Roam Guide / Cartagena and Rosario Islands
Liz Banfield is a lifestyle photographer and avid traveler based in Minnesota. Since beginning her professional photography career in 1998, she’s flown over a million miles on Delta traveling to assignments around the globe. A foodie and treasure seeker, she especially appreciates a good long vista, whether its the mountains of Switzerland or the crashing surf of the Hamptons. Liz’s work has been featured in national magazines, including Town & Country, Real Simple Family, Martha Stewart Living and People Magazine.
My dear friend and top Wedding Planner Tara Guerard wanted to celebrate her milestone birthday with girlfriends in a memorable location. She picked Cartagena for what it offered as a combination of historic city and spectacular beach destination, both easily accomplished in a trip of six days. I was thrilled to join as it was my first time in South America!
When to go?
Weather wise, Cartagena is almost always 88 degrees and because of it’s proximity to the equator, the average temp doesn’t vary more than few degrees at any time of year. The winter is hot, the summer it hot… its simply hot all the time. There are rainy seasons in the spring and late fall but your main consideration for timing a trip is your crowd tolerance. We were there during week days in mid-November and it was blissfully empty. But holidays like New Years, Carnival, and Easter can be mobbed.
I was worried that with Colombia’s reputation for crime, that we might not feel safe traveling there. Though we took normal precautions (I left my good jewelry at home) we never felt threatened or vulnerable in the areas we visited. It is important, however, to have a local guide if you are leaving the touristed areas. I think Cartagena works hard to make the walled city feel safe and secure, not to mention very clean! If you ever have questions about your destination, you can always visit The Department of State website for up to date information.
How to get there?
Cartagena is a port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast and Rafael Núñez International Airport is the largest airport in the region. It is serviced by many major airlines, including the economical JetBlue.
Where did you stay?
If you are going to Cartagena, you definitely want to stay in the Old Walled City. Because we were a large group, we opted for a vrbo home so we could be together. But that didn’t stop us from popping into check out the best hotels in the area. I was particularly charmed by the tastefully hip decor and phenomenal pool of Casa San Agustin. We also had an amazing lunch there!
The Rosario Islands offer beautiful crystal blue waters and cool breezes off the ocean. For the last few nights of our trip we rented a private home that occupied it’s own entire island and came with a full staff who cooked our meals. We could snorkel right off the dock, spotting giant starfish, amid other colorful ocean life.
What should we do?
A tour is a great way to see the city and explore other neighborhoods. We tapped Cartagena Concierge for a custom half day tour which included a walking tour of Getsemani, a charming neighborhood adjacent to the walled city but far less touristy. Then a bus took us up the steep hills so we could check out the incredible views from a 17th century monastery, Convento de la Popa. Afterwards, we explored Fort of San Felipe de Barajas. You should also make time to visit St. Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral in the Old City. By far my favorite historic building.
A boat ride to the Rosario islands can be booked last minute, even for just a day trip. Since we were renting an island home, we had our boat company drop off our bags and continue on for a day of snorkeling. We snorkeled around a plane crash in the waters in front of one of Pablo Escobar’s old compounds just a short jaunt away from our rental home. And later spent a few hours just hanging out at Playa Agua de Azul, a charming, friendly island (used as a day spot — no homes or hotels on this island) where you can hang out at the drink shack overlooking the white sand beach and blue waters.
Where should we eat?
The best meal we had in Colombia was at Carmen, hands down. Service was polished and the chef’s tasting menu was out of this world. Book your reservation as soon as you get your plane ticket. We also had a wonderful dinner at the vibrantly decorated Maria. In the Rosarios, there aren’t many restaurants but fresh seafood and fried plantains were prepared by locals on Playa Agua de Azul. We devoured this platter in minutes!
RSommSays: to pair that seafood platter with a bottle of Txacolina from the Basque region of Spain!
Rtip: check out cafe, La Esquina del Pandebono. Insiders say it’s a great spot to try the famous Colombian snack, “pandebono,” which is a bun made from cassava and cheese. They are always fresh here and some say the best in Colombia.
Where should we drink?
The Restaurant Candelaria makes a divine frozen drink of coconut milk, vodka, and lime. Not too sweet and very refreshing! And of course, coffee is an art form in Colombia (the third largest coffee producer in the world). I purchased 10 bags of beans from Cafe San Alberto, a single estate coffee brand, to bring home as gifts. Also, do not miss getting a drink at the outlandishly decorated KGB, a bar jammed with artifacts from the former USSR (the owner’s personal collection) with TVs playing endless sports vintage footage Russian sports champions in competition.
What is the one can't miss item on your itinerary?
Drinks at the first floor pool at Mansión Tcherassi. We dangled our feet in the water and enjoyed ice cold drinks. This was actually our first stop after we dropped our bags and I will always remember it as a very special oasis, with a living wall of ferns. We returned that evening for dinner at Vera Restaurant.
Tell us something we don't know?
With coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, Cartagena is as much a Caribbean destination as it is a South American one. A short 45 minute boat ride and you are in an amazing tropical locale, complete with world-class snorkeling in clear crystal blue waters.
What should we shop for, or bring back with us?
The dollar goes a long way in Colombia, especially outside of the tourist areas. Amazing woven goods (hats, baskets, bags) are found in fine shops and also available from street vendors. You won’t struggle to find great things to bring home! I particularly liked Casa Chiqui for home decor and accessories. And for high fashion and unique home goods, be sure to stop in St. Dom, an artfully curated boutique that features Colombian designer Johanna Oriz, among others, in a clean uncluttered shopping environment. I adore the gold ring I purchased from Cano Luis Alberto, a jewelry store specializing in reproduction of Pre-Colombian pieces. And I have fond memories of picking out my hand woven shoulder bag from Nilma Hoyos Artesanías. I wish I had bought a dozen to give to friends since I get so many compliments on it. All of these stores are in within the labyrinth of streets in the walled city.
Tell us what you’d do differently next time?
I wish I had done more research on emeralds before going down to Colombia. Although I wanted the ultimate little green souvenir, I felt I was not a good judge of the gems nor was I familiar with the pricing. Next time I’d like to also explore west coast and Pacific Ocean side of Colombia as well as the interior where coffee is grown.
What should we take on the trip?
The daytime dress code is informal. I felt most comfortable in a lightweight tunic and shorts. Quality sunglasses are a must, as the sun is intense and unrelenting. We ate out every single night so I was glad that I brought several sundresses and some fancy sandals to dress up for the evening. The streets can be very uneven so flats or platforms would be best. As a frequent flyer, I have definite packing preferences. I like to see what’s inside my dop kit so I’m a fan of these clear vinyl cubes from The Container Store.
Almost everyone accepts American dollars so if you want to cut down on the number of times you need to exchange money, bring a lot of small bills for tips and smaller purchases. Almost everything else can be put on a credit card (and my U.S. Bank Visa does not charge an extra fee for foreign transactions). I actually never exchanged any money at all!
What to Pack
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