Upon arrival in Cartagena, you're immediately struck by the Caribbean feel of the city. The pastel colored low-rise buildings, high humidity, and infectious salsa music reminds you that this coastal enclave is very much part of the Caribbean. The old town of Cartagena, a walled city, is charming and designed for casual strolls with its small shops, cafés, bars, and several inviting squares. Stop by the Charleston Santa Teresa around sunset for a rooftop ron punch (rum punch) or mojito and enjoy the sunset over the sea.
How to get here: From Bogotá, Cartagena is a short one-hour flight on Avianca Airlines, which has several daily departures. Something to remember: Peak season in Cartagena is winter which means that coming later, spring or summer, is ideal only for those who don't mind humidity.
Get acquainted with Cartagena: Perhaps the best (and most fun) way to get a good overview of the old city is to take a horse-drawn carriage tour. Given that there are few cars in the walled city (mainly taxis), the carriages offer a great way to see key sections of town at a leisurely pace. Plus, you can mark off places you want to revisit later on foot. Surprisingly, the price is reasonable at less than $50 for a 30-minute tour.
Day trips: Arrange for a private boat tour to the islands off the coast. Contrary to popular belief, Cartagena doesn't have appealing beaches near town, so most tourists stay at their hotel pools or head out by boat to one of the Rosario Islands. There are public boats that leave early in the morning )around 8:15am, with prices starting at around $20), or you can arrange a private boat (ideally shared with four to six people) for about $900. It's definitely a splurge, but well-worth it, as a private boat means you can see several islands and beaches and stop for lunch.
Where to eat: I recommend Restaurant Don Juan (despite the touristy name); they had an excellent mix of local and international dishes. Some highlights from the menu were their shrimp ceviche with tomato and lime and a fish and shrimp soup. La Vitrola, jukebox in Spanish, is thought of by many as the best joint in town. Though it's not Colombian fare (they serve Cuban), you'll definitely enjoy their live music.
Where to stay: While there are many options in the newer parts of Cartagena, you should definitely consider staying in the old city rather than outside the gates. Originally a convent, The Sofitel Santa Clara is a smart splurge with a lush open courtyard, award-winning spa, an impressive pool, and chic rooms. Many of the hotel's rooms have wonderful pool views and balconies, but one thing that I learned was that some have street-side windows. The rooms are still large and beautiful, but they can be noisy at night. The hotel's French restaurant doesn't disappoint, with a candlelit garden, perfect for a romantic meal – but don't be surprised if the hotel's pet toucan, Matteo, arrives to say "hello."
But, is Colombia really safe? Yes. Colombia has come a long way since the dark period of the 1970s and 1980s when drugs and terrorism hung over the country and hurt tourism. Today, it's quite safe and an absolute pleasure to visit.
So, will you be checking out Colombia sometime soon?
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