Cartagena – What To Do, Eat & See
Hello my loves,
In the first week of March I headed down to Cartagena with my fiancé, where we got to experience the vibrant colors of the city. It was definitely an interesting experience, to say the least, which I will give some detail to in the good and bad. Please remember, this is based on my personal experience. Below I’ll be sharing the covid measures as well as what to do, see, and eat.
It’s an easy 2.5 hour flight from Miami, direct to Rafael Núñez International Airport. Prior to flying you must fill out a form via the Columbian immigration website at least the day before as it says it takes 24 hours for approval. You can pay to expedite it to four hours, and apparently there’s an even quicker process that is around $100 per person (I believe). When we were checking in there was a family that didn’t know this and they were frantically trying to do the registration.
Once we arrived there was customs, which was a winding line that took quite a while. They check all your covid related documents and passport, asking you where you are staying, your phone number and all the details you put in the immigration form. It seems a lot of these forms you fill out online don’t make it to the customs agents who actually check your documents. This was a quick process once we got to the counter.
After you go through customs, you’re bombarded with men asking if you need a taxi in the airport. I’ve learned to decline these as it’s typically double the normal fare. There’s a line outside for taxis, which you must have cash for. One thing we noticed was they don’t use meters, telling you how much it is once you arrive. Luckily, they have Uber there which I found to be quite helpful and far easier. If you speak spanish, I am sure you’ll have an easier time with taxi drivers (and just about everything else).
WHAT TO DO
There are many different options for Cartagena and fun things to do, depending on where you are staying and what you are interested in. I will share only what we did.
- Eteka beach club – (this is also a hotel which I’ll detail under ‘where to stay’) you take a 5-minute boat ride to Isla de Tierrabomba where you’re greeted with a Tulum-style beach club, complete with palm trees, beach chairs, and a sandy beach while music plays. This is a great place to come for the day, grab a spot in the sun and order lunch.
- Walk the city – in the morning around 8am there are very few tourists, making for great photo opportunities or for a run along the wall. Otherwise later in the day gets packed full of locals, cars, horse and carriages and is a bit more chaotic, but giving you the full city vibe.
- Take photos on every street – this is obviously a must, as it’s a beautiful city with colored walls, plants and flowers everywhere, horse drawn carriages and a very magical air the historic streets
- Lounge by the pool – most hotels have pools and if you book one with a rooftop pool, you’re in for some spectacular views while cooling off from the intense Colombian sun
- Explore the Rosario Islands – I highly recommend doing a private tour with Boating Cartagena (tell them Nikki sent you) as most other companies will pack you on a small boat with 30 others. We did a tour of all the islands, learning about Pablo Escobar’s abandoned mansion + other houses, going for a swim in the crystal blue water and had a fresh coconut pina colada made fresh by a man on a kayak who pulled up to our boat. Probably one of the coolest ways of having a drink I’ve had! We then stopped for lunch at a beach club before heading home. Trust me, this is an experience you definitely want to do with them.
These are the main things we did, as other time was spent in the hotel room doing business calls or working, as we were on a working holiday. Oh, and DEFINITELY wear + reapply sunscreen as it is hot and you will get burnt easily.
WHERE TO STAY
Here’s where things get interesting – I think Cartagena is a nice city, however the accommodations less than blew my mind. I’m giving a review only on the three we stayed at. They do have a LOT of options though so you can find something at every budget. We tried to stay at Casa San Agustin and Sofitel, both were booked, but those are definitely two I would recommend.
- Eteka Hotel – this is a great option if you’re looking for more rustic / jungle vibes. It reminds me of what Tulum was before it became “tulum,” meaning it’s casual, nice music, and great views overlooking the city. I think coming here for a night or two to end your trip would be a fun way to wind down after the city craziness. Pros: great views, nice small beach club, easy to get to, really fun space to have drinks, take photos, or be with friends. If vegetarian definitely order the veggie ceviche (to die for!) and the veggie paella (also insanely good). Cons: wifi was only available in one outside area (not in rooms) where loud music played – so definitely not ideal if you are on a working holiday, vegetarian dishes not always available, they barely speak any english and you have to google translate everything on the menu.
- Charleston Santa Teresa – this hotel has a beautiful rooftop pool and is lovely historic building. It’s quite expensive though (for the area) and unfortunately we had a pretty terrible experience so I cannot totally recommend it. That being said, others do like it. You can read my full review here to understand what happened and why I’m not a fan as they tried to fraud us (mine is the first one). Pros: great area, beautiful rooftop pool, old historic building, the avocado toast is pretty yummy, nice seating area/restaurant inside. Cons: most staff have poor english, service is incredibly slow, wifi rarely worked in the rooms, construction, moldy smell in room.
- Bastilion Luxury Hotel – after our nightmare experience with Charleston Bastilion was a lovely change. They all speak english, rooftop pool that’s smaller but still beautiful, the rooms are newer and clean. Overall a much smaller hotel but one I do recommend. Pros: rooftop pool, private terrace above the pool for dinner, dinner at their restaurant was incredible, very friendly staff, new rooms. Cons: the pool looked a bit dirty, our room was not clean when we returned at 4pm.
WHERE TO EAT
I don’t eat fish so the restaurants we went to were based on menus where I could find something vegetarian. In general, Cartagena has not caught up to the rest of the world in terms of a variety of plant based meals and there were times I had to get creative and ask the waiter if they could do changes on the menu. Overall though I was happy with everywhere we ate.
- Niku – beautiful courtyard with fun vibes. We went at 7.30pm on a Tuesday and it was us and one other table with about 5 waiters, only 1 spoke english and service was slow. But the food made up for it. We got the tacos (so good we ordered a double portion), the roasted cauliflower and I did veggie sushi. Would definitely recommend this place.
- Alma – this stunning restaurant is inside Casa San Agustin (where I wish we were able to stay) and the food is pretty spectacular, not to mention live music and fun vibe. I had been recommended the coconut ceviche, but as I dont eat fish, I saw they had hearts of palm – so I asked the to swap the fish for that and wow was it good!
- Buena Vida Marisqueria – this is across the street from Alma with a rooftop bar where we sat for drinks. The menu looked good, but definitely worth heading there for a cocktail (beware, service was stupid slow though, even with 4 waiters and 2 bartenders taking care of three tables)
- El Gobernador – this is located inside Bastilion hotel, where we had live music and dined on the most vegetarian-like options of the trip, including falafel and hummus + salad with quinoa, asparagus, avocado and other clean ingredients.
- Gokela – this is a chain of healthy food which we got to-go and took with us to the airport
These are a few recommendations I was given but we didn’t get a chance to try: Pascal (we went there for lunch but they are strictly reservation only, unlike most dinner spots where we just walked in), La Vitola – this is a classic place where we did have a reservation but cancelled as I really needed some cleaner vegetarian-style food and their menu is mostly fish, Carmen – we also had a reservation but cancelled last minute to do a pasta spot where everything is made in house. La cevicheria and Pezetarian also came up a lot, and we wanted to go dancing at Cafe Havana, but were overwhelmed with moving hotels so much, plus it being very busy in the town.
A few other things to note, and again, these are solely based on my experience:
- If you don’t speak spanish be prepared that very few people in restaurants speak english. Some speak it a bit but our experience was mostly not. We used google translate on many menus as well
- Masks are not required anywhere but you will see a lot of tourists wearing them on the street (why?!) and it’s mandatory in there service industry there
- Service is slowwwwww – just be prepared
- The airport is one room with 4 desks of flights leaving. It is LOUD as they have speakers all over and seem to scream the flights leaving + no real food options, bring something with you
- The beaches are NOT pretty & the beach you leave from to go to Eteka is filled with guys swarming you trying to sell you things, get you on their boat – it was overwhelming
- You will be harassed and hassled on every street (this is confirmed by our friends who stopped for a day on a cruise); boys are constantly coming up to you to rap about you and have you give money, sell things, etc. I actually didn’t feel safe to bring a purse or wear my engagement ring out because of this
- I didn’t feel totally safe in the city. I have travelled a LOT solo over the years, to countries from Kenya to China and this is one of the few trips that I am glad i was not alone. I think post-pandemic there’s a heightened sense of aggression and people needing money. Crime everywhere has gone up – my tip: do not be on your phone walking down the street, just be smart about where you are
- Have cash on hand – restaurants take cards, taxis dont, getting water from a store is preferred cash
All in all I am happy I went to experience it but it’s not somewhere that I would personally go again. Of course, your experience might be different, especially if you speak spanish!