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Cartagena (Colombia)

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South America : Colombia : Costa Norte : Bolivar : Cartagena
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Cartagena [1] is a city in Colombia, a country in South America.

Cartagena's cathedral tower, in the old town

Understand

Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Considered by many as one of the world's most beautiful, fascinating and magical cities, Cartagena was founded by Spanish conquerors as a main port to bring Europeans and their goods into South America, and transport gold, silver and all sorts of plants, animals, minerals and handicrafts from all over the continent across the Caribbean and on to the Old World.

Today the city hosts intellectuals and plenty of beautiful restored homes among exotic, highly attractive and dynamic plazas, waterfronts and other public spaces. One of the most hospitable venues for any tourist looking for a good rest, Caribbean and Colombian magical realism and tropical ambiance or natural wonders. The city hosts many conventions but the two of major interest to europeans and americans are without doubt the classical Music Festival held in the first two weeks of January and the South american version of the (UK) Hay Literary Festival towards the end of january. Both are particularly imaginative with world class performers, writers and critics.

The city was one of the first sanctuaries of freed African slaves in the Americas and is currently populated by an ethnic mix representative of Colombia's own variety.

Cartagena, located on Colombia's northern coast and facing the Caribbean Sea, is the most visited city in the country by tourists. It gets extremely crowded in the December holidays and the holy week, when schools are out and most Colombians take their vacations. The city has basically two main parts where tourists go: the walled colonial city ("ciudad amurallada"), which is truly amazing and has many fancy restaurants, clubs and hotels; and a long strip of hotel towers and condos fronting onto the beach, known as Bocagrande. Also is nice to visit the exclusive neighborhood of Castillogrande, filled with recently built condos, places to jog, and a quiet beach to soak up some sun.

Get in

Cartagena is 1000 km north of Bogotá (about an hour by air), or 2.5 hours' flight from Miami and 5 to five and a half hours from New York City. The Rafael Nuñez international airport receives international flights from Panama City and Miami.

The bus terminal is 6 km east of the old city. Frequent White and Green metrocar buses with air conditioner go to the old city and cost C$ 1,500 ($0.80). Buses leave every hour for Barranquilla, and from there frequent buses connect to Santa Marta. The asking price for buses to Medellin is $50 USD, but it is normal to barter the price down to $30. All long distance bus tickets are expected to be bartered down.

Cartagena is an important port for charter boats between Colombia and Panama. These usually very small sailboats (Charters) with a single captain, is prudent to ask for the reputation of the company who owns the boat. Fare varies widely, but can be from US$200-US$500, food included, and can take from three to five days, depending on whether a stop at the San Blas Islands is included. At the Panama end, the boats often anchor in Portobelo, rather than Colón. Ask at your hotel or hostel, and try going to the yacht clubs at the harbor and asking around. Expect to have to wait several days to find a boat.

Get around

The old town in particular is best explored Walking. Most places in Bocagrande are also within walking distance.

To reach other destinations such as the San Felipe fort, there are many buses running all over the city. Ask the driver or other people who are waiting which bus goes to your destination.

Taxis are generally easy to find, although in the old town you may have to walk a few blocks away from the center, toward the wider road close to wall. From the old town to Boca Grande or vice versa or any transport inside Bocagrande or inside old town expect to pay COP $4,500; from the airport to the old town or vice versa is COP$8,000 or $9.000 at night, with air condition.

A Charriot is a popular way for tourists to get to know the old town. These can be flagged down in the street or there are usually some waiting at the Plaza Bolivar or close to the Santa Clara hotel.

Cartagena has several harbours for Boats going out to the Islas del Rosario and Playa Blanca, including the Muelle Turistico de la Bodeguita, Muelle Todomar.

See

  • Cartagena's 500-hundred year-old coralstone forts and great parts of its walled city are admirably intact and represent some of the finest examples of civil and military architecture of the Spanish colonial times.
  • While you are in Cartagena, don't miss the Castillo de San Felipe, a fortress designed by the Dutch engineer Richard Carr and built in 1657 by the Spanish for protection against pirates while shipping gold out to Europe. Opening hours 8am-6pm, entrance fee COP$ 11,000.
  • Close to the San Felipe fortress is the 150m high La Popa hill, which offers great views over Cartagena and the harbour area. The 17th century Santa Cruz monastery is here, which has a beautifully restored courtyard and a fine image of the Virgin of La Candelaria. As of March 2007 entrance to La Popa is COP$6,000 for adults and a little less for children.
  • Cartagena's main attraction is its historic old town surrounded by the city wall. Main entrance is the Clock Tower Building. The walled city includes the neighbourhoods Centro, San Diego, Getsemaní and the modern part La Matuna. The oldest part of Cartagena is around Plaza Trinidad in Getsemaní.
  • Museums: Cartagena is a city full of history, which can be visited at the Palacio de la Inquisición (Palace of Inquisition), where the spanish Inquisition tortured, judged and convicted men accused of crimes against religion. It is situated in 'Plaza de Bolivar', in the historic center. A turist guide can be get in english for COP$15.000.
  • Churches: Almost all churches in the historic center are worth visiting, especially Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, in honor of the prist St. Pedro Claver, who was the first saint of the new world for his work with slaves; La Catedral, near Plaza de Bolivar and the Iglesia de Santo Domingo.

Do

  • Nearby coral reefs, powdery beaches, impressive mangroves, and waterways complement the historic and urban beauty.
  • If you are interested in beaching it, Playa Blanca is the place to be. You can take either a ferry from the port near the Centro de Convenciones or go by car (via the bridge to the island of Baru). There is also a direct bus going on Sunday morning. The beaches are far cleaner than those in and around the city. There are a lot of vendors trying hassle you for oysters or massages. You can rent a hammock and stay the night as well, which is a very budget-conscious way to spend a few days.
  • Farther down from Playa Blanca on Isla Baru in the bay of Cholon is Sport Baru - a place well worth of visit. This tranquil beachfront resort offers water sports, boat tours, eco hikes, gaming and gathering facilities, restaurant and bar; and an exceptional staff that is very accommodating to meet any of your needs. You can take a day tour there from Cartagena, or stay overnight in comfortable cabanas that are all facing the beach. Day tours from Cartagena (C$90.000) include boat transportation, lunch and refreshments, boat trips to near by secluded white sand beaches, and Sport Baru’s amenities to be enjoyed. Tel: (+57)-5-6642992 or Email to info@sportbaru.com. Website: [2]
  • Several agents arrange boat tours to Islas del Rosario. A set of small islands out of the coast. Usually the tour include lunch, a visit to an aquarium and a few hours at Playa Blanca. Not included in the price is harbor tax and park entrance (C$8.300 total) and the entrance fee to the aquarium (C$12.000). If you buy your tour at one of the street vendors, don't pay in advance, preferably pay part or all at return in Cartagena.
  • Swimming with the dolphins - Laheroica.com (Website:[3]) offers exclusively meetings with the dolphins of the Aquarium. 30 minutes cost COP $150.000 + taxes not including the transport to the Aquarium.

Playa Blanca is widely regarded as the best beach of Cartagena, but is not that easy to reach. With its white sand and crystal clear water it is probably one of the best beaches in Colombia. After tour-boats leave in the afternoon it is also very peaceful and quiet. It is worth staying on Playa Blanca for at least one night. There are several places where you can rent hammocks, get food and drinks. For example “Wittenbergs place”. On the beach you will be approached to buy massages, fruit platters, sea food and jewelry among other things. Look out for the vendors selling oysters: they will give you an oyster as a present (regalo) to taste. They will quickly crack the shells and serve you a number of oysters, after which you are told that they each cost 2,000 pesos. Avoid this 30,000 peso charge and the subsequent argument on the beach. If you are looking for great seafood and Coco Locos, ask around for Nelson Mandela.

By boat Take a bus or taxi to “Mercado Bazurto”, the big market of Cartagena about 10 minutes from the Center. From there, every day, except Sundays, small cargo-boats (lancha de carga) leave for Playa Blanca. They don´t have an exact departure time, be there before 9 a.m. to be sure. You will have to pay about 15.000 pesos each way(september 2007) and the trip takes more or less 1 hour to reach the beach.The way back is much easier, most boats (tourboats) will bring you back for the same price. Keep in mind that the last boats from Playa Blanca to Cartagena leave around 2-3 p.m.! More comfortable and safer is taking a roundtrip from the center at Muelle de las Pegasos. You can bargain down a one-way-trip without lunch to about 25.000 Pesos plus 8.300 port tax. The tour takes you to Rosario Islands first until it reaches Playa Blanca in the late morning. You can leave the tour there to stay overnight.

Overland by public transport (2-3 tough hours): 1. Bus to Pasacaballos – 2. ferry or canoe to cross “Canal del Dique” – 3.on the other side you take any kind of transport to Santa Ana (bus,jeep,mototaxi) 4.from Santana further on to Playa Blanca there are buses,jeeps or mototaxis - if you like it cheap try to reach Santana until 9 a.m ,later on the only bus is gone and you have to take a mototaxi for 12.000 pesos which you actualy can take already once your crossed the "Canal del Dique", Its about 2 hours walking distance from Santana to Playa Planca. Fare all together around 3.500 pesos or 12.000 pesos if you take a moto taxi once you crossed te "canal del Dique"


Don't:

  • Buy any drugs off the street or from anyone who approaches you. Often times this is a setup where minutes after purchase you are "randomly" searched for possession of illegal drugs by a police officer who expects an 'on the spot fine' (bribe). The dealer and corrupt officer will split the the money and will often let you keep the drugs. This happens all the time, even in the main plazas in day light. The expected bribe is either all that can be withdrawn from your ATM card or 500 US$, which ever is more. In Columbia the penalty for possession of even a small amount of drugs such as cocaine is very harsh prison time- don't take it lightly.

Warnings

Watch out for the "Money-Changing-Magicians"

Those street vendors offer you a very good exchange rate. After you have counted the money you will recognize that a small amount is missing, and after complaining he will put exactly that amount on top again. In the same move they will take some big notes from the bottom. Most people won't count their money a second time, and first think they made a good deal but in fact got ripped off. Be very careful when walking at night specially around lonely parts of the city. When in the Old City do not walk outside de Walls, and remember that it is a large city, so just use common sense. The street vendors can be very annoying, but a simple "No quiero nada" in Spanish will keep them away.

Dodgy tours to Islas del Rosario and Playa Blanca

The tours offered to visit Ilas del Rosario and Playa Blanca can be quite a let down. You'll be offered a price for a tour which "includes" either snorkeling or entrance to the aquarium and a meal at Playa Blanca for about 50,000 pesos. Once on the trip you find out that you have to pay extra for the aquarium or the snorkeling - 15,000 pesos. Make sure the tour guides on the boat are told by the person who sold the tour what is included in order to avoid disagreements.

Be careful with the snorkeling excursions and where they take you. One tour operator, Ocean & Land, has been caught a few times taking people to prohibited reefs. The areas which can be explored are restricted to allow coral to regenerate, excursions beyond the designated areas damage the coral and any attempts at preserving the environment. Snorkeling outside the allowed areas can also be accompanied by fines by the environmental guards. Make sure the tour operator only takes you to allowed areas.

Buy

  • Handcrafts are fashionable and sophisticated

Eat

Cartagena features a rich fusion cuisine, combining ingredients and methods of the New and Old worlds, as well as of the original African, Arabian and other legacies of its inhabitants. Eating set menu lunches and dinners in local restaurants costs around COP$4,000 pesos ($2). A typical dish consists of fried fish (if you are by the beach), chicken or meat, served with coconut rice (arroz de coco), fried plantains (patacones) and salad. There are a few places that sell $1 fruit juices. Colombia boasts a very good range of exotic fruits that can be mixed with water or milk.

In the old town, dozens of good restaurants can be found dotted around the streets. They are particularly concentrated close to the Plaza Santo Domingo in El Centro, such as:

  • Club de Pesca - great seafood and great atmosphere. Located in Manga with view to the bay and marinas of Cartagena.
  • Saint Michel - on the northwest corner of the Plaza. If you fancy a change from the usual seafood or Italian restaurants, this French option serves some very tasty fondues as the main courses in its three-course menus, very good value at around USD$10, as well as plenty of other dishes and wine at more reasonable prices than at most restaurants in this area.
  • El Bistro - Excellent European Kitchen, German Bakery, reasonabel prices in Calle Ayos 4-46, 2 blocks from Plaza Santo Domingo.

There are also several around the smaller but more intimate San Diego Plaza next to the Santa Clara hotel and include:

  • La Cevicheria - Calle Stuart, opposite Hotel Santa Clara, Tel: 6642760. A great selection of hot and cold ceviches, around USD$8 a dish.
  • Pazza Luna - good, super thin crust pizzas, as well as some other dishes such as pastas. Located on Plaza San Diego.
  • La Vitrola - considered the best restaurant in town. Cuban ambience, good food - high prices. It is located Calle Baloco on the corner front to the historical walls.
  • La Cava - very good restaurant in the calle Santo Domingo. Dishes around 16 USD.
  • Quebracho - argentinian restaurant at its best. Goood meat, good ambiance. Dishes around 18 USD. It is located Calle Baloco.
  • Crepes & Waffles - very nice colombian franchise restaurant which offers very good dishes to excellent prices (dishes around 5 USD). It is located Calle Baloco.
  • La cocina de Carmela - colombian gourmet food in the Calle Santisimo close to Parque Fernandez de Madrid. Dishes around 12 USD.
  • Cafe El Santisimo - one of the must see restaurants of Cartagena. Dishes around 16 USD.

Drink

  • One of the most popular watering holes for local Cartageneros is Mister Babilla, located on the Avenida del Arsenal, near the Centro de Convenciones. This place is great on the weekends and is notorious for having people dancing on the tables and the bar late into the night! A great time!
  • La Avenida del Arsenal is located along the bay near the Centro de Convenciones. In its heyday it was THE place to be. Now much of the nightlife in Cartagena has moved to the Ciudad Vieja, but this strip of about 10 discotecas is still a raging place to experience on weekends. Entry to most of the discos is 10,000 to 20,000 Colombian pesos.

Sleep

In the ciudad amurallada, the most famous hotels are Santa Clara and Santa Teresa, both old monasteries renovated in the 90s. Either of them have fabulous facilities - expect prices like Monaco. Otherwise, the newest part of the city, Bocagrande, offers the largest number of hotels of all prices. You should always try to stay in the ciudad amurallada, since this is what makes Cartagena unique, rather than its beaches, which are normally too crowded and not really clean. If you cannot afford the five-star hotels, you may try with colonial houses turned into hostels, but they are rather small and sometimes getting a room there may be a matter of luck.

Budget

Budget hotels and hostels can be found in Getsemaní

  • Casa Viena, Calle San Andrés (Getsemaní), 5-664-6242 (hotel@casaviena.com) [4]. Popular backpackers place with several 2 to 4 person rooms some with bathroom and a dormitory with arco. Facilities include internet, personal strongboxes, bookswap and a communal kitchen. Price for a dormbed C$11.000 and around C$13.000 per person for a room.
  • Hotel Familiar, Calle El Guerrero No. 29 -66 (Getsemaní), 5 664 2464. Run by Jairo Toro and located only 100m from Casa Viena and a good second choice. Rooms are bright and clean and prices start from 15,000 Pesos per person.
  • Hostal Real, Calle De La Magdalena No. 9-33 (Getsemaní), 5 664 7866. Opened by the Rincon family over 30 years ago, Hostal Real is housed in a beautiful colonial building. Prices begin at 15,000 Pesos pp with a 5,000 peso suppliment for a single room.
  • Hotel Villa Colonial, Calle del las Maravillas No.30-60 (Getsemaní), (5) 664 4996, (5) 664 5421, hotelvillacolonial@hotmail.com, well kept, clean, friendly and helpful management, rooms with air conditioning and fans, private bathrooms, they also have another buidling on Calle de la Media Luna, which has nicer, more expensive rooms. In November 2007, a room for a couple with one bed was 45000 pesos per night. (in the older, cheaper building)

Mid-range

  • Hotel 3 Banderas, Calle Cochera del Hobo #38-66, (Barrio San Diego), +57-5-6600160 (info@hotel3banderas.com) [5]. Small colonial hotel, different rooms and suites from USD 50 to USD 100.
  • Hotel Casa del Curato, Calle del Curato Cra. 7 Nº 38-89, (Barrio San Diego), +57-5-6643648 (info@casacurato.com) [6]. The hotel was recently converted from an 18th century mansion and opened in Dec 2005. Good breakfasts served by Eufemia. Attractively furnished although regular rooms are small and windowless. Two internet computers for guests. Rooms from USD 70.
  • Casa India Catalina, Calle del Coliseo No 5-67 (Centro), Tel: +57-5-6644361 (casaindiacatalina@gmail.com) [7]. Also recently converted, opened in 2006. Spacious rooms, some with balconies onto the street. Decent swimming pool. Simple furnishings. Rooms from USD 60.
  • Casa Mara, Calle del Espiritu Santo, No 29-139 (Getsemani), Tel: +57-5-6648724. Rooms from USD 85.
  • Hotel Bahia, Cra 4a-Calle 4a (Bocagrande), Tel: +57-5-6650316. Rooms from USD 55 to 100.
  • Hotel-Hostal Santo Domingo, Calle Santo Domingo, No 33-46 (Centro), Tel: +57-5-6642268 (hsantodomingopiret@yahoo.es). Great location close to the Plaza Santo Domingo. Rooms priced from COP$47,700 (USD 20) for one person to COP$97,700 (USD 40) for six people. A/c extra. Also caters for groups of up to 25.

Splurge

Up-scale hotels can be found in the San Diego and El Centro area of the old city.

  • Agua (Centro) Calle Ayos, No 4-29. Tel: 664-9479. A beautiful boutique hotel with rooms from COP$500,000 plus tax in low season.
  • Bantu Hotel (Centro) Calle de la tablada , No 7-62. Tel: 664-3362, [8]. A "folcloric" boutique hotel with 25 rooms from USD 100 to USD 200 plus tax in low season. [9]
  • Casa La Fe, Calle 2da de Badillo, No 36-125 (San Diego), Tel: +57-5-6640306 (admin@casalafe.com), [10]. Beautifully restored intimate hotel. Owned and run by a UK expatriate. Fifteen rooms from USD 100.
  • Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara Plaza Cr 8 No 39-29, Calle del Tomo (Barrio San Diego), Tel: +57-5-6646070. superb hotel, superb prices.
  • Hotel Santa Teresa Plaza Santa Teresa, Cra 3a, No 31-32 (Centro), Tel: +57-5-6649494.
  • La Merced Hotel, Calle Don Sancho # 36-165/ Cra. 4, Cartagena de Indias. La Merced Hotel Boutique was designed to offer its guests a place were they will enjoy the full comfort of a first-class hotel mixed with the privacy that you only find in your own home.
  • LaHeroica.com offers luxury hotels in the historical city center of Cartagena.Tel: (+57)-5-6642992 or Email to info@laheroica.com - Website: [11]

Houses

Private luxury houses or apartments with personel to your atention in the San Diego and El Centro area of the old city. they also rent interesting places on the islands of Rosario and provide any transport service.

  • LaHeroica.com offers luxury houses from 2 to 12 bedrooms with employees included and all type of aditional services around your stay. Tel: (+57)-5-6642992 or Email info@laheroica.com. Website: [12]
  • CasaDelHobo.com [13]

Apartment rentals

  • LaHeroica.com offers luxury apartments in the historical center, Bocagrande and the Playa de las Americas. Tel: (+57)-5-6642992 or Email to info@laheroica.com. Website: [14]
  • Colombia Rental offers apartments in the neighbourhoods of Laguito, Bocagrande and in the Old Historic City. 1-2 bedrooms, between USD 50 and USD 100 per day. Tel: 313-530-9349 [15]

Get out

The Volcán del Totumo
  • About 16 km north of Cartagena is the Volcán del Totumo, a 15m high mud volcano. You can enter the crater and take a mud bath (entrance C$2.000), which is enormous fun and highly recommended. The nearby laguna then serves as a natural bath for washing off the mud.
The easiest way to get there is to take a tour. These cost around COP$30,000 with Rafael Perez tours (next door to the Cartagena Plaza Hotel in Bocagrande) and include the one hour each way journey to the volcano, as well as lunch and a swim at La Boquilla on the return to Cartagena. Another tour company is Los Pinos, which also charges COP$30,000 (or $25,000 without lunch) and uses the Manzanillo del Mar fishing village for a swim on the return journey. This tour can be booked from many hotels, such as the Casa Viena, in Calle San Andrés (Getsemaní), 5-664-6242. Although the mud bath and massages are offered free of charge, you will be expected to tip anyone who helped you before your bus leaves. Other services expecting tips include storing your belongings, your shoes, holding onto your camera and taking snaps while you are immersed in the mud, and the women who help you wash off in the laguna. Tips of between COP$1,000 and $5,000 for each person are the norm, depending on the service. Be sure to bring change.
Going by yourself is quite a hassle, but you may find you have the whole volcano to yourself and can take all the time you want. Take a bus from the city center to Terminal de transporte (COP$1,000). There, take the hourly bus to Galerazamba and get off at Lomito Arena (COP$4,000). From there it is 45 minute walk or take a motortaxi (COP$2,000). The whole trip takes about two-and-half hours. The last bus back from Lomito Arena leaves around 3pm.
  • Botanical gardens Jardin Botanico de Guillermo Piñeres
A pleasant escape from the city rush, 18 km out of Cartagena close to “Turbaco”, a small town 20 km from the center of Cartagena. Take a bus to the bus terminal and get of at “la Bomba de Amparo”, a big gasolin station 25 minuits out of the center.from there, are leaving buses to “Turbaco”- get off (ask the driver)a bit before Turbaco and walk to the right,about 20 minuits straight on. Together with your entry ticket you get leaflet which lists about 250 plants identified in the gardens, including some varieties of coca plants.
  • Islas del Rosario On Isla Baru in the bay of Cholon is Sport Baru - a place well worth of visit. This tranquil beachfront resort offers water sports, boat tours, eco hikes, gaming and gathering facilities, restaurant and bar; and an exceptional staff that is very accommodating to meet any of your needs. You can take a day tour there from Cartagena, or stay overnight in comfortable cabanas that are all facing the beach. Day tours from Cartagena (C$90.000) include boat transportation, lunch and refreshments, boat trips to near by secluded white sand beaches, and Sport Baru’s amenities to be enjoyed. Tel: (+57)-5-6642992 or Email to info@sportbaru.com. Website: [16]
  • Punta Arena
A fishing village 10 minutes by boat on the island of “Tierrabomba”,in front of “Laguito” (Bocagrande).You reach it by boats (lanchas),leaving from “Muelle de los Pegasos” or with boats in “Laguito” next to the Hilton Hotel. Punta Arena has probably the nicest beaches close to Cartagena. There are restaurants where you can get food and drinks. Enjoy a day, hanging out under palm trees with a fantastic few on the skyline of Cartagena.
  • La Boquilla a fishing village (pueblo de pescadores) close to Cartagena.
Take a bus for COP$900 (octuber 2006), from India Catalina (Avenida Venezuela), if you get off of the bus at the end of the ride you can rent a canoe which brings you to a nice beach (playa de oro) passing trough lagoons and mangroves – pay for the boat once you are back.
  • Bocachica - a fishing village on the island of “Tierrabomba” (pueblo de pescadores)
Bocachica is worth to visit to see its restored fortress (fuerte de San Fernando). The beach isn't really special but o.k to hang out for some hours .you find several open air restaurant serving food and drinks.
Local boats leave during the day every 30-45 minutes from "Muelle de los Pegassos". The boat ride takes about 15 minutes. Guides will try to sell you expensive “all included” trips to Bocachica but you should pay just the local fare. (in september 2006 - COP$3,000 pesos – one way) Once you ask for the price it will get more expensive.


This is a usable article. It has information for getting in as well as some complete entries for restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!




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