If there were one word I had to use to describe Cartagena de Indias it would be "magical". When my husband and I first booked our trip, friends and family members skeptically asked us "why did you decide to go there?" We had heard good things from a few friends who had dared to travel to the once cartel-run Colombia and decided it would be a good spot for our next adventure. This was my first time in the Caribbean, and I was immediately at ease when we exited our taxi into the tropically humid air, the Caribbean breeze blowing gently through our hair. Though the country may have a checkered past, it certainly doesn't define it. Walking through the Old City, hidden within walls composed of sea coral, we felt like we were discovering a hidden treasure: cobbled streets lined with vividly hued colonial mansions draped in bougainvillea, cafes, plazas, and smiling locals carting around tropical fruit, all surrounded by the Caribbean sea. Cartagena may be considered a tourist town, but it boasts a vibrant culture and doesn't feel overrun with tourists, and we encountered only a handful of Americans during our weeklong stay. If it's not already obvious, I absolutely fell in love with the city - it's the perfect juxtaposition of old charm and modern delights. I recommend booking a ticket to this romantic getaway as soon as possible, before this gem explodes with jet setters and their currency rebounds!
We stayed at the Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara, a beautifully restored former convent that dates back to 1621. As we settled into our room, we received a knock at the door: dark chocolate-covered strawberries dusted in gold to welcome us. The staff were incredibly kind and helpful and we got to know our concierge very well as he helped us book reservations, find places on our map and called us cabs. This is the only boutique hotel that has a large outdoor pool and we really enjoyed it, even after the sun went down. The room was clean, modern and comfortable and the cafe was great for a quick breakfast before heading out on the town or a poolside lunch. Alternatively, if you're traveling with a group you can opt to rent one of the many stunning mansions like this one.
We were astounded at the quality of food that Cartagena had to offer. Most restaurants do not offer English menus (for example, I inadvertently ordered soup for breakfast one morning) so that was a little tricky to navigate at times, but we managed to eat like kings regardless. From the freshest seafood to perfectly cooked meats and dishes brimming with coconut, Cartagena's culinary scene is nothing short of spectacular. For the perfect day in meals, start your morning with breakfast at Pastelería Mila, followed by lunch at El Boliche Cebicheria for the freshest fish in town, and finish with dinner at Carmen. Dinner in Cartagena takes place around 9pm, so if you're an early bird you can usually score a table at any of the best restaurants before then, otherwise if you wish to do as the locals do, have your hotel make a reservation.
During long hot days, stay hydrated with fresh coconut water from street vendors and local fresh-squeezed tropical juices from cafes. When you're ready to imbibe, grab a cocktail and watch the sun set over the Caribbean from your roof deck or head to my favorite bars in town for hand-crafted cocktails.
Don't leave Cartagena without your own mochila, Colombia's colorful version of a knapsack. These are hand-woven by local artisans and take 60 hours to make. Make sure to purchase an authentic one, as cheap machine-made knock-offs can be found on nearly every corner. Stepping into St. Dom felt like entering a boutique curated just for us - a splashy blend of homeware, accessories, and high-end clothing all by Colombian designers including Martin Pescador, Waimari, Renata Lozano, and Malai. My husband pulled out his wallet and pretended to hand it to the cashier knowing we were about to do some serious damage. Oh, and apparently Martha Stewart stopped by the same evening we were there. Design lovers should check out Casa Chiqui, an interior design store filled to the brim with tasteful treasures from Morocco, Mexico, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Bali, and of course Colombia.
Get lost in the Old City - wander through the quiet streets of San Diego and El Centro by foot or hitch a ride from one of the town's many horse-drawn carriages. Check out the ancient treasures that lie within the gold museum in Plaza de Bolivar. We hired an amazing bilingual guide named Alex for a 5-hour private city tour, which was incredible. We started with a drive to Getsemaní to view the vibrant street art scene, followed by a trip to the local market which gave us a glimpse into the real Cartagena, and a drive up to the Cerro de la Popa, a 17th century church and convent atop Cartagena's highest point for the best vantage of the sprawling city. We then ventured out to La Boquilla for a canoe ride through the mangroves and lunch on the beach. Alex also runs a local nonprofit youth center and teaches children English. Even through Cartagena is on the Caribbean, the beaches there aren't the best so I would recommend chartering a private speedboat to take you to the nearby Rosario islands for pristine white sand beaches and sparkling blue waters. Eat freshly grilled lobster, take a dip in the sea and bask in the sunshine for the afternoon. I highly recommend hiring an English-speaking guide if your Spanish isn't muy bien, as the local islanders will try to overcharge Gringos, and perhaps more importantly to be able to clearly communicate your intentions for the day with your captain.