Cartagena is the amazing place you won’t believe you’d never heard about when you were in
college. And when you get back, you’ll be asking yourself why you’ve never been before!
A mere 2 hours from Miami and 4 ó hours from New York City, it’s one of those destinations
that you can always count on to be warm and pleasant all year round, with disruptive weather
almost unheard of, even when hurricane season makes traditional Caribbean destinations risky.
Sadly, it’s no longer a hidden gem and you should carefully research when and how to go and
where to stay in order to get the best value because now, everyone is flocking there.
Cartagena is often referred to as “Cartagena de Indias” which distinguishes it within the Spanish
empire from the coastal city Cartagena in Spain when it was founded in 1533. Its rich history
shows its importance as the main port for trade between Spain and its overseas empires, where
it was the major imperial port for exporting gold, gems, and silver to Spain and importing African
slaves. The largely preserved fortifications, including the truly awesome walls of the colonial city
and the remnants around Getsemani, allow for days of fascinating historical tourism and have
inspired countless works of art, music, novels, and movies.
Cartagena is the one of the largest cities in Colombia and the second largest in the region, after
nearby Barranquilla, 2 hours to the northeast along the coast. It has an approximate population
of about 1 million. An important fact to note is that it suffers from perhaps the most extreme
wealth disparity in Latin America, exacerbated recently by the Venezuelan refugee crisis. So for
those interested in “voluntourism,” it offers many rewarding opportunities. Still, it reigns as the
crown jewel of Colombian tourism, which has blossomed in recent years, and offers
opportunities for an unforgettable vacations for everyone and in one of the most welcoming and
family-friendly cultures I personally have ever experienced.
From its colorful streets, breathtaking sunsets, and fascinating flora and fauna that will entrance
any photographer, amateur or professional; to its exciting nightlife and day excursions; to
fascinating island beaches with mansions, restaurants and hotels literally floating in the water, it
is ideal for a long weekend or extended stay vacation. Cartagena’s authenticity is one of its
main attractions, so go soon because that is slowly changing as international tourism explodes!
I fell in love with Cartagena 15 years ago. After traveling to other cities in Colombia frequently to
visit my husband’s family, we finally arranged a vacation by swapping a relative’s timeshare
week at the unparalleled Santa Clara Hotel (Sofitel)1 for our apartment in New York. I was
1 A converted 16th century convent, there is nothing austere about the interior of this full service
luxury hotel which is a gold standard for weddings receptions in Cartagena. Large kid friendly
pool, with poolside bar and restaurant service, gym, various restaurants and a wonderful
cocktail bar. A little known tip, while you can reserve regular rooms through the hotel, the
weeklong high floor suite timeshares can be rented directly for significant savings through word
of mouth or private brokers. Or, can be exchanged through the Interval network. We bought one
ourselves and often offer to rent it (last Saturday of August to first Saturday of September) when
we can’t use it.
immediately smitten! By the end of our week, we had spent several days looking at properties
throughout the old city to buy. We ultimately purchased a new condominium in the beach
neighborhood of La Boquilla within a few weeks.
Cartagena can do that! It’s crazy, chaotic, and reminded me nostalgically of a mix of two
beloved cities I had lived in previously: New Orleans, for its style, charm, and tropical vibe and
Cairo, for the chaotic, informal street-life and the intense pride in their heritage that radiates
We spent most of my children’s preschool and early elementary years spending the entire
summer there, in lieu of New York City day camps, and never went back to the Hamptons
again! Best decision ever. Later, when my children were in middle school, we moved to Bogotá
and spent about a weekend a month, and many additional long weekends during Colombia’s
approximately 18 annual holidays (In 2019 there will only be 9 long weekends, as opposed to 11
Since moving back to New York, I have focused on renting our apartment in the
vacation rental market and marveled at the changes in demographics of my renters. And,
especially in the past 5 years, the changes in the city itself. Now, in addition to working trips
alone I take my now-teenage kids to visit with their boarding school friends a couple times a
year. So my suggestions are best for a family vacation with kids - out of diapers and