1. Where to Stay
The Hotel Santa Clara (from $250) in Cartagena’s old town was visited last year by Liev Schreiber, Javier Bardem, and the rest of the cast of Love in the Time of Cholera, the long-awaited film adaptation of the Gabriel García Márquez novel, opening this November. Just steps away from some of the city’s best restaurants, this former convent has a vibe that’s both spiritual (check out the saint statues, confessionals, and crypt) and tropical, with an inner courtyard that receives morning visits from wild toucans. Ask for suite 501 on the top floor—it’s the only room out of 119 with ocean views.
The year-old Casa El Carretero (from $150), a restored colonial two blocks from the nightlife strip of Calle del Arsenal, is great for groups—the entire hotel can be rented for as little as $550. To really feel like you own the place, ask the housemaid to prepare a breakfast of arepa de huevo, a griddlecake stuffed with a fried egg, and dig in while relaxing at the rooftop pool.
Situated near the massive fortress that helped Cartagena fend off pirates in the sixteenth-century, the four-month-old Casa Boutique Veranera (from $150) has a spa, yoga studio, and just five suites. The most popular, the Yoga Room, has transparent glass doors covered by billowy white curtains, and a hideaway bed that leaves plenty of space for downward-facing dogs.
2. Where to Eat
The fashionably rustic, immensely popular La Casa de Socorro (Calle Larga No. 8 B-112; 57-5-664-4658), known for its steaming seafood casseroles, recently added photos of Cholera stars Benjamin Bratt and John Leguizamo to its sizable wall of fame (already loaded with head shots of Colombian presidents, beauty queens, and baseball players like the Atlanta Braves’ Edgar Renteria). Get there right at noon or after 2 p.m. to avoid the midday rush and snag a table inside, preferably in the sunlit upstairs dining room.
Native son and retired boxer Bonifacio Avila opened the beachside shack Kiosco El Bony (Bocagrande; 57-5-665-3198) in 1976. Today, it’s a local institution, serving tangy octopus and shrimp cocktails to fishermen, hotel workers, and backpackers. Order a whole red snapper, and don’t be afraid to use your hands.
Reservations are a must at La Vitrola (Calle Baloco No. 2-01; 57-5-664-8243), the upscale Cuban-themed restaurant around the corner from a seaside mansion owned by García Márquez. The dining room feels like prerevolutionary Cuban chic, with palm trees, whirring fans, black-and-white photos of Old Havana, and a live band playing the music of Beny Moré and other soneros. Try the deliciously meaty ropa vieja habanera with shredded beef, plantains, beans, and avocado.
Homemade sweets can be found at El Portal de los Dulces (located inside Plaza de Los Coches), an archway in front of Cartagena’s iconic clock tower. The sidewalk is lined with older ladies selling tamarind balls, coconut shavings, and other sticky fruit-based treats. If it’s Friday evening, take your sugar high over to Donde Fidel (32-09 Plaza de los Coches; no phone) at the end of the archway—the tiny salsa club opens its doors early for the after-work crowd.
3. What to Do
Cartageneros don’t need an excuse to shake it. In the daytime, roving musicians play vallenato, a folkloric accordion music popular in Colombia’s Atlantic coast, at impromptu dance sessions on Bocagrande beach. Tip them a few dollars and request anything by vallenato master Carlos Vives. Nightly carousing begins around 10 p.m., when dressed-up locals (no shorts allowed) start passing around communal shot glasses of aguardiente, the national liquor.
Start your night at Paco’s (Calle 35 No. 3-02; no phone) in Plaza Santo Domingo, where you can sit by one of Medellin artist Fernando Botero’s corpulent statues while sipping an after-dinner coffee. Next, make your way to Quiebra Canto, a dimly lit salsa bar where a D.J.-cum-bartender plays songs by Mongo Santamaria, Celia Cruz, and other legendary Latin singers.
A younger crowd favors Calle del Arsenal, a strip crammed with bars and lounges like La Carbonera Cantina (Calle 24 No. 9A-47; 57-5-664-3720), which plays a crossover mix of pop, electro, and Caribbean sing-alongs. Tourists from Ecuador, Panama, and other neighboring countries come in droves to Mister Babilla (Calle 24 No. 8B-137; 57-5-664-7005), a big kitschy club where female waitresses and bartenders hop on the bar to get the crowd riled up.
4. Insider’s Tip
Most guidebooks and big hotels recommend a night trip aboard a chiva en rumba (a typical Colombian party bus), but avoid the temptation at all cost. Though admission includes all the rum you can drink and a live band, the last stop is usually a cheesy club that will most likely be empty except for a few sunburned tourists.
And a word on nightlife etiquette: Male clubgoers should think twice before chatting up single ladies. Most Cartageneros go clubbing in groups or as couples, so even if you see a bevy of pretty girls shimmying on the dance floor, don’t assume their boyfriends aren’t downing Aquila beers nearby.
5. An Oddball Day
After a dizzying night of partying, regain your balance by inhaling some salty sea air in Islas del Rosario, a coralline archipelago of 27 islands—some so tiny they only have space for a single hotel or house. Locals often head to Playa Blanca in state-owned Isla Barú, where white sands, turquoise waters, and a few food stalls enliven the sleepy scene. Divers and snorkelers looking for something less sedate can book an all-day excursion with Caribe Dive Shop (57-5-665-3517). Most trips include transportation, a midday sandwich, and access to the accommodations at Hotel San Pedro de Majagua, a high-end property owned by the same folks as the Hotel Santa Clara in Cartagena. If you stay overnight, make sure to book a boat trip to Isla Grande, where at night, microscopic plankton light up like tiny stars in the mangrove lagoons.
6. Related Links
In addition to hotel, restaurant, and nightlife listings, CaribeNet hosts a fascinating collection of folk stories about Cartagena.
To get a sneak peek at city attractions, check out Cartagena Fotos’ wide selection of shots of street scenes, historical monuments, and even some nocturnal action.
Travel blogger Jack Alexander Jowett writes about security concerns and the drug situation in Cartagena at Jack’s World.
Learn more about Colombia’s Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, celebrating his 80th birthday this year, at The Modern Word.