Getting off the plane , I was smacked in the face with the dense humidity. Before we even got into our cab, I realized that no one in Cartagena spoke English. It was hot and I was going to have difficulty communicating but I was so excited for my first South American adventure! In the week I spent in Cartagena, Colombia, I became well acquainted with this vibrant walled city. Even with the language barrier, I was able to get around Cartagena pretty well with only my small knowledge of Spanish. I was lucky enough to get to spend a week in Cartagena, Colombia for a wedding. But, don’t worry. You can see all of Cartagena in just four days.
Day One: The Walled City
Get your bearings. After arriving and checking into your hotel, head to the old city of Cartagena . Enter through the city gates of Torre del Roloj, the clock tower. Make sure to take some time to check out the stands selling everything from traditional clothing to Colombian sweets. The best way to spend your first day in Cartagena is to get lost in the city. Tuck your map away and wander the streets. Take in the vibrant hued houses and the walls around the city. Seriously, I didn’t use a map 90% of my time in Cartagena.
After wandering the streets of Cartagena, take a horse-drawn carriage ride. It is a much more relaxing way to see the city than walking in the heat. The ride only cost 50,000 Colombian pesos and took us around the city for 30 minutes. It was so worth it. We saw just about every square in Cartagena on the ride. The pitter-patter of the horses hooves against the cobble stone streets was so relaxing. The streets, with more carriages than cars took us back to a simpler time. It was a slow-paced, relaxing tour of the old city. We saw all of the main sites including Torre del Roloj , the famous clock tower and Teatro Heredia.
For dinner, make your way to Plaza Santo Domingo, home to the fat lady statue “La Gordita”. Here, you can choose from a variety of restaurants. Restaurants are differentiated by the different colored umbrellas. Whichever you choose, you’ll be able to enjoy a meal in the heart of the city. When we ate here, there was a band playing smooth Spanish music which added to the ambiance. To end the night head to Simon Bolivar Square to watch some salsa dancing.
Day Two: La Popa and Castillo de San Felipe
On your second day in Cartagena check out the fort that once protected this walled city, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. Arrange with a taxi to bring you to both Castillo de San Felipe and La Popa, a convent that was founded in 1607 on top of the highest hill in Cartagena . The convent sits at almost 500 feet above the city. The taxi costs 40,000 Colombian pesos. The taxi brings you up the hill to La Popa and waits for however long it takes for you to explore the convent. Even if you are not a fan of charming convents nestled on top of a hill, come instead for the sweeping views of Cartagena below. We paid the 8000 Colomian peso entrance fee and passed the gates into the peaceful convent with the breathtaking view. Tip: Don’t attempt to walk up the hill to La Popa. While it is only a 30 minute hike up, the neighborhood on the hillside is unsafe to tourists and climatically it would be similar to a trek in the desert.
Your cab will then drop you off a Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, strategically built on a hill to protect the land and the sea from pirate attack. Entrance to the fort costs 17000 Colombian pesos. We opted out of the guided tour. Tip: Be sure to arrive in the early morning to escape the crowds and the heat. We arrived around 10:00 a.m. and the sun was already scorching. Before even entering the fortress, I bought a sombrero and an ice-cold bottle of water. I probably would’ve had a heat stroke without my purchases. It was hot, yet it was worth it. I pushed through the humidity to try to explore every inch of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. The fortress includes intricate underground passages that you can walk through. The passages are dark and cool. Some are even so dark that you need a flashlight to navigate through them. Once you’ve seen the fortress from below, you have to see it from above. Take the steep steps up to the highest lookout point you can to get a better vantage point of the fort and Cartagena.
After a long day of exploring, unwind at Cafe Del Mar located on the city walls. Here you can enjoy a glass of wine or a cold Aguila beer while watching the sunset over the Caribbean Sea.
Day Three: El Totumo Mud Volcano
It’s time to get down and dirty in Colombia! Head to El Totumo, a mud volcano mud volcano about 40 minutes from Cartagena. I’ve seen pictures and heard stories of how awkward the volcano experience is but had to have the experience first hand. We could have taken a tour which would have cost us approximately 50,000 Colombian pesos per person yet we opted to take a cab instead. The cab cost us 150,000 Colombian pesos, which would’ve been the same amount as the tour as we had three people in our group. The cab ride didn’t include lunch or the entrance fee, yet it was worth it not to be crammed in a tour bus. We were also able to get to the volcano early, before it got too busy and could take it at our own pace.
El Totumo is a weird experience and is not necessarily for everyone. For those who are up for weird, this will be a once in a lifetime experience. When you arrive, you are ushered up this ant-hill looking volcano where you will wait until it’s your time to enter the warm tub of mud. Tip: Trust the camera man and hand over your camera. You will want photos of your experience in the mud! Be prepared to tip the camera man at the end.
I took the ladder, with trembling hands and lowering myself into the mud pit. It was a weird sensation. You have limited ability to move and constantly feel like you’re going to topple over. Once you give into the sensation, the mud starts to feel soothing. Keep in mind that workers will try to force you to get a message. I hate massages yet somehow received one even though I said no. Say no and be firm and hopefully you’ll have more luck than I did. After the mud pit you will get bathed by the women by the lake. After this experience, you will leave feeling confused, relaxed and a little violated.
Day Four: Rosario Island (Side Trip)
Spend a day in the Rosario Islands, an island chain off the coast of Cartagena. You can either rent a boat or take a ferry to the islands. Either option will allow you to swim in the warm, blue, Caribbean water. Renting a boat will allow you to island hop through the Rosario Island chain and to have access to swim in the coral reef. Taking the boat was so much fun. Colombian music thumped loudly over the sound of the crashing waves. We were able to experience a taste of the Rosario Islands in one day. We dove into the coral reef, relaxed on the sandy shore of Playa Blanca Beach and even got to eat a delicious snapper in the Caribbean Sea. We actually ate at a table while standing in the sea. It was an amazing experience. This is a great option if you are traveling with a large group.
If renting a boat isn’t in your budget, consider taking a ferry-boat to a resort, such as Hotel Isla Del Sol. The resort excursion costs approximately 150,000 Colombian Pesos per person. This price includes hotel transfer, ferry ride, access to the resort and lunch. Spend the afternoon soaking up the sun and swimming in the warm Caribbean Sea. There are many hotel that offer day-trip excursions like this. If you want to extend your stay, consider staying the night at the resort.