72 Hours in Cartagena

Colombia’s historic walled city is known for its stunning architecture, romantic atmosphere and excellent seafood. But with only 72 hours to spend in the city, how best to maximize your time there? There’s a month’s worth of activities and sightseeing to do, but here are a few suggestions to make the best of a long Caribbean weekend.

Day one: History and Ceviche

8:30 AM: Start your day right with the sweet and savory pastries and breakfast offerings at popular bakery La Brioche.

10 AM: You have to do some touristy things while you’re here, so get a taste of history at the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Constructed in 1536, it’s the Western hemisphere’s oldest Spanish castle, and the flag on top may well be the country’s largest.

12:30 PM: Escape the midday heat and take a long lunch at La Mulata, a cute spot that offers typical Colombian lunches at one of the lowest set prices in the old city.

Typical street in the old walled city

Typical street in the old walled city – photo courtesy of Natalie Southwick

3 PM: Colombia’s oldest port city is home to its respected navy, as well as the naval museum, which offers an interesting glimpse into the history of the country’s armada. After looking through the free museum, spend the afternoon just walking around the old city, admiring the climbing flowers and stunning architecture. If you’re craving a cold snack, stop into Gelatería Paradiso for a cone of lulo gelato.

7 PM: You can’t stay in Cartagena and skip ceviche. There are a wealth of options to choose from (including Anthony Bourdain’s favorite spot), but for an authentic interpretation, look no farther than Peruvian restaurant La Perla, which also offers a lovely ambiance and some excellent cocktails.

8:30 PM: If you saved room to satisfy your sweet tooth, there’s nowhere better than Mila. The cutesy place, oddly filled with chicken décor, has a mouthwatering supply of cakes, brownies and other treats to end the evening on a sweet note.

10 PM: You can go dancing just about anywhere you hear music, but for an authentic rumba, head to the famous Café Havana salsa club (made more famous by the recent visit of a certain former Secretary of State).

Day two: Island Exploration

7:30 AM: Stash some snack bars in your bag or swing by the closest panaderia and grab some treats for breakfast, and head out to beat the rush and grab the early boat to the Islas del Rosario, which are one of Colombia’s national natural parks and home to hundreds of species of aquatic creatures and coral reefs. You can try your luck and haggle with boat operators down at the main docks, or play it safe and make a reservation with one of the many tour companies operating at the Islas.

Islas del Rosario

Islas del Rosario – photo courtesy of Mario Carvajal

1 PM: If you’re on a tour, make sure it has an afternoon stop at Playa Blanca. Enjoy the sun, sand and surf on what is considered Cartagena’s best beach. It’s worth the price to rent some chairs under a tent to stay out of the blazing hot sun, but beware the vendors, who seem to appear every few minutes and can be extremely persistent. Practice your “no, gracias” until it feels like a habit. Grab a fresh lunch of fried fish or seafood from one of the many little family-run spots along the beach, but make sure to shop around prices so you don’t get overcharged. Once you’ve had enough sun, hop on a boat for the hour-long ride back to the city and take a short post-beach siesta.

8 PM: Continue the seafood binge but keep it light and switch continents at Tabetai Sushi Bar, a sleek modern spot with the city’s best maki offerings.

10:30 PM: Plaza Santo Domingo or Getsemaní. Take it easy for the night and knock back a few beers in one of the city’s many plazas. The Plaza Santo Domingo, home to the (in)famous Botero statue, is a central gathering point for locals and  visitors alike, with half a dozen restaurants sharing central chair and table space where you can enjoy a glass of wine, a few cocktails and maybe even some live music. If you’re the less formal type, head to the plaza in the center of the Getsemaní neighborhood just on the other side of the wall. On weekend nights it’s packed with families and all of the backpackers from the local hostels, who share bench space, swap stories, buy artery-clogging snacks and beer from passing vendors and try to stay out of the way of the neighborhood kids’ soccer game.

Plaza Santo Domingo – photo courtesy of Carlos Adampol Galindo

Day three: Shopping, Snacks and a View

8 AM: Aim for an early breakfast and fill up on carbs at El Bistro, which describes its food as “European with a Caribbean influence.” No matter what region they call home, these breads and pastries are too good to miss.

9:30 AM: Find a tour company or hop on a bus for the 40-minute ride to the El Totumo Mud Volcano, a natural feature where you can pamper your skin with a nice slimy mud bath or even spring for a massage. Don’t forget your mud swimsuit!

2 PM: After you’ve washed off all the mud, hit up the aptly named La Sandwichería, which boasts a great falafel pita and even a sandwich featuring turkey, an uncommon ingredient in Colombia. Snag a table near the door to enjoy the breeze while you sip the house specialty, limonada de coco.

4 PM: You’ve been so busy so far that you haven’t even had time to shop! Take the afternoon easy and stroll the streets of the old city, stopping to admire, haggle over and maybe even buy some of the wares that vendors have spread out on blankets in every plaza and street corner. You can find everything from traditional bags to sandals, jewelry to hats, t-shirts to handmade musical instruments. If you get thirsty, find a vendor and grab a fresh limonada or cup of sweet mango slices.

7 PM: Celebrate your last night with an indulgent dinner at Krioyo, a colorfully decorated Caribbean restaurant with a dining patio and plates that manage to stand out even in a city full of quality seafood.

9 PM: A Cartagena trip wouldn’t be complete without a rumbling trip over the cobblestone streets in one of the city’s picturesque horse-drawn carriage. Go around dusk or at night to appreciate the city lit up at night, and listen to your guide – they have plenty to tell you about the walled city’s history. After the ride ends, head up to the famous walltop Café del Mar for a cocktail and a stunning view of the city.

Convinced? It’s a good thing LATAM Airlines Group has plenty of flights headed to Cartagena – you can certainly find one for your next long weekend vacation!

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