For many years Colombia was considered too dangerous for most travellers, but over recent years the country has been growing in popularity as a tourism destination, and probably the most popular spot for foreign tourists to head to is Cartagena de Indias. In fact, this is often even the only destination for many visitors to Colombia.
This beautiful city on the Caribbean coast was once a fort, and the wall remains around part of the town centre, “la ciudad amurallada”.
The historical centre inside the walled city is a maze of cobbled alleyways and colonial buildings with overhanging balconies. It’s been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site, and you can spend hours wandering through the streets and plazas filled with almost magical charm.
There are also lots of shops to stock up on your souvenirs or beachwear, top-notch restaurants for all tastes and budgets, some excellent artesanal icecream shops, patisseries and cafes, and of course swanky bars to grab a mojito or ice-cold beer.
Lovers of literature, and especially of late Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, might recognise parts of Cartagena from the Nobel prize-winner’s books. This is where the writer began his career, and he makes mention of the town in some of his works, most notably Love in the Time of Cholera which is believed to be set in the walled city and is where the movie version is filmed.
Just outside the fort is Getsemani, an up-and-coming touristy area with a more hippyish vibe. It’s here that you’ll find a number of backpacker hostels, restaurants and bars and clubs.
Both the walled city and Getsemani are a hive of activity both day and night – you will find a lot of people strolling around in the evening and many of the plazas will be filled with vendors displaying their crafts or selling snacks and drinks.
But of course nobody comes to Cartagena and doesn’t look for the beach. You are on the Caribbean after all.
The beaches around the city are not amazing – you have to head a bit further out to get the beautiful white sands and clear blue waters you see in advertising brochures. But there are some nice spots to chill right in the city. The trendiest city beach, which is probably also the busiest, is Bocagrande. Marbella, a bit further north, is quieter.
The sun’s really strong in this part of the world, so you’ll probably want to hire a tent to shelter under when you’re not swimming. Both beaches have several options, and there are also people along the beaches offering massages, cold drinks, ceviche and other snacks.
If you want to get to the dreamlike paradise white sand beaches, you have to venture further out. You’ll find many tours taking you out to Islas del Rosario and Playa Blanca.
Your easiest option is to take a tour, however, if you are really adventurous and want to save money and have more freedom than a typical tour offers, you can get to Playa Blanca on your own. You’ll need to ask someone where you get the bus to Baru from. I won’t lie – this was quite complicated, and we wasted a lot of time waiting in the wrong place for the bus because nobody seemed able to give us the correct information. Unfortunately I don’t remember the exact place so can’t tell you now either, but it was somewhere close to the mercado principal.
When you get to Baru, which is an island accessible from the mainland via a bridge, you’ll need to get either a moto-taxi or a taxi, which could be either a colectivo or just for you, to get to Playa Blanca.
It is a bit of a mission, and at some points you’ll probably wish you had just taken a tour, but as soon as you arrive in the paradise that is Playa Blanca all those feelings will go away and all you’ll want to do is relax on this beautiful beach.
There are lots of options to spend the night, ranging from hostels to campsites and even just hammocks under the stars.