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What to do in Cartagena?

The tourism capital of Colombia is more than a colonial city.

Cartagena was declared the capital of tourism in Colombia in 1943. A time, when the old Spanish-Colony infrastructure of the city was in ruins. The city back then was visited as a beach and sun destination, mostly by visitors from other cities in the country. More than seventy years later, Cartagena is one of the hottest destinations in Latin America and the world. So, what to do in Cartagena?

The restoration of the Old City ––which started in the 70s––, plus the recent reunion of some Cartageneros with their urban culture and environment, makes the city a place to explore. A destination to indulge the eye, indeed. But also, to get in contact with cultural renovation. If you want to know some of the best features of the Caribbean city, here are a few recommendations of what to do in Cartagena (from a native Cartegenera).

See the Walled City in a couple of hours and go to other places

For decades now, Cartagena has been known for the architecture of the old city. Built between the 16th and 18th century, La Ciudad Vieja is enclosed in a carefully designed wall that protected Cartagena from pirates, and invasions. As Cartagena went through a financial crisis after independence (from the Spanish crown), and a posterior urban growth to other sectors away from the wall, the old infrastructure remained almost intact for years. During the last four decades, old houses were restored, new shops started selling, and tens of restaurants and bars opened their doors to the more than two million visitors the city receives every year.

The walled-city is a spectacle. It is romantic, colorful, and heartwarming. The perfect time to visit is after 4 PM and walk around for two to three hours. Visit the Museo Histórico at the Bolivar Plaza, get lost in the thin streets of the different neighborhoods, watch the sunset from the wall, eat an ice-cream, buy books and souvenirs. The Old City of Cartagena is also a great place to have a drink at night and a good meal.

It is easy to get comfortable in the Old City and stay there during the whole visit to Cartagena. But there are other spaces worth going. If you are wondering what to do in Cartagena, here are some amazing plans to deep into.  

Champeta is a rhythm, but also a whole culture

Champeta is a music genre that was born in the heart of the Colombia Caribbean. Most people agree that it was born in Cartagena. Ever since the 90s, the child of soukous and other rhythms like reggae and Cuban Son, have led the nightlife of working-class areas of the city. Mostly African-Colombian communities, who found in Champeta not only a music genre and a dance but also a lifestyle. Champeta has a esthetic, a way of speaking, a distinctive spirit.

To understand what is Champeta about, visit the casetas. Events that take place all around the city, where some of the best Champeta musicians perform every week. There are incipient tours that take visitors to tour around different casetas, on Sundays ––the best day of the week to champetear––.

There are people nurturing the coral reef at the Rosario Islands

Cartagena is not only history and urban life. As it is part of the continental and insular Caribbean, there are amazing beach spots not far away from the Old City. You could find the idyllic turquoise ocean at Tierra Bomba, and island 10 minutes away from Bocagrande by boat. Or you could go further and visit Baru (which is one hour by car, or thirty minutes by boat); or visit the Rosario Islands Archipelago (which is forty-five minutes away by boat).

As the demand for tourists in the islands increased, the submarine life declined. The coral reef of the archipelago suffered deeply, and it has been an important environmental discussion for years. Nonetheless, new initiatives, like Las Islas hotel, offer tourism services and also social services. You could visit the area, and help the projects that are nurturing corals to reforest the reef and the mangrove forests.

Bazurto is natural juices, yucca and fish, and great music

The Bazurto Market supplies food and domestic goods to almost 80% of the city. Early in the morning, fishermen, sellers, and truckers from all around the city and the country sell fresh products. Traditional cooks from the market start frying fish and boiling yucca since dawn. It constitutes a great combination for breakfast, especially if pairing it with a freshly squeezed natural juice from a frutera. The variety of fruits is immense. Try the typical corozo, mamey, or nispero juice to spoil your palate.

Bazurto is a place not only of commercial exchange but also cultural. One of the best champeta parties of the week take place in the heart of the market. Every Saturday afternoons. Ask the native youngsters for instructions.

The mangrove is a forest to be discovered

Cartagena is an aquatic city. It is not only bathed by the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, but it is also shaped by several brackish water bodies. Most of them populated by the very endemic White and Zaragoza mangrove. Within its ecosystem live hundreds of bird, mollusk, reptile, amphibian, and fish species.

There are some tours that would take you through the mangrove of La Boquilla, to see birds and embrace a beautiful silence. Those same kinds of tours ––and tour guides––will ask you to go with them and plant baby mangrove as a reforestation plan.

Salsa bars and clubs are emblematic

If you wonder what to do in Cartagena at night, you better put your dancing shoes on. The city has a great tradition of salsa dancing. Most great places for salsa are now emblematic. From the centric Quiebra Canto, to El Platanal de Bartolo ––where you can find one of the most splendid record collection, salsa is what you should do during a cartagenera night.