If you’ve always wanted to visit South America, but could never decide on where to begin your exploration, allow me to nominate the colorful city of Cartagena.
The lively locale on the northern coast of Colombia is closer to the U.S. than more popular South American cities, so flights are generally more affordable and you can spend more of your budget on experiences than on merely getting there.
Whether you’re a booze buff, an art buff, a history buff, or you are buff and want to sit on the beach with other chiseled specimens the entire trip, choosing this vibrant destination is a decision you’ll be proud to have made.
A layout that balances sections of centuries-old Spanish Colonial architecture (including the walled Old City and other UNESCO World Heritage sites) next to neighborhoods defined by modern hotels and high-rises makes you think Cartagena feels a bit like New Orleans fused with South Beach.
And, whether you’re with a group of rowdy friends looking to get wild for a bachelor/bachelorette party or with your special someone hoping to relax and enjoy an intimate escape, this is a city where any level of desired action can be accommodated.
From the U.S., you can book direct flights from Jetblue to Cartagena from Fort Lauderdale International Airport and JFK in NYC. Flights from FLL are under three hours.
If you have some extra time and would like to fly to two countries for the price of one, you can also take advantage of Copa Airlines’ new deal to stopover in Panama for a few days at no extra charge before continuing to Cartagena.
Where to stay
There are so many cool hotels in Cartagena that you may want to stay at more than one during your trip.
Choose a high-rise resort in La Boquilla (a strip of beach that’s a short drive from the Old City) to be near the water, then switch to a boutique hotel in Getsemani or San Diego to be closer to the action.
Radisson recently opened a new property in La Boquilla with a clean, beachy vibe and great customer service. To be closer to the heart and soul of Cartagena (and for a taste of luxury), stay at the boutique Casa San Agustin in San Diego, which was voted #1 in TripAdvisor’s Top 25 Best Hotels in Colombia and Most Romantic Hotels in Colombia (it also has a great restaurant with Certified Angus Beef steaks on the menu), or at the illustrious Sofitel Santa Clara.
In the Getsemani District, Casa Santa Ana is one of our favorite boutique hotels, set in a house remodeled from colonial times. With only five rooms, it’s low-key luxury at its finest, and its rooftop terrace and pool have keen views of some of the city’s finest structures and monuments.
What to do
Stroll through the Old City and spend time exploring Cartagena’s unique, colorful attributes and flavors. Day-drink if you must, but make sure to stay hydrated and periodically step into some shade.
Colonial architecture, cool murals, and vendors selling unique gifts and snacks are everywhere, and your wandering will inevitably lead you to art galleries, historical sites, and shops where you can load up on souvenirs of all sorts.
The Emerald Museum & Factory makes for an interesting day trip, and you can even get hands-on and try to make a wearable piece for yourself. You can also stop into the Palace of the Inquisition, an 18th-century structure built in Spanish Colonial style that now serves as a museum showcasing historical objects.
Steak, grilled fish and ceviche are mainstays of menus in Cartagena, where it’s hard to find a place that doesn’t do them right. And when it comes to drinks, even if you usually pair your food with wine, beer, or soda, nothing beats a coconut lemonade (with fresh mint, please) to accompany your eats.
The Erre de Ramón Freixa restaurant on the 10th floor of Hotel Las Americas, Torre del Mar (in La Boquilla, right next to Radisson), is a must-try for seekers of exquisite meals, especially if you’re already staying in La Boquilla. Chef Freixa holds two Michelin stars, and his cuisine puts a creative, modern spin on classic Spanish tapas and larger plates, making it equally viable for a romantic dinner or a shared feast among friends.
When you’re ready to party, head to Santo Domingo Square to Bourbon Street, a New Orleans-themed bar where you’ll feel like you’re in a Spanish-speaking version of New Orleans’ French Quarter. (There’s no Abita Amber, but there are Mardi Gras beads, fleur de lis tapestries, and handmade Saints wall art all over the walls).
If you’re with a group of drinkers who aren’t opposed to doing touristy things, hop aboard a chiva, a brightly painted wooden bus with live music -- and lots of rum -- on board. Upon arriving at the chiva, each row of guests (typically three to five people) will be given a bottle of rum, an ice bucket, cups and a bottle of cola. The bus slowly circles around the city as a band sitting in a middle row plays vallenato, a popular, high-energy Colombian folk music, to set the mood. After the bus tour ends, guests are dropped at a club where they can enter for free.
Still amped-up after-hours? Then head into the Getsemani District (grab some street food, like arepas, on the way), where you’ll find hoppin’ hostels with live bands and rooftop parties with DJs (and endless booze) until the sun comes up.
Let this serve as the blueprint for your first foray into South America via Cartagena, and there’s no doubt you’ll want to return as soon as you can.