Strolling through Cartagena’s Old Town is like a treasure hunt. The famous UNESCO World Heritage site invites visitors to explore its maze-like cobbled alleys, flower-filled balconies and 16th century buildings at leisure. What was founded as an important Spanish port in 1533 has now become one of Colombia’s most popular visitor attractions. Cartagena is also a very cultured city, with students attending the music academies and language schools, while artists have taken up residence here. And being a Caribbean destination, its beaches are never far away.
To get a real feel for this Colombian gem, start off in the Old Town. Much has remained of the past, including 11km of colonial protective walls, a major convent dating back to 1607 and a fort that took approximately 120 years to build.
Cartagena has a tumultuous past, and was Spain’s first colonial city on the American continent. It encountered a good number of attacks by pirates and national fleets throughout the centuries. The walls and canons remind us of this turbulent history. Colourful colonial buildings, large plazas and an abundance of nightlife options, on the other hand, show how nowadays the city is vibrant and full of life.
Have a drink at one of the bars while watching residents and visitors make their way around Fully rested, make your way up to Convento de la Popa, a convent built by Augustinian monks in the 1600s. Its location on top of the city’s highest hill ensures that you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views over Cartagena. Take in more city views from the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a mega-fort that was built to protect the city against pirates and other intruders in the 17th and 18th centuries.
A visit to Cartagena wouldn’t be complete without a day trip to the Rosario Islands. This archipelago consists of 27 small, white-sand islands and was declared a Colombian National Park in 1977. What makes the park so special is that its coral reefs, sea flora and fauna, mangroves and lagoons contain over 1,300 species of plants and animals native to the area. You can see these up close in the aquarium (Oceanary), or observe them in their natural environment by taking to the sea for a snorkelling or scuba diving session. Canoeing through the gorgeous mangrove tunnels is another great way to experience the archipelago, and of course there’s nothing wrong with relaxing on the white-sand beaches admiring the turquoise waters.
On your return to the city, one of the options is to take a romantic ride through the Old Town in a horse-drawn carriage. The ride will also take you to the up and coming Getsemani area. Once a notorious neighbourhood for its drugs and prostitution, it's now being described as one of the coolest and most innovative parts of town. Take in the Spanish colonial architecture and street art, sip on a cocktail at one of the public piazzas or take to one of the many dance halls for some cultural entertainment to finish your 48 hours in style.