Cartagena is a very smalll city with a very big heart, but not a ton of stuff to do. Here are some of the highlights.
While Cafe Havana opened as recently as 2006, it's become a mainstay of Cartaganian nighttime. Located in Getsmani, it's the ONLY place to go to hear live salsa.
I'm not usually one for organized tours, but we wanted to do a couple of special excursions and were directed to Kristy Ellis and her company, Cartagena Connections. It turns out that Cartagena lends itself perfectly to these types of tours because, as I said, there's not a ton of stuff to do on one's own, but there is a ton of history and incredible stories to be found if you find the right guide. Kristy, an Australian transplant, is just that. She knows everything about everywhere and is an absolute joy to be around — something that seems like a requirement for a tour guide but so often isn't the case. We took a tour of the Mercado Bazurto and did a cooking class with her, and if we had more time we for sure would have taken advantage of any number of the other tours she offers.
GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ
If you're a fan of Magical Realism, then Cartagena is the place for you. Birthplace of the creator of the genre, you can visit Marquez' house and take audio tours of the streets and places where many of his books, like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, were set.
Here's what I have to tell you before I say anything else: Don't plan on doing a tour of this market by yourself. Really — don't. I don't care how adventurous or well-traveled you are. Call Kristy (see above) and have her take you, because this is no cute farmer's market, this is about as down and dirty as you can get, and anything you think you might know about health and sanitary regulations needs to be put to rest. It's hot, muddy, dirty and little bit scary, but it's well worth the trip to get a true sense of the culture. And make sure to find the "food court" and have a bite at Restaurant Cecilia, made famous by Anthony Bourdain, where the rice and fish are both amazing and the beers are super cold.
THE ROSARIO ISLANDS
Like I said, Cartagena is HOT. And while the Caribbean lays just outside the walls, the beaches in the city are not swimmable and are inhabited mostly by the homeless. So do yourself a favor and rent a boat (we used Boating Cartagena and they were amazing) and head out to The Rosario Islands, an archipelago about 62 miles off the coast of Cartagena. You won't even believe you're in the same country - the water is crystal clear and the snorkeling is fantastic. The guys at Boating Cartagena can organize lunch for you at any of the hotels on the islands which makes for a really nice day spent getting massages, having lunch and laying on the beach. And if you can, take 2 days and spend one having lunch at Cholon, an "island" (it's really a peninsula, but who's counting) located in Baru. And by lunch I mean eating freshly caught seafood while standing under a thatched hut in the middle of the ocean (they'll also deliver food to your boat, but trust me on this — you want to eat it in the water because you will never ever have that kind of experience again). And don't say no to he guy who comes by canoe and offers you freshly snatched oysters, either. Apparently Cholon can turn into quite the party during the high season, but if you get there early enough you can get out before the real partying starts.