If you are lucky you will one day find a place that fills you with wonder and happiness. A place that presents beauty around every new corner, can inspire you, and can make you feel a connection. For me, this place was Cartagena, Colombia.
Located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Cartagena is truly Colombia’s hidden jewel. It is a vibrant city full of colonial history, beautiful architecture, and warm, friendly people. It is a city that can both charm and surprise you. A place that feels so real, so well preserved, and so authentic to its history and culture. It is a place that I dreamed for many years to one day visit, but no matter how much research or prep I did prior to going, I could never of imagined how truly beautiful and wonderful my experience would be.
This past October I spent four amazing days in Cartagena with Copa Airlines and wished I could of stayed on longer. If you are planning a trip to Cartagena, I am both super jealous and excited for you! If I ever have the opportunity to organize and curate a trip back with a group of my friends, here is a list of places, activities, and restaurants that I discovered and would want to share with them.
The Walled City (or the Old City) - One of the most beautiful and historic parts of Cartagena is the walled city (essentially a city within the city). During the colonial era a wall was built around the wealthy area of the city to protect the homes of Spanish aristocrats and wealthy businessman from Caribbean pirates. Today the wall still stands and is an important symbol of not just the city but of the entire country. Most of the architecture in the walled city has been well preserved or restored and features bright colourful building facades with large beautiful doors and sprawling bougainvillea trees. It is completely walkable, pedestrian-friendly and is where you will find some of the most beautiful boutique hotels, restaurants, and shops.
If you can afford to stay in one of the many beautiful boutique hotels located in the walled city I definitely recommend it. If you can not, I would still try and jump on a walking tour or take time over the course of you trip to explore and hang out in the area. If you are a photography lover there are endless opportunities to capture beautiful photos in this area and you will absolutely love it!
Getsemani Neighbourhood - Once a predominantly poor neighbourhood, Getsemani was the epicentre for the Colombian independent revolution in Cartagena. Today it is known as the trendy, bohemian part of town where you can find lots of hostels, bars, cafes, and young people hanging out. Located only a ten minute walk from the Walled City, the Gatsemani neighbourhood also features numerous beautiful, vibrant, murals that add further charm to the area. Since the area is both smaller and cheaper than the walled city, it is a perfect option for those money conscious travellers.
While not entirely sure what to expect, the quality of dining options in Cartagena was definitely a pleasant surprise for me. Since the city is located on the Caribbean coast menus are full of fresh seafood options as well as meat, but prices for delicious, creatively executed dishes felt quiet reasonable.
Carmen - this was the first restaurant we went to during our four days in Cartagena and it may have spoiled me in terms of setting the bar for all other dining experiences while in town. The restaurant itself had beautiful tile floors, a small outside courtyards with tables and chairs, an enclosed bar area, and another enclosed and air conditioned seating area (a refuge for us from Cartagena’s heat and humidity). The restaurant offered contemporary cuisine inspired by local flavours, executed using modern preparations. The meal we had here was unbelievable and the presentation was amazing. If you are looking for a truly elevated dining experience while in Cartagena - this is it! After lunch I read over the menu once more and noticed that a five course tasting menu was available with wine pairing for the equivalent of approximately $110 CAD! For the quality of food and service you are getting that felt like a steal!
Restaurante Candé - Although Carmen was an amazing meal my favourite dish while in Cartagena was actually at a restaurant called Candé. Like Carmen, the cuisine at the restaurant was inspired by traditional Colombian flavours and both the service and presentation were amazing. Here I had the fresh fish cooked in coconut milk and served on a bed of veggies, which was so delicious I couldn’t stop eating it even after I was already full.
Alquimico - While in Cartagena I went out to a bar in the walled city called Alquimico that made delicious cocktails. I absolutely loved the vibe here and they had a DJ spinning everything from Calvin Harris to Lauren Hill. The bar spans over three floors with a rooftop patio at the very top. If you are looking for a cool place to go out at night where both visiting and local young professionals hang out - this is it! I will definitely be taking my friends here when we go, it’s just that cool.
Tcherassi Hotel and Spa - I had the pleasure of staying at this beautiful boutique hotel and spa for the first couple nights of my trip in Cartagena and absolute loved it. Located in a restored colonial building within Cartagena’s walled city the hotel is owned and designed by famous Colombian clothing designer Silvia Tcherasii. Tcherassi Hotel and Spa perfectly combines casual luxury and modern design together to create a beautiful, bright and spacious 42 room boutique hotel. I absolutely loved staying here and I totally recommend it to anyone looking for contemporary accommodations while in Cartagena. The hotel also has a great rooftop pool with a handful of cabanas as well as a bar and restaurant area - all of which offer incredible views of the city, so make sure to check those out. Also breakfast is complimentary with your stay making it even more worth the price tag (starts around $230 CAD a night for a Superior Room).
Hotel Casa San Agustin - On my final night in Cartagena I moved to another hotel called Hotel Casa San Agustin that was actually jaw-droppingly beautiful! Also located in the heart of the walled city this boutique hotel is the ultimate place to stay for those looking for luxury accommodations while in Cartagena. The hotel spread across three exquisitely restored 17th century Colonial homes and is comprised of only 31 rooms. The hotel has a Hammam Spa on site and offers complimentary bicycles, mini bar (replenished daily), breakfast, and cocktails and coffee in the library every day. My room was large and decorated in an authentic Colombian style, which being able to experience even for just one night, made me fall further in love with Colombia, its culture, and all it’s charm. Room rates start at around $500 CAD a night which seems like a pretty hefty price tag if you are travelling solo, but if you are going with a group of 4-5 people you can get a suite for $800-900 CAD a night which can be a more palatable alternative.
Coffee Tasting - Colombia is a huge exporter of Coffee which is why when you are visiting Cartagena (or really anywhere in Colombia) you HAVE TO do a coffee tasting. I did a tasting at Cafe San Alberto which is a satellite store front and cafe for the San Alberto coffee farm located in Buenavista, in the Quindío province of Colombia. During the 40 minute coffee tasting I learned about Colombia’s coffee regions, growing cycle, different coffee taste profiles, and brewing methods. Coffee tastings at Cafe San Alberto cost approximately $50 CAD per person and was definitely a culture experience I was happy I did not skip out on.
Salsa Dancing - One of the funnest activities I did while in Cartagena was Salsa dancing! I am not an experienced dancer but doing a 90 minute beginners class at Crazy Salsa was so fun and went by so fast! They have drop-in classes (schedule available online) for a variety of dances, available at all different levels, and intro classes start at the equivalent of only $11 CAD. The dance studio can accommodate up to 20 people in the largest room, but if you are a beginner looking for a more private lesson or travelling with a group of people, they offer packages to easily accommodated your group’s needs and/or individual skill level.
Sailing - Since you are on the Caribbean coast, getting out on the water is a must. While there we took a boat to checking out one of the islands off the coast of Cartagena called Baru and it was so nice to be on the water. Sunset Sailing Cartagena is a boat rental company I got to experience while in Cartagena and they offer everything from day tours to weekly rentals on beautiful sail boats.
With flights out of both Montreal Trudeau and Toronto Pearson, Copa Airlines makes travelling to South America easy and affordable for Canadians. I flew Copa Airlines to Colombia via Toronto Pearson and thoroughly enjoyed my inflight experience. The staff were friendly, the plane was on time, the seats were big and comfortable, and the food that was served was actually really good! The best part about flying with Copa Airlines though is their ‘24-hour layover in Panama’ offer that is available at no extra cost - an offer I completely took them up on. If like me, you are interested in visiting not just one but two countries on your next trip to South America, this is the perfect bonus offer for you. Panama has some beautifully renovated boutique hotels and I definitely recommend checking out the old city - a perfectly walkable area with lots of cafe’s, stores and restaurants to keep you entertained during your quick 24 hours visit.
One thing I am also very happy to report is that Cartagena is very LGBT friendly. If you are traveling with friends who are gay, there are gay bars scattered throughout the city of Cartagena.
In terms of safety, I never felt scared, or threatened, or unsafe while in Cartagena in any way, even at night while out partying.
If you have any questions regarding my trip, please feel free to hit me up in the comment section below. If you are heading to Colombia I hope you have an amazing time and I’d love to hear your feedback on any of the experiences/places I recommend if you do end up trying them yourself! Safe travels!