Cartagena is the amazing place you won’t believe you’d never heard about when you were in college. And when you get back, you’ll be asking yourself why you’d never been before!
A mere 2 hours from Miami and 4 ½ hours from New York City, it’s one of those destinations that you can always count on to be warm and pleasant all year round. In Cartagena, disruptive weather is almost unheard of, even when hurricane season. Sadly, it’s no longer a hidden gem. You should carefully research when and how to go and where to stay in order to get the best value. Because now, everyone is flocking there.
Cartagena is often referred to as “Cartagena de Indias” which distinguishes it within the Spanish empire from the coastal city Cartagena in Spain when it was founded in 1533. Its rich history shows its importance as the main port for trade between Spain and its overseas empires, where it was the major imperial port for exporting gold, gems, and silver to Spain and importing African slaves. The largely preserved fortifications, including the truly awesome walls of the colonial city and the remnants around Getsemani, allow for days of fascinating historical tourism. They have inspired countless works of art, music, novels, and movies.
Cartagena is the one of the largest cities in Colombia. It’s also the second largest in the region, after nearby Barranquilla (2 hours to the northeast along the coast). It has an approximate population of about 1 million. An important fact to note is that it suffers from perhaps the most extreme wealth disparity in Latin America. This is exacerbated recently by the Venezuelan refugee crisis. So for those interested in “voluntourism,” it offers many rewarding opportunities. It remains the crown jewel of Colombian tourism, which has blossomed in recent years. Cartagena offers opportunities for an unforgettable vacations for everyone. Not to mention it’s one of the most welcoming and family-friendly cultures I personally have ever experienced.
From its colorful streets, breathtaking sunsets, and fascinating flora and fauna that will entrance any photographer, amateur or professional; to its exciting nightlife and day excursions; to fascinating island beaches with mansions, restaurants, and hotels literally floating in the water, it’s ideal for a long weekend or extended stay vacation. Cartagena’s authenticity is one of its main attractions, so go soon because that is slowly changing as international tourism explodes!
I fell in love with Cartagena 15 years ago. After traveling to other cities in Colombia frequently to visit my husband’s family, we finally arranged a vacation by swapping a relative’s timeshare week at the unparalleled Santa Clara Hotel (Sofitel)* for our apartment in New York. I was immediately smitten! By the end of our week, we had spent several days looking at properties throughout the old city to buy. We ultimately purchased a new condominium in the beach neighborhood of La Boquilla within a few weeks.
Cartagena can do that! It’s crazy, chaotic, and reminded me nostalgically of a mix of two beloved cities I had lived in previously. New Orleans, for its style, charm, and tropical vibe. And Cairo, for the chaotic, informal street-life and the intense pride in their heritage that radiates from locals. We spent most of my children’s preschool and early elementary years spending the entire summer there, in lieu of New York City day camps. We never went back to the Hamptons again! Best decision ever.
Later, when my children were in middle school, we moved to Bogotá and spent about a weekend a month, and many additional long weekends during Colombia’s approximately 18 annual holidays (In 2019 there will only be 9 long weekends, as opposed to 11 in 2018).** Since moving back to New York, I have focused on renting our apartment in the vacation rental market and marveled at the changes in the demographics of my renters. And, especially in the past 5 years, the changes in the city itself. Now, in addition to working trips alone, I take my now-teenage kids to visit their boarding school friends a couple of times a year. So my suggestions are for a one-week family vacation with kids – out of diapers and strollers.
*: A converted 16th century convent, there is nothing austere about the interior of this full service luxury hotel, which is a gold standard for weddings receptions in Cartagena. Large kid-friendly pool, with poolside bar and restaurant service, gym, various restaurants and a wonderful cocktail bar. A little known tip: while you can reserve regular rooms through the hotel, the weeklong high floor suite timeshares can be rented directly for significant savings through word of mouth or private brokers. Or, can be exchanged through the Interval network. We bought one ourselves and often offer to rent it (last Saturday of August to first Saturday of September) when we can’t use it.
**: It’s worth checking the calendar first because prices always rise whenever locals can take advantage of long weekend trips. Also, locally services may sometimes be more expensive because employers have to pay expensive over-time and holiday pay premiums.