CARTAGENA | WHERE TO STAY

There aren't a ton of choices inside the walled city, but they are all charming and provide calming oasis from the bustle and heat of the city streets. The most important features to look for are pools and air conditioning, both of which are necessities in the heat as far as I'm concerned.

BASTION
Super cool and boutique-y, it's less Cartagena and more high design but the pool, rooftop deck and restaurant (El Gobernador by Rausch) make it a great place to hang your hat.

CASA SAN AGUSTIN
Set in a former monastery, Casa San Agustin does a flawless job of maintaining its authenticity while providing 5-star service. Everything from the most comfortable beds on the planet to beautifully maintained gardens make it a total pleasure.

HOTEL SOFITEL LEGEND SANTA CLARA CARTAGENA
It's all about the pool here — it's the ;largest inside the walled city. In fact the entire hotel is larger than any other inside. Housed in former convent, the building is beautiful but the rooms definitely feel less authentic and more big box than some others.

THE TCHERASSI HOTEL + SPA
After a two-year restoration designed by Latin fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi, The Tcherassi Hotel + Spa  is a 250 year old colonial mansion complete with seven unique rooms and suites, In addition to oversized, luxurious guestrooms featuring high ceilings, rich wood floors, private balconies and large open bathrooms, the hotel boasts a full service spa, a vertical garden of more than 3000 local plants, four pools and a roof deck with 360 degree views of both the historic city and the sea.

CARTAGENA | WHERE TO EAT

A couple things about food in Cartagena: it's good, but not quite as good as you want it to be; street food can be amazing but can also lead to some stomach issues, so be smart and start a strong dose of probiotics a few weeks  before you go; and don't be afraid to ask for salt as it seems under seasoning is a city-wide epidemic. It's also important to remember that Cartagena has only become a popular destination in recent years and the food scene is still trying to catch up.  What they lack in food, though, they more than make up for in friendly service, lively atmosphere and great attitudes.

ALMA at Casa San Agustin
We stayed at this hotel and it's probably one of the most charming places I have ever been. And the courtyard restaurant doesn't disappoint either. Just stick with  the Aquachile which is fresh and light, the roasted sea bass and the shrimp skewers (and the Iberico ham is pretty good too). Stay away from what they recommend, though — the Sea Bass Chicharrones — which sound amazing but are actually just fried and under seasoned fish.

CAFE DEL MAR
Centro, Baluarte Santo Domingo
+57 5 664 6513
I don't even know if they serve food here to be honest, but the drinks are good and the view at sunset from the terrace is not be missed.

DEMENTE
Cra. 10 #29-29, Cartagena
+57 5 660 4226
Outside the walled city in Getsamani (think Williamsburg), Demente is super cool and super inventive Tapas-Italian-Colombian influenced food that is all locally sourced. The pizzas are great and it's awelcome change from the norm.

EL KILO
Cra. 7 #36122, Cartagena
+57 5 6641779
El Kilo is a relative newcomer to the Cartagena food scene and it's probably one of the younger and more hip-feeling places. The food is easy — ceviches, raw bar and skewers. The whole fish was one of the best we had.

LA CEVICHERIA
Cl. 39 #7 14, Cartagena
+57 5 660 1492
The name says it all.

LA MULATA
Calle Quero 9 58 Sandiego, Cartagena
+57 5 6646 222
perfect spot for lunch. Young, busy and full of locals.

LA PERLA
Cl. 35 #4 - 42, Cartagena
+57 5 664 2157
Another Peruvian-style place that we didn't love, but have heard such good things about I have to hope they were just having an off night.  Regardless, the Tamarind Margarita was well worth the visit.

LA VITROLA
Centro, Calle Baloco, #2-01, Cartagena
The menu is authentic Cuban (!) and the atmosphere is worth the visit. It's pretty old school so make sure you're no traveling with anyone under the age of 16  — they won't be allowed in!

OOH LA LA
Cl. 35 #4-48, Cartagena
+57 5 664 4321
We did a cooking class here (See WHAT TO DO) and the food was great. Run by a husband and wife team (he's French, she's Cartagenian) who worked all throughout Paris, the food is a great combo of both if their backgrounds.

RESTAURANT CANDÉ
Candé is a fave for tourists and Cartagenians alike. The menu is 100% authentic with a few twists and the room is lovely: whitewashed and fresh. We loved it for lunch. Don't miss the traditional ceviches, the chicharrones and the crab rice.ing on menu.

VERA
In the Tcherassi Hotel + Spa
Centro, Calle Del Sargento Mayor, #6-12, Cartagena
+57 5 664 4445
This might have been the best restaurant we ate in, which is weird considering its Italian, but Chef Daniel Castano spent 12 years working in New York with Mario Batali, so there you have it.  The pastas were great and I had a fantastic Mediterranean salad with perfectly grilled artichokes and a perfect dressing. It's not easy to find a green vegetable in Cartagena, let alone a salad, so this was a welcome change.

CARTAGENA | WHAT TO BUY

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CIGARS
Stay away from buying them on the street — they are likely fake. Instead go to Casa Havana for a cigar, a mojito and some live salsa. 

EMERALDS
If you're into them, this is the place to get them as Colombia is the world's largest producer of Emeralds. From what I've heard, Lucy Jewelry is the place to get them.

MORCHILAS
These bags are literally sold everywhere. They come in bright colors or neutrals and can range in price from $10 to $50 depending on where you go. I got all of mine on the street and they made great homecoming gifts. 

THIS IS CARTAGENA
There are bunch of these around the city and they sell local wares all produced in Cartagena.

CARTAGENA | WHAT TO DO

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.

CAFE HAVANA
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. 

CARTAGENA CONNECTIONS
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.

MERCADO BAZURTO
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.