How to spend 48 hours in Cartagena
Cartagena, Jewel of the Caribbean, is a dazzling beauty born from a brutal past.
Colonised by the Spanish in the 16th century, much of the riches of the Americas passed through Cartagena’s port, as did countless slaves. Today, it’s Colombia’s most visited destination, a tropical, sun-kissed, World Heritage-listed walled city bursting with colour and movement. Here’s what awaits you on a 48-hour sojourn in this mesmerising city.
Early morning dip and breakfast at La Esquina del Pandebono
8am: Wake up and luxuriate in your surrounds at Casa San Agustin, a gorgeous 31-room hotel spread across three whitewashed houses in the heart of the old city. Freshen up in the pool that runs beneath an aqueduct before grabbing a light breakfast of pastries across the street at La Esquina del Pandebono.
Drive to Convento de la Popa
9.30am: Hire a guide and driver to take you to Convento de la Popa, a 400-year-old Augustinian convent atop the highest hill in Cartagena. It’s no Everest but affords panoramic sea and city views. A revered statue of the Virgen de la Candelaria, the city’s patroness, is housed here.
Climb to the top of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
11am: Next, the hulking Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the most impressive of South America’s forts. Built in the 17th century, it was the crowning glory of Spanish colonial military architecture, with near impregnable defenses. A short climb takes you to the top of the battlements and affords glorious views of the city – it’s great at sunset, too.
Lunch at La Cocina de Pepina
12.30pm: Get dropped off for a hearty lunch at La Cocina de Pepina, an institution for Caribbean-Colombian food in the boho-hip Getsemani district. Order the bandeja de entradas, a mixed selection of entrees that include stuffed sweet peppers and fresh fish ceviche, and the mote de’ queso, a thick soup made with yam and Creole cheese. Finish with an espresso at Libertario Coffee Roasters for a taste of Colombia’s world-famous coffee.
Marvel at beautifully preserved colonial architecture
2pm: Burn calories by strolling back to the old town via the Parque Centenario, where you might spot a sloth; whatever you do, don’t feed the monkeys. Exit in front of the Torre del Reloj, topped by a clock tower, the main gateway into the Centro Histórico and walled city.
Here, streets and squares abound with beautifully preserved colonial architecture and bougainvillea bursts forth everywhere. Highlights include Plaza de la Aduana, the largest and oldest square in the old town, and Santuario de San Pedro Claver, a 17th-century church named after a Jesuit priest who ministered to slaves.
Nearby is the lush and lovely Plaza de Bolívar, dedicated to Simón Bolívar, the ‘Liberator’ of Colombia and its neighbours from Spanish colonisers. While here, pop into the Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría, or Cartagena Cathedral, and the Museo del Oro Zenú (Gold Museum), which tells the story of Colombia’s Indigenous people through gold.
Note: the women in colourful dresses you see carrying fruit baskets on their heads are palenqueras. Pay if you want to take photos of them, it’s how they earn a living.
Chill at Townhouse Hotel for a sundowner
5pm: Sunset always comes early in Cartagena (around 6pm). Head over to the rooftop at the Townhouse Hotel for a well-deserved cocktail while looking across the domes and rooftops of the old city. If you’d rather people-watch, swing by El Barón, a gem of a cocktail bar back at Plaza de San Pedro Claver.
Dinner at Celele
6.30pm: Book ahead for dinner at Celele, a regular on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Chef Jaime Rodríguez wows with his style of modern Colombian-Caribbean cooking and everything on the menu sounds delicious. Don’t go past the ridiculously pretty flower salad, made with more than 15 types of flowers, or the pork confit terrine with beans, cabbage, chives and a rich broth. Pair your meal with the excellent cocktails on offer.
Salsa dancing at Café Havana in Getsemani
9.30pm: Colombians can’t live without music or dancing, so a night out on the tiles is a must. The Afro-Caribbean sounds of champeta might be homegrown, but salsa rules, nowhere more so than at Café Havana in Getsemani. Although touristy, the club hosts the best live bands, which will have you swinging your hips in no time.
Breakfast at Alma restaurant, Casa San Agustin
9am: If you’re feeling a little dusty from the night before, ease yourself into the day with a leisurely breakfast at Casa San Agustin’s Alma restaurant, one of the best in town. Order the arepa de huevo, a local staple of deep-fried corn arepa stuffed with egg.
Shop for handcrafted souvenirs
10am: Time for retail therapy, starting at El Centro Artesano, a credit card’s toss from the hotel. It’s the place for handcrafted baskets, textiles, hats, jewellery, souvenirs and more, with your money supporting Indigenous artisans and communities.
Nearby, St. Dom is the go-to for fashion, accessories, homeware and objects from the finest Latin American designers. And La Serrezuela is a shopping mall like no other, a sensitively redeveloped former theatre and bullfighting ring that’s home to top independent Colombian brands.
Mediterranean lunch at Blue Apple Beach Club
12.30pm: By now, you might be thinking ‘beach’, but Cartagena’s are rather ho-hum. Instead, take a 20-minute boat ride to Blue Apple Beach Club on the island of Tierra Bomba. Visitors can book day access and start with a Mediterranean lunch at the restaurant before chilling out on a sun lounger or cabana for the afternoon.
Alternatively, head to Carmen, a buzzing courtyard restaurant where chef Felipe Trujillo turns out creative Colombian-Caribbean fare such as crab, shrimp and lobster empanadas and a comforting cazuela de mariscos, or seafood stew.
Visit the spa at Sofitel Legend Santa Clara
3pm: Time for some pampering at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, a luxurious hotel with one of the largest spas in town. Guests who book the spa day package have access to the hotel pool, jacuzzi and fitness facilities in addition to its treatments for the face or body.
Enjoy a sundowner with views of the Caribbean Sea
Dine in the courtyard at AniMare
7pm: In a city blessed with good-looking restaurants, AniMare is among the prettiest. Diners sit in a romantic Moroccan-inspired courtyard and feast upon modern takes on ancestral cuisine, which translates to dishes such as wood-fired chicken with corn tamale, or a dessert of corn flan and cheese ganache.
Enjoy the vibrant nightlife
9pm: Hopefully the queues won’t be too long at Alquímico, crowned The Best Bar in South America by the World’s 50 Best voters, and for good reason. Spread over three levels of a restored mansion, each floor has a different cocktail menu and vibe, and it’s all fabulous; by the time you get to the rooftop, it’s a party.
Midnight If you still have gas left in your tank, boogie on down to La Movida, the flashiest nightclub in town. This is one venue you should look your best to impress.