Traveler: Danielle Gervalis
When: May 2017
Overall Experience: This colorful city is one of the best places to wander around without a plan. The old city is compact enough you won’t get very far before you stumble upon a shady plaza, historical monument or welcoming café.
Getting there and around: I took a quick one hour flight from Panama City to Cartagena. Once through customs and I had my bags, grabbed an Uber to the old part of the city which is a stone’s throw from the old part of town.
While Ubers are abundant, once you are in the old city, the best way to get around is walking. The streets are narrow and congested and the traffic can back up pretty quickly due to vendors pushing carts in the streets and tourists walking around.
We stayed at the boutique Hotel Alfiz in the historic center. The building dates back to the 17th century and has eight different rooms. The hotel has a mini-library where you can make tea and coffee, a small but refreshing pool, an alcove with a cozy hammock, and a rooftop deck and Jacuzzi. The rooms are large wide open spaces with high ceilings, air conditioning and really comfortable beds. We stayed in the Conquistador which is one the first level and has the largest bathtub I have ever seen.
A substantial breakfast is included in the reservation, you’ll feast on fresh fruit, toast, yogurt and omelets with coffee and tropical juices every morning! You’ll be fueled for a full day of site seeing. Finally, the staff at the Alfiz are top notch. Everyone was incredibly kind and helpful – assisting with making reservations and providing recommendations.
Things to Do and See:
Walking around the Old City – The best part of visiting Cartagena is exploring the city streets! There is a vibrancy to the city reflected in the colorful houses, street vendors and insane door knockers. I’ve never taken so many pictures of strangers’ homes before!
- Buy the colorful bags from the street vendors. They are $15 cheaper than in the store
- Las Bovedas Market – If you are looking for artisan crafts, this place is a must visit. There are a ton of different vendors selling artwork to jewelry. It’s located on the edge of the old city so once you are finished shopping you can walk along the beach back to the center of town and enjoy the sea views and a nice breeze!
- Chocolate Museum – I didn’t actually tour the museum part but the store part was fun to walk around and there were lots of samples to taste. It was a great place to pick up gifts and I found some amazing coco butter lotion that makes the entire house smell like coco.
- There are free performances (tips are appreciated) in various plazas held throughout the day. I couldn’t find a schedule for these but when stumbled upon them, we happily stopped and watched for a few songs
- La Gordita, the Fat Lady – This famous work of art by Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero, who is known for the exaggerating the size of figures, located in the Plaza de Santo Domingo. His work is popular world-wide and there is no shortage of appreciation for this particular sculpture in his home country
- El Portal de los Dulces – Have a sweet tooth? Then you must head to this arched area under the colonial buildings in the Plaza de los Coches. You will find an entire strip of confectionary treats.
The Inquisition Museum – This beautiful building originally hosted the Punishment Tribunal of the Holy Office and is a historical monument of the religious fevor that swept Colombia during the 17th century. Almost 900 were tried here as heretics, five of which were sentenced to burn at the stake. Located in the Plaza de Bolivar it’s under $7 to tour and well worth a visit, even if you want to just escape from the heat! Most signs are in English but you can also pay for a guided tour. The museum has quite a few interesting artifacts related to the torture devices used during the Inquisition. It does an excellent job challenging the visitor to consider “the other” and reconcile how those concepts and judgements still exist in the present.
Castillo de San Filipe de Barajas – Completed at the end of VXII century after attacks by both the French and English, this domineering fortress sits on top of San Lazaro Hill. Get ready to sweat from the uphill climb to the top of the fort where you are rewarded with sweeping views of the city. The fortress was engineered by Antonio de Arevalo and contains capacity for 62 cannons, sentry boxes, and a series of tunnels designed to hide explosives to detonate in case enemies attempted to scale the fortress! It costs under $9 to visit and there are guided tours for an extra fee. It is a popular tourist attraction in the city so of course there are lots of folks hawking junk to tourists. We went on a hot and humid day and were dripping in sweat so be mindful of the weather. Aside from the view, the coolest part was exploring the myriad of pitch black tunnels within the fortress. It felt like we were back in time and 10 stories underground!
Zenú Gold Museum – The gold museum turned out to be an unexpected highlight of the trip. A wonderfully air conditioned building filled with beautiful displays demonstrating the artisanship of the indigenous Zenú people of Colombia. This culture existed in Colombia from 200 BC to after 1600. They were known for their advanced engineering techniques and canal construction as well as their gold ornaments. The museum is free and has multiple rooms filled with priceless artifacts.