Weekend Getaway: Cartagena de Indias

I’ve been to Cartagena three times in my life. Once when I was about 7 years old (my memories consist of the hotel pool), once for work (the company I worked for paid for everything), and again towards the end of last year for a proper vacation (I was in the right place at the right time and won two nights at the Hotel Las Américas!). So basically, I’ve managed to visit this beautiful city almost entirely on someone else’s expense three times…pretty good for not even trying.

A room with a view...

A room with a view…

So, of course we stayed at the Hotel Las Américas, a world-class hotel and convention center right on the beach (Currently nominated for Best Hotel in Colombia – Premios La Barra 2013). It has two parts: the older Casa de Playa and the very new and shiny Torre del Mar.  Casa de Playa has a more family resort feel to it and Torre del Mar is brand-spanking new, modern and has an awesome 10th floor adults-only pool (fantastic views!). Aside from the hotel’s amenities, the staff was incredibly friendly and accomodating and the food was delicious albeit a bit pricey…this is Cartagena, after all.

We took our bags to our fancy ocean view room and then went immediately down to the beach…

Hotel Las Américas

BTW, you can follow Bogotá Eats & Drinks on Instagram – BogotaEats

On any beach in Cartagena you are likely to encounter vendors (jewelry, clothes, food, etc.) and they will inevitably try to get as much money out of you as possible. Word to the wise: settle (haggle) on a price before you accept any “free samples” of deliciously fresh crab or oysters.  All vendors tend to be very friendly at first but they are also very persistent (they are trying to make a living after all). Be nice but don’t be an easy target either. We were still fresh off the plane and thus ended up shelling out a chunk of cash before the hotel’s beach security guard came to our rescue. Yes, there is a security guard for this particular reason…

Buying ceviche de camarón from a beach vendor.

Buying ceviche de camarón from a beach vendor.

On another note, the Hotel Las Américas website lists no less than sixteen bars and restaurants – and that’s not including the new one that’s opening soon with a Michelin starred chef. For someone who loves to eat, this can result in a lengthy decision-making process. Where to eat? Fortunately the choice was clear – Kiosco Cielo Mar - right on the beach. I ordered the best Shrimp Coconut Rice ever (I’m very close to recreating the recipe!). Of course I also had about as much limonada de coco (coconut lemonade) as humanly possible – you can’t go to Cartagena and not have this drink. Forget your diet and sip away!

Beachfront dining

Beachfront dining

Now, you can’t (and absolutely shouldn’t) stay at the resort the entire time you’re in Cartagena. Hotel Las Américas is a short drive from Cartagena’s colonial walled city and fortress (UNESCO World Heritage site) and they offer a very convenient free shuttle service to and from the beautiful ciudad amurallada throughout the day. We went into town for dinner one night, to visit the Castillo San Felipe the next day and then in the late afternoon we took a bike tour with Vélo Tours.

Getting to know Cartagena by bike, or getting to know ANY city by bike (see the Top 5 Things I did in Boston post), is simply the best way to get to know a place. If you are in Cartagena for a few days I’d recommend doing a tour like this one in order to get a better feel for the city. It starts to cool down after 3pm and you can enjoy watching the sun set from some beautiful spots.

Velo Bike Tours Other musts while in Cartagena include the obvious Castillo San Felipe de Barajas,  the Convento de la Popa, a convent founded in 1607 which overlooks the city, and strolling the beautifully preserved streets of the ciudad amurallada. Needless to say there are dozens of things to do and museums to visit and festivals throughout the year that I’ve never experienced. Coming from chilly Bogotá makes me just want to sit on the beach or by the pool the entire time – I was just starting to thaw out when we had to come back home.

View from atop the Castillo San Felipe with it's enormous flag.

View from atop the Castillo San Felipe with it’s enormous flag.

La popa cartagena

The beautiful courtyard of La Popa.

In terms of eats and drinks, there are so many options. Somehow on this trip, food became secondary to other activities. I did manage to make a quick visit to a little place called Donde Fidel at one end of the Portal de Los Dulces in the Plaza de los Coches (stock up on the local sweets while you’re there). You’ll find locals, salsa music and ice cold beer at this place. It’s low key and one of my favorite watering holes in town.

The sound system at Donde Fidel...and a must-have beer.

The sound system at Donde Fidel…and a must-have beer.

And finally, on our last day in Cartagena we took to the water. You can book a trip to Playa Blanca for the day (I recently found out that you can sleep there too which lets you enjoy the beach before and after the throngs of people and boats and vendors arrive). The cost of the day trip includes rountrip transportation by boat to the beach and lunch.

playa blanca lunch

Lunch at Playa Blanca – you can also buy ceviches, fresh fruit, coconut water and sweets from the many beach vendors.

After a whole day of ocean and beach we were in dire need of a shower before boarding the plane back to Bogotá. Fortunately the very kind people at Hotel Las Américas let us use their spa showers and changing rooms to get travel-ready (although all I really wanted to do was get a massage at the spa)…

We made it to the airport with plenty of time to have some ceviche at Ceviche Rico – apparently something all high-profile travelers, like ourselves, like to do. Not a bad way to bid farewell to such a lovely city…

A beautiful balcony in Cartagena de Indias

A beautiful balcony in Cartagena de Indias

Now, my only question is — who is going to take me to Cartagena next?

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9 Responses to Weekend Getaway: Cartagena de Indias

  1. Stan says:

    You have written a very nice and informative blog. Thanks,

  2. leothelion says:

    i miss living there. so peaceful! buena gente

  3. Paige says:

    I was just in Cartagena for the FICCI. I love Cartagena and can’t wait to get back there soon. It’s good to get some feedback about el Hotel las Americas. We’ve thought of staying there before, but didn’t know if the cost was really worth it :) Thanks!

    • dholguin says:

      Cartagena is lovely! I really enjoyed my stay at Las Americas although I wouldn’t normally be able to afford staying there — it was quite a treat! It all depends on the traveller’s expectations and limitations I guess. Glad you enjoyed Colombia!

  4. Mel says:

    31 days until I am in Cartagena! I am reading through your blog for information on Bogota, but I also appreciate this information on Cartagena :)

  5. Cartagena was a very expensive tourist trap filled with trash and US backpackers. Can’t really recommend it to anyone else but for rich US backpackers looking for a luxury holiday in a Colombian junk yard.

    • dholguin says:

      Wow, are you sure you were in Cartagena? I’ve never heard such a strong negative opinion about Cartagena. Sorry your experience was so terrible. It is expensive, there is some trash, I guess, but you two have travelled to India and it’s not as bad as that, and a rich backpacker is a new concept to me. I suppose we were in very different places. Better luck next time…if there is a next time :(

      • US $60 for a dorm bed in a genuine backpacker hostel in not from this planet. In India we paid US $6 for a double room with shared bathroom in Kolkata which was a bit similar place. Anyway, we are glad that we went there and don’t have to go back. So far Cartagena is among the lowest value places we have visited in the past eight years and 70 countries.

    • I’m shocked to read this comment as well. What time of the year did you go and how long ago was this? I’ve been to Cartagena 3 times, stayed at different hotels, and during different times of the year and had great experiences.

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