A Great Introduction to South America
A few days in Cartagena is plenty of time to see the city and eat at some great restaurants, but we were happy to have an entire week. Whether you’re excited by history, gastronomy, sailing, quaint city life, street art, or beaches, the port city of Cartagena is sure to deliver.
WHERE TO GO & WHAT TO DO
There are a number of different barrios to explore depending on what type of Cartagena you would like to see. Old Town is the most central and historic place in Cartagena and is a great place to begin your tour. Few people actually live in Old Town; this part of the city is now predominately occupied by tourists and is an area full of hotels, restaurants, shopping and beautiful church squares. You can even pack a lunch and climb atop the city walls!
Just outside old town, is the neighborhood of Getsemani. Not long ago this area was known for its crime and drug culture but has recently evolved into one of the more hip and artsy neighborhoods of Cartagena. While some of the original families of this neighborhood are struggling to adjust to its current gentrification process, for many it is now a place of small business opportunity. Another positive cultural effect of this current change is the local expression of street art. These beautiful and creative installations make Getsemani a cool place to explore, and a popular place for budget travelers to dine and stay.
We chose to spend our week at an Air BnB in the neighborhood of Manga. To be completely honest, we didn't know much about it (because it’s residential and not at all touristy) so we were a little hesitant when we first arrived. It’s a port area so it’s also where we docked for the first time when we finished our sailboat ride from Panama. The neighborhood is actually rather affluent and our Air BnB was only one block from a large supermarket and a 10-minute walk over the bridge to Getsemani. Manga is the place from which you’ll catch a boat if you decide to partake in one of the many island hopping tours that leave from Cartagena. A local even told us about a few private beaches and homes for rent on nearby islands (maybe a great way to celebrate something special if you have some time and are looking for a luxurious but relatively affordable way to “do it big”).
But if you REALLY want to get to know a Cartagena with few tourists, we recommend “The Real Cartagena” tour offered by This Is Cartagena. Ronald was the name of our guide and we loved him. Because it was low season (November) we had him all to ourselves. The tour was one of the more expensive things we’ve done on our trip, but it was a birthday gift for Tyler and with all of the places you get to visit, we feel it was definitely worth the money. You start in Old Town with a quick and brief history, then head to Getsemani for an equally brief but informational visit. An air-conditioned van picks you up and drives you to a fishing village called Baranquillo where you’ll tour an educational foundation and get to meet the incredibly sweet kiddos (the older group will even perform a few local dances). Afterward you’ll take a canoe ride through a mangrove to see what happens when freshwater meets saltwater. You’ll finish in a local market (not a place for picky eaters) where you can try authentic food from Cartagena: we ate bocachico and crab rice. Take some cash if you think you’ll want to buy fruits, veggies, and meats… or a birdcage?
WHERE TO EAT
La Cevicheria – Lobster-Citrus Ceviche
Caffe Lunatico – great little place for juice & lunch (Getsemani)
Santa Clara – a little pricey but you’ll end up full because lunch starts with a large, yummy breadbasket with olive tapenade and butter. We ordered: Club Sandwich & Tropical Smoked Salmon Salad (Hotel in Old Town)
Chico & Rita – patio dining (get ready to be bombarded by peddlers and street performers) but they had surprisingly good pesto risotto with prosciutto and pistachios
Basilica Pizzeria – good pizza and wine with a cool vibe indoors or on the patio (Getsemani)
Demente: tapas & cocktails (open for dinner only), very popular place and for good reason. The scene is cool, it’s right off the main square, has a nice dark indoor setting and an even more hip little patio (Getsemani)
Café del Mar – we didn’t make it to Café del Mar but hear it's a good place to watch the sunset (Old Town)
Carmen Restaurant –We can’t tell if rooftop terrace is open or closed. Dinner boasts a 7-course tasting menu at $95pp with wine / $70pp without. Located in Old Town. Breakfast Buffett from 7:30am-10:30am has good reviews – fresh bread and jam basket with every meal (not sure about cost or if it’s located on the rooftop terrace, I’m guessing not)
Marea by Rausch – fine dining (right over the bridge from Manga to Getsemani; at the convention center). What we ordered: Caprese and Asparagus Salad (so good!) plus great Mojitos and a breadbasket.
Cat Cakes – Tyler celebrated his 30th in Cartagena so I looked around for a place t order a custom cake and Black Cat took the request via email all the way from Panama. They had it ready on the specified date, it looked great and it was affordable! Thanks for making his birthday away from home super special :)
Can you tell we enjoyed the food in Cartagena? I feel confident saying you'll enjoy your experience there as well. Always comment if you have additional suggestions or questions!
See you down the road!
Meg (+ Tyler)