Picture this scene: you’re in the Caribbean watching the sun set directly into the sea over the horizon, in your hands is a refreshing lulo juice, and in the background you can hear some dulcet tones speaking sweet Spanish. Where do you think you might be? Yes, you’re in Cartagena de Indias; a beautiful walled city of wondrous charms nestled on Colombia’s spectacular coast. Follow these handy tips and you could be enjoying the holiday of a lifetime in this magical destination.
When crossing the Puerta del Reloj (Clock Gate) you will find Plaza de los Coches / Photo by Lucila Runnacles, Viagem Cult
WHEN TO GO
To make the most of your visit to any destination, it is first good to understand when the perfect time to travel there is. Discovering a place during hurricane season, for example, would not be the brightest of moves. That’s why we’re here to tell you the best months to explore Cartagena.
The heat is always constant in this city, and the climate is tropical and humid. Average temperatures fall around 27°C, but the sensation often feels much higher. The only thing to keep in mind when planning your trip is the rainy season, which runs from May through December. The wettest month is October, and the dry period runs from December to April, so this makes for the ideal time to visit the city.
A final thing to consider is that, generally, Cartagena welcomes local tourists aplenty in December, January, and July. Throughout these three months, the prices of accommodation and other services tend to be greater than usual.
WHERE TO STAY
Most of the small hotels and apartments can be found within the walled city. There, you can find everything from simple accommodation options to the fanciest hotels. For those of you who want to get away from the historical centre, take a look in Getsemaní – this neighbourhood is very close to the walls, a few blocks from Parque Centenario, and near San Felipe castle. It is a region that was not previously a tourist hotspot, but it is now a favourite location for boutique hotels. Getsemaní is a truly authentic and colourful place, and the hotels that have set up there tend to have more affordable rates.
The area of Bocagrande is a favourite spot for Colombians, with its modern buildings and wonderful shops; this is a place recommended for visitors who enjoy the luxury and large hotels of international chains.
Bocagrande is an open-air shopping area full of hotels and restaurants / Photo by Lucila Runnacles, Viagem Cult
WHAT TO DO
Cartagena is a unique attraction in itself; a city replete with fabulous sightseeing activities. One thing that you must-do here is wander atop the ancient walls at dusk, for watching the sunset here is a gift for the eyes and for your cameras. The walls and fortifications that remain standing were originally built to protect against pirates as the Spanish crown kept a large part of its wealth here – today they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a premier attraction.
A gentle stroll down the quaint cobblestoned streets lined by vibrant colonial houses is something else that cannot be missed, while it is also worth checking out the Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara – once home to a former convent now a place selling all kinds of artisanal souvenirs and local handicrafts.
Outside the walled city, San Felipe Castle is the top sight to see. This impressive centuries-old military fortress is perched on the Hill of San Lázaro and inside you can explore a network of tunnels and secret passageways. The best time to go is in the morning when the temperatures are a touch lower and there are fewer people.
The best beaches to be found in the region are a little way from the city. The crystalline seas and the golden-white sands that everyone imagines when the Caribbean comes to mind are found on the Archipelago del Rosario. Together they fall in the Corales del Rosario National Park.
In the mornings, from Muelle de la Bodeguita (Bodeguita Port), you can catch excursions to these islands. The trip lasts anything between one, and two and a half hours, depending on the type of boat and the island you want to visit. In the National Park, visitors can snorkel and go diving in the pristine coral reefs or simply enjoy a relaxing day in the sun.
On your trip to Cartagena be sure to visit San Felipe Castle / Photo by Lucila Runnacles, Viagem Cult
WHAT TO PACK
Due to the warm weather all year round, you need only pack – as essentials – light clothing, a bikini or swimsuit, sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and some comfortable walking shoes.
Colombia, in general, is a fairly safe country, especially in tourist cities, but always be vigilant of pickpockets in the urban centres and in crowded places. At airports also, be aware that police or immigration officers may want to search your suitcase or enquire as to how much money you are bringing into the country. It happened to me when I arrived – I was taken to a small room to count the money I had with me. It appears strange at first, but it is totally normal procedure, so relax if it happens to you.
When ordering a taxi, it is worth asking before you get in the approximate cost of the service, because it is common for drivers to charge extra, or take you on a longer route, if you are a foreigner. As a gauge, a trip from the Getsemaní neighborhood to Bocagrande costs around USD$2. Having a rough idea of the price in advance will prevent you from being charged over the standard rate.
Take a tranquil walk through the quaint cobblestoned streets / Image Source
Yes, there is another place called Cartagena – it is in Spain, in the province of Murcia. The Colombian city got its name when the Spaniards arrived between the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th centuries.
The famous Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez used to spend several months a year in this city. Cartagena was a source of inspiration and made an appearance in several of his novels and it is commonplace to meet people who knew him and waiters who served him during his long stopovers.
Most Mercosur member countries or associates do not need a visa to visit Colombia – the identity document of their countries is good enough. A Colombia tourist visa is not required for citizens of the United States of America or the United Kingdom for a stay up to 90 days.
By: Lucila Runnacles, journalist and author of Viagem Cult blog