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Cartagena (Colombia) Overview
You're in for a big treat if you've booked a Caribbean or Panama Canal cruise with Cartagena on the itinerary, as this lovely old town and resort on Colombia's Caribbean coast is quite deservedly the country's most popular tourist destination.
Here you'll find everything a cruise passenger's heart could desire: a fascinating -- and often dark and bloody -- history embedded in ancient forts, churches and palaces; a walled town filled with exquisite 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial architecture; soft beaches; world-class snorkeling and scuba diving reefs; delightful restaurants; and enough shops to capture your interest without the place feeling like one gigantic mall.
I'd lay bets that your only regret, as your cruise ship steams away at the end of the day, will be that you didn't have longer to explore.
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Other Panama Canal & Central America Cruise Ports:
Aruba • Belize City • Cartagena (Colombia) • Colon (Cristobal) • Curacao • Puerto Limon • Puntarenas (Puerto Caldera)
Spanish is widely spoken in Cartagena, and though some taxi drivers speak a smattering of English, you shouldn't count on it.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency in Cartagena is the peso, but U.S. dollars and credit cards are accepted everywhere. If you run short, an ATM is located at the port. You'll find currency conversion rates at oanda.com or xe.com.
In the searing midday heat, I'd put my money on a large bottle of Club Colombia beer ($3 will buy nearly a liter). Drink it on a leaf-dappled bench in the Old Town's pretty Plaza de Bolivar, but beware -- this little park is full of fountains, and all that tinkling water can make you feel the beer's effects all too quickly!
Where You're Docked
The port of Cartagena -- where your ship docks -- now offers a brief (and free) shuttle bus ride away from the dockside (see Hanging Around). At the port gates, you'll find taxis to take you downtown to Old Cartagena, which is a 15-minute, $20 taxi ride away.
If you're feeling really lazy (or can't take the heat), a short, free shuttle bus ride will take you to a lushly landscaped park area at the dock gates, where there is an indoor/outdoor cafe, shops, picnic tables and sea views. Here you can pick up pungent Colombian coffee for $20 a kilo (one kilo = 2.2 lbs.) or hunt for deals on exquisitely embroidered tablecloths, locally crafted wood carvings and chunky glass jewelry.
My tip: Save the shopping until you get back from exploring, as Cartagena really should not be missed.
If you're happy just wandering around town, it's easy to get about on your own. Just hop on the shuttle to the port gates and grab a taxi from there. Official taxi drivers are easy to spot; they'll be wearing crisp, pale blue shirts with "TAXI" stamped all over them.
A one-way trip to the Old Town (Ciudad Amurallada) for up to four people costs $20 -- at five bucks a head, it's a big savings on a $70-plus shore tour. Your driver will offer to come back for you later, but believe me, you'll have no problem finding a return cab if you decide to go it alone -- they are everywhere.
Ask the driver to drop you at the main gate near the Convention Center, as it's easy to orient yourself from here.
Watch Out For
The locals seemed very friendly and the streets felt safe during my daytime visit, but the usual advisories about not flashing jewelry or too much cash do apply here. And if you're prone to tummy upsets, one Spanish term worth remembering is "Sin hielo, por favour" (no ice, please).
Old Town: Between the first main gate and the second, you'll find yourself in an outer area called Getsemani, which circles the Old Town and is home to lively, low-cost cafes, shops and bars.
But if this is your first visit and time is at a premium, it's the heart of the Old Town -- the prettiest part of old colonial Cartagena -- that you'll want to see. So go through the second gate and head left toward the Plaza de Bolivar. You'll hear the tinkling fountains of this lovely little park before you get there, and you'll know you're in the right place when a gigantic bronze statue of South America's liberator, Simon de Bolivar, rises above the tree tops.
At one corner of the square is the Museo del Oro y Arqueologia (Gold Museum -- admission free) and a jewelry store heavily promoted by sellers who rove outside trying to usher in customers. If shopping's your thing, this is a good place to bargain for rubies, emeralds and gold. Also worth seeing is Cartagena's 16th-century cathedral, which lies nearby (and was once bombarded by Sir Francis Drake).
A simple stroll through the narrow streets of the two Old Town districts -- El Centro and San Diego -- is a pleasure in itself. Cartagena is full of colonial churches, monasteries and palaces, and even its ordinary houses are a delight, their wrought iron balconies crammed with pots of vivid geraniums and cascading with rich red and purple bougainvillea.
Plenty of restaurants here open onto the street so diners can watch the world go by. You can also browse a variety of shops selling souvenirs (including obscene wood carvings, for those who like that sort of thing). Particularly good buys, if you're not into novelty phalluses or copulating monkeys, are locally produced watercolors depicting views of Cartagena.
If it's not too hot, a stroll around Las Murallas -- the old town's dense walls -- will reveal striking sea views. Prefer some shade? Enjoy the tranquil dappled courtyard of the 17th-century Convento de San Pedro Claver, which lies in the street of the same name. Its small museum charges $3 to enter. Next door, the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver has a fine Italian marble altar.
Palacio de la Inquisicion: If history, atmosphere and the darker side of human nature are of interest to you, head to Cartagena's most remarkable attraction, the Palacio de la Inquisicion (Plaza de Bolivar, admission free).
As Britain's Monty Python comedy team once famously declared, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, and this wonderfully spooky museum would certainly cast a chill over the sunniest Caribbean afternoon.
Just inside the door lurks a figure swathed in black, topped off with a pointed executioner's hood. The main exhibition room contains pillories, a rack and a variety of rusting torture implements so bizarre that their use almost defies the imagination.
Outside, a sunny, tree-lined courtyard contains a gallows and a chopping block, and other small exhibits show the type of paraphernalia involved -- or believed to be involved -- in witchcraft.
It's all very weird and absolutely fascinating – the more so because the curators have resisted the temptation to gild the lily, and present their grisly collection in a straightforward manner rather than hamming it up. If you see one thing during your stay in Cartagena, make sure this is it.
Been There, Done That
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas: The entire old city is one giant fortress with still more fortifications outside its gates (this part of the Caribbean coast was clearly a tough place to live in the 16th to 19th centuries).
The most notable exterior fortress is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, which was first called for in 1533, construction was started in 1639 and it took 150 years to complete (a bit like one of Britain's ring roads).
When it was finished the fortress proved completely impregnable, to the chagrin of various marauding hordes. You'll have fun roving the battlements and exploring the warren of underground tunnels, which were designed to amplify the faintest footfall so that enemies could not creep through. (Note: This is not the place to wear steel-tipped stilettos).
Seaside Area: To the south of the walled Old Town is an L-shaped peninsula broken into three districts -- Castillo Grande, El Laguito and Bocagrande -- which make up the "seaside resort" of Cartagena. Filled with good quality hotels, bars, shops and restaurants, this area is a magnet for holidaying Colombians and international tourists.
Scuba enthusiasts can get equipment and tours at a number of dive shops in Bocagrande, including one at the Hotel Caribe (www.caribediveshop.com) -- book in advance to be sure you'll have plenty of time to explore the underwater attractions.
And if you don't mind looking like a naive tourist (I never mind if the view's good enough) you could take a horse and carriage ride. These run along the waterfront from Bocagrande to the old walled town and cost around $20 per carriage.
The most convenient beach from the port is La Boquilla, which lies about 8 km north of Cartagena and is easily reached by taxi. A 10-minute cab ride beyond Boquilla is Manzanillo Beach. Both are well-maintained each night by large tractors pulling power sand rakes.
The prettiest beach is the white-sanded Playa Blanca, about 22 km south of the old town and reachable by bus, boat or taxi. Tickets are sold in Cartagena town's main market, Mercado Bazurto, but departures are early, around 9.30 a.m., so it's really impractical for cruise callers to get there except by taxi or on a ship's tour.
There are also fine beaches and good snorkeling in the Rosario Islands, 27 of which lie in a chain about 30 km south of Cartagena. Most cruise ships will run beach tours here for around $55 to $60 a head -- worth considering if you want a scenic boat ride and a hassle-free day.
All things are possible in Cartagena, from a blow-out at a five-star hotel to a tasty, freshly cooked snack from an Old Town street vendor. On our day there, the bold Australian with whom we'd shared a taxi forked out $2 to tuck into a plateful of butifarras -- small barbecue-flavored meatballs. He wolfed them down, pronounced them delicious, appeared to suffer no ill effects and won great respect from us for behaving as a "real" traveler should. The equally adventurous will find that the street vendors of old Cartagena offer many other local delicacies, including bunuelos (cheese balls) and arepas de huevo (fried dough balls with an egg inside).
For a sit-down lunch, the Old Town possesses many good restaurants, open from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. and serving everything from Spanish and Italian to French and Creole specialties at very reasonable prices. Your best bet is simply to stroll around, eye a few menus and see what looks good.
If you want to play it really safe, there's a Hilton at the tip of El Laguito peninsula, a 10-minute cab ride from the walled city.
Fogon Costeno: For $10 a head, including a generous tip, we enjoyed a selection of tapas (a perfectly substantial lunch in the midday heat) washed down with well-chilled local beer, and sat at a table overlooking the lively street. The decor is quite appealing with warm ochre-painted walls, fresh white tablecloths and a vast array of local art displayed on the walls. (Calle de la Iglesia 35-38, tel 6642354)
Restaurant Vesuvio: Located near Plaza de Santo Domingo, this restaurant specializes in Neapolitan cuisine. (36 Calle de la Factoria, tel 6642249)
Parrilla Argentina Quebracho: The focus here is on Argentine specialties. Try the roast suckling pig if you dare, or wimp out with a nice steak. (2 Calle de Baloco, 6641300)
Staying in Touch
Heading from Plaza de Bolivar back toward the main city gate (near the Convention Center), you'll find a craft shop cum Internet cafe called Robins.com on Calle Manuel Roman y Picon. Rates start at $1 for 30 minutes.
Best for First-Timers: If you don't want to risk going it alone, take the 3.5-hour "Best of Cartagena" coach tour, which will show you the main sites -- including the Fort of San Filipe de Barajas, the Naval Museum, the Church of San Pedro Claver and the Inquisition Palace -- while also allowing time to shop for local handicrafts and international goodies at the Pierino Gallo mall. Expect to pay around $42 per adult, $32 per child.
Best for Repeat Visitors: The six-hour "Mangroves and Swamp Ecological Tour" takes you by bus and canoe to discover the flora and fauna of the Swamp of the Virgin. The only downside (in my mind) is that after your encounter with nature and a beach/pool break at a local hotel, you're "treated" to a performance of folklorique. But you may like that kind of thing more than I do. The tour costs around $52 per person for both adults and kids.
Best for Adventure Travelers: A 3.5-hour "Cartagena Beach and Boating" tour takes passengers by motorboat from the pier to nearby Baru Island, viewing Tierra Bomba island and the fishing villages of Punta Arenas, Cano del Oro and Bocachica en route. On arrival, you have two hours to swim, sun or snorkel (provided you bring your own kit). Price is $57 per person.
Best for Families: I'd recommend a six-hour tour to the Rosario Island chain by speedboat; the area is designated as a national park and has richly populated coral reefs, which are excellent for snorkeling. The tour includes drinks, lunch, a swimming or snorkeling break on Isla del Sol and a trip to nearby Isla de San Martin to see a dolphin show at the local aquarium. It doesn't include snorkeling gear, so take your own. Cost is $99 per person
For More Information
Contact the Cartagena Convention and Visitors Bureau: at 6544366
The Guide to Cartagena, Colombia
Cruise Critic Messages Boards: Colombia
The Independent Traveler: Central & South America Essentials
--by Maria Harding. The U.K.-based Harding, a journalist and broadcaster, is one of Britain's best-known cruise writers. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express.