What to do in Cartagena Colombia? This was our question as we set sail from Bermuda bound for a colourful immersion into what was once known as Cartegena de Indias.
There were a number of Cartagena tours we could do, and we also wanted to find out a little about the history of Cartagena.
We waved farewell to beautiful Bermuda and sailed away between the navigational markers that mark the safe passage between the reefs surrounding the island.
I watched the island recede and marvelled at the crystal clear sea which appeared in so many shades of blue from the inky navy of the deeper passages to the milky turquoise of the shallows.
Our Captain had now set a southerly course heading towards The Caribbean and our next port of call would be Cartagena in Colombia. There was just time for a cocktail at the pool bar before getting dressed for dinner 🙂
Our course took us through the Mona Passage that runs between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. This can be a treacherous part of the ocean with strong currents but once safely through the passage we left the Atlantic Ocean and headed into the Caribbean Sea.
During this time Sea Princess was followed by a flock of gannets which provided us with a dazzling display of diving and fishing. The gannets would fly alongside the ship and then suddenly drop like a stone, in a dead dive, plunging into the ocean and pursuing their catch under the surface. Dave did a bit of research and found out that Gannets dive from heights of up to 30 metres and can reach speeds of up to 100kms per hour.
It’s a new day – must be Cartagena!
After 3 days at sea we arrived in Cartagena as the sun was rising, and Dave and I hurried on deck to watch the coast come into view, wondering what to do in Cartagena Colombia.
We were immediately hit by a thick dense blanket of humidity that steamed up our glasses and it was 15 minutes before our cameras had de-misted sufficiently to take clear photos.
Sea Princess berthed a little way out of Cartagena’s old colonial city almost opposite the ocean view towers of the modern city and Boca Grande.
We knew very little of Cartagena and had no real expectations about what we would see, so the colourful, vibrant and entertaining city came as a complete but very pleasant surprise.
The cruise terminal was delightful with a small bird park full of various types of splendidly coloured Macaws, and electric pink flamingos. There were also some entertaining Howler Monkeys in the trees.
Our first idea was to catch a taxi into the old city, but we found tourist guides on the boardwalks near the bird park selling a catamaran ‘sail of the bay and walking tour of the old city’, so we decided to do that instead, and the tour of the bay to begin with was a cool way to learn about Cartagena’s history.
History of Cartagena
Cartagena was once a heavily fortified Spanish town which was the key strongpoint of the Spanish Empire on the north coast of South America or The Spanish Main as it was then known.
Ringed by its thick stone walls, that required almost 100 years to complete, the old walled city is full of Spanish colonial heritage, with plazas, churches, narrow streets, balconied houses and well preserved monuments all now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It was the centre for slave trade during the colonial era and many slaves after arriving from Africa would be sold to work in the silver mines of Peru or Panama’s sugar-cane plantations. The Plaza de los Coches inside the old city, is the original location of the slave market (below).
Cartagena Things to Do
We began our Cartagena walking tour at the Plaza de los Coches, once the site of the slave auctions and we carried on to the main square of Cartagena, the Plaza de Bolivar which is flanked by the Palace of the Inquisition where terrible tortures were once a daily event.
We walked on through the Plaza San Pedro Claver which gets its name from the church and monastery where St Peter Claver, a Jesuit Priest, dedicated his life to the salvation of the African slaves passing through Cartagena. The church is originally from 1580.
The streets were so picturesque with buildings in lemon and ochre and white, many with wooden balconies from which cascaded bougainvillea and other colourful tropical plants.
“Each year there’s a competition for who has the best display of natural flowers on their balconies, and the winner doesn’t have to pay house tax for 12 months,” our guide Jose explained to us.
In the streets we saw colourfully dressed women in national colours of red, blue, and yellow, selling fresh fruit.
Guided tour of the city
We had a delightful two hour guided tour of the old city taking in amazing sights and learning about Cartagena’s history.
We also had the opportunity to buy some of the inexpensive but very alluring gifts and souvenirs which street hawkers were selling.
It wasn’t long before I’d acquired T-shirts, leather hand bags and tote bags! All gifts of course 😉
Unfortunately we weren’t able to stay longer exploring the city as Sea Princess was scheduled to depart for the Panama Canal shortly after lunch, but it’s certainly a city we would love to come back to and have time to explore, not only the city itself but also around Colombia and the coast as a whole. Such is the beauty of cruising – it gives you an exquisite taster and then increases the size of your bucket list!
With complimentary and very much needed bottles of water we hopped back on the Catamaran. Our breezy open air boat trip back to the cruise terminal was a wonderful relief from the heat and humidity of the city and we watched frigate birds circling overhead, and pelicans in the bay.
Farewell Cartagena de India
All too soon we were transported back to the cruise terminal and once more visited the bird park where we had a cool drink and tried an Empanada con Huevo, before taking one more walk around under the shady trees then heading back to the ship for a swim.
Cartagena Weather and Best Time to Visit Cartagena
The best weather is in January to March.
- The weather is generally 25 – 32C. The day we were there (end July) was very very hot and humid.
December and March are peak season. The best time to visit Cartagena is just after the high season, and from June to August. The rainy months are : April-May and September to November.
Tips and Hints
- It’s a hot 25 – 40 minute walk from the terminal to the Old City and not recommended – there are port authorised independent taxis located near the cruise terminal.
- Take an empty bag for the gifts you will buy – the arts, crafts and handicrafts are lovely.
What is Colombia known for?
- Colombia is known for its emeralds and there are plenty of places in the Walled City to buy them.
- 95% of the world’s emeralds come from Colombia.
What to buy in Cartagena?
- Gifts to buy include interesting handcrafts, coffee, emeralds, emerald jewellery, clothes and accessories, leather and hand rolled cigars.
Typical food of Cartagena
- Typical of Cartagena – try Empanada con Huevo – fried cornmeal shell fileld with ground beef into which a whole egg is broken and the whole thing is refried again #Yum!
Fun Facts about Colombia
- Colombia is one of only 17 of the most biodiverse please on earth – includes the Andes Mountain, Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, tropical grasslands and Amazon rainforest.
- Colombia is the second larges fresh cut flower exporter in the world.
Where to stay in Cartagena
Looking for accommodation in Cartagena? We always look for the best deals and compare the hotels offering the very best rates on Booking.Com
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I was a guest of Princess Cruises but all opinions are my own.