s deemed safe to travel post-COVID.) I assure you, your wandering heart will thank you for it.