The cruise ship terminal is just three miles from Cartagena’s postcard-perfect Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Within the colonial-era walls, vivid colors, rich aromas, and lively rhythms carry a redolent whiff of the seductive and the exotic. Horse-drawn carriages rumble over the cobblestone streets, but the area is best explored on foot.
What We Love
Old-World Ambience: The best way to appreciate Cartagena is by walking with no destination in mind (and certainly no checklist). Stroll past the colorful colonial mansions, with their bougainvillea-strewn walls, heavy, ornate door knockers, and intriguing courtyards, and venture past the Old City walls into the up-and-coming neighborhood of Getsemani, with its brilliant street art, delicious arepas and empanadas, and nightlife hotspots.
Street Music and Dancing: Once the sun goes down, the streets come alive with musicians and salsa dancers — some just for fun, others in colorful costumes and hoping for tips. Grab a table at an outdoor café on Plaza Santo Domingo for the best seats in the house.
Best Known For
Gabriel García Márquez: Although there’s little in the way of literary tourism here, everyone is quick to tell you that this was the beloved writer’s sometime home. His brand of magical realism pervades the ambience here. Pack a copy of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" to set the mood.
Colombian Emeralds: If you’re in the market for genuine gems, this is the place to buy them. Plenty of shops sell top-quality stones in the Old City, but others don’t. To ensure you’re getting the real thing, take a taxi to Joyería Caribe in the Miami-like Bocagrande district for an immersive emerald-shopping experience.
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Who It's Best For
Booty Shakers: Yes, the salsa scene is touristy. But for good reason. The Afro-Cuban jazz that’s played nightly at Café Havana is serious Buena Vista Social Club stuff, and the crowd can really move. Plenty of scrappier places offer similar — some say better — music, minus the (short) line to get in and (nominal) cover charge.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
The Beaches Are Disappointing: If you have your heart set on having your toes in the sand, take a day trip to the nearby Rosario Islands.
Afternoons Can Be Broiling Hot: The city generally takes a siesta. This is not the best time for sightseeing or people-watching.
Ann Abel is a Brooklyn-based contributor to ShermansCruise who has also written for Departures.