2019 has just gotten underway. Why not make one of your resolutions to travel more? And while you’re at it, you ought to include Cartagena, Colombia in those plans! Need convincing? Read on for 19 reasons why you should visit Cartagena in 2019.
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1. To Enjoy the Colonial Charm
Cartagena was one of the crown jewels of the Spanish Empire, and it has a beautiful colonial Old Town. Walk the picturesque streets with flowered balconies and big beautiful doors. You can also explore several gorgeous churches.
The colonial architecture really is stunning. It’s part of the reasons Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also, be on the lookout for the unique iguana door knockers. Cartagena’s historic walled city has also been well preserved and is one of the best places to see examples of Spanish colonial architecture.
2. To Take a Stroll on the Iconic City Wall
With that colonial importance, Cartagena was a center of Spanish colonial power and trade. That meant it needed protecting. Walls were erected around the colonial center in the 1600s. That earned the city the nickname of La Ciudad Amurallada (or walled city).
The best part is that nearly the entire wall remains in tact today, and can be explored during your visit. In fact, going for a walk along the wall is one of the must do activities during a visit to Cartagena. The wall also makes for a great spot for numbers 5, 7, and 15 below!
3. To See the Largest Colonial Era Fort in Spanish South America
While formidable, the walls were only part of the defenses of Cartagena. A number of fortifications were built around the city’s bay. The most impressive is the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.
The Castillo San Felipe is the largest colonial fortification in Spanish mainland South America. It sits on a large hill encased in stone. Therefore, it does not have the square form that was customary for forts of the era. That unsymmetrical shape makes it one of the most unique examples of colonial era fortifications in the world.
The fort is open daily and is another must do activity during a visit to Cartagena.
4. To Learn About the City’s History
All those fortifications are there for a reason. Cartagena was attacked numerous times during its history. The most famous attacks are the 1586 sacking of the city by Francis Drake and the successful defense of the city from Edward Vernon in the 1741 Battle of Cartagena.
The city also has a darker side to its history. It was the major site of entry in Spanish South America for African slaves. The city’s unique creole culture today reflects the legacy and impact of slaves and their ancestor’s contributions to the city.
Cartagena also played a leading role in Colombia’s struggle for independence. It was the first to create an independent state in Colombia and it resisted a brutal Spanish siege, earning it the nickname La Heroica.
If you want to learn about the city’s history, I highly recommend visiting the excellent Naval Museum (the best museum in the city) as well as the Inquisition Palace Historic Museum to learn more about the city’s history.
See also: Primer on the History of Cartagena.
5. To Take Some Great Photos
Colonial architecture and old forts are just two of the many great reasons you will want to take lots and lots of pictures when you visit Cartagena.
Make sure you’ve got a camera or your phone charged because Cartagena offers some great scenery for photo ops. Whether posing on one of the colonial streets, atop the wall, or checking out number 7 below, your photos from Cartagena are sure to impress!
See also: 12 Photos You Need to Take in Cartagena
6. To Buy Some Cool (and cheap) Art
With all those great photo ops, there are lots of great subject for art as well. Best of all, it’s plentiful and fairly cheap. There are a number of shops in Old Town that sell art. There are also some nice pieces at the corner by the cathedral and Bolívar square. The galleries near Plaza Santo Domingo also have some great stuff.
*Convinced yet? If so, be sure to check out our Insiders Guide to the Best Areas to Stay!
7. To See Some Beautiful Sunsets
On the Caribbean, it’s no surprise Cartagena boasts some gorgeous sunsets. The sunset can be seen from a number of places in the city, including from the beach and atop the wall.
The sun does set somewhat early (between 5 and 6 p.m.), and it disappears from the horizon quickly. So make sure you don’t miss it! If you’re looking to enjoy a refreshing beverage while you watch, check out our recommendations for where to get sunset drinks in Cartagena.
8. To Get a Tan at the Beach
It’s also not surprising a Caribbean destination offers some great beaches. Calm waters combined with number 10 below make a dip in the sea another must while in Cartagena.
Do watch out for the vendors on the beach, in particular the massage ladies and the oyster sellers (the “free samples” are not really free). The beach past the airport near Hotel Las Americas tends to be less crowded and have fewer vendors. Be sure to check out the graphic that shows the official prices for things at the beach at this link.
While the beaches in the city are ok, the best beaches are actually outside the city proper in Barú and the Rosario Islands. Playa Blanca is beautiful and easily accessible, although it can get crowded. Bendita Beach, on one of the islands is a great spot as well.
9. To Party on a Boat
What’s even better than getting a tan on the beach? Doing it on a boat! Boat rentals for the day are fairly easy and inexpensive to organize in Cartagena, especially if you are with a decent sized group. We recommend heading out to the Rosario Islands for snorkeling before partying at the island of Chol´ón on your boat rental.
Boating Cartagena offers all inclusive boat rentals for the day or just for sunset and for couples or groups of any size. Learn more at their website.
10. To Enjoy the Year Round Warm Temperatures
With average temperatures in the high 80s F (30-32 C for you metric folks), all year, Cartagena has beach and boating weather all year long! Whether you’re looking to escape the winter or extend your summer, it makes for an excellent escape from colder temperatures elsewhere.
Best of all, after enjoying the beach and boating, you’ll be able to come back and put your pasty, pale friends to shame with your tan!
*Convinced yet? If so, be sure to check out our Insiders Guide to the Best Areas to Stay!
11. To Hang Out in Getsemaní
Located just outside the Walled City, Getsemaní has become one of the hippest neighborhoods in all of Colombia. With lots of cafes, bars, and restaurants, it’s a great place to hang out. With a number nightclubs too, it also makes for a great area for number 14 below.
However, my favorite spot in Getsemaní is still the Plaza Trinidad. A public square, it has become a popular hangout. With cheap beers at the corner store and a number of food stalls, it is a cool spot.
12. To Experience the Unique Caribbean Culture
Getsemaní is also considered the cradle of Cartagena’s unique culture. Since it was a center of colonial trade, there was more intercultural exchange in Cartagena than elsewhere in Colombia and Spanish South America. That made it a major cosmopolitan center even during the colonial era. The city’s status as an entry point for so many slaves also led to the African influence on its culture.
Cartagena eventually grew to have a large free black and mixed race class of artisans. Most of them called Getsemaní home. These artisans, like the mulatto independence leader Pedro Romero, are often credited for forging Cartagena’s creole culture. That culture is a mix of African, Spanish, and Indigenous traditions with a healthy dose of international flair thrown in. It is evident in everything from the food, to the music, to the bright and colorful dress.
13. To Enjoy the Independence Festivities and Miss Colombia Pageant
A great chance to see that culture on full display is during the festival held in honor of Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence on November 11, 1811. The city’s role as the leading center of patriotic fervor is celebrated every year with week-long festivities around November 11th.
The highlight of the week is a massive parade featuring lots of colorful costumes. The beauty queens in the Miss Colombia and local Miss Independence pageants also participate.
2018 was the best year I have seen for the festivities with more events than ever open to the public, including several free concerts. Hopefully that continues in 2019. One word of warning, similar to a Carnival, the city does get a bit rowdy during the fiestas. Check out our full guide to the Cartagena Independence Festivities to learn more, including what to watch out for during the festivities.
14. To Dance the Night Away
Even if you can’t make it during the Independence Festivities, there’s always a party on in Cartagena. The city has a vibrant nightlife. There are a number of nightclubs located inside the walled city and along Calle El Arsenal and Calle Media Luna in Getsemaní.
If you want to experience the unique Champeta music indicative of the African influenced creole culture mentioned above, check out Bazurto Social Club. They usually have live music as well as dancing lessons. If you’re looking for Salsa, be sure to check out Cafe Havana, Quiebracanto, or Crazy Salsa. Most other clubs will have a crossover blend of Pop, Salsa, Reggaeton, and Champeta. Mister Babilla, Babar, Tu Candela, and Fragma are among the other most popular.
So, be sure you pack your dancing shoes!
15. To Enjoy the Romantic Atmosphere
Whether dancing the night away with your special someone, holding hands while strolling along those picturesque colonial streets or atop the wall, or watching the beautiful sunsets, Cartagena is perfect for a romantic getaway!
For an especially romantic experience, find one of the window slots along the wall for a private view of the sunset accompanied with the sound of the sea. Also, check out our recommendations for where to have a romantic dinner in Cartagena here.
*Convinced yet? If so, be sure to check out our Insider’s Guide to the Best Areas to Stay in Cartagena!
16. To Eat Some Awesome Food
Even if you’re not with a special someone, you can enjoy some awesome food in Cartagena. With new places opening up constantly, Cartagena is increasingly a foodie destination.
There is just about anything imaginable on offer, from high class, fine dining to street food. There is a variety of traditional, fusion, and international fare. So, if you are a foodie, you will not be disappointed with your time in Cartagena.
Here are some quick recommendations: the ceviche and paellas at La Cevichería are excellent and the fresh, traditional fare at La Mulata and at El Bistro are terrific choices for lunch. For seafood, El Muelle and Club de Pesca are both excellent. For fine dining, check out Marea by Rausch with its gorgeous deck and the awesome food at the Harry Sasson Restaruant in Hotel Santa Teresa.
17. To Try Some Great Tropical Drinks
You will need something to wash all that great food down. Cartagena also has the full compliment of tropical drinks with which to do it. You have to try a Limonada de Coco (coconut limeade) as well as any of the tons of fresh juices available both at stalls on the street and at most restaurants.
If you’re looking for something with a bit of a punch, it should be no surprise that you can find great Piña Coladas and Coco Locos (both pair very well with numbers 7 and 8!). Bonus points for drinking them on the beach out of the coconut! A good mojito or gin and tonic also makes for a refreshing accompaniment to the sunset.
If you’re like me and a beer lover, there is a brewing craft beer scene in both Colombia and Cartagena as well. You can check out our list of a where to get craft beer in Cartagena and Colombian craft beers to try.
18. To Take Advantage of Great Exchange Rates
Most major foreign currencies, including the US dollar, Euro, Pounds Sterling, Canadian dollar, and Australian dollar have maintained extremely favorable exchange rates the past several years. In fact, most have slightly risen at the close of 2018 and start of 2019.
Besides the exchange rate, prices for many things, in particular food and drink, are considerably cheaper. There are, of course, higher priced places (and also extremely cheap places). To give you a reference point, my wife and I can go for dinner for 2 with drinks or a bottle of wine for less than the equivalence of $40 USD, and that would be towards the high end.
With some questions about the continued growth of the global economy and if the price of oil will stay so low (a key factor driving the exchange rates), 2019 makes for the perfect time to visit Colombia and Cartagena to take advantage of these rates while they last!
You can check the latest exchange rates at this link.
19. To Use it as a Jumping Off Point to See More of Colombia
Finally, why stop at Cartagena? The city makes for the perfect gateway to visiting the rest of Colombia!
The entire Caribbean coast is easily accessible by bus and offers several great destinations. I recommend the pretty waterfalls of Minca, the unspoiled beaches of Tayrona National Park, and the relaxed vibes of Palomino, all located near Santa Marta about 5 hours north of Cartagena.
If you’re looking to be a bit more adventurous, head to the desert of La Guajira even farther north. There are some nice beaches around the city of Riohacha. However, the real spectacles are even farther up the peninsula. Cabo de la Vela is the last small town before the farthest point north in South America at Punta Gallinas, a truly beautiful place.
In addition to the coast, there are many other great destinations in Colombia. Bogotá and Medellín offer lots of culture and amenities as modern cities. The coffee growing region’s mountains offer some great scenery, especially the town of Salento. In Santander province, the Chicamocha Canyon is a remarkable spectacle, as is the picturesque town of Barichara. Finally, the beautiful island of San Andres, the jungle and Amazon River of Leticia, and whale watching on the Pacific coast make for great destinations as well.
In sum, there is a ton to see and do in Colombia and with lots of flights in and out of Cartagena, it is the perfect gateway to see it all. Moreover, flights in country are relatively cheap especially on the budget airlines of VivaColombia, Wingo, and LATAM. Even flagship airline Avianca usually has reasonable prices. Buses in country are also doable, but travel times can be long due to the mountainous interior of the country.
There you have it, 19 reasons Cartagena needs to be on your destination list for 2019. I hope they’ve convinced you. If they have, I hope you’ll check out the rest of the site to help plan your trip, and if they haven’t, I hope you will still check out the rest of the site and perhaps you will be convinced.
Happy 2019 and Happy Travels!
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