1. Stay inside the historic center
The historic center of Cartagena is so magical, especially at nighttime, that I feel you lose something if you choose to head to the modern high-rise section where the Hyatts and Hiltons are. I’ve stayed both in the old city and the modern, beachfront area before and much prefer the historic area. You can walk everywhere and easily find hidden gems for dining and shopping. If you stay in the high-rise area, it’s a quick 10 min taxi ride into the walled section.
Wherever you stay, I strongly recommend making sure you have a swimming pool for quick cool-offs – it’s very hot all year round here. On this trip I stayed at the 5-star Casa San Agustin. Wow! I can’t thank them enough for such an amazing stay. Upon arrival at Hotel Casa San Agustín, the sense of place is immediate. Thoughtful details evoke the city’s rich 17th century history as a Spanish stronghold: original frescoes in the Library, hand-wrought iron sconces and details, high wood-beamed ceilings, elegant tile accents, and a central pool set against an ancient aqueduct.
Casa San Agustin’s staff are outstanding – friendly, not stuffy; genuinely excited to help you experience the culture of Colombia; and ever-ready to answer your questions on dining recommendations or help you to book a tour/activity. You’ll feel right at home as soon as you arrive – and maybe start pulling up availability to see if you can extend your stay!
The hotel itself only has 31 rooms & suites so it’s very intimate. Every single room is different – some have private terraces with the occasional private pool, while others have a second living area – but all are consistent in their thoughtful details such as Italian linens, Nespresso machines, slippers and bathrobes, extra towels for terrace sunbathing, and lovely bathroom toiletries. I also cannot forget to mention their restaurant Alma – it’s one of the best in the city and the chef is outstanding! I have to admit, I never knew a ‘simple’ tomato salad could have me practically licking my plate!
Make sure to book Casa San Agustin with a Virtuoso travel advisor like myself in order to receive complimentary breakfast, $100 food & beverage credit, and upgrades at time of check-in based on availability – as well as benefiting from insider knowledge and careful trip planning skills!
2. Coffee workshop
Colombia is so proud of its coffee production so while in Cartagena, don’t miss the chance to learn more! I took a coffee workshop at Cafe San Alberto, one of the best coffee producers in Colombia and who suppliers the coffee for Casa San Agustin directly – so it’s easy to add this to your itinerary when staying at this hotel. Cafe San Alberto has a coffee shop within walking distance and our 2 hour “Baptism by Coffee” workshop was wonderful.
We learned how to detect sour, bitter, sweet tastes; how to properly read a coffee bag’s back label to determine the quality and freshness of the product; and how to discern good coffee through some blind tasting exercises. Our barista, Einer, was fantastic at engaging with us and answering all our questions. I would highly recommend adding this type of activity to your itinerary. Of course, I had to buy some bags of coffee from San Alberto to bring back home.
3. Walking tour of Cartagena
On this trip, Casa San Agustin arranged a private walking tour for us through one of my spectacular on the ground partners there. This is no ordinary walking tour focused on memorizing facts & figures – with our captivating guide, we learned about the secret codes embedded in the doors of Cartagena, the meaning behind the women in colorful dresses selling fruit, the Afro-Caribbean heritage of the city, the fight for independence from the Spaniards, and a deeper understanding of the culture of the town known as “the jewel of Colombia.”
A great tour guide can help focus on your interests – from military history to a photography workshop to helping you walk the fortifications to finding all the best street art to your heart’s content. Along with your guide, let yourself wander and get lost in the back-streets – you’ll find some amazing murals and artwork and hidden gems.
4. Watch the sunset
The Caribbean sunsets are just magical. One of the most popular things to do is to visit Cafe del Mar – this cafe/bar is actually set on top of the walls surrounding the old city, so you have a fantastic viewpoint of the sunset. If you actually want a seat and a drink, go about an hour before sunset as it gets crowded. It’s a wonderful social atmosphere with music playing and everyone claps as the sun drops below the horizon.
5. Visit the barrier islands of Cartagena
Cartagena is a gorgeous walled colonial city… it’s one downfall is that it doesn’t have great beaches right on its coast. That’s why I tell people to stay in the historic center and not worry about if their hotel has a beach or not.
The lack of beach is no problem, because right off the coast are the lovely Isla Rosario as well as Baru island which are probably the most popular excursion for both locals and tourists. I’ve taken both private excursions and public boats to the islands, but the best excursion was on this trip with Hotel Casa San Agustin, because they own their own private beach club!
6. Have amazing food
I don’t think I’ve ever eaten as much ceviche in the past three days on this trip, but there are lots of other options if ceviche isn’t your thing. The fine dining opportunities are incredible. Fresh caught fish, meat, & imaginative vegetarian dishes are all available at top-quality restaurants throughout the town. And the plantain chips served as appetizers are addicting! It would also be great to do a food tour here – there are so many exotic fruits, fried snacks like empanadas and buñuelos, queso costeño (local salty cheese), frozen treats, and more that you can try just walking around the city.
7. Explore Cartagena at night time
Cartagena is a destination that must be seen at nighttime. I’m an introvert and even *I* love being out at night in Cartagena. The shops stay open late, the town squares have great people watching, and the neighborhoods become full of dancers, live music, street carts selling amazing snacks. The colonial architecture and street-art murals are lit up by soft lights and there is something so magical about being out at night. Everyone in the old city is walking around at night – it’s a very nocturnal culture full of joyful energy. Don’t forget to sign up for salsa lessons too!
8. Castillo San Felipe
The San Felipe fortress is the most well known landmark in Cartagena – built in 1639, it has never fallen in battle. Take a little bit of your day to go and explore the tunnels and battle rampant (be aware there are some uphill climbs so wear appropriate shoes, and a hat is always a good idea in the Cartagena weather).
9. Shopping in Cartagena
Whether you prefer high-end boutique stores or local artisanal markets, there’s something for everyone here. Also, Colombia is known for its gold and emerald production so jewelry lovers will be in heaven here – in fact, my fiancé gave me an emerald engagement ring precisely due to having visited the Emerald Museum together in Cartagena previously.
10. Extend your stay
Cartagena is easily explored within 3 days, so it’s perfect for a long weekend or quick visit from the USA – there are direct flights from New York, Miami and Fort Lauderdale in particular. If you’d like to extend your time in Colombia, Cartagena is still a perfect stop on your itinerary.
If this is your second trip to Cartagena and you want to see more, I suggest either splitting your time between Cartagena and an overnight in the Rosario Islands/Baru, OR for a longer trip combine Cartagena and Santa Marta, the gateway to Tayrona National Park. (You can also stop in Barranquilla on the way to Santa Marta.) I know the next time I go to Cartagena I would love to add on extra days in Santa Marta, which is the oldest surviving city in the country and second oldest in the whole of South America.
You can also fly between Medillin, Bogota, and other areas of Colombia. Colombia is a stunning destination and there is always more to explore! Interested in booking a trip? Let’s start the conversation here.