If you enjoy colonial towns, Cartagena is one of the best to visit. It's hot and humid most of the year. The architecture is stunning. The colors are vibrant. The food and beverage is fish, seafood and really fun – and oh, by the way, it’s delicious. The locals are welcoming. It's a major tourist trap - but I don't care. I love it here!!!
Founded as a major port in 1533, the city was originally known as Cartagena de Indias - named after the city of Cartagena, Spain, which itself was named after Carthage in Tunisia. The walled city and fortress became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.
There are some amazing sites outside the walls such as the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas and the Convento de la Popa, each with commanding views of the region and the Mediterranean. But it’s the Old Town that garners my attention. What personality! It’s got a life all its own.
I recently spent four days here, at the Alfiz Boutique Hotel located within the walls, with my daughter and daughter-in-law. Early morning, as the sun is rising and the day is still a little cool, is a great time to stroll the streets and take it all in – the architecture, the colors, the narrow streets, the balconies, the extravagant doors and door knockers (or aldabas in Spanish). The lighting is perfect for photographing the Old Town’s personality. It’s quiet and peaceful. The shopkeepers are busy getting their stores ready for the day. There are not many tourists out at this time – probably recovering from the previous evening at one of the many restaurants and clubs within, or even a little outside, the walls.
To me, the 16th century colonial architecture, the vibrant colors, the feeling of being in a place that takes you back a few hundred years ago is the hook that brings you to this place – and makes you want to return again someday. The buildings are similar, yet they are so different – each one with its large doors (and the smaller, more functional, door that restricts the heat and humidity from coming in), the attention gathering door knockers which indicated family status and wealth back in the colonial days, the bougainvilleas that drape the wooden balconies and many of the locals in traditional costumes. It makes you feel like you’ve stepped back hundreds of years ago.
One of my favorite spots in the Old Town is the Iglesias de San Pedro Claver and the adjacent plaza. I love the bronze figures in front of it. The beautiful plaza makes for an enchanting dining spot in the evening.
Due to the heat and the humidity, which can be a little stifling, early and late are the best times to be out and about. Mornings are a great time for a stroll and a photo shoot around the city, sipping on a morning latte at an outdoor café (or in the garden of your hotel) or even searching for bargains before the shops get crowded. Late in the day, the town comes alive and is a great time for cooling off with your favorite beverage. There are a couple of restaurants/bars on top of the wall overlooking modern Cartagena (with all its high rises) and the Med. Grab a chair, have a drink and soak in the atmosphere all while watching the sun set over the sea. It’s a beautiful place to be.
Next, move to one of the many cafes and restaurantes where fish and seafood are abundantly displayed on the menu. After lunching one day at Restaurante Cande, just a block from our hotel, we returned a different day for dinner. Sitting in their middle courtyard under their canopy as the evening was cooling off, we shared various apps and entrees and then sat back and enjoyed their evening salsa show. If you’re looking for something a little different, you can find it here. One evening, we visited El Burlador de Sevilla – a Spanish restaurante with flamenco dancing. The white Sangria, which the server makes tableside, is refreshing and oh so good!
If you get the chance, don’t miss an opportunity to take the time machine back several hundred years.