Visiting Cartagena, Columbia in a Day

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Welcome to South America: Cartagena, Columbia

After two days of sailing south from Cozumel, we docked in Cartagena, Columbia, marking our first-ever encounter with South America. The once pristine coastline, now dominated by a skyline of white skyscrapers, was referred to as the mini-Miami of South America by our tour guide. As we embarked on our harbor tour, the cityscape, far from being mini,’ unfolded before us.  We choose the coffee and cooking excursion, driven by our interest in local cuisine. Little did we know, the excursion would unfold on a small harbor tour ship, adding an unexpected twist to our adventure.  The hot, sunny weather with high humidity made our escape to the water, away from the crowds, even more enjoyable.  Instead of the usual tour bus, we walked a short distance to our waiting double-decker tour boat, ready to explore the harbor.

It’s all about the Beans:

We boarded the boat and were asked to sit in the downstairs area, where we would learn about Columbian coffee from two locals.  The young man responsible for this part of the tour didn’t speak the best English but did his best to evoke Columbian’s passion for their favorite drink.  We did our best to fill in the blanks, and our tour guide did her best to fill in the gaps in translation.  They prepared two different brews of their beloved coffee beans harvested from the central mountains of Columbia outside of Bogata, the capital.  As explained by the young man, Columbian coffee is held in such high esteem because it is harvested by hand and not by large harvester machines.  This method ensures only the best ripe beans are picked, dried, and roasted, making it the best coffee blend with a nutty, sweet fruit flavor.  The first brew was made by pouring hot water over the grounds and letting them steep quickly, resulting in a bit weaker taste.  The second time, they poured the water more slowly, letting it steep slower for 3-5 minutes, creating a much stronger brew.  Columbians drink coffee without any cream or sugar and reportedly consume many cups daily. I am not a coffee drinker, so Bob did his duty and tasted his and my small portions during the demonstration.

Onboard Cooking Class:  Civeche

Making CevicheNext, our group ventured to the upper deck for the cooking demonstration.  A small bar and table were set up, so we wondered what they were planning on cooking.  The answer was ceviche. , a traditional South American dish made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices.  They began by making us a delicious appetizer of mangos, consisting of chopped mangos, salt, and pepper with liquid sugar. This was a typical snack in Cartagena, and the sweetness of the mango contrasted beautifully with the salt and pepper. Next, they began making the ceviche.  First, they pealed green plantains and cut them into smaller 1-2 inch pieces, which were fried for 1 minute until they turned yellow.  After cooling a bit, they pressed these lightly fried plantains, making a small cup. This was a traditional method of serving ceviche in Cartagena, and we were excited to try this local delicacy.  They fried the cups again for two minutes to make them crispy with more structure to hold the ceviche.

The ceviche was made using sea bass as the fresh fish.  They added Columbian lemon juice, which is actually lime juice, finely chopped red onions and mango, salt, pepper, cilantro, and a unique coconut water mixture to sweeten it a bit.  They then spooned the mixture into the plantain cups and served it to us with a delicious coconut rum drink.  I did my part and drank Bob’s dink as he doesn’t drink liquor-based drinks.

At this time, the boat was heading towards the old town port of the city. the old town-walled city.  With our Quiet Vox, our guide took us from the harborOld town fortification wall across the street into the famed old town-walled city.  There were seven cruise ships in port, making this area extremely crowded.  We were warned that many street vendors would be hawking their goods to tourists, and we should be firm with our no’s and not smile.  A smile means yes.

Our guide tried to find shady spots to tell us about the various historical points of interest around the square.  We visited the cathedral where mass was in progress, limiting our ability to spend much time in the church.  We also visited the church of St. Peter Claver, who was canonized in 1888 for dedicating his life to helping the enslaved negros.   Cartagena won its independence from their Spanish and Catholic oppressors in 1811, ending the period of the Spanish Inquisition that lasted almost three centuries.  Cartagena’s history is fascinating and colorful.

People of Cartagena:

All morning, our guide was very proud to talk about Columbians’ heritage as direct descendants of enslaved Africans mixed with indigenous tribes and Spaniards.  She referred to this population as mulato, which make up roughly 36% of the population, according to Wikipedia.

Don’t Forget the Emeralds:

The guided portion of our excursion ended at the Emerald Museum, a small two-room museum with exhibits showing the geography and history of emerald mining in Columbia.  Of course, the shop was part of an emerald jewelry store, providing a convenient way to sell emeralds to tourists.  I narrowly escaped an aggressive salesperson with the help of Bob calling me out of the store.  The prices were crazy high.

Quiet Air-Conditioning:

Beer and a margarita in Cartagena - avoiding the crowdsBob and I had enough of the hot, crowded streets and pesky street vendors, so with the help of our guide, we found a nice air-conditioned restaurant and Bar where we enjoyed a beer and a margarita before meeting back with the guide for a short boat trip back to the docks and the Neptune, which would be departing in 30 minutes after our arrival.

Note for future tourists to Cartegena.  We did not get to see the famous San Felipe de Barajas Fort, which would have been a better historical choice than our tour.  Tours going to Rosario Island may have been fun for sea lovers.  I would rate our tour a B at best.

Top 15 things to do while visiting Cartagena, Columbia, for a day

When visiting Cartagena, Colombia, for a day, there are plenty of exciting activities to explore. Here are the top 15 things you can do to make the most of your visit:

  1. Explore the Walled City: Stroll through the historic center of Cartagena, known as the Walled City. Admire the colorful colonial architecture and visit landmarks like the Clock Tower and San Pedro Claver Church.
  2. Visit Castillo San Felipe de Barajas: Discover the largest fortress ever built by the Spanish in their colonies. Explore the tunnels and ramparts, and enjoy panoramic views of the city from the top.
  3. Walk along the city walls: Enjoy a leisurely stroll along the ancient walls that once protected the city from pirates and invaders. Take in the stunning views of the Caribbean Sea and the cityscape.
  4. Relax at Playa Blanca: Escape the city and head to Playa Blanca, a beautiful beach just outside Cartagena. Spend the day sunbathing, swimming, and enjoying the crystal-clear waters.
  5. Visit the Rosario Islands: Take a boat trip to the Rosario Islands, a stunning archipelago located off the coast of Cartagena. Snorkel, dive or relax on the pristine beaches.
  6. Explore the Getsemani neighborhood: Wander through the vibrant streets of Getsemani, a trendy neighborhood known for its street art, lively atmosphere, and delicious street food.
  7. Visit the Palace of the Inquisition: Step back in time and learn about the dark history of the Spanish Inquisition in Colombia. Explore the museum and see the instruments of torture used during that time.
  8. Take a horse-drawn carriage ride: Experience a romantic and traditional way of exploring the city by taking a horse-drawn carriage ride through the charming streets of Cartagena.
  9. Visit the Gold Museum: Discover the rich history of Colombia’s indigenous cultures at the Gold Museum. Marvel at the intricate gold artifacts and learn about their significance.
  10. Enjoy a sunset at Cafe del Mar: Head to Cafe del Mar, a popular rooftop bar and restaurant, to enjoy breathtaking views of the sunset over the Caribbean Sea while sipping on a refreshing cocktail.
  11. Take a salsa lesson: Immerse yourself in the vibrant Colombian culture by taking a salsa lesson. Learn the basic steps and dance at one of the city’s salsa clubs the night away.

Local cuisine in Cartagena, Colombia –  Some of the must-try dishes include:

  1. Arepas: These are thick cornmeal patties grilled and stuffed with various fillings such as cheese, meat, or eggs. They are a popular street food in Colombia, making for a delicious snack or breakfast.
  2. Ceviche: Being a coastal city, Cartagena is known for its fresh seafood. Ceviche is a dish made from raw fish or seafood marinated in citrus juices, such as lime or lemon, and mixed with onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. It is a refreshing and flavorful dish perfect for a hot day.
  3. Bandeja Paisa is a Colombian dish with rice, beans, beef, chicharron, plantains, avocado, and a fried egg. It is hearty and traditional. It is a filling meal that showcases the diverse flavors of Colombian cuisine.

Try these dishes at local restaurants or street food stalls to get an authentic taste of Cartagena’s culinary scene.

 

 

Visiting Cartagena Columbia in A Day

Here’s a Brief History of Cartagena, Columbia

Cartagena, Colombia, is a city rich in history and culture. Its origins can be traced back to the 16th century when it was founded by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia in 1533. The city was strategically located on the Caribbean coast, making it an important port for trade and commerce.

During the colonial period, Cartagena became a major hub for the Spanish Empire. It served as a key port for the transportation of goods, particularly gold and silver, from the New World to Spain. The city’s fortifications, including the famous Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, were built to protect it from pirate attacks and other threats.

Independence:

In the 18th century, Cartagena played a significant role in the fight for independence from Spanish rule. The city was a center of resistance against the Spanish crown, and it was here that the first cry for independence in Colombia was heard. The Battle of Cartagena in 1815 was a major turning point in the struggle for independence, as it marked a decisive victory for Independence.

After gaining independence, Cartagena continued to thrive as a major port and trading center. The city’s historic center, known as the walled city or Ciudad Amurallada, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is renowned for its well-preserved colonial architecture. The colorful buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, and charming plazas make it a popular destination for tourists from around the world.

Cartegna Today:

Today, Cartagena is not only a vibrant tourist destination but also an important cultural and economic center in Colombia. It is known for its lively music and dance scene, delicious Caribbean cuisine, and warm hospitality. The city’s rich history is evident in its museums, churches, and historic landmarks, which offer visitors a glimpse into its past.

Cartagena, Colombia, has a fascinating history that spans centuries. From its origins as a Spanish colonial port to its role in the fight for independence, the city has played a significant role in shaping the country’s history. Today, it continues to captivate visitors with its charm, beauty, and cultural heritage.

Excursions Available when visiting Cartagena Columbia in a Day

Cartagena, Columbia Excursions

Rosario Island Hopping & Snorkel Duration: 6.00 Hours Date: December 28, 2023 07:00 AM Available

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Scenic Caribbean Beach Experience and Brunch — The Rosario Islands are a collection of 27 islands surrounded by colorful coral reefs, located within one of Colombia’s 46 Natural National Parks, which are dedicated to preserving the country’s marine treasures. Meet your guide and board your motorboat, which will whisk you through the Bay of Cartagena and to the beautiful, translucent waters of the Rosario Island Archipelago. Upon arrival, you will have time to relax, lounge on the soft sand, or go for a swim or snorkel in the beach’s crystalline waters. After a delicious brunch of fruits, traditional snacks and refreshments, return to the beach for more time to bask in the natural beauty and tranquility of the Caribbean, or take a swim. Later, make one final beach stop en route back to the pier and your waiting ship.

Colombian Village & Botanical Garden of Cartagena de

Date: December 28, 2023 08:00 AM Available

Booking Number: 6507470

Duration: 5.00 Hours

Folkloric Traditions and Biodiversity of Colombia — Embark on a scenic drive by motor coach to Turbaco, where residents dressed in traditional garb and playing cumbia and vallenato music will warmly greet you. Learn the history of the village during an interactive theatrical performance, then stroll through the streets on a guided tour past historic structures, including Santa Catalina church and the Town Hall. At the local museum, gain insight into the culture and history of the Yurbaco indigenous community, then visit the home of a resident to get a personal account of life in Turbaco. Then, transfer to the Botanical Garden of Cartagena de Indias, home to more than 1,200 species of flora. Enjoy a guided walk through the different gardens and an opportunity to taste local fruits, before returning to your ship.

African Rhythms & Legacy Duration: 4.50 Hours 

Date: December 28, 2023 08:00 AM Available

Cartagena’s Afro-Colombian Connection in Getsemaní — Meet your guide and transfer to Getsemaní, then set out on foot to learn more about this vibrant neighborhood, where many African descendants lead the city’s revolutionary independence movement. Admire the mix of colonial- and modern-style architecture, as well as the colorful street art that adorns many of the walls that line the narrow streets as your guide regales you with the “hidden” stories of Cartagena. You will arrive at your venue, a gastropub, where you will enjoy an entertaining champeta class, a local dance and musical style that has transcended borders and showcases the blends of Cartagena’s music. Then, savor a taste of delicious Colombian cuisine, accompanied by local treats that reflect the country’s rich heritage, before returning to your awaiting ship.

Island Resort Day Duration: 5.00 Hours 

Date: December 28, 2023 08:00 AM Available

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Holistic Retreat to Relax and Rejuvenate — At the pier, meet your guide and board your vessel for a cruise across Cartagena Bay to your island hotel. Upon arrival, you will receive a warm welcome and a refreshing cocktail, before setting out on a leisurely exploration of the resort’s sustainable areas. Then, the next several hours are yours to immerse yourself in the beautiful surroundings and amenities. You may choose to lounge in a hammock under a pergola overlooking the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea or enjoy being surrounded by lush tropical gardens while engaging in a relaxing yoga or meditation session. During your stay, you will indulge your palate with a delicious Caribbean-style lunch, accompanied with beverages. At the end of your stay, reboard your vessel and return to your ship, relaxed and rejuvenated.

Coffee, Cooking Lesson & Cartagena Street Food Duration: 4.00 Hours 

Date: December 28, 2023 08:15 AM Available

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Cruise the Bay and Walk Through the Historic Old City — Embark your spacious, two-deck motorboat, which will serve as the setting for your culinary experience. As you cruise, gain insight into one of Colombia’s most famous exports—the coffee bean. Discover its centuries-old connection to Colombia, then participate in a tasting of this rich-flavored coffee. Learn how to prepare a local dish, such as coconut rice or fried green banana pancakes, during a cooking lesson from an expert chef at one of the city’s best restaurants. Enjoy the delightful end results before docking at the Old City. Take a guided walking tour of the main sights, including Bolívar Square and San Pedro Claver Square, then stop to taste delicious street food en route to your awaiting ship.

Colombia’s National Aviary

Date: December 28, 2023 08:30 AM Available

Duration: 5.00 Hours

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Witness a Beautiful Array of Birdlife — Leave the pier for a scenic drive through lush countryside to the eco-park, created for the study and conservation of myriad bird species. Located on the charming island of Baru, the park features more than 20 separate exhibits and an artificial lake to which hundreds of migratory birds gravitate. A walking tour takes you into several habitats. Keep an eye out for harpy eagles and colorful tropical beauties, such as scarlet macaws, pink pelicans and the more diminutive but equally vivid blue-winged mountain tanager and green jay. Visit the famous endangered Andean condor—Colombia’s national bird, which rules the mountain ranges. Enjoy the beautiful landscape and a cool drink or cup of Colombian coffee before the scenic ride back to your ship.

Cartagena Culinary Experience Duration: 4.50 Hours

Date: December 28, 2023 08:30 AM Available

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Vibrant Market and Hands-On Cooking Class — Colombia’s extraordinary cuisine is an eclectic mix of African, Middle Eastern, Spanish and other European culinary influences. Meet your knowledgeable guide and set out for one of the city’s markets, where everything from meat, vegetables and spices to housewares and religious items can be found. Watch vendors and customers interact and get a glimpse of daily life in this coastal melting pot. After exploring this vibrant market, you will transfer to a venue in the historic city center. Here, enjoy a glass of fruit juice while an expert chef leads you through a cooking demonstration. Learn how to create a typical local dish, which will be part of the menu of your mouthwatering lunch. Appetite sated, return to the pier and your ship.

Walking Tour of Old Cartagena Duration: 3.25 Hours 

Date: December 28, 2023 08:45 AM Available

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A Stroll Through a Colonial Treasure — Explore the colorful streets of Cartagena’s Ciudad Vieja, or Old Town, and visit the city’s most historic church. Drive with your guide to the Old Town, built by Spanish settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today, you will discover by foot one of the most spectacularly restored collections of colonial-era buildings in South America. You will walk past vibrantly colored houses adorned with flower-bedecked balconies and pause to admire Plaza Bolívar, named for the country’s national hero Simón Bolívar. See the early 17th-century Santa Clara Convent, once a spiritual center of the young Spanish colony; today it is a Sofitel Hotel. As you explore, your guide will share stories about Colombia’s late great novelist Gabriel García Márquez, about the city’s colonial era, and about the dark days of the Inquisition. Later, stop to view the stunning stained glass windows and marble altar of the San Pedro Claver Church.

Colombian Emeralds Duration: 4.00 Hours 

Date: December 28, 2023 09:00 AM Available

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Master the Art of Jewelry Making — Create your very own piece of jewelry using silver and Colombian emeralds. If beautiful green emeralds are your favorite colored gems, learn how the stone makes its way from the mine to jewelry box. Colombia is one of the world’s main sources of emeralds since the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Once traded for gold with other empires and royalty in Egypt, Persia and India, Colombian emeralds have long been admired around the world. A video presentation will detail how the emeralds have been mined and carved for thousands of years. During the lesson, you will watch expert demonstrations, listen to instructions from your personal instructor and try your hand at creating a pretty silver ring, a pendant or a pair of earrings which you will be able to take home. Each participant will receive a jewelry making diploma before the tour concludes.

Panoramic Cartagena Duration: 2.00 Hours Price: Included

Date: December 28, 2023 09:00 AM Available, 09:00 AM Available, 09:30 AM Available, 09:30 AM Available, 10:00 AM Available, 10:00 AM Available

San Felipe de Barajas Fort, Old Town & Modern Bocagrande — Discover Cartagena’s past and present during a panoramic tour of this major port city. Drive with your guide to the impressive San Felipe de Barajas Fort to view its exterior. Construction began in 1536, and the fort took a total of 121 years to build. Once a major defense against pirates, today it is a remarkably restored edifice and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Continue to the Old City, where you will stop at the dungeons within the walled city. Originally built to store provisions for the military, today they house an upscale handicrafts market selling brightly colored cloth, woodwork and woven bags made by the indigenous people of Colombia. Spend time browsing the wares made by these artisans, then take a scenic drive through Bocagrande, a chic and modern beach area that mixes luxury apartments with deluxe hotels and trendy cafes. Your tour will conclude back at your awaiting ship.

Colombian Rum & Chocolate Tasting Duration: 3.00 Hours

Date: December 28, 2023 10:00 AM Available

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Historic Fortress, Old City and Regional Specialties — Drive with your guide to the impressive San Felipe de Barajas Fort to view its exterior. Construction began in 1536, and the fort took a total of 121 years to build. Once a major defense against pirates, today it is a remarkably restored edifice and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Continue to the Ciudad Vieja, or Old City, for a walk along its historic streets, admiring the many colonial-era buildings and the vibrantly colored houses adorned with flower-bedecked balconies. At a private venue, you will stop for an expert-led tasting of several award-winning rums accompanied by chocolates, allowing you to enjoy their rich flavor combinations. At the end of your tasting, you will receive a bottle of rum to take home with you, then board your motor coach and return to your ship.

The most common crimes reported are petty theft, such as pickpocketing, purse snatching, and stealing from parked cars. It is essential to take basic precautions to avoid falling victim to these crimes.

Here are some travel tips to stay safe while visiting Cartagena, Columbia.

Use common sense: Be aware of your surroundings and avoid walking alone in isolated areas or unfamiliar neighborhoods.

  • Keep valuables secure: Keep your valuables, including your passport, cash, and credit cards, in a safe place, such as a hotel safe.
  • Stay in well-lit areas: If you are out at night, stick to well-lit areas and stay in groups.
  • Avoid drugs:  visitors should avoid getting involved with drugs or drug-related activities.
  • Use licensed taxis: Use licensed official yellow taxis or Ubers with official markings and avoid unmarked vehicles.

Scams – if a local person offers to help with directions or engages with traditions such as dancing, etc, it is likely a scam.  They expect to be paid for pictures and help finding a place or street entertainment.  If a local offers a sunbed on the beach, you will also be charged for any food or drink you may purchase.

DO NOT DRINK THE LOCAL TAP WATER:

The water in Cartagena is not safe to drink anywhere!  That means in local restaurants and high-end hotels.  Cartagena does not have adequate water treatment infrastructure.  Drink bottled water only and stay away from water-mixed drinks. This is an excellent place to use your travel water filters that remove all the bacteria and other critters found in the water. Check out Amazon for water bottle filter options.

Use Bug Spray:  We will be visiting in the dry season, but there will still be plenty of mosquitos around, which may carry a number of diseases.

Drink Spiking is a thing in Cartagena.  Although rare, it does happen.  Stick to known restaurants and never leave your drink unattended.  Be sure to stay with your group or partner.  If you start to feel dizzy, sleepy, or ill, seek help immediately.

Convert Columbian Pesos to American dollars and back – see the conversion calculator on the right side of this page.

Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere to purchase goods, food, and services in shops, hotels, and restaurants.  Local street vendors will want cash, so be sure to have a small amount of Columbian Pesos on hand.

As always, secure your money and wallets carefully.  Pickpockets in Cartagena do exist, so take all the normal precautions.  Secure your money in secure pockets or bags.  Don’t wear expensive jewelry or watches while out and about, and stay in well-lit areas at night.