1. THE HISTORY3,000 years of history can’t be ignored. The region around Cartagena was home to Colombia’s first indigenous people, the Caribs, who created the settlement of Calamarí, and the Zenú, who mined gold here. Admire their finds at the Zenú Gold Museum, learn about Colombia’s indigenous people at the History Museum inside the Palace of the Inquisition, and pay homage to the city’s first inhabitants with a stop at the India Catalina monument.
Spanish sailors founded Cartagena over the remnants of abandoned Calamarí in 1533, transforming it into one of the most important port cities of the Americas. Immerse yourself in the vestiges of Spanish colonialism around the Old Town, A UNESCO World Heritage Site defined by iconic stone walls and fortifications, and at the impressive 16th-century Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, built to protect the city from invaders like the era’s pesky pirates.
2. THE WATERFRONTOne of the best parts of Cartagena? Its prime location on Colombia’s prized Caribbean coast. Make the most of it on the city’s best beaches. Cool down after days of urban discovery with a dip off shores surrounding the city, like famous Bocagrande with its backdrop of sleek skyscrapers, the more upscale Castillogrande, and the more secluded and relaxed Manzanillo del Mar.
Short boat trips zip you away to the area’s star playas. Playa Blanca steals the show over on Barú Island, just south of Cartagena, with its famous stretch of sugar-fine sand inviting all types of water thrills. A bit further away lie the Rosario Islands, one of Colombia’s national parks and a dreamy archipelago comprised of some of the Caribbean’s most stunning beaches. For a different angle on the city, opt for nearby Punta Arena on Tierra Bomba Island, the closest to the city, offering Cartagena views with your swim.
3. THE CUISINECartagena has quickly become Colombia’s top culinary destination, from the world-class restaurants of its swanky resorts to the amazing street food peddled across town. Mouth-watering must-trys include arepas, patacones (fried plantains), empanadas and, most importantly, seafood, served fresh off the beach or in beloved dishes like Cazuela de Mariscos (seafood stew).
Resto recos? We’ve got you. Don’t leave without sampling ceviche at La Cevicheria or El Boliche. For fine dining, treat yourself to the sublime gastronomy served at Carmen or Don Juan. La Cocina de Pepina perfects traditional favourites, while Juan del Mar Restaurante and Candé add a side of fiery live music to your mains and Caffe Lunatico is a casual, laid-back choice for inventive tapas.
4. THE CULTURECartagena’s culture is as vibrant as the eye-popping colours of its architecture. Its joyous festivals and raucous nightlife turn up the heat long after the sun has set. Music lovers, move on over to the Bazurto Social Club to discover the infectious beats of champeta, an Afro-inspired genre that originated here, or shake it to the live salsa bands spicing up venues like Café Havana and Quiebra Canto in the bohemian neighbourhood of Getsemaní.
Bookworms, get litt around the streets that inspired the magical realism of beloved Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s novels. Stop by Gabo-approved stops like the Plaza Fernández de Madrid and the Plaza Bolívar. The literary Hay Festival that takes place every winter is also worth pencilling in. It’s easily one of Cartagena’s best, along with November’s Independence Festival (celebrating Independence Day), Storyland (an electronic music festival) and the Cartagena International Film Festival.
Pro-tip: Plan a visit to the Adolfo Mejía Theatre for cultural events in the most stunning theatre in town.
5. THE NATURE BREAKSYou don’t have to venture very far from Cartagena to see some of Colombia’s exotic landscapes. Off the beaten path, but definitely worth the trek, the sublime Tayrona National Natural Park, located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, welcomes you to its dense rainforests with epic jungle hikes and colourful wildlife (monkeys! Toucans! Jaguars! Oh my!).
Closer to the city, the canals around the fishing village of La Boquilla are ideal for paddling through mangrove forests and tunnels. Dive into…mud (!) at the nearby El Totumo Mud Volcano for a very unique, therapeutic and messy dip in this mini-volcano’s naturally heated, mud-filled caldera. Explore a different type of Colombian landscape underwater! Dive sites worth a day trip include the marine reef around Salmedina Banks or the treasure-laden spots surrounding the Barú and Múcura islands.
What’s NextPlan a family trip to Cartagena by checking out our Family Collection or enjoy exclusive perks with the hotels or resorts part of the Spotlight Collection.
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