Oozing history, romance and sun-drenched beaches, the allure of historical Cartagena is hard to resist. Inside El Centro in Cartagena, visitors are surrounded by pastel-colored buildings, flower-clad balconies and vibrantly dressed palenqueras balancing bowls of fruit on their heads.
Combine that with the scorching heat, and Cartagena feels more like a Caribbean island. And once you step off the plane onto the searing tarmac, you will think you’ve escaped to a different country.
But you haven’t. And that is the main appeal of a short break to Cartagena from Medellín. You can experience all the delights of island life, with just a short one-hour domestic flight from José María Córdova International Airport. And with inexpensive domestic flights available from Medellín, it would be a sin not to venture there.
This detailed itinerary maps out a perfect three-day getaway. From getting to know the history of La Heroica (as Cartagena is also affectionately called) to providing you with the detail on where to find the city’s best gastronomic offerings.
Here is everything you need to know to enjoy your time in Cartagena de Indias.
Saturday – Day 1: Historical Cartagena
8:40 am: Catch Your Flight from José María Córdova International Airport
I know it’s an early start, as your taxi will probably need to pick you up around 6.30 am or even earlier, but you’ll have plenty of time to laze by the beach and do nothing on Day 2. You can catch up on your sleep then.
9:44 am: Land in Cartagena
Yes, the flight is THAT short! If you travel with just a carry-on, you can be seated in your taxi whizzing into the Old City by 9.50am. (Top Tip: get a taxi ticket from the counter outside baggage claim before you get a taxi. Tell the seller your destination and he’ll give you a receipt with the price you should pay. Expect to pay around 13,000 COP)
10:15 am: Check into your Hotel
There are extensive hotel and other lodging options in Cartagena. There are literally hundreds of options since Cartagena is a popular tourist location. Here are three recommendations for you:
Budget: I’m always up for a bit of flash-packing when I travel on my own. Stay in a cheap hostel overnight and splash out on a fancy dinner. There are dozens of hostels in Cartagena.
But the top-ranked one on Hostel World is Be Lounge Hostel. Located in the Old City, this charming, two-story hostel is set in a 400-year old colonial house. The vintage, yet sophisticated decoration, provides a hint of glamour. Located on Calle de la Mantilla, it is right in the heart of the action only a few meters from Plaza de Santo Domingo. (Average price $15 USD per night including breakfast.)
Mid-range: If you are traveling with someone, often a better value is to rent an Airbnb apartment. Again, lots of options abound in Cartagena. After, my first night at the hostel, I moved over to Old City Oasis.
It is technically on Airbnb, but with five ensuite rooms rented out separately and a ‘do-it’ yourself included breakfast, it is more like a traditional BnB. Ask for Room 3 and you’ll have your own french doors to the plunge pool.
Old City Oasis has latched on to a flamingo theme and hot pink flamingos with turquoise accented feathers adorned each white wall. The caretaker Beth is a gem and will also help you arrange day trips and a driver. (Average price $55 USD per night including breakfast.)
High end: If you are celebrating, or trying to woo that special someone, then definitely look into staying at one of the many boutique hotels dotted around the city. One of the nicer properties I explored was the Anandá Hotel Boutique.
Anandá is an ancient Sanskrit word that represents the maximum state of happiness a soul can reach. A stay at this luxurious boutique hotel is sure to help you get there!
This 16th century mansion exudes all the colonial charm that you would expect in Cartagena, from a central courtyard, to wrap around interior balconies to a roof-top pool and even a jacuzzi on the terrace. The only problem is you might not want to leave! (Average price $250 USD per night)
10:45 am – Sip a Coffee
You got up early; you deserve a coffee. Besides with only the the Starbuck’s of Colombia – Juan Valdez – on offer at the Domestic Terminal in Medellin, you are probably dying for a proper cuppa by now. I got you covered.
Head to La Presentación, Casa Museo Arte y Cultura. This free modern art gallery has an excellent coffee shop tucked off in its right-hand corner. Order a caffeinated beverage of your choice, peruse a map to get your bearings, then whizz around the small, but excellent display of Colombian artists. (Calle Estanco Del Aguardiente No. 5-63)
12:00 pm – Haggle for a Wayuú Bag
Nearby, on the opposite corner of Parque de Bolivar, are many sellers offering their wares. Don’t miss picking up one of Colombia’s most iconic products – a Wayuú bag. Made by indigenous communities of the La Guajira province, their bright neon colored intricate designs are sure to catch your eye.
12:30 pm – Devour some Lunch
I won’t lie. A trip to Cartagena is largely about eating, drinking and soaking up the ambience. Besides, after your early start, you’ll probably be ravenous by now. I was!
The casual cafe Pezetarian offers the perfect fresh, healthy menu to balance out the heat and humidity. Based on a pescatarian diet, diners can find a variety of sushi (prepared as a roll or in a bowl), ceviches, salads, and wok-style rices. I also highly recommend the Sangria Blanca. You are on holiday after all! (Calle 2A de Badillio # 36-19)
1:30 pm – Hail a Cab to Cartagena’s Imposing Fort
Just outside the old City Walls is the imposing fort of Castillo San Felipe De Barajas. Built by the Spanish to defend the city from enemy attacks, it stands as the largest fortress built in America by the Spanish Empire.
From the top, you can take in eye-popping, panoramic views of the city. With the sweep of your eye, you’ll notice the ‘little Miami’ modern high-rise condos to soaring crosses of historic churches. Head underground and you can visit the labyrinth of dark tunnels snaking underneath the seven batteries of the complex.
Top Tip: Skip the purchase of an audio guide and opt for an in person English Tour Guide instead. Just inside the complex are guides like Arturo Corpus (pictured above) who can take you on a captivating personal history tour of the fort for about the same price (40,000 COP).
3:30 pm – Cool Down with a Popsicle
Did I mention that Cartagena was hot and humid? For those of us used to the lovely Springtime temperatures of Medellín, it can get a bit much. So, after sweltering in the sun, I recommend a cab back to the Old City and a refreshing ice cream in some air conditioning.
One of the best places to grab a helado is La Paletteria. Hailed in Trip Advisor as the Best Popsicles in Cartagena. I can highly recommend the Bailey’s option. For more tropical lovers there is coconut and mango too! (From 5,500COP.) (Calle de Ayos # 03-86)
4:30 pm – Get Your Bearings with a Free City Walking Tour
I’m a big fan of city walking tours. They provide a quick overview of a new city, help you get your bearings, and is a great way to identify some spots you want to explore later.
The Spanish guide on the The Free Walking Tour Cartagena will lead you on a historical overview of the main sights and places of the Old City. It takes around two hours, so do wear some comfortable shoes!
7:30 pm – Chill Out with a Cocktail
You’ll probably want to head back to your hotel after the walking tour for a refreshing shower, but afterwards, head back out on the town. First stop. Cocktails, of course!
My favorite swanky bar in the Old City was Alquímico. The ambience feels as if you stepped back into the 1920s. And their experimental cocktails are made from the infused liqueurs you can find fermenting in oversized glass jars lining the shelves around the room. (Calle del Colegio # 34-24).
8:30 pm – Venture to Bohemian Gestemaní for Dinner
Cab or walk (via the clock tower) to bohemian Gestemaní for dinner at Demente. This rustic and laid-back restaurant – with rocking chairs for seats – offers divine tapas. Arguably, the best food that I ate in Cartagena.
Opt for the scrumptious crab dumplings, short rib bun, and a side of balsamic and parmesan dashed zucchini. Finish off your meal with a Caribbean traditional dessert of coconut pie and vanilla ice cream. Pure gastronomic heaven. (Plaza de la Trinidad Getsemaní).
10:30 pm – Put On Your Dancing Shoes
Nearby to Demente is the hottest salsa bar in town – Cafe Havana. If you still have some energy left, stop by. There’s a live band at 11pm and you can get your grove on until 3.30am. (25,000COP Cover Charge). (Corner of Calle De La Media Luna and Calle Del Guerrero)
Sunday – Day 2: Romantic Cartagena
7:30 am – Indulge in Sunday Brunch
If you aren’t a big fan of hotel breakfasts like me, then head to Prisprí. This vintage style cafe is also about the only place in town open on an early Sunday morning. (More details soon on why we are up again so early!)
They offer a small breakfast selection of eggs and pastries. Opt for the Prisprí, a dish of ham, corn, spinach, tomatoes, and cheese scrambled eggs served in a cast iron pot with a side of corn cakes and a slice of cheese. For a sugar rush, wash it down with the local torombolo y yerbabuena. Water, Panela sugar, with lime juice, start fruit and spearmint. (Calle del Landrinal with corner Calle Vélez Danies, diagonal to Parque de Bolivar).
10:00 am – Jet off to the Beach
Today is all about chilling out on the Caribbean beach. It is Sunday after all!
Blue Apple Beach House on Isla Tierra Bomba offers day passes to its luxurious private beach club. Enjoy a lazy, laid-back Sunday in a breathtaking Caribbean setting. Boats set sail at 10:00am from Bocagrande Pier.
On arrival, you are ushered to your dedicated beach cabana by the pool. All day long, waiters offer you pool-side and even in-pool cocktail service. Lunch is available. And a local DJ plays chilled tunes in the afternoon.
After yesterday’s long day, you deserve some time to relax and do nothing. But if you don’t fancy doing just laying around, there are a variety of activities on offer from beach volleyball, jet ski rental (extra cost), giant Jenga and Connect Four, SUP, and kayaking. All included in the price. (From 150,000 COP)
7:30 pm – Dine at La Cevicheria
One dish that Cartagena is well-known for is its ceviche. And reportedly the best restaurant in town to serve up marinated raw fish is La Cevicheria. Even Anthony Bourdain has given the place a thumbs up.
You can’t miss its signature aquamarine doors in the San Diego neighborhood of the old town. But don’t mistake the casual indoor or outdoor dining for simple fare. Eat here and your taste buds will be seduced with super fresh ceviches from shrimp to sea bass. Sides of caramelized plantain and coconut rice give the dishes a Colombian-Caribbean flare. (San Diego. Calle Stuart # 7 – 14)
9:30 pm – Spoil Yourself with a Horse Carriage Ride
It might seem a little cheesy, but a horse carriage ride through the old town is an essential part of any visit to this magical city.
The clickety clack of horse hooves down narrow streets and past subduedly lit historical monuments brings out the quintessential colonial charm that is Cartagena. It is a thoroughly romantic way to see the historical center. I’d opt for the 20-minute ride.
Monday – Day 3: Gastronomic Cartagena
8:30 am – Linger Over Brunch at Época
Época is a specialty coffee roaster that offers the most extensive Western-Style brunch within the city walls. Not only does it offer delicious food, it also has the Flat White in town.
My traveling companion also conferred its Bloody Mary’s are unrivaled. And she tried quite a few! If you are looking for that brunch spot with the perfect combination of excellent coffee and gourmet food, then this is where you should head. (Calle de Arzopispado, Carrera 5 # 34-52)
9:45 am – Gawk at Salmon Pink Flamingos
Colombia has the largest variety of bird life in the entire world. And if you haven’t yet got up close and personal with some of these feathered creatures, then I highly recommend a trip to Cartagena’s National Aviary (Aviario Nacional Colombia).
This spectacularly designed 7-hectare facility is the biggest in the Americas and the sixth biggest in the world. On display, is an incredible diversity of birdlife, from the tropical pink flamingos to the giant Andean condor (Colombia’s national bird). The expansive enclosures feel like a nature reserve.
Arrive by 11.30am to catch the morning bird show. This more remote destination lacks many tourists so you are likely to have the whole place to yourself – with the exception of a few beaked friends. (Entry 35,000 COP. Hire a driver for 200,000 COP per car. 50 minutes outside of central Cartagena on Isla Baru.)
2:15 pm – Pop into the Choco Museo
For everything chocolate, head to the Choco Museo. Inside is an interactive museum where you can discover all the secrets of how cacao is processed. The store also sells a wide variety of chocolate products you can taste and try for free. (Parque Fernández de Madrid. Calle 7 # 36-145).
2:30 pm – Savour Colombia’s Street Food
If you haven’t yet taken the street food tour in Medellín now is your chance to sample some of Colombia’s roadside delicacies.
This two (to two-and-a-half) hour tour will introduce you to the donut hole like delights of buñuelos, the tart and salty green mango, an array of arepas, refreshing aqua de coco and strange and exotic tropical fruits like lulo.
The tour includes a visit the grittier neighborhood of Getsemaní, where your guide will tell you more about the city’s history and explain many of the captivating street art murals you’ll pass. (70,000 COP)
5:00 pm – Go ‘Walling’
‘Walling’ is the slang term locals use for having a cerveza and watching the sunset from the old city walls. Locals, just grab a beer and hang out wherever. If you want a more up-market experience visit the very touristy, and touristically priced Café del Mar. This prime position bar does offer the best sunsets over the Caribbean in the city, but you’ll pay a premium for it.
6:30 pm – Indulge in a Gastronomic Feast
To complete your gastronomic experience of Cartagena, then head to Moshi. From the creators of Medellín’s successful restaurant Carmen, comes this ode to Japanese cuisine with a unique Caribbean twist.
From coconut char-grilled sea bass with a sweet miso marinade to yuca flour noodles with pork belly, the Japanese flavors and Colombian ingredients combine for an indulgent experience you won’t forget. If you think you have the time, splurge on the seven-course tasting menu paired with wine. (San Diego, Calle del Santisimo # 8-19).
8:15 pm – Head to the Airport
A return taxi journey back to the airport should only set you back 10,000 COP and take approximately 15 minutes. There isn’t much to do there, so no need to rush and wait.
9:18 pm – Return to Medellín
By taking a late flight back to Medellín, you can maximize your time in the charming city of Cartagena. And as soon as you arrive back home, all snuggled in bed, you can drift off to sleep with sweet memories of the magical time you had in Colombia’s Caribbean.
Before You Go to Cartagena
- I’d advise booking some of your tours and day trips in advance, especially during peak season. Cartagena Connections offers a range of tours, including all of the excursions mentioned above.
- The city’s independence is celebrated on November 11 and it is an enormous annual festival. Be sure to book well in advance if you plan to go around that time or avoid it all together if crowds aren’t your thing. Also, New Years is another popular time in Cartagena when you’ll need to book in advance.
- Book in advance if possible. You will be able to find cheaper flights and also will have a bigger lodging selection available in this popular tourist city.
- If you are traveling to Cartagena from the U.S., there are direct flights from Fort Lauderdale, Miami and New York-JFK. Cartagena is only about a 3-hour flight from either Fort Lauderdale or Miami.
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