A local's guide to Cartagena, Colombia

Local expert and Insight Guides trip planner for Colombia David shares his tips for Cartagena, to help you explore the highlights of this colonial, coastal city
Iglesia San Pedro Claver, Cartagena. Photo: Fotolia
Iglesia San Pedro Claver, Cartagena. Photo: Fotolia

When should we plan our holiday to Cartagena and why?

Actually, like Colombia in general, Cartagena can be visited any time of the year. You can expect some showers between March and May, and then between September and November, but this shouldn't affect your travel plans. The rest of the year tends to be sunny and dry.

Between November and February, the city celebrates different events beginning with the Independence of Cartagena, followed by New Year’s Eve, and then HAY Festival, among others. Get in touch today to time your Colombia holiday to coincide with one of these unmissable events. 

Where would you recommend we stay?

My expert advice would be to enjoy the opportunity that the city offers with two unique and very different experiences. Firstly, stay in one of the cosy boutique hotels inside the Historic Centre, where you can enjoy the romantic atmosphere and vibrant nightlife of Cartagena. Among our recommendations are, for the deluxe budget, the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, located in a beautifully restored former convent founded in 1607. Other excellent choices are the charming and homely Anandá or the modern-styled Movich Cartagena de Indias.

After you've experienced city life, combine it with a relaxing stay on the beaches of Bocagrande, Manzanillo, Barú, or the Rosario Islands. Nice properties with different concepts, from the trendy Hyatt Cartagena to the tranquil Punta Faro Hotel, can be the perfect ending for your trip in Latin America.

Don't forget, each of the properties above can be added to my Colombia itineraries with Insight Guides; browse suggested trips online now.

Where is a great place for dinner?

Cartagena’s gastronomic scene is very varied and refined. For a fine taste of fresh seafood, Club de Pesca and La Vitrola are always a good choice. Experience the romantic atmosphere of Sofitel Santa Clara’s 1621, or try sophisticated recipes at Alma or Erre

Another great place for dinner can be found within the city’s maze of backstreets. Interesting gastronomic tours inside the walls of the Old Town and into Bazurto market will show the best of the nationwide famous costeña food, which you can experience for yourself on my Discover Colombia tour with Insight Guides.

Is there a ‘must-try’ dish while we’re in this city?

Taste the arepa’e huevo with suero for breakfast; this is a typical deep-fried corn dough with an egg inside and sour cream as dip. Try the posta cartagenera at lunch; a slow-cooked tender beef cut with a sweet and aromatic sauce. Together with the coconut rice and fried plantain as the traditional sides, compounds one of city’s most emblematic and tasty recipes. A fresh ceviche with a cold beer would be my suggestion for ending the day.

Ceviche: a dish to try while in Cartagena.Ceviche: a dish to try while in Cartagena. Photo: Fotolia

Is there an ‘unmissable’ experience while we’re here too?

Walking or biking Cartagena’s historic centre at night is a fantastic experience. This is a great time to appreciate the narrow streets with colourful balconies that lead to small charming plazas all around the Old Town and Getsemaní.

Where is the most romantic spot in Cartagena?

Walking, dining, sailing, relaxing, dancing… even reading a book. Everything in the city is scented by romanticism as a natural attribute of Cartagena. The city is recognised as an ideal spot for proposals, weddings and anniversaries, as well as an inspiring destination for internationally-renowned artists and leaders. There are many romantic spots in Cartagena, you just have to explore and enjoy the options and choose the one that is perfect for you.

Where can we hang out with locals?

Donde Fidel, just a few steps from the Clock Tower, is a famous spot for enjoying a cold beer or a tasty rum in the vibrant plaza, while listening to a fancied selection of salsa music. The fishing village of La Boquilla and the Bazurto Market, are other spots where you can share with the locals too.

Do you have any additional ‘insider’ tips?

Look for the itinerant music and dance shows during the evening in several of the Old Town’s plazas. If it is in season, ask for a refreshing blast of fresh corozo juice. Visit La Boquilla, a cheerful fishing village to canoe through the mangroves in the morning light.

Take the chance to widen your perspective of the Colombian Caribbean culture by visiting other beautiful and fascinating destinations along the coast. With full day tours to San Basilio de Palenque to Barranquilla, or 2-3 days trip extensions to Mompox or the Tayrona National Park, you can enjoy different approaches to Colombia’s vast diversity and the joyful style of life that characterise its people.

What souvenir should we bring home from our trip to Cartagena?

Colombia's most famous designers have their shops in Cartagena, while refined Colombian handcrafts can be purchased at Artesanías de Colombia store, in Getsemaní. Las Bóvedas is the place to buy traditional souvenirs (key rings, magnets, t-shirts…). 

Alternatively, near to the Clock Tower there is the Portal de los Dulces, where small kiosks sell traditional candies. My favourites are the panderitos, a powdery marble ball-shaped cookie from cassava starch. But, be warned, you cannot eat just one!

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