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.
Your edit for Latin American inspiration
Our exciting range of articles on Latin America explore everything from iconic destinations and lesser-known cultural gems to delicious traditional recipes. You’ll also find exclusive travel tips, first-hand client reviews and the chance to get your personal questions answered by our travel experts.View Extraordinary Inspiration
Real Latin America Experts
Kathryn Rhodes - Travel Expert
Kathryn backpacked across Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru before joining us. She has a degree in Philosophy and French and is a keen netball player.
Carrie Gallagher - Travel Expert
A former JLA tour leader, Carrie brings a wealth of on-the-ground experience to our London-based Tailor-made and Group Tours department.
Paul Winrow-Giffin - Travel Expert
After graduating in Computer Science, Paul spent seven months travelling from Colombia to Argentina and came home hooked on Latin America.
Chris Rendell-Dunn - Travel Expert
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.
Hannah Waterhouse - Travel Expert
Hannah had an early introduction to Latin America when her family moved to Ecuador and she returned to study in Buenos Aires for a year before backpacking across the continent.
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.