Nestled on the spectacular Caribbean coast in northern Colombia, Cartagena is a magical blend of historic fortifications, elegant courtyards, fine dining and glittering nightlife.
Colombia's most-visited city is also the country's biggest port and its extensive fortifications are one of its main attractions. The 17-foot thick walls survived raids by pirates and invaders and today, its walled old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cartagena de Indias is also one of the most stylish holiday spots in South America. The old town, El Centro, has been given a makeover; its graceful convent courtyards and colonial casas have been transformed into exclusive boutique hotels that attract both South American and international celebrities.
Whether you want sun, sea, and sand, fine dining and dazzling nightlife or a wealth of historic attractions, there are plenty of great reasons to visit Cartagena.
Enter the historic walled city at the Puerta del Reloj, or clock tower gate, and wander the narrow, cobbled streets, where exquisite architecture, horse-drawn carriages, majestic cathedrals, and elegant squares are complemented by flower-strewn balconies and friendly open-air cafes. Must-see sites include the Palace of the Inquisition and Las Bovedas, an 18th-century dungeon where the cells have been converted into shops.
Brightly colored chiva buses trundle through the city accompanied by the carnival-like beat of local music. Everyone loves the chivas and couples, families, and groups of friends can find departure points in several locations, including tourist hotels like the Hilton, Decameron, and Caribe by Faranda. Take a chiva tour to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, an immense fort that took over 120 years to build and you'll be allowed into the tunnels that kept troops safe during times of conflict.
Watch the beautiful people on Bocagrande, the city's main beach, escape from the crowds at Castillogrande or try one of the many activities and water sports on offer at El Laguito. Alternatively, hop on a boat to the exquisite beaches of the nearby Rosario Islands or beautiful Playa Blanca on the city's largest island. With miles and miles of beaches to choose from, you're sure to find the perfect spot.
The Old Town and Bocagrande are Cartagena's main tourist areas and they couldn't be more different. The Old Town is defined by its 16th-century Spanish Colonial architecture while the luxury condos and high-rises that line the beach at Bocagrande are right up to date. Stop for a drink at Cafe Del Mar on the ancient northern ramparts for views over the sea, busy Avenida Santander, and the stunning Bocagrande skyline or head up the city's biggest hill to Convento de la Popa; the convent was built in 1607 by Augustinian monks, and you'll love the spectacular panoramic views over the city.
The people of Cartagena are very welcoming and happy to stop to pass the time of day with visitors who are looking for the best beach, the best nightclub, or the best cafe.
Cartagena's most famous tourist attractions are found in the atmospheric Old Town, within the confines of the previously walled city. Enjoy a lively walk through streets lined with colonial architecture, churches, and monasteries - there are plenty of gems to discover. Las Bovédas is a particularly historical treat: a grizzly prison built into the city walls facing the Caribbean Sea, now transformed into a hub for boutique shops with views from the top of the structure.
At the peak of San Lázaro Hill, this fortress is the largest ever built by the Spaniards in any of their colonies. The massive structure once protected Cartagena from both land and sea, and today the hilltop provides unbeatable views. Wander the impressive, layered fortifications and let your imagination wander into the past. Tunnels used for the delivery of resources and spying remain throughout the hill and castle, now lit up and ready for you to explore.
For more sweeping views of the city from a new perspective, make your way up the Cerro de la Popa, located at the heart of the city. The spiritual beauty of the surroundings makes this an appropriate choice of location for the monastery found at the top. The cloisters are peaceful and historically telling. Though no longer home to practicing monks, the grounds exude holiness with the incredible collection of art and treasures on display - from religious iconography to the gold plated altar.
Just a 45-minute boat ride from the coast of Cartagena lie the Rosario Islands, a small archipelago offering an idyllic escape from the city. Crystal blue waters, golden beaches and opportunities for swimming and snorkeling in the pristine and unique eden of the Caribbean make this a memorable experience. The coral reefs in the surrounding waters are some of the most mind-blowing in the world and, preserved by the national park, a blessing worth taking advantage of.
Find the Parque de Bolivar, a soothing and shady respite from the city, home to the Palacio de la inquisición, an incomparable example of colonial architecture. Hidden behind the decorative walls is a collection of artefacts intriguing to the core, if not a bit grizzly - the Palace was indeed built for the Spanish Inquisition, whose task it was to punish heresy. Their torture devices are on display throughout the building, revealing that unpleasant history.
Peak season is from December to mid-January and during Holy Week in March or April. Cartagena has a tropical climate and the wet seasons from May to June and August to November can be very humid. The wettest months are October and November. Every day is a great day to visit the beach thanks to warm temperatures and over 2,500 hours of glorious Caribbean sunshine per year.
Most people fly to Rafael Núñez International Airport (CTG) and there are flights from several US cities including Miami, New York, and Fort Lauderdale. The airport is 3.5 miles from the old town and taxis are available. You should obtain a voucher from the official taxi stand in the terminal and the fare to the city is COL$20,000. "Colectivo" buses can be taken from the road outside the airport and a single ticket is COL$2,000.
If you travel by bus from Santa Marta via Barranquilla, your journey will end at the bus station, which is 6.8 miles east of El Centro. From there, take a Green and White metrocar bus into the city. The journey takes 45 minutes and the fare is COL$1,800. Buses from Medellín, the closest large city, cost COL$135,000 and there is also a regular service from Caracas, Venezuela to Cartagena for COL$220,000
Often, visitors arrive by boat from Panama City as there are no road or rail links between Panama and Cartagena. Charter boats charge COL$819,930 for a four-day trip that includes a two-day visit to the San Blas Archipelago.
The city is becoming well known for its luxurious boutique hotels such as the elegant 31-room Casa San Agustin or the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, a stylish hotel with a resort-like atmosphere and a friendly toucan in the courtyard. For a romantic break, try the Casablanca B&B, a restored colonial casa with a rooftop pool. Families might prefer popular chain hotels like the Hilton while budget-conscious travelers may like affordable hotels like Hotel Sophia or Hotel Marlin.
Walled City Center - the historic old town includes the El Centro, Getsemani, and San Diego neighborhoods. Part glamorous cosmopolitan hotels, part Costeno, this is where ancient meets modern.
Bocagrande - where the port curves around to form the city's biggest beach. Noted for its luxury condos and high-rise hotels and its trendy beach atmosphere.
Islas del Rosarios - an archipelago of 27 tiny but spectacular islands just off the coast. This marine conservation area is popular with divers, and highlights include the aquarium and the many white, sandy beaches.
Much of the city can be covered on foot, especially the walled city and the fortifications. Local buses are cheap and cheerful - just ask a local to tell you which one you need to catch. A single journey cost COL$1,500.
Taxis are easy to find but you should agree on the fare before boarding as taxis are not metered and some drivers like to choose their own price. The correct fare from the old town to Bocagrande is COL$10,000.
Walking is the best way to get around the old town. However, if you plan outings to cities like Barranquilla you can rent a car at the airport or in the city. Leading brands include Hertz and Avis and an economy car can be rented for COL$83,400 per day.
Cartagena is one of Colombia's trendiest destinations and its shops and stores reflect that. Pick up unique pieces by Colombian designers at St. Dom in Calle Santo Domingo or explore the range of stylish jewelry at Claudia Trejos. Try Agua for leather goods or visit OndadeMar for chic Colombian beachwear. Emeralds can be purchased all over the city but do choose a reputable store that will provide you with a certificate of authenticity.
You'll find large supermarkets and small stores all over the city. Popular choices include OLIMPICA, Éxito San Diego, and Supermercado Carulla. Cartagena is reasonably inexpensive and typical prices are COL$4,122 for a dozen eggs and COL$2,158 for a liter of milk.
Arepas, corn patties filled with either egg or meat and cheese are as common as French fries in the city and you can buy them from vendors on almost every street. For a sweet alternative, try el matrimonio, a combination of guava and salty costeño cheese. Feel like something special? Try one of the city's many upmarket restaurants such as Maria, lively seafood restaurant Donjuán run by chef Juan Felipe Camacho, or La Vitrola, a sophisticated hotspot that's popular with locals and tourists alike. Finally, you're in Colombia, so be sure to end your meal with some of the country's excellent coffee. Lunch in a basic restaurant is COL$12,425, including a drink.