It’s so easy to fall in love with Cartagena, where both the people and buildings are bright and vibrant. Rum flows freely, spacious plazas thrum with energy and salsa music, and the smell of freshly-fried arepas permeates the air.
Cartagena was one of the last stops on my 8-month tour of South America, and I arrived tired and sore after a long and winding overnight bus trip from Medellin. But the city’s pulsating rhythm and energizing quality made me feel like I’d just arrived on the continent. If you’ve only got three days in the Heroic City—so-called because of the number of sieges it resisted—here’s how to maximize your time.
Cartagena’s tropical climate means it’s hot, humid, and prone to sudden downpours, so always carry water and a waterproof raincoat.
If you only have time for one thing, make it a wander around Old Town—its color and history embody the best of the Caribbean-Colombian city.
This morning, get your bearings in Cartagena’s glorious Old Town—an UNESCO World Heritage Site characterized by brightly-colored houses, cobbled streets, and bougainvillea-clad balconies. Start with a Colombian coffee and an arepa from a vendor in the lively Pedro San Claver Square before wandering over to the Plaza de los Coches, where you can admire the famous Clock Tower (Torre del Reloj).
If you think volcanoes only contain boiling-hot lava and ash clouds, think again. Spend the first half of the day bathing in the mineral-infused mud of the dormant Totumo Mud Volcano before washing off in the nearby river. Take caution when climbing in and out of the mud bath, as the ladders can be very slippery.
Tonight, feast your senses on Cartagena’s culinary culture, which combines Caribbean flavors with Latin American flair. Head to street food hotspots like Plaza de los Estudiantes and Palito de Caucho, where you can try garlic-injected patacones (fried plantains), empanadas, and fresh juices made from tropical fruits.
Spend your final day enjoying the white-sand beaches, crystal-clear water, and swaying palm trees of the Rosario Islands. If you want to go island hopping, a day tour is your best option—most include snorkeling as well as hassle-free transfers from your hotel to the port.
Tonight, celebrate the end of your trip Cartagena-style on a chiva (party bus). You’ll get to see the gloriously illuminated city, enjoy Caribbean-style cocktails, and dance to booming salsa music on an elaborately-decorated bus. Alternatively, head to a few clubs to see live salsa music and pick up a few moves.