If you’re looking for a city filled with life, colour and history, head to the walled colonial city of Cartagena. Located on the Caribbean coast, the Colombian city was founded by the Spanish in the 15th century and many of the city’s buildings date back to that era.
On first approach to Cartagena, you’re greeted with the city walls, streets teeming with people and vendors selling hot food and brightly coloured fruit, and pretty balconies covered in pink and purple flowers.
Cartagena is rich in character and proved to be one of those towns where it’s easy to simply wander and take in the sights. You’ll easily come across the main sights within the Old Town – a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its colonial architecture – as well as your own points of interest. If you don’t want to walk, you can opt to take a horse and carriage around the Old Town.
If you have a strong stomach, you might like to try the street food ranging from grilled corn, arepas (a cornmeal flatbread similar to a tortilla), and fried cheese and fruits such as mango, papaya and pineapple.
Places to see
My key highlights in Cartagena were the city walls and the fortress – both built to protect the city from pirates and other enemies.
The city walls were built progressively from the 16th century.
You can walk along most of the walls, taking in the views of the city and checking out the many cannons pointing out to sea.
Slather on plenty of sunscreen before you head onto the walls as it can get very hot up there. The best time of day to tour the walls is around 8am when there’s less people about and the sun isn’t as intense – or you can wander up at night and listen to the sea – but it’s recommended not to go up there alone at night as it’s badly lit. You can access the walls from a number of points with concrete ramps leading the way up.
As you wander around the city walls, you’ll probably come across the Las Bóvedas Market nearby selling all sorts of wares. The markets are housed in a series of vaults that were once used to store military provisions. The vaults were also once used as a jail.
The San Felipe de Barajas fortress is a must see during your visit to Cartagena. The fortress, which is located slightly outside the city walls, was built in a unique triangular shape by the Spanish during the 1500s and expanded in later centuries. In recent years, it has been restored and is a great place to explore.
The fortress itself is interesting due to its unique layout, and offers good views of the city. There is also a number of underground tunnels to discover. Allow yourself at least an hour to explore the fortress.
Entry to the fortress is $A7.50.
Another point of interest is the Convento De La Popa.
The convent sits above Cartagena on a 150-metre-high hill. Entry into the convent is A$6. The ticket price is worth it for sweeping views across the Cartagena Bay and the city’s Bocagrande district, and the pretty flower filled courtyard with a well in the middle.
The name of the convent translates to Convent of the Stern due to the hill it stands on looking like the back of a ship.
You can’t miss spotting the peach coloured tower of the Cartagena Cathedral (Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria) as you wander through the historic area, and there’s also a couple of other cathedrals in the Old Town that you might want to check out as you wander around.
While in Cartagena, take the time to explore the city’s many pretty plazas and parks. Many of these areas come alive at night as surrounding bars open their doors and seating spreads into the park areas.
If you’re looking for an outdoor activity from Cartagena, head out to the Rosario Islands on a day trip. The archipelago is one of Colombia’s national parks, and is a relaxing swimming spot in clear waters, and the coral reef surrounding the island makes it a good spot for some snorkelling.
Places to eat and drink
For lunch, the chain Crepes and Waffles offers an extensive menu ranging from sweet and savoury crepes, waffles, sandwiches, salads and omelettes – as well as a range of hot and cold drinks and there’s also an ice cream bar. The chain is unique as it only employs single mothers as waitresses.
If you like meat, Marzala Restaurant on Calle del Curato is a good choice for dinner. The dynamic Argentinian style restaurant offers large pieces of beef and chicken or there’s also smaller salads. Every inch of the restaurant’s walls is covered with colourful bottletops as well as sporting paraphernalia that’s interesting to take a look at while waiting for your meal. The serving staff are also themed and kitted out in stylish black clothing with hats.
Another dinner option is the Demente Tapas Bar – it’s outside the city walls in a more local part of town. The restaurant has a pleasant beer garden out the back and offers tasty wood fired pizzas as well as a range of filling tapas including octopus, pork and fried cheese.
For drinks after dinner, try the KGB Bar – kitted out in Soviet Era paraphernalia, or El Mirador for its great rooftop bar offering views over the below plaza. Later in the night, try the Havana Club for some dancing. Havana is open Thursday through to Saturday nights.