Cartagena's Old City Is Magical, but Don't Miss What's New
Cartagena’s stark architectural contrast comes as a shock to most. The ancient-walled city — with its palm-filled plazas, ice cream-colored colonial buildings, and cobbled streets which can be explored by horse and carriage at night — has all the makings of a romance novel setting.
Meanwhile, the neighboring Bocagrande district looks like a sliver of Miami: a long strip of beachfront lined with colorful cabanas and gleaming new buildings. The visible conflict between the areas is shockingly evident.
“It’s because the city has had so many different mayors who all had different ideas,” says a hotel receptionist. No one else I meet (who speaks English) can verify this for me, but while the old city was built in the 1600s, it seems extremely believable for Bocagrande.
Juan San Sebastien Chica of ProColombia, the government agency in charge of tourism, will have me believe that what sets Colombia and Cartagena apart is the friendly people. "Our most powerful product is the people," he said. And while he makes a fair point, most people really go to Cartagena to see the old city — to explore the ancient colonial buildings and wander the narrow streets like Gabriel Garcia Marquez once did.
The city is fiercely charming and could woo even the most cynical of travelers. The only drawback? The sombrero and pom-pom-clad tourists who pack the narrow streets, and the limited access to the beachfront.
“You can’t swim in front of the old city,” my taxi driver tells me. "If you want to swim, you should go to Bocagrande.”
The Bocagrande district might not seem like Cartagena’s biggest appeal, but there’s no way the city could have escaped the development. With an ever-growing number of tourists and limited space within the walled city, space had to be found elsewhere. And so, roughly 30 years ago, the development of Cartagena’s mini-Miami began.
Today, Bocagrande is home to some of the swankiest hotels in the city, as well as a bustling beachfront with plans of adding jogging and skate tracks, making it more like Rio's Ipanema. And while the area doesn’t have the history of the old city, what Bocagrande lacks in charm, it makes up for in views (of the ocean), standards, and space.
"This area has U.S. standards," Raul Bustamante, general manager of the InterContinental Cartagena de Indias in Bocagrande, said. "Hotels [in the old city] don’t have as much space, they are confined."
For me, the biggest draw is the view. From one of the corner suites at the InterContinental, you can see a strip of shiny new buildings, and in the distance, the old city – the church steeple rising from afar. (Which is actually only ten minutes by car.)
Below, the teal blue ocean meets dark grey volcanic sand where locals frolic and skirt the waves until the sun sinks behind the horizon. Viewing Cartagena from above gives you a sense of place. And it’s from here you realize that Cartagena is a place where you can have your ancient, romantic city and your swanky new one, too.
Eat in Bocagrande: Restaurante Arabe Internacional
Ask any Cartagenian where you should in eat in Bocagrande, and it’s almost certain they’ll point you in the direction of Restaurante Arabe Internacional. Founded in 1965, the restaurant has reportedly been producing fiercely consistent Arabic food since its opening. Expect a smart dining room filled with white-pressed tablecloths and (if you’re there on a Friday or Saturday night) a belly dancer or two.
Eat in the old city: Donjuán
Donjuán is an upscale bistro from Colombian chef Juan Felipe Camacho, who spent part of his career in San Sebastián, Spain. The menu is a mishmash of Caribbean and Basque flavors: fresh sea bass with lemon risotto, shrimp with coconut sauce and yucca. The interior is the same: checkered floors and woven lamps that dangle from the high ceilings. On the drinks menu, there’s a range of cocktails and an impressive list of South American wines, which line the interior walls.
Shop in Bocagrande: Touché
This is one Caribbean vacation where you can leave your swimsuit behind, because you’re guaranteed to find a better one when you get there. Touché is a Colombian brand that produces posh, playful swimwear for men and women that's bound to make you look hawt in your holiday snaps. Items can be purchased online internationally, but pick them up from the source for almost half the price.
Shop in the old city: Artesanias de Colombia
On the border of the old city, Artesanias de Colombia stocks high-quality, made-in-Colombia products. It’s tempting to purchase cheap hats and other bric-a-brac from the many hawkers on the winding streets, but it’s inside Artesanias de Colombia where you’ll get genuine products – like baskets, hats, ceramics and hammocks – made by local artisans.
Stay in Bocagrande: InterContinental Cartagena de Indias
Set in the heart of the ritzy Bocagrande district, the InterContinental Cartagena de Indias offers some of the best views in the city, especially from the long, rim-flow pool which overlooks the Caribbean sea and never-ending Bocagrande beach below. The views from the suites are just as good, if not better. In the fancy, modern corner suites, you can view the ocean from above and old city from afar.
Stay in the old city: Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena
Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena is a peaceful sanctuary hidden down one of the tight streets in the old city. In an area where space is hard to come by, the hotel has 123 rooms and a sprawling, tree-filled courtyard. The building, which dates back to 1621 and is a world heritage site, oozes all that romance and charm that the city is so readily associated with.