CartagenaCartagena is the undisputed queen of Colombia's Caribbean coast and easily the most attractive city in the region — this given its apparent shortage of attractions in the classical sense of the word. Instead, what draws travellers in is the city itself: a microcosm of the Caribbean, walled in by defensive ramparts built to ward off unwelcome visitors, the likes of Sir Francis Drake, who held Cartagena de Indias captive for months during his 16th-century raids on the Spanish New World.
The CityCartagena's beginnings as a major hub of slave trade in the Americas has had a long-lasting impact on the city's social make-up. Over time it has created a tantalising mix of cultural influences that are manifested in its cuisine and music. Time runs slow on Cartagena's inviting squares, where locals play dominoes while tourists hunt for the perfect shot of the incredibly photogenic 'planenqueras' in the background. Most tours of the city start with an exploration of Cartagena's incredibly attractive Old Town, soon followed by a dive into Getsemani, the best of city neighbourhoods to watch local life unfold, both before and after dark. San Diego is another area of the city favoured by visitors, in part due to its high number of solid and affordable accommodation options, while the aforementioned Getsemani remains a top nightlife pick for many, given its abundance of bars and dance clubs that offer a great taste of Cartagena's take on pura vida. Cartagena is heralded as the most attractive urban destination of the Caribbean, and having walked its beautifully preserved colonial streets, there remains little doubt as to why. Cumbia music fills the air in Cartagena's absurdly beautiful Old Town, while locals enjoy leisurely chats in inviting town squares, street vendors peddle their wares (look out for the incredibly photogenic palenqueras!), and vacationers explore streets lined with well-preserved colonial buildings, their balconies deluged with striking fuchsia-coloured veranera. The first free town in the Americas founded by slave trade escapees — San Basilio de Palenque — is just an hour's drive from here.
RestaurantsFrom crispy deep-fried arepas to elaborate seafood dishes featuring fresh catch of the day (ceviche is the dish, perhaps, most sought-after), there is no shortage of scrumptious foods to try in Cartagena, Colombia. The classic is a fried fish platter, featuring a whole tilapia with a side of coconut rice and fried plantain — you'll be hard-pressed to find a local restaurant that doesn't list it on its menu.
Do & See
There is a great deal of things to do in Cartagena, even if simply taking a stroll through the city's beautifully preserved Old Town with a distinct colonial flare. Some of the highlights include an obligatory visit to the imposing Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a walk along Cartagena's defensive ramparts, a trip to the chilling Inquisition Palace (which still contains the original torture devices used to extract "confessions"), and a deep dive into the incredibly hip neighbourhood of Getsemani, teeming with eateries and bars where locals mix and mingle with guests from far and wide.
Although Colombia exports some of the world's finest coffee beans, it is only as of recently that these have become increasingly available to country natives, rather than shipped off to be sold abroad. Beans that don't reach export quality continue to get brewed as the ubiquitous 'tinto' (which translates to "ink water"): a popular brew that's sold at every cafe and street corner, and often needs plenty of sugar to camouflage the bitterness. Colombia's budding coffee culture, spearheaded by young entrepreneurs, aims to introduce Colombians to unique flavour profiles originating in their own lands. Colombian beans are famously on the acidic side, with pronounced citrus notes (although coffee that comes from Colombia's north is known to be relatively less acidic, with more body). In Cartagena, one of the best places for an in-depth acquaintance with modern Colombian coffee culture is Café San Alberto, which offers a number of thematic workshops and courses (including tours of the plantation in Quindio, where all of their beans come from); for something quick and easy there are also multiple outlets of Juan Valdez Cafe (dubbed "the Colombian Starbucks").
Bars & Nightlife
Cartagena is a blast to explore after dark: rhythms that were made for dancing sound from nearly every open door in Getsemani, setting the mood for a party that lasts into the early hours. If dancing is your thing, there is no shortage of salsa bars to explore (some even offer salsa dancing courses to those who are serious enough about the art), as well as places where champeta is the dance of choice (Bazurto Social Club is the place to be for the latter). For a low-key evening, kick back and enjoy a drink or two in an outdoor terrace of one of Cratagena's many inviting plazas.
Must-buys range from food stuffs to hand-crafted accessories and interior decor items. Coffee tops the list of the former, given that Colombian beans are among the world's most revered. Beans from all corners of the country may be purchased in Cartagena, but if you're looking for as local as it gets, look for beans from the Quindio region (Café San Alberto is the primary distributor). Other edibles (and drinkables) include Colombian chocolate, made with regionally harvested cocoa beans, and drinks like Aguardient, the Colombian national drink with a potent tone of anis, and rum. Fruit will likely prove difficult to transport, but it's definitely worth purchasing and sampling some of the local favourites like mango, soursop and granadilla. Hammocks, mochila bags and leather goods are some of the other best things to buy in Cartagena (and Colombia in general), and if you're looking for that extra something special, emeralds may be a great item to purchase — Colombia is the world's largest producer, and great deals are to be had.