Cartagena, especially the inner walled Old Town, offers a wealth of colonial architectural gems and churches. There are also several excellent museums and 400-year-old plazas that can't be missed. In fact, if it weren't for the motorcycles and taxis that whiz through the historic center, you'd think you were in a fantasy 16th-century Spanish town. I recommend just walking the many cobblestoned streets of Cartagena and entering whatever museums or cultural sites strike your fancy.
Much of the charm of Cartagena lies in strolling through its colonial streets; dining in one of its romantic, top-notch restaurants; and people-watching in one of its many plazas. Because some of the city's sites, such as the Castillo de San Felipe de Barejas and the Convento de la Popa, are a bit of a walk from the Old Town, you may want to take a chiva or carriage tour to get acquainted with the city. Your hotel will be able to provide (and even book) chiva and carriage tours, or you can inquire at the tourism office . Daytime chivas should cost between COL$25,000 and COL$35,000, while a horse-drawn carriage tour should cost COL$35,000 to COL$45,000 depending on the length of your trip.
For a uniquely Colombian experience, try the rumba chivas, which depart at 8pm (they usually pick you up from your hotel), cost around COL$25,000, and will give you an oversight of Cartagena at night. In addition, you'll get an unlimited amount of national liquor (aguardiente, rum, and the like), a taste of typical Cartagena fried treats (yuca, plantain, arepa), and a demonstration of traditional Colombian folkloric dances. You'll be dropped off at a beachside nightclub around 10:30pm, where you can choose to stay or go back to your hotel at around midnight.
A Wild Ride on the Chiva -- A chiva is a colorful bus made entirely of wood. Chivas have become a folkloric symbol of Colombia and are often decorated with festive designs, historical scenes, and even biblical imagery. In the past, chivas were used as a mode of transportation, but nowadays they're mostly used for city tours or as a nighttime bar on wheels. Riding a chiva is a must-do on a visit to Colombia -- you'll see Colombians behaving their wildest.
The Historic Old Town: the Top Attractions
In 1987, Cartagena's Old Town was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and its almost perfectly preserved colonial-era mansions, churches, and ornate balconies are the reason why. Where else in the Western Hemisphere can you sit in 16th-century plazas, walk along the walls of a 300-year-old fortress -- one of the most impressive architectural feats of military history -- and stay at a colonial-era hotel? Below are some of the city's most noteworthy sites.
Enter the city through the historic Torre del Reloj, one of Cartagena's most recognized architectural sites. From there, you'll find yourself in the Plaza de los Coches, where you can buy traditional Colombian and Cartagenian candy and sweets at the Portal de Los Dulces. Next head down Calle de la Amargura, past La Plaza de La Aduana (stop here if you're looking for tourist information), to La Plaza de San Pedro, where you can visit the Iglesia/Claustro/Museo San Pedro Claver, constructed in 1580, as well as the Museo de Arte Moderno, a decent modern-art museum right off the square. Walk down Calle San Juan de Dios to the Cartagena Naval Museum, where you can take in antique naval instruments and objects. Walk past La Plaza de Santa Teresa, up Calle de A. Ricaurte (which becomes Calle Santa Teresa) to Plaza de Bolívar, where you can visit the free Museo del Oro as well as the Palacio de La Inquisición and La Biblioteca Bartolomé Calvo, once Cartagena's most important libraries. Be sure not to miss Cartagena's much photographed Catedral, built in 1586, destroyed by English pirate Francis Drake, and recently remodeled and opened to the public. Now walk up Calle Nuestra Señora del Carmen before arriving at the Plaza de Santo Domingo, one of Cartagena's most popular and vibrant plazas. Be sure to visit the Iglesia/Claustro Santo Domingo, a lovely 450-year-old church. Take a break at Plaza Santo Domingo for a light lunch or snack at one of the plaza's many outdoor cafes, where you can enjoy the colonial atmosphere.
With your energy restored, head north on Calle de la Iglesia (which becomes Calle de Don Sancocho), past El Teatro de Heredia and La Plaza del Merced, and turn right on Calle de la Merced (which becomes Calle Del Estanco del Aguardiente and Calle del Sargento Mayor). Next turn left on Calle Chochera del Hobo, where you'll find La Plaza de San Diego, with its many stores, restaurants, and the famous Hotel Santa Clara. A short walk up the Calle de las Bóvedas will take you to Las Bóvedas, a former jail, used during the independence period, that has been converted into 23 souvenir shops.
Other Tourist Sights
La Popa, Cartagena's highest point, is where you'll find the convent of Nuestra Señora de La Candelaria. Warning: If you decide not to take a chiva tour, be sure to come here by taxi; robberies and attacks have been reported for those who've tried to walk. El Castillo de San Felipe de Borajas is another Cartagena must-see, and one of the military wonders of the world. The castle/fort was built (1536-1657) to protect the city from attack. Be sure to check out its dark underground tunnels and peek through its many lookouts. Note that this site will be included in a chiva tour.
Las Islas del Rosario, a national park popular with tourists, is famous for its coral reefs, crystalline waters, and beautiful beaches. The islands are about 45km (28 miles) from the city and can only be reached by boat. You can arrange a trip to Las Islas del Rosario through your hotel or by heading to the Muelle Turístico, where you can buy tickets directly. Another option is to go through Tesoro Tours, Carrera 3 no. 6-153 (tel. 5/665-4713; www.tesorotours.com). Your hotel will also be able to arrange tours directly. Boat trips generally cost between COL$35,000 and COL$60,000, though you will also have to pay a national park tax of COL$9,400. Your boat will most likely take you to the Acuario San Martín on the Isla San Martín de Pajarales, where you can enjoy a dolphin show and observe other marine animals. Another choice on Isla San Martín de Pajarales is to go snorkeling. The island has excellent coral reefs, and if you've already seen your share of aquariums and dolphin shows, go for the snorkeling.
After visiting the aquarium, most boats will head to Isla de Barú, where you'll have a typical Cartagena-Caribbean lunch, complete with coconut rice, fried plantains, and a whole fish (eyes and all). Your tour will give you about 3 hours on Barú, where you can go swimming, sunbathe, or explore the island. Beware that beach vendors here are persistent, and the best way to be left alone is to get in the water as fast as possible.
If you don't have time to head to Las Islas del Rosario, visit Cartagena's main beaches -- Bocagrande, El Laguito, and Castillo Grande, in the south, and, in the north, La Boquilla and Marbella. They aren't particularly breath-taking, but if you're just looking for a swim and a little sun and sand, they'll do.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.