Before going you need to know about a few annoyances that manage to only slightly mar the magnificent beauty of this jewel of the Caribbean. Prostitution is legal and rampant. Look no further than the Secret Service scandal; they got busted because they refused to settle the bill with a local service provider who simply phoned up the police. To each his or her own, but you really need to be able to tell when a woman is clocked in and don’t waste her, or your, time. Second, drugs are very illegal, you will be offered them, and you will get stopped and patted down by local police. Third, Cartagena and its locals have a reputation in Colombia as being so anxious to take advantage of visitors so as to actually damage its own tourist industry. In my experience, this is pretty accurate, but is a minor annoyance that you should just treat as a tax – pay the minimum you can reasonably get away with and get over it. Finally, beware Devil’s Breath: a flavorless, scentless knock-out drug that is sometimes used to relieve travelers of their hard earned cash. Make a pact with your travel buddies (whether you packed your own, or met others there) that you will look out for each other. This nasty stuff can be passed orally or by touch, can kill in excessive doses, and results in the victim becoming a happy-go-lucky party animal open to maxing out credit cards and emptying bank accounts just to help out their newfound friends. Yes, this is not Kansas, Toto, but Cartagena is a gorgeous new lover who will seduce you with her charms and reward you deeply for loving her.
Like many Latin American cities, Cartagena doesn’t have very nice city beaches. Blame it on the busy port or on poor sewage and waste management. In Boquilla you will find the nicest beaches available on the mainland near Cartagena. Locals compare it to Miami for the small strip of beachfront properties, relative security, and availability of water sports rentals and instruction. We rented a beachfront property here via AirBNB and it was an excellent decision. Beware the locals hanging around on the north end of the beach – the beach abuts against an old shanty town and not all of the locals get that stealing from beachgoers is less sustainable than selling them things of value. Not a good spot for night beach walks, but very secure during the day.
Address: La Boquilla, Highway 90A, Cartagena, Colombia
I know it seems touristy and cheesy, but just do it. Do it, and do it early in your trip because you’re likely to make friends that will last longer than your time in Cartagena. For a set fee (I think it was about $20 per person, but not certain) you will ride around for a few hours with 50 or so of your best new friends from around the globe, drink the rough local aguardiente freely, and sing new songs at the top of your lungs. In fact, be smart and buy your own clave, guiro, or maracas from one of the hawkers plying the streets of el Centro before you board so that you can play along with the Vallenato band in the back. Buy your own bottle of Ron Medellin to take with you – you’ll make plenty of new friends by sharing shots with former strangers that can’t quite stomach the cheap local firewater the chiva provides. The chivas will tour around to pick up folks from various hotels that booked their activities in advance – welcome each group loudly with a smile and you will be their hero. Each bus has its own MC who will goad you into activities and contests, the most fun of which are against the other chivas at stoplights. Don’t be a wet blanket – throw yourself so far into it that other passengers think you’re part of the show and you will not be disappointed. Most chivas stop into several discotecas for a drink and a dance, then load up and you’re off! If you do nothing else touristy the whole time you are there, do this.
Address: Chivas Party Tour, various departing from La Torre del Reloj, intersection of Avenida Venezuela and Avenida Calle 24 Real, Cartagena, Colombia
Yes, this is a plaza in front of a church. Yes, street drinking is legal. Yes, you were just offered drugs by a teenager (thank him warmly as you decline). Yes, that is a cop in head-to-toe body armor carrying a crowd-dispersal beanbag shotgun. Don’t worry. Go buy yourself a few cold ones from the guy with the cooler, step over to the food cart where the most insanely delicious burger you will ever have is being made. Talk to some strangers. Make some new friends. This is how we do it in Cartagena, because “Colombia es una chimba!”
Address: Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad, Calle 29 between Carrera 10 and 10b, Cartagena, Getsemaní, Colombia
All good nights in Cartagena revolve around the “Havana club.” Simply put, it’s among the best small live music venues in Latin America. Whether you like Salsa, can’t dance to save your life, or are a serious aficionado, if you can’t have fun here you don’t belong in Colombia. My all time favorite live Salsa experience is dancing here, the band made up of mostly 60+ year old pros, simply killing it. James Brown would be proud to watch these gentlemen “do it to death.” What makes it even more amazing is their banter with the crowd, excited encouragement to get you up and moving – no canned Señor Frogs tourist nonsense here; these men mean business! One of my favorite moments here was the first night in Cartagena, my good law school buddy Jorge and I flanking my 19 year old nephew and teaching him the basic salsa steps, and we called out to the band during a small break between songs “El Cuarta de Tula!” The bandleader nodded in recognition of our refined taste, and fired up the horns for a rousing rendition. One of our last nights we hauled a chiva full of people from all over – Portuguese, Bolivians, Colombians, Gringos – and to a person we were thanked, hugged, and a fine time was had by all. I’ve sent several people there since and they all gush. If it’s quiet when you go, give it until the 10-11pm hour and watch it go. If you’re into partying with drunk Aussies and the backpack set, all of Calle 30 next to Havana will be full of it.
Address: Café Havana, Corner of Carrera 10 y Calle 30, Cartagena, Getsemaní, Colombia
This is the placeholder for a great little “locals only” spot at the South West corner. It probably has a name, but I have no idea what it is. You’ll know when you pass by whether to stop in by the squeals and peeling laughter of neighborhood folks – if it’s full, step inside, order a beer for yourself and one of the locals, and prepare for a lovely time that might include a Salsa lesson from one of the ladies, some soccer talk with the guys, and just great, authentic times. You’re welcome.
Address: Local Corner, Carrera 9 and Calle 38, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
A very solid pan-Andes restaurant. Prices are solid, service good, and food quite good. Not a romantic spot, or in any way fancy, but a good solid choice for fueling up for a night of fun.
Address: Atahualpa Restaurante, Carrera 7, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
Stay away from this bar. Do not go here. For anything. The owner showed us photos of his “women” – these were gringa travelers who had clearly been drugged, Devil’s Breath or otherwise. It was disgusting. We warned the nearby hostel staff and let them alert the local officials, though I doubt anything ever came of it. Just steer far clear, especially women. It still gives me chills of disgust.
Address: La Casa Del Habano, Calle 24 #88-38, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
Welcome to a classic Gringo Trail party hostel. This place is chock full of Colombians, French, Canadians, Germans, Swiss, Spanish (OK, anywhere in Europe), and the ubiquitous Israelis blowing off post-military service steam. This is a great place to meet fellow travelers to go adventuring with, trade travel stories and recommendations, and book your next excursion. Cheap, clean enough, helpful staff, and great location – what’s not to love?
Address: El Viajero Cartagena Hostel, 39 Calle 38 #10-45, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia