Is Cartagena on your list of destinations?
It was a corner of South America I’ve heard in songs and read about in wedding guides. My vision of Cartagena had been a fabulous one, but as so happens with many radiant corners and pockets of the world, my mind couples places into categories of “unique must see’s”, and “would go if I had an excuse.” A wedding invitation was my excuse, but after arriving I was ashamed of my misconception. It was a gem, distinguished and unmatched.
Online reviews – meh.
I took a sizeable chunk of time planning for the extended weekend but wasn’t completely sold on the content I was finding in travel reviews. For example, I pulled some information from the New York Times article on Cartagena. I added some of their notes to my itinerary but had second opinions once I arrived. Firstly, these “horse-powered taxis” they recommend for getting around the city are a terrible idea. The streets are so small that going anywhere in a carriage is chaos. More so, it’s easy enough to tell that the horses are starved. One young and skeletal horse tripped and fell on the cobblestone streets while carrying a carriage crammed of 8 people. Even the locals were screaming at the driver to feed him. Instead, the driver pulled the horse back on all fours and continued, all in the name of pesos.
The other problem I had was that the author of the NYT article stayed at the Santa Clara Sofitel, and then recommended a restaurant less than a block away. Did you get out much? I must be fair and admit that I tried the restaurant, El Santisimo. I have nothing but good things to say. The food was eclectic and inspiring. The desserts were all sorts of culinary artistry, and as delicious as they were intricately designed. You also can’t beat the two hour “all you can drink” when you agree to a fixed menu for 75,000 pesos (~USD35).
In terms of hotels, most reviews on-line were pointing to the Santa Clara. Well, it’s spectacular, indeed, but similar to every Sofitel you’ll find around the globe. There are several boutique hotels throughout the old city that allow you to feel further integrated into the culture of Cartagena. If you’re willing to pay as much as you would for Santa Clara, stay at Casa Pestagua instead, or it’s sister hotel Casa Pombo (which are more like apartments than rooms) for around 600,000 pesos a night (~USD300). The wedding party stayed at Pestagua, and you can get a small glimpse here of the enchanting, castle-like feel of both of the hotels. The rooms are massive with ancient interiors but captured some modern styles. The court areas feel like your own private oasis.
We stayed at Casa Pombo, after spending Thursday night at Hotel San Martin in Boca Grande. USD85 seemed like a great deal. But my advice after staying there- Cartagena’s beaches in Boca Grande are not white, sandy and tropical. Find a hotel in the old city because that is the most enchanting part of Cartagena. Boca Grande had a hustle similar to Bangkok. The buzz and honks of the cars, the dust coming in from the small strip of beach and the constant stream of vendors made things feel naturally stressful.
Everything about Casa Pombo was serene. We felt like Kings and Queens. We had a door master, Pedro, who had such a warm and inviting attitude and helped us with everything. Breakfast was served whenever we decided to wake up. Fresh orange juice, papaya, mango, watermelon, cantaloupe and coffee started us off. Then eggs, ham, feta cheese, bread and butter, jam…. Breakfast heaven, I tell you!
Those most in love get married in Cartagena
Ani and Simon were stars. La Iglesia de Santo Domingo had such a rustic grace. It was so massive and colorful, but worn and aged. The blue arched ceilings were my favorite – no Michelangelo – but it drew your eyes upwards as easily as intricate angels.
If you’re looking for beaches, take a boat out to the islands surrounding Cartagena. You’ll be able to find whatever scene you’re looking for – a local hangout, a tourist attraction, or a desolate white beach.
Renting a private boat is about USD400 for the entire day. If you split that with 5 or 6 friends, you’re getting a great deal because you’re able to go wherever you want and have any type of experience you’re interested in. Riding the waves is also a joy ride in itself!
We went to Conchol, a small strip of sand about 45 minutes from Cartagena. It was a pretty wild scene. Boat after boat came to dock, full of young people and booze. Conchol is also known for its local seafood. If desired, you could sit at tables in the water with service. We ordered grilled lobster, which came with fried plantains and sweet rice. These lobsters were so meaty and so delicious.
After having lunch at Conchol, we decided it would be ideal to find a beach without a person in sight. It’s been a busy weekend, we needed a little rest. I wish I could tell you where we ended up, but that was the beauty of it. We just pointed at a location far from any visible crowds and pulled up. We spent our last hours there before making our way back home.
Cartagena’s way of colliding an old, historic city with the modern idea of serenity will keep this place on the map. It’s a location where you will find everything from a romantic weekend to a wild trip with friends. I hope you’ll have the chance to visit one day.
Here are a few more places we visited and would recommend:
- Oh La La Restaurante: where French cuisine meets Cartagena seafood, local scene, and awesome service. Try the pate and the lamb.
- Casa de la Cerveza: for a view of the water, long tubes of beer, very strong mixed drinks, and the entertainment of Colombians dancing some pretty amazing Salsa
- Cafe del Mar: for the evening sunset with a pina colada