A local’s guide to Cartagena, Colombia

Let Cartagena’s locals be your guide to this magical 16th century city.
It was Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the author and creator of magical realism, who said of his hometown, “All of my books have loose threads of Cartagena in them. And, with time, when I have to call up memories, I always bring back an incident from Cartagena, a place in Cartagena, a character in Cartagena.”

The greatest Latin American writer of the last century was a young journalist here in the 1940s, although Cartagena today continues to make headlines of its own.

With a Miami-esque “new town” of sleek high rises, marinas and beach jutting out from the walled Spanish-era Old Town, this is a city that feels every bit as Caribbean as it does Latin. But whereabouts, on the city’s sun baked beaches, historic churches, ancient squares and pastel painted cottages, do locals like to go?

We asked four Cartagena residents to choose their favorite parts of this captivating coastal hub.

Colonial architecture in the Walled City

Colonial architecture in the Walled City

Stephane Mercier

The general manager of Conrad Cartagena.

If you only have time for one meal that reflects Cartagena, what would it be?
I very much like the “kibbeh” [patties of bulgur wheat, onions and minced beef] as a starter. It’s a classic example of the diversity of Cartagena. The dish, which is originally Lebanese has been popular for centuries in Cartagena since arriving here with Arabic traders. For mains, I really enjoy mojarra frita, which is a local fish served with handmade potato fries. With fish, like mojarra, there’s always a unique flavor as the fisherman deliver everything fresh every morning. You can eat this dish at restaurants around the city, but Marea by Rausch do it particularly well. And for dessert I really enjoy cocadas which are a very sweet shredded coconut candy. They’re eaten all over Colombia by children who, like me, grow up but never grow out of it.

When you’re not working, what parts of Cartagena do you enjoy?
The Walled City is magical! It’s the people that make a place and the area has always got movement. Something is always happening whether it’s a market, a musician playing or an artist painting. The ambiance evolves dramatically when day turns to night and there can be a real party feeling in the evening—this is a city that likes to stay up late.

Where do you go in Cartagena if you want to get some peace and quiet?
I spend almost all my time at Conrad Cartagena but there are still spaces at the resort which I go to if I need some quiet. We’ve got a private beach and the only Tournament Players Club golf course in the region. Listening to the sound of the waves crashing onto the sand is nature’s soundtrack to the city and makes me feel very serene.

Discover an oceanfront oasis on the north side of the iconic Walled City when you book your stay at Conrad Cartegena.

Cartageneros in Getsemaní

Cartageneros in Getsemaní

Clementyne Chambers

Tour guide Clementyne curates trips around the city with This Is Cartagena.

What is your favorite neighborhood in Cartagena and why?
I love Getsemaní for its ruggedness and history. The city has modernized but the authenticity and atmosphere of this neighborhood remains. There’s nowhere else like it in the whole country.

What are your favorite places to watch live music in Cartagena?
Salsa is popular everywhere in Colombia, but “champeta” music is unique to the coast. It has working-class, African influences and is having a renaissance thanks to places like Champetú (Calle Media Luna, 10–46), which hosts live bands playing in this style.

It’s the music of the people! How has Cartagena changed over the time you’ve been a guide?
The food and drink offering has really upped its game over the past couple of years around the old city and in Getsemaní—that’s the biggest change. The variety and quality all over the city is better than I can ever remember. It’s got busier too!

When you’ve had a long day of walking, is there a square or a park that you like to go to relax?
Not so much for relaxing but I love soaking up the atmosphere in Plaza de la Trinidad, Getsemani, with a beer and a pescado frito [a simple piece of fried fish]. I also love walking on top of the walls at sunset with my dogs. You get a breeze there, which is a mini-miracle during Cartagena’s dry season.

Customize your stay in Cartagena with our Conrad Concierge, now in the Hilton Honors app.

Conrad Cartagena

A sunset veiw at Conrad Cartagena 

Nelson Gomez

A trumpet player with his professional orchestra in venues across the city.

What are your favorite venues in Cartagena to play and why?
Definitely the city’s fort, where you can watch a beautiful sunset, the passage of boats and a wonderful view of the sea. It’s the best place to play trumpet and make music.

What is your favorite Colombian tradition?
Cumbia is a traditional Colombian folk dance accompanied by drums, maracas, flute and the in “cane de millo” [a woodwind instrument of indigenous origin]. The traditional garments musicians wear are long “polleras” [a large skirt], lace, sequins and headdresses of flowers, shirt and white pants.

Where do you like to go in Cartagena to get inspired?
I find inspiration in the Walled City, the colorful houses and beautiful balconies and the greeting of “palenqueras” [traditionally female fruit sellers in very colorful dresses who balance their wares on their head] that invite you to enjoy local fruits. In every square, you’ll find music and dancers, and as a musician, this always inspires me.

What is your favorite piece of Colombian music of all time and why?
La Pollera Colorá is one of my favorites and I’ve been playing it on the trumpet since I was very young. It’s always been a popular tune to play on the international tours and to hear the joy among the players and the audience when that rhythm begins is just immense.

For news on Nelson’s concerts and recordings visit nelsongomez.co.

Cumbia folk dancers in traditional dress

Cumbia folk dancers in traditional dress

Portia Hart

Entrepreneur and co-founder of Green Apple, a local non-profit enterprise dedicated to increasing environmental awareness in Cartagena.

Where is your favorite green space in Cartagena and why?
I’m a bit biased but my favorite has to be the Green Apple gardens on Tierra Bomba island. It’s already a beautiful spot—remote, wild, full of coconut trees—but seeing the vegetable gardens taking shape, as well as the local people working there learning and developing their skills, makes it even more special.

If you want to take a walk in the city what would your route be?
I never get bored of roaming the streets of Getsemaní. Local people still live here, and it’s customary to leave front doors open, so it’s a great way to get a sneak peek (literally) into the lives of Cartageneros. There’s often an impromptu street party at any given corner, and always some kind of decorative bunting criss-crossing the streets, as well as incredible graffiti and street art that’s constantly transforming. It’s magical, truly Colombian.

Where would you go on the hottest days to cool down?
I’m a beach junkie, so the only place to go when the heat gets too much is to the islands. Most people will head to the Rosario Islands, however the island of Tierra Bomba is much closer and far less developed. You can jump on a boat from the city with no hassle and be there in less than half an hour. If you’re having a night on the town, where are your favorite spots? El Baron (31-7 Carrera 4, Plaza San Pedro Claver) makes great cocktails, and me and my friends always start our nights there. For dancing, we head to Bazurto Social Club (Carrera 9, 30–42) which is a champeta hall. Champeta is a lot more fun to dance to than salsa (even if you have no idea what you’re doing). It’s like a mix of reggae, calypso and soul. Bazurto is the best spot for it in the city and less of a tourist trap than other more famous salsa joints.

If you had to leave Cartagena forever tomorrow, what is the one object you would bring that would remind you of the city?
I’d have to ask if I could have three things! A coconut, an avocado and a mango. I still can’t get over the privilege of seeing all these luxuries growing on trees right on my doorstep. There are so many fruits in Colombia that don’t even translate into English and it always reminds me that this really is a tropical paradise. So I’d take as many as I could fit in my bag.

To find out more about Green Apple’s sustainable initiatives and to arrange a visit to their gardens, visit Green Apple Cartagena .

Cartagena’s vibrant nightlife

Cartagena’s vibrant nightlife


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