Known for its brightly painted buildings, cobbled streets and Caribbean coastal location, Cartagena has a rich history and plenty of places to explore. Here are the five essentials for your first visit.
Wander through the rainbow-hued streets of the Ciudad Amurallada (Walled City) to get a taste of Cartagena’s heritage. The historic Spanish colonial buildings here are so heavily protected that residents need to ask permission to paint their houses a different colour. Pay close attention to the knockers on the doors to see who lived there: fish or other sea creatures meant a member of the sea merchant community, lions were for the military, lizards for high society and hands for the clergy.
Explore the behemoth of Spanish colonial fortresses, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, 40 metres up on San Lázaro hill. Built over the course of 150 years spanning the 17th and 18th centuries, it was the biggest fort in South America – basically, you can’t miss it. Be sure to explore the spooky, complex warren of tunnels underneath, built so noise travelled along them, which made it easy to communicate inside – and to hear any invaders.
For a taste of regional-meets-experimental Colombian cuisine, try Celele Proyecto Caribe Lab. Its two accomplished chefs travelled the Caribbean coast in search of authentic indigenous food, and brought back with them a host of innovative cooking methods and flavours. The result? Sundried shrimp rice with goat stewed in coconut milk from La Guajira, and San Andrés Island style crab empanadas with pineapple hot sauce. All served in an upscale, atmospheric space. Don’t miss the Caribbean-inspired cocktails either, with their daring flavour combinations – a Chivato combines Campari with a cane sugar syrup liquor from La Guajira and mole bitters, while the Bebedizo is tequila-based with sour guava and plantain vinegar shrub.
Getsemani is Cartagena’s buzzy party district. Follow the locals to Holy Trinity Square for a weekend street beer while you soak up the atmosphere – and the Caribbean evening warmth. Or if you’re in the mood for a dance, head to Café Havana for its Cuban flag bunting, 1950s iconography, stacks of Havana Club bottles and twinkly fairy lights. Sink a Mojito before dancing to hip-winding live rhythms from the salsa band – or, if you’re not a dancer, it’s still a fantastic spot to people-watch. It’s popular with both locals and visitors.
Upscale colonial-style Hotel Casa San Agustín is set across three restored 17th-century houses in Cartagena’s Old Town. Its focal point is an aquamarine mosaic-tiled pool in the centre courtyard, lined with skinny palms and intersecting an original wall, plus there’s a solarium on the roof for catching afternoon rays. Rooms are filled with luxe touches, such as Ortigia products and pillow menus, while design highlights include original frescoes and centuries-old wooden beams, punctuated with intricately-patterned Spanish-meets-Moroccan-style tiles.
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Sophie Barber - Travel Expert
Sophie lived in Chile before joining us and has travelled extensively across Latin America, from Mexico to the furthest tip of Patagonia and beyond to Antarctica.
Ben Line - Travel Expert
Ben fell in love with Latin America on a six month backpacking trip from Colombia to Mexico in 1995. Since then he has explored most of South America, including living in Peru for a year. He is now Head of Sales.
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Anglo-Peruvian Chris grew up in Lima and spent much of his adult life in between London and Cusco as a tour leader, before settling permanently in our London-based Tailor-made and Group Tours sales team.
Lina Fuller - Travel Expert
Lina's passion for the continent where she was born really took off when she moved to Córdoba (Argentina) to study, spending the holidays travelling between Argentina and her native Colombia.
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It's hard to believe that Evie has had time to cram so much in to her life so far. Having lived as a child in the Americas and Europe she found herself immediately attracted to Latin America.
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Having spent part of her childhood in Colombia and worked in Brazil and Costa Rica, Hannah's ties to Latin America run deep. Hannah is a much valued Travel Expert in our Tailor-made Holidays and Group Tours sales team.