By Amanda O’Brien of the Luxury Travel Blog
Lovely Cartagena is located on the Carribean coast of Colombia. A couple of years ago articles about Cartagena suddenly began appearing in travel magazines and I was immediately drawn in by the gorgeous coloured houses. I was delighted to discover that this practice is highly recommended by the local government and the owners are expected to keep their houses very colourful and in keeping with those of their neighbour’s.
Cartagena is a lovely little town and very easy to explore. It is a favourite on the cruise ship scene but don’t let that stop you from coming to visit and wandering its lovely back streets. Here are my top five highlights:
Go on a street food tour
I booked a very last minute street food tour and am so pleased that I did! The tour was with Cartagena Connections and was guided by an English guy who had been living in Cartagena for several years. He also runs a restaurant/café in Cartagena so was very knowledgeable about both food and the town.
We started in the old town with classic Colombian street food – patacones which is fried plantain and cheese of course! Then my absolute favourite Colombian street food – slices of mango that have then been doused in fresh lime and salt. This is unbelievably delicious!
This was followed by the classic Colombian street food Arepa. Arepa is essentially corn that has been turned into flour mixed with cheese and then fried on a grill. There are of course a million small variations on this but the classic version is heavy on the melty puffy cheese and very tasty.
The eating highlight of the tour was without question the pork. We entered a tiny restaurant which quite frankly I would never have entered on my own. Sitting on dodgy dirty plastic chairs I had absolutely delicious pork chicharrones or charred pork belly. It did come with a picante sauce but I was not brave enough to try it!
We then moved into the interesting neighborhood of Getsemani. This area has been where the “workers” of Cartagena have traditionally lived or have done their shopping/relaxed before heading home. However foreign investors have moved in and started buying up property which is creating a space squeeze for these locals.
We tried some Colombian queso with jellied guava which is a great taste combination.
The issues faced by these locals provide the inspiration for a lot of the street art around this neighbourhood. It was fantastic that street art information was also provided on this tour.
We ended the tour in a quirky coffee bar Café Mural where you can enjoy a full-on coffee experience. This café is also right in the middle of the key graffiti street in Cartagena so it is a great place for photos.
Eat as much fruit as possible
In general fruit in Colombia is amazing. So fresh, so ripe, so tasty – it is almost like eating chocolate it is so good! Cartagena seems to take this to a whole new level – or perhaps it is the fact that it is so darn hot that means it tastes even better!
There are fruit sellers everywhere. You can have pieces of fruit or have them blended up. I had several lime/lemonades. The lime/lemon that is everywhere in Colombia (I say this as the colour and taste both seem to be halfway between) makes an amazing beverage.
Many vendors also have what the UK would call ice lollies and Australians icy poles. These look like the long plastic tubes of my childhood! The vendor will clip the top of the tube open and you can then either patiently wait for it to melt or you can begin sucking!
And then there are the popsicles. Wow! There are several popsicle stores with circa 70 flavours all displayed as if ready to go on Instagram! Whilst many are fruit flavoured there are also sweet options. Check out La Paletteria for some of the best.
Wander the streets of San Diego with your camera
The classic area of the city centre certainly has some lovely coloured houses. However, my favourite area for capturing the famous coloured houses of Cartagena was definitely San Diego.
Use Calle de los Puntales and the Bohemia Hotel as your starting point. This is the area to wander. Don’t miss Calle de los Sietes Infantes and Calle de Tumba Muertos.
Despite its small size, I found Cartagena had some of the best boutique shopping in Colombia. This is most likely driven by the cruise ship crowds but who cares when there are boutique purchases to be made!
My first stop was St Dom. I had been searching for Colombian perfume brands and discovered Joy Jean Patou. However, the only place that I seemed to be able to purchase it within my trip was St Dom in Cartagena. St Dom had the full female and male ranges and I bought some. The perfumes are very reasonably priced.
St Dom also showcases local designers and there were some stunning options – particularly in resort wear. This was certainly one of the most expensive stores that I visited in Colombia but it had many stunning and memorable pieces.
There is also a lot of street stalls in Cartagena. The majority is, of course, tat, however, there were some really cute super cheap insanely colourful handbags and wallets. I bought one for my 8-year-old niece and she was thrilled. It was actually very well made.
Entreaguas is a Medellin based brand. Their base offer is swimwear but they also have stunning cover-ups as well as a small range of tops and double purpose dresses. The designs are unusual and stunning. A key feature of the range is the use of a macramé style material which is wonderfully unique.
My final stop was Guana Banana. This little boutique also features Colombian designers but at lower prices than Dom. The woman who runs the shop is absolutely delightful and very helpful. They have a mix of swimwear and clothing and I came away with a super cute pair of slides.
La Cevicheria was made famous by well-known tv chef Anthony Bourdain. It is still a tiny restaurant although it also has seating on the street. It is not possible to make reservations so you will need to wait. There was a lovely albeit expensive bar El Coro Lounge across the road where I waited and enjoyed a lovely glass of wine.
Once seated there is quite an extensive seafood menu. However, there was only one option for me – the ceviche! They also have a nice little wine list and lots of cooked fish options for those who don’t like their seafood raw.
Cartagena is a stunning and vibrant little city and well worth a visit.