Cartagena Travel Guide: 6 Top Hotels in Colombia’s Sexiest City – Cartagena, Colombia

This post is part 1 of 7 in the series Cartagena Travel Guide

We didn’t know it at the time, but our very first destination in Colombia turned out to be Colombia’s sexiest city. Cartagena has drawn us back again and again with its languid Caribbean vibe, intense history and gorgeous restored Colonial architecture in a sprawling historic center which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. Cartagena is also home to most of the best hotels in Colombia, from budget to boutique. All that choice can be overwhelming, but we’re here to help. After spending more than a month exploring Cartagena we’ve put together this hotel guide so you can make the right choices about sleeping in Colombia’s sexiest city.

Plaza-de-la-Aduana-Cartagena

Restored Colonial architecture like this is part of the reason Cartagena, Colombia was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hotels in Cartagena

Here are our stand-out stays after spending more than a month in Cartagena.

Cartagena is full of hotels crafted in the renovated remains of very, very old buildings. Casa Pestagua, in a mansion built in the 17th century, is not the fanciest or slickest of them but it is the most authentic, full of antiques, elaborate frescoes and original carved wooden ceilings. There are only eleven guest rooms, all of which are set around a double interior courtyard and garden with a reflecting fountain, a recently renovated al fresco restaurant, an outdoor bar, small spa and a large swimming pool shaded by a massive mango tree. The free 15 minute foot massage is a brilliant touch in a city that requires so much walking on cobblestones.

Casa Pestagua Hotel - Cartagena, Colombia

One of the antique-filled rooms at spacious, serene and authentic Hotel Casa Pestagua in Cartagena, Colombia.

We have never felt as welcome as we did when we checked into Hotel LM thanks to a flawlessly hospitable staff (Spanish only) and a private home feeling. Room #2 is the winner with a small patio that is the perfect photographic vantage point for capturing Cartagena’s famous Colonial architecture spooling out along the street below.

IMG_6056_Cartagena

The view of gorgeous Colonial architecture from the balcony of room #2 at Hotel LM in Cartagena, Colombia.

Though the decor was not our style (a bit like a prom dress exploded in every room), we did appreciate the lovely daily breakfast and the dehumidifiers in each room. And the suite at Tcherassi Hotel & Spa, created by Colombian fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi, is a stunner with multiple levels of space, private patios and even a private plunge pool. In the works now is a brand new project around the corner from the hotel which will add 42 rooms, two restaurants and a boutique. Those additional elements are currently set to open in 2016.

Tcherassi Hotel & Spa - Cartagena, Colombia

The decor at Tcherassi Hotel & Spa in Cartagena wasn’t our style but the hotel has much else to recommend it.

No hotel in Cartagena does a better job of combining architectural heritage with modern design than Casa Pombo. Five incredibly large, thoroughly sleek and modern apartments have been accommodated within the walls of one of the oldest buildings in Cartagena. Parts of the foundation date back to 1533 and teams of restorers spent months carefully revealing and preserving original frescoes and other treasures. There’s no sign for Casa Pombo and the atmosphere is private and casual, like being at home only much, much swankier. The entry way features one of the most breathtaking decorative lobby pools we’ve ever seen.

Casa Pombo - Cartagena, Colombia

Casa Pombo in Cartagena, Colombia where foundations that date back to 1533 meet sleek, modern design.

Best on a budget

Hotel Villa Colonial in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena (not to be confused with its nearby, slightly pricier sister the Casa Villa Colonial) does not have dorm rooms but its prices for clean, comfortable private rooms (doubles or  triples) with A/C are the same or even cheaper than area hostels and there’s a kitchen for guest use. The helpful host, Martha, has a delightful “Glenda the Good Witch” personality and optimism that’s free of charge.

Plaza trinidad -  Getsemani Cartagena, Colombia

Plaza Trinidad is the heart and soul of the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena and just a few steps away from Hotel Villa Colonial, a true budget find.

Worthy splurge

Hotel Casa San Agustin opened in 2012 after a 15 month renovation which turned 14 luxury apartments in three adjoining 17th Century buildings into one stunning boutique hotel. Frette sheets, remarkably fast Wi-Fi, iPads, gourmet mini-bars, lovingly restored architecture (including original frescoes and tiles and remnants of a 400 year old aqueduct that now forms part of the hotel’s commanding ground floor pool), elegant furnishings, marble bathrooms that redefine the word spacious, fresh-cut flowers, streaming sunlight, impeccable staff…you get the picture. Since you’re splurging anyway, go for one of the premium rooms which have private jetted plunge pools on spacious private patios.

Room - Hotel Casa San Agustin - Cartagena, Colombia

The lap of luxury in a guest room at Hotel Casa San Agustin in Cartagena.

Pool - Hotel Casa San Agustin - Cartagena, Colombia

The commanding pool, built around massive original walls, at Hotel Casa San Agustin in Cartagena.

New

There are solid rumors that a Four Seasons will be opening in Cartagena soon…

Avoid

We had high hopes for a recently opened hostel called The Roof. Then we checked in and got locked inside the hostel when the staff mysteriously disappeared leaving us stranded and discovered that the shared bathroom was pretty much always out of toilet paper and often occupied by a staff member who liked to bring his tablet in which him…

Cartagena, Colombia

Beauty is everywhere you look in the historic center of Cartagena.

To get the full Cartagena Travel Guide, check out our top places to eat and drink in Cartagena and our top things to do and see in Cartagena.

For clued-in, up-to-the-minute information about hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs and events in Cartagena, check out Ti Cartagena.

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Cartagena Travel Guide: 11 Great Eats in Colombia’s Sexiest City – Cartagena, Colombia

This post is part 2 of 7 in the series Cartagena Travel Guide

We arrived in sultry, steamy Cartagena at the end of our sail boat adventure through the San Blas Islands from Panama. After four days of travel on the boat, we were ready for solid ground and a solid meal and we got both. As the country’s most touristed city, Cartagena attracts some of the best chefs and top restaurants in Colombia. After more than a month spent eating our way through this amazing city, whose historic center has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984, we put together this Cartagena food guide including 11 restaurants to try (and one to avoid) so you can make the right choices about drinking and eating in Colombia’s sexiest city.

Cafe Cartagena

Cartagena, Colombia is bursting with restaurants and cafes.

Eating in Cartagena

With so much to chose from (and so much of it so good), eating in Cartagena is a major activity, not just an enjoyable necessity. Here’s our guide to the best things we put in our mouths.

La Cocina de Pepina is famous in Cartagena as the place to find creative interpretations of Caribbean dishes. Grab one of the six tables and order up vibrant sweet and sour corozo juice made from seasonal palm fruits, fish stew rich with coconut milk, refreshing ezcapacio (chunks of fresh tuna pickled with carrots and peppers) and more all served in a brightly painted space down an unassuming side street.

La Cocina de Pepina Restaurant Cartagena

Cut through the Caribbean heat in Cartagena with fresh juices and other tropical treats at Cocina de la Pepina.

Opened in 2013 in the bohemian Getsemani neighborhood, Demente is still one of the best bars in Cartagena. Originally serving tapas only, a new menu now includes tapas and larger plates including an octopus salad, fried fish and pork chops plus many of the most popular tapas offerings. Don’t miss the rich and nuanced ox-tail hamburger and plates of addictive fried and salted sweet green peppers accompanied by cocktails, aged rum, beer on tap and a small but well-sourced wine list. Real Cuban cigars are available too and you can relax in a stylish rocking chair and watch the smoke loft gently up through the retractable roof (one of only two in the city).

Demente - Cartagena, Colombia

At Demente you can pull up a rocking chair, order some food and get a cocktail served with hand made ice cubes. Did we mention the Cuban cigars for sale?

Though the historic center of Cartagena is jammed with ice cream and paletta (Spanish for popsicle) shops, La Paletteria stands out thanks to hand-craftsmanship with the freshest all-natural ingredients from fruits to nuts to chocolate. Don’t miss out on having your paletta dipped in chocolate before you dig in.

La Paletteria Cartagena

There are no wrong choices at La Paletteria.

Ceviche and other forms of raw fish are a staple of many menus in Cartagena. We had the best tiraditos (thin strips of raw fish, like a Latin take on sashimi) at La Perla.

Tiradito La Perla restaurant Cartagena

Ceviche is great, but the tiraditos at La Perla was our favorite way to eat raw fish in Cartagena.

Di Silvio Trattoria in the Getsemani neighborhood is well known for its pizzas though a full Italian menu is also offered. Over the years the restaurant has sprawled to include three adjoining locations. The roofless, crumbling, peeling façade of a gutted historic building serves as an outdoor dining room and it’s one of the most atmospheric al fresco dining locations in town. And the pizza is pretty good too.

It is widely said that Gregorio Herrera is the best maître d’ in Cartagena and he is securely at the helm of La Vitrola. Opened in 1994, La Vitrola has cultivated a gravitas beyond its ten years with an extensive menu (jerk chicken, rib eye, ravioli, ample seafood options and more) and skilled wait staff. There’s a live Cuban band most nights set up in front of La Vitrola’s inviting long bar. Reservations are a must and there’s a city casual dress code.

Cuban band La Vitrola restaurant - Cartagena, Colombia

La Vitrola easily channels an old school Cuban vibe and that’s a good thing.

Best on a budget

Even after a recent price hike, La Mulata is serving up the best value lunch in Cartagena in a stylish setting to boot. Local workers and tourists looking for an affordable meal fill the place for seafood, pork, beef and chicken dishes served up with Caribbean style and sass. All meals are prefaced with a soup (for around 15,000 COP or US$6) and should be washed down with one of La Mulata’s three varieties of ice cold, homemade lemonade. Ask for their frequent diner card. You will be back and you might as well eat your way toward a free lunch.

La Mulata restaurant Cartagena, Colombia

The city’s best value lunch can be had at La Mulata.

Even cheaper (and less inspired) is Totopo where 10,000 COP (about US$4) gets you a passable set meal. In Getsemani, Corocoran serves up set meals for 6,500 COP (about US $2.50) and draws a massive crowd. Be prepared to wait for a table, though the harried waitresses seem to take pity on foreigners.

Worthy splurge

Opened in 2014 in a narrow, five level townhouse style building, Frank & Frank delivers a distinct speakeasy feel from the discreet doorway to the parquet floor, chandeliers, leather banquettes, intimate lighting and masculine colors and materials. If you were seated next to F. Scott Fitzgerald you would not be surprised. You also wouldn’t notice once the food arrived. The signature grilled octopus appetizer, marinated in miso and white wine, was nuanced and beyond tender. The rack of lamb with mint and star anise was bright and decadent. And just say yes to the cheesecake dessert topped with smoky, sweet eggplant. It works.

Frank & Frank Restaurant - Cartagena, Colombia

Frank & Frank, splurgy but worth it.

New

At the end of 2014, Colombian celebrity chef Harry Sasson debuted his sixth restaurant and the first one outside of Bogota with the opening of the 200 seat Harry’s Restaurant & Bar inside the landmark Charleston Santa Teresa Hotel. The menu is seafood heavy to take advantage of the local bounty and the bar has a fabulous view.

Harry Sasson - Cartagena, Colombia

Chef Harry Sasson on the site of his new restaurant in Cartagena in the days leading up to its opening.

Avoid

You will be told that you must have sunset drinks at Cafe del Mar, a bar that’s located on the wall that encircles the historic center of Cartagena. You don’t. Prices are sky-high, it’ll be packed, service is poor and the ambiance is lack luster. Instead, buy a cold beer from one of the many vendors who walk around the wall with coolers, claim a seat on the stone and coral wall (built by Spanish conquistadors to keep marauding pirates at bay) and enjoy.

street food Cartagena, Colombia

When in doubt, eat on the street.

Get even more Cartagena eating options in this piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com about foodcrawling in Cartagena

To get the full Cartagena Travel Guide, check out our top hotels in Cartagena and our top things to do and see in Cartagena.

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Celebrity City – Cartagena, Colombia

This post is part 3 of 7 in the series Cartagena Travel Guide

When you travel to Cartagena, Colombia you get more than just fabulous hotels, amazing restaurants, gorgeous architecture and living history. There are also chances for celebrity sightings as more and more actors, musicians and film crews discover Cartagena.

The Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas romantic comedy “Romancing the Stone” was set in Cartagena. Though it was actually shot in Mexico, that hasn’t stopped the city’s emerald dealers–Colombian mines produce more than 70% of the worlds emeralds–from milking the perceived connection to Cartagena. One emerald shop in the city is even called Romance In the Stone. Get it?

Colombia emeralds Romancing the Stone cartagena

In 2013, Justin Bieber bought a $2 million 3,250 square feet mansion in Cartagena.

On a much, much cooler note, Mick Jagger, who’s been visiting Cartagena for years, is said to have a property in the city too.

Gabriel García Márquez house Cartagena Colombia

On an EVEN cooler note, writer and novelist Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia’s only Nobel laureate, kept a house in the historic center of Cartagena (pictured above) until he died in 2014, even though he was living mostly in Mexico. Cartagena inspired much of the novelist’s work, as did other locations in his home country. Find out how Colombia shaped it’s most celebrated literary son in this piece we did for Bio.com about Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Colombia.

Javier Bardem bed Love in the Time of Cholera Casa Pombo Cartagena

If you book the main suite of apartment 201 at Casa Pombo, a chic and spacious apartment style hotel in one of the oldest buildings in the city, you can sleep in the bed (pictured above) used by actor Javier Bardem when he was in Cartagena filming “Love in the Time of Cholera” based on the novel by Gabriel García Márquez.

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Cartagena Travel Guide: 13 Top Things To Do in Colombia’s Sexiest City – Cartagena, Colombia

This post is part 4 of 7 in the series Cartagena Travel Guide

The the main thing to do in Cartagena is simply gawk at the city’s beauty. We’ve visited plenty of lovingly restored Colonial towns in Latin America, but Cartagena is even more beautiful than stunners like Antigua, Guatemala or the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Cartagena not only expects to be stared at, it deserves it with a languid Caribbean vibe, intense history and gorgeous restored Colonial architecture in the city’s historic center (which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984). After more than a month in Cartagena, here are our 13 top things to do besides wander the Colonial streets (and one thing to avoid).

Torre del Reloj Cartagena, Colombia

El Torre del Reloj, or the Clock Tower, marks a major entrance into the walled city of Cartagena, Colombia.

Things to do in Cartagena

The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (San Felipe de Barajas Fort), in the nearby Getsemani neighborhood, is the most robust fort the Spanish ever built and it still looks impenetrable. Construction began in 1536 and it was expanded in the mid 1600s. It’s been impressively restored and its stony bulk still dominates San Lázaro hill. Bring a flashlight since visitors are allowed into some of the interior corridors and tunnels which can be dark. There’s little shade so try to arrive when the fort opens at 8 am to beat the heat and avoid weekends if you can. That’s when Colombians can enter the fort for free and the place gets packed.

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas - Cartagena, Colombia

The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (San Felipe de Barajas Fort) in Cartagena.

Cartagena’s Museum of Modern Art, on Plaza de San Pedro Claver, is small and we honestly weren’t expecting much. However, the two-story facility turned out to be home to a nice collection mostly by Colombian artists including Enrique Grau.

Church San Pedro Claver Plaza Cartagena

Lovely San Pedro Claver Plaza in Cartagena.

If you’re into torture devices, visit the Palacio de la Inquisición (Inquisition Palace) just off Plaza Bolivar is where you can see art, artifacts and bona fide torture devices used during the Spanish Inquisition. The building also has a small window from which inquisitors would shout out death sentences for those who didn’t pass their religious scrutiny.

Palacio de la Inquisición Museum torture Cartagena

Just a few of the bona fide torture devices used by Spanish inquisitors, on display in the Palace of the Inquisition Museum in Cartagana.

Colombia’s only Nobel prize winner, writer Gabriel García Márquez, was inspired by Cartagena and lived in the city off and on until his death in 2014. Many of the author’s most famous works, including Love in the Time of Cholera, The General in His Labyrinth, and Love and Other Demons, were set in the city.Those who want to get a bit more Gabo, as the author was called, can book the self-guided Gabo’s Cartagena audio walking tour (US$17 including an audio guide in five languages, including English, and a printed route map). True García Márquez fans will want to take part in the three-hour guided Route of Garcia Marquez tour which takes in 37 sites in historic central Cartagena, all of which are directly linked to scenes and characters from the author’s work and life (US$145 for one person, US$20 per person after that; participants must have read the books mentioned above).

sculpture Cartagena, Colombia

A local relaxes with some playful outdoor sculpture in the historic center of Cartagena.

We happily spent four days wandering the streets of Getsemani on our own, soaking in the bohemian vibe and the street art. However, there are a number of innovative and illuminating tours of the neighborhood available like the three-hour Explore Getsemani Tour (US$35 per person including bilingual guides) which includes lots of neighborhood history, drop-ins with locals, visits to shops and art studios, cocktails on Plaza Trinidad and a donation to a local charity built into your tour fee.

wedding Plaza Trinidad Getsemani Cartagena

The church in Plaza Trinidad in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena is a popular spot for wedding and for wedding photography.

Even non-photographers will be tempted to grab a camera in photogenic Cartagena. Perfect those travel snaps on the four-hour Foto Tour (US$80 per person for groups of 2-6 people) during which Colombian professional photographer Joaquín Sarmiento (he’s shot for Reuters, the New York Times and Colombia’s El Tiempo, Semana and El Espectador publications) leads participants through the city dispensing technical photography tips and practical advice.

From the Cartagena Music Festival to the star-studded International Film Festival to the Hay Festival which celebrates all forms of creativity, Cartagena plays host to a nearly year-round calendar of annual festivals.

Carribean cartagena Colombia

You’ll have to buy some fruit before the costumed street vendors in Cartagena will let you take their picture.

Best on a budget

Though soccer is the undisputed sporting king in Latin America, Colombians on the Caribbean coast also love baseball and every Sunday Avenida El Pedregal in the Getsemani neighborhood is closed to traffic and transformed into a makeshift diamond for women’s softball teams. Find a perch on the centuries-old Spanish-built wall that runs along this street and you’ve got the best seat in the stadium.

Womens softball league Cartagena Colombia

Sunday softball in the streets of the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena.

The Zenú Gold Museum on Plaza Bolivar is home to a collection of more than 500 pieces of exquisitely crafted gold jewelry and iconography made by the Zenú people who flourished in Colombia from the 16th century. Amazingly, the museum is free.

 Zenu Gold Museum, Plaza Bolivar Cartagena

Hundreds of intricate gold artifacts are on display in the (free) Zenú Gold Museum in Cartagena.

Normally visitors have to pay a fee if they want to go inside the massive Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. However, during noon time mass the doors are open and all are welcomed in for free. Inside, there’s a gilded altar and massive carved doors and it’s certainly worth a visit.

interior  Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria cartagena

Inside the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in Cartagena.

To protect the city from pirates and other attackers, the Spanish built massive walls around Cartagena. Developed and expanded over 200 years, the city was eventually completely enclosed by more than six miles (11 km) of walls and fortresses. Much of these walls still exist, particularly along the side of the city that fronts the Caribbean. There are access points that let you climb to the top of the walls and walk along their wide expanse, which is particularly pleasant near sunset when the temperature starts to cool and the sky is spectacular.

City walls Cartagena Colombia

Walking the Spanish-built walls that encircle Cartagena.

Worthy Splurge

The beaches around Cartagena on mainland Colombia are nothing to write home about but there are plenty of options for day trips to nearby islands where the beaches are spectacular. Colombia Direct offers day trips in speed boats or yachts with catered lunches (from sandwiches to more gourmet fare) that get you to the protected Rosario Islands archipelago, about 60 miles (100 km) off the mainland, and back in style. Island picnics start at about US$35 per person plus the cost of the fully staffed and equipped boat of your choice.

View of historic Cartagena from city walls

A view of historic Cartagena from on top of the Spanish built walls that surround the city.

Avoid

Though conditions for the horses that pull carriages through the historic center of Cartagena have improved in recent years following accusations of widespread neglect, there’s still little regulation. You’ll see more of the city on foot anyway and also have the freedom to duck into a chic shop or grab a cocktail or a paletta as you ramble.

For clued-in, up-to-the-minute information about hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs and events in Cartagena, check out Ti Cartagena.

To get the full Cartagena Travel Guide, check out our top hotels in Cartagena and our top places to eat and drink in Cartagena.

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Photo Essay: The Knockers of Cartagena, Colombia

This post is part 5 of 7 in the series Cartagena Travel Guide

The restored Colonial center of Cartagena, Colombia was not made a UNESCO World Heritage Site solely on the merits of its knockers, but they didn’t hurt. Here are a few of our favorite knockers of Cartagena: over-sized, whimsical and artistic.

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Photo Essay: Colorful Colonial Buildings in Cartagena, Colombia

This post is part 6 of 7 in the series Cartagena Travel Guide

We’ve traveled to more than our share of world-class preserved Colonial cities, including Antigua, Guatemala and the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Both are gorgeous, but both are handily outdone by the beauty and ambiance of the restored Colonial architecture in the petite, walkable historic center of Cartagena, Colombia. Everywhere you look in this UNESCO World Heritage Site city, which was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century, you see fabulous color, playful details (the door knockers are amazing, for example) and living history. Here are some of our favorite examples of colorful Colonial buildings in Cartagena.

IMG_6129_Cartagena IMG_5866_Cartagena IMG_0752_Cartagena IMG_5889_Cartagena IMG_5775_Cartagena IMG_6132_Cartagena IMG_5882_Cartagena IMG_6092_Cartagena
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IMG_5837_CartagenaIMG_5762_Cartagena IMG_0760_Cartagena IMG_5781_Cartagena IMG_5904_Cartagena IMG_5925_Cartagena IMG_6058_Cartagena IMG_6091_Cartagena IMG_6109_Cartagena IMG_6758_Cartagena IMG_0749_Cartagena IMG_5706_Cartagena IMG_5836_Cartagena IMG_5872_Cartagena IMG_5894_Cartagena IMG_6124_Cartagena

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