Pieter and I decided to do our honeymoon in February, when he had some time off from flying. Because our trip fell over Valentine’s Day and President’s Day, most of the places we wanted to go to (Costa Rica, Hawaii and Mexico) were all booked and we didn’t want to pay some crazy price to stare at the dumpsters and parking lot from our shitty room. This is our honeymoon, after all.
Piet told me I should look at Colombia. My exact words were “like Narcos Colombia?” After settling my irrational fears, I started to look into Cartagena. Wow, can I just say the photos were magical - Spanish meets an old European city. We went into this trip with no real plans other than to get a place to stay for 6 days and the rest we’d find out by walking the city. The only research we did was to make sure it was safe (which it is), do we need to know Spanish (it’s helpful), do we tip at restaurants (no), can we drink the water (yes, but we didn’t), is it hot (yes) and do we need a car (no).
I found an amazing VRBO in the Walled City, across from the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver. We had the whole place to ourselves, two floors, with 2 bedrooms, 3 baths, full-time, live-in butler (yes, you read that correctly), a rooftop jacuzzi, three large balconies and full-time concierge who made us reservations wherever we wanted. The grand total for this amazing place: $500/night VRBO
On February 10, we flew from LAX to Panama City, Panama on COPA Airlines on a red-eye flight, had a short layover and then went on to Cartagena. When we landed at about 12:30 p.m., we exchanged some money at the airport, and the owner of the apartment had scheduled a car service to pick us up from the airport ($25) and took us directly to our apartment. We met with Jorge, our live-in butler, and Fanny, our concierge, who showed us the apartment and then we promptly slept the rest of the afternoon. Around 4 p.m. we headed out to find a grocery store to get some snacks and beverages, brought them all back to the apartment and had Happy Hour on the 3rd floor terrace and watched the sunset.
Dinner doesn’t start early in Colombia, so Jorge took us to one of his favorite restaurants around 8 p.m. We ate at a tiny little place called Porton de San Sebastian - food was delicious and then we wandered some of the streets.
We had all intentions of getting up early and beating the heat. Ha! I think we strolled out of the apartment around 11 a.m. This girl needs to eat, otherwise you’ll feel my wrath. We headed out of our apartment and stopped to look at the map - that was a big mistake. The Buskers (street vendors) descended on us stupid Americans. I had to be reminded after I gave them a tongue lashing, that this is their way of making a living. Thanks to Google Maps, we were able to find a breakfast place not far from our apartment - Epoca Espresso Bar - Arzobispado (with A/C). The service and food were amazing! If you’re looking for authentic Colombian breakfast food, good luck. Breakfast isn’t their main meal of the day.
With our bellies full and no plans, we decided to walk and visit all the churches and tourist sites on the Western side of the city. We started with Iglesia de San Pedro Claver church and museum, which was directly across from our apartment. Most of the sites are in Spanish, the church gave us a 2-for-1 deal due to me not knowing a lick of Spanish. (Being a stupid American paid off!)
We wandered the streets, taking in all the beautiful colors, door knockers, architecture and dodging the street rappers, who would sing to you as you’re walking along, with their hand out for money. The door knockers (Aldaba) come from medieval times, when social hierarchies meant families were eager to display status. The size of the Aldaba was an immediate indication of your social status and wealth. Besides the size of each Aldaba was the symbolic meaning of the item itself. Each shape represented the owner’s profession - the lizard represents royalty, while a fish or mermaid were for the merchant class. Nowadays, they’re just decorative and impressive.
We then went up two blocks and went to the Plaza de la Proclamación and visited the beautiful gardens, museum and artwork.
The next church we visited was Iglesia Santo Domingo and Santo Domingo Plaza. This plaza is one of the most popular in all of Cartagena, with its seating in the square, restaurants and the famous nude, enormously breasted statue of ‘Gorda’ Gertrude from Colombian artist Fernando Botero. According to legend, new couples who touch her left breast will have a wonderful loving life. You better believe we did some fondling! We also totally geeked out because Jeremy Clarkson was in the very spot on an episode of The Grand Tour.
By this point, it was about 4:30 p.m. and we wanted to see what all the fuss was about at Café del Mar at the north Western part of the city. Café del Mar sits on top of the wall that surrounds the city, it has a well-stocked bar, lots of tables and appetizers. Drinks are not cheap here, but definitely well-worth watching the sunset. I highly recommend making a reservation or coming very early like we did. By 5 p.m., it was totally full.
Once the sun set, we walked along the top of the wall towards our apartment and found another bar, with live music in Plaza de Santa Teresa.
We called Fanny to make reservations for dinner at Resto Montescaro, which was a block from our apartment. We went home quickly showered, changed and had a wonderful romantic dinner on the balcony. Fanny had told them it was our honeymoon, so they sprinkled heart-shaped confetti on the table and our dessert had “Happy Honeymoon” written in chocolate on the plate. The food was to die for and remarkably inexpensive - the two of us had a glass of wine each, dinner and dessert and it was $70 for the two of us - that quality in LA, would have easily been double.
After dinner, we weren’t ready to hit the sack yet, so we walked some more and stumbled on a craft beer store that also serves beer - Beer Lovers Cartagena. Piet was in HEAVEN.
We walked to the Northernmost part of the Walled City with a stop for breakfast at Café de la Mañana, also a popular breakfast spot. Food was good, but just note there is no A/C. It wasn’t too bad, but you’re not longing for a hot cup of coffee when you’re sweating.
We went and explored more of the city, visited a few of the parks in the San Diego area. The northern part of the city is a bit more run down then the Southern part, but still beautiful. We were told we needed to go to the cells of the former 18th-century dungeons Plaza de Las Bóvedas, which have now turned into a bustling shopping with colorful souvenirs - i.e. chachki stuff. We are not ones to buy into that stuff, so as cool as the old dungeons were, it was hard to see them as the souvenirs lined each wall.
We walked on top of the wall some more, and by this point we were both hot and a bit peckish. We had seen a large, modern building when we were in the car from the airport and thought it was a theater house. We stumbled on it on our walk and turns out it’s a high-end mall with glorious A/C and bathrooms I could have lived in. I do love a good bathroom. The La Serrezuela mall is brand new, just opened October 2019 and is four stories high with shops and restaurants. In the middle, is an opening with grand seating with cafés and pubs at the bottom. This was the site of one of two bull-fighting arenas. Bull-fighting was banned in 2012 and the arena was closed. A developer came through and rebuilt the mall to look like the old stadium. We stopped and had a beer at BBC - Bogota Beer Company. This place is a must-see.
While in Cartagena, Piet really wanted Ceviche and there’s a famous ceviche place, LA CEVICHERIA, that Anthony Bourdain visited in 2008. Google told us it was open all day, but in fact they are only open for dinner, starting at 5 p.m. and it was only 2 p.m. by this point. We would try again later.
We visited briefly Santo Toribio, the church where Juan Pablo Montoya (famous Formula 1 race car driver) was married.
We scheduled with Fanny and Jorge to have a chef come to the house and cook for us at home and it did not disappoint. Our friend, Dave, had recommended authentic Colombian dishes and Jorge went to the market and bought everything for the chef to make. The chef made us Sancocho Costeño, Sancocho de Pescado, Arroz Con Coco, a salad, fried plantains and boiled potatoes - to die for!
At about midnight, large trucks showed up, with lots of yelling, hammering and honking horns until about 4 a.m. - ear plugs are highly recommended in Cartagena. Turns out the bar next door to us, in San Pedro Claver Plaza, was having a private event on Valentine’s Day. Needless to say, little sleep was had.
We started the day with a stop off at Café San Alberto for the best coffee in Colombia - they’ve won awards for it every year - it’s also a stop for all the cruise ship passengers. We had a bite to eat, Piet had his coffee and we were on our way to Museo del Oro (Gold Museum). The Gold Museum is full of old gold pieces dating back to the 1600s. The current museum is free admission and temporary, as the larger location is going through renovations.
There were 2 cruise ships in port and tons of people had descended onto “our” city. Thankfully, they drive business to the town, but also they’re gone by 4 p.m. On this day, I was a bit embarrassed to be an American - Carnival Cruise Lines was in town with every overweight American, wearing Crocs and camo Bass Pro t-shirts. The Buskers had a field day with them.
We then went to the Naval Museum, just around the corner from our apartment. Interesting museum, but everything is Spanish. For the mechanically inclined and children, this is a great place to visit. Afterwards, we stopped for some roadside fresh fruit. We walked more and made sure we visited every street possible. We stopped in at the Teatro Heredia for a rest inside their courtyard.
Piet wanted Ceviche in a bad way and LA CEVICHERIA wouldn’t be open to 5 p.m., so we found another spot, Restaurante Mi Rosa, directly next to the breakfast spot, La Mañana. Trying to tell someone who speaks limited English that I can’t have onions in my dish, was a ton of fun. I got onions and a LOT of them!
I wanted to see the main gate, Monumento Torre Del Reloj, for the Walled City, which dates back to the 19th-century, so we made our way South again. We thought while we’re on that side of the wall, we’d go check out Getsemani neighborhood. I had done some reading that it was the ‘grungy’ version of the Walled City and not to go. We went anyway and my God, don’t believe everything you read. Yes, it was a bit more ‘grungy’, but it was also more artsy with big graffiti murals, artists working on the street and lots of young people. Getsemani has mostly hostels and very cheap accommodations. We walked down every street, especially those less traveled.
We headed back to the apartment to watch the sunset from our rooftop Jacuzzi. We then got ready for dinner and made our way to Cuzco, a Peruvian restaurant, that was recommended. We went without reservations. On a Friday Night. On Valentine’s Day. The horror. The restaurant was fantastic, with an interior pool on the bottom floor. They thankfully had 4 tables left on the roof. Score, how romantic. When the hostess said it had fans, I was having second thoughts. Three floors later, we’re on a teeny tiny roof, with no view, surrounded by walls, music coming from the restaurant speakers behind our heads and ill beats from the nightclub next door. We had a good laugh, settled in and had a FANTASTIC meal. Thanks to the loud American girls at the table next to us, who Instagrammed all night, we made our escape.
We went back to the bar on the wall in Plaza de Santa Teresa and listened to the live band and people watched. Piet bought a beer off a Busker - that beer was the equivalent of $0.50, he would have paid $8 for one at the bar. We made our way back to the apartment with a stop off at San Pedro Claver Plaza and listened to the music from the private event.
What goes up, must come down. After the event ended at 2 a.m., the workers came in and disassembled everything until about 6 a.m. And they don’t work quietly. The universal language is not Spanish, but honking the car horn. It’s like going to Vegas and hearing the slot machines ringing in your head, this was the same for the car horns and yelling. There was also a Mime and he hung out mostly on our street and he squeaked his way into the night, we called him Sir Squeaker.
With little sleep, we made our way to the corner to try a different breakfast place. Se Volvió Prisprí Coffee Shop was run only by women and it was a great little place. Since tipping isn’t customary, they rang a bell like their life depended on it, anytime a tip was left. We walked through Plaza de La Aduana, which we called Plaza de Poo Poo, because it smelled like fresh turds all the time.
We went out of the main gates to get a taxi and there’s no shortage of taxis or aggressive drivers funneling you into their taxis. With a short 10 minute drive, it was time to explore Fuerte de San Felipe De Barajas, an iconic fortress dating back to 1536, with expansions in 1657 and 1763. The castle, along with Old City of Cartagena is a World Heritage Site. We explored the whole place, including the underground tunnels.
Instead of getting a taxi, we walked back trying to find the original bridge that connected Old Cartagena to the castle. During our walk, we found a few old gate houses and in one there was a pool of 1-2 day old blood. I checked out, but then we noticed the blood trail continued down a set of stairs. With nothing better to do, we followed this blood trail for a good ½ mile, while trying to take in the sites. We’re pretty sure the pool of blood was the final resting place of that person! We then walked through Getsemani again and back to the Walled City. On the walk back, one of the locals ushered me over and pointed into the trees above us and there sitting on a branch, which I could reach out and touch, was a sloth. In the middle of Parque Del Centenario city park.
We stopped and ate lunch outside at Café FICCI. Eating outside in Cartagena is difficult due to the relentless Buskers - in about an hour, we were hit 11 times. The food was GREAT and our waitress spoke perfect English - she said she learned it from watching American TV. This girl is going places!
We then went in search of some gifts for our gracious dog babysitters, and found some local chocolates at Cafeto Café Y Regalos. We went back to the apartment and hung out in the Jacuzzi until sunset. What a magical place.
We didn’t have reservations for dinner, we thought we’d wing it. HA! We were told one of the restaurants Don Juan doesn’t take credit card, so we went on the hunt for an ATM. Finally found one working in Plaza de Poo Poo. We went to Don Juans...FULL. We went to three other restaurants (not close to each other)...FULL. After walking more than 3 miles in various directions for 2 hours, I had a small meltdown - this girl’s gotta eat. We found another Peruvian restaurant, Agua de Leon Bar and they had ONE table left and it was ours. Restaurant was great, live music was great and the people watching was even better!
Day 6 - Leaving Day
We got up early and headed down to Epoca Espresso Bar for a quick breakfast. Between it being Sunday and we were early, the city was deserted and it was kind of lovely. No buskers, no tourists, just a hand-full of people out and about. The hired car was picking us up at 11:30 a.m., Piet dove quickly into a Cigar shop and got some Cubans and off we went to the airport.
Once in Panama, we bought some duty-free booze. We thought we couldn’t buy any in Cartagena, due to having to go through customs and security again, but that wasn’t the case. We know better for next time.
We had a fantastic honeymoon, ate like Kings and Queens. We will definitely be back, but with more planning to visit more of the restaurants and hotels that have stunning lush courtyards with pools, the Rosario Islands, National Park Tayrona (which is currently closed), Bogota and Medellín.
Helpful Tips About Cartagena
Make reservations for dinner - there are no wait lists. If they don’t have an available table, they turn you away. Ask me how I know this.
No tipping in restaurants unless the service was stellar. The tip is already included into the overall price.
When you’re ready to pay, you need to let your waiter know, otherwise, you’ll be sitting there all night - they don’t approach with the bill.
Blend in - the buskers (vendors) are quite aggressive and persistent. If you make yourself look like a tourist, you’re prime meat for them.
The Walled City is very safe, even at night. We never felt in danger, but you still need to be smart, especially for pick-pocketers.
If you’re staying in the Walled City in the south end, bring earplugs for sleeping. The city doesn’t shut down until about 3 a.m., with lots of car horns, yelling, music etc.
It’s HOT and Humid all year long. Hotter during June - August. There are two rainy seasons: May - June and October - November.
If you go to the Castle San Felipe, there’s no shade, so go early, as it gets hot!