The second part of our trip to Colombia took us to Cartagena and San Andres. This part started out a little rough after a not so pleasant trip from Santa Marta in a non air conditioned van, but quickly turned around after being in the beautiful old city of Cartagena and the extremely welcoming island of San Andres.
The Old City is where it’s at. In fact, you don’t really need to leave the Old City except to travel to islands/beaches off the coast. The New City looks like Miami and is pretty unsafe from what we were told. The Old City is beautiful and charming (similar to Old San Juan), and feels very safe. There’s a mix of souvenir shops and higher end stores and boutiques, the city is colorful and feels European, going back to its roots as part of the Spanish empire.
Getting There: You can fly directly into Cartagena from the US and nearby countries. But if, like us, you are coming from Santa Marta, you don’t have much option other than driving – it’s about a 4 hour trip. We arranged for a private transfer to Cartagena so we could get there quickly as we heard there were a lot of collectivos that take nearly 6 hours since they pick up people along the way. The van that came was fine, but we quickly realized that the AC didn’t really work. The ride was supposed to take 4 hours and may have taken a little less. However, our driver clearly didn’t know Cartagena all that well and it took nearly another hour of driving around before he found our hotel. He asked about 15 different people for directions but didn’t really listen to anyone. He had also stopped about 20 minutes into our trip to pick up another passenger, his girlfriend. Since the ride was less than pleasant (and we were sweating through our clothes), we were eager to get settled into our new hotel. We didn’t feel that the driver was entitled to the full fare and tried to negotiate, but that didn’t seem to work. A little arguing later, we gave him 370,000 COP (not the 380,000 he was hoping for) and he left. This was one of the biggest problems we had in Colombia, which really wasn’t all that bad. Just a warning…
Where to Stay: We stayed at Estancia de La Mantilla, a very pretty boutique hotel in the old city. It seemed like we were the only guests there! The hotel has two small pools, one of which was private (attached to a guest room), but we were able to use it since no one else was staying there. Fortunately after that terrible drive, the hotel had cold water and towels waiting for us when we arrived. Our room was like a mini apartment with two rooms with king beds and a balcony facing the street. They served breakfast in the mornings and we were able to request whatever we liked. In fact, one morning we asked for them to make us arepas con huevos for breakfast – amazing. Short trip to the airport (about 15-20 min) and about 6000 COP. Also, the power went out at this hotel on our last day. It’s a Colo thing, clearly. There was also a great coffee shop next to the hotel (Abraco Books) where we went everyday.
Things to Do:
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas – Heard this was worth visiting and it’s one of the only sights we saw in Cartagena. The castle was a 6000 COP cab ride from the hotel. Recommend bringing water as it’s very hot on the tour. Also, you spend most of the tour in the sun so definitely wear sunscreen, and go early in the day if you can to avoid the heat. Many vendors outside the entrance trying to sell hats and drinks – as usual, very annoying. Admission is 17000 COP, we also got the audio guide which was 10000 COP. The audio guide was helpful as there is not really any signage around the castle to provide info. You can spend 60-90 minutes here; it is so hot you would not want to spend more time than that. Very nice views of the city from the castle.
Beaches: Going to the beach became more difficult than we expected. We had heard a lot about Playa Blanca, but everything we read about getting to the beach made it sound very difficult. I WILL TRY TO HELP YOU NAVIGATE THIS. It was quite a shit show. In order to get to Playa Blanca, you have to get to Muelle Port which is where the tour boats are docked. When you arrive at the port, there are tons of people trying to sell you stuff (ALWAYS). And there are multiple ticket windows of different tour lines offering trips to Playa Blanca, as well as other places. THIS IS CONFUSING.
We had heard that it was common to buy tickets for Playa Blanca direct and end up stuck on a tour to other places with only getting a little time at Playa Blanca. So we were wary of the whole thing. We took a risk and got the tickets that were promised to be direct. The tickets were 30,000 COP per person, which was about what we expected (negotiated from 35,000). But just after buying the tickets, we were told that we had to pay the government tax too which was 13500 COP per person and couldn’t be negotiated. Another surprise. We were getting used to this. We also soon found out that other people on our boat (Colombians) only paid 5000 COP for their boat (AS USUAL). The boat was scheduled to leave around 9/9:15. We also heard that sometimes the boats don’t make the trip if there aren’t enough people. Fortunately that didn’t happen, and the waiting area was full by 9.
There are options to take speedboats or ferries. Speedboats take about 45 min while the ferry takes 1.5-2 hours – go for the speedboat obviously. The boat we took made one stop to pick up some random people (seems common in Colombia) and then we went to Playa Blanca. Some people stayed on the boat to go elsewhere; the boat would come back later and take us back at 3. We arrived around 10:15/10:30 which that gave us plenty of time. We quickly found an area with tents to rent that weren’t super expensive or crowded. The beach is very beautiful and the water is really calm. The worst thing is how many hawkers are coming around trying to sell stuff or offering massages. The massage ladies are THE WORST, because they linger even after you say No and then also will try to touch you. Not cool. When the boats return around 1/1:30 to bring people for lunch, it gets really crowded. It was also much windier by then so the water got a little rougher. Suddenly our nice beach wasn’t so quiet and calm. And the ride back was pretty awful since the drivers went super fast and hit all of the waves head-on which creates a painful ride.
Apparently going to Islas de Rosario is also nice, but seems to be the same situation with the massage ladies, etc.
Don’t let this keep you from going to the beach…just be prepared!
Don’t leave without getting an arepa from a street vendor.
Chivas are the party buses in the city – this seemed a little too fratty for us, but might be fun if that is something you are into
It was hard to find lunch options in the city, maybe we went too late and they were closed (also there was a World Cup game on one afternoon and I think people were closing early!). Most of the lunch places we found had small lunch menus with set items, mostly meat.
Krioyo – Ceviche restaurant across from our hotel. Don’t go here. Think my friend got food poisoning from this place.
Las Paletteria – Fancy popsicles (So Brooklyn)
DonJuan – Probably one of the best meals of the trip and definitely the most expensive.Everything was delicious. We ordered lobster and yuca balls, red snapper and sea bass with lemon risotto. And for dessert: an arequipe and Apple tart with macadamia ice cream on top!
Maria – Next to DonJuan and owned by same management. Dinner was really good, drinks were OK.
Casa del Mar – Bar on the wall of the Old City. Good for getting drinks at sunset but really just for the atmosphere and not the drinks. Unfortunately, we missed the sunset but the vibe was nice (though very windy). The crowd was all tourists and the drinks were a total ripoff: super expensive and crappy (20,000 COP for a pina that tasted bad).
La Vitrola – Came highly recommended. The restaurant has a Cuban vibe and lots of fish and meat options. The food was very good, we had a pasta dish, grouper with coconut risotto, and ropas viejas with plantain, beans, rice, and avocado. And a very nice bottle of rose, of course! When we arrived it was rather empty, but the restaurant got crowded later and there was also live music.
Other recommendations we received:
- Quiebra Canto (famous and great for salsa dancing etc)
- Café Havana (live cuban music, great)
- Donde Miguel (more Salsa)
- Bar Bovedas inside Santa Clara Hotel
Restaurants not to miss:
- Club de Pesca (need reservations, great sea food)
- Pizzeria de Juan del Mar: pizza joint with a great view
- La Cevicheria in front of Santa Clara Hotel
San Andres is a tiny island off the coast of Colombia. It’s actually much closer to Central America than South America, which means it felt more like being in the Caribbean than being in the rest of Colombia that we had seen. A variety of languages are spoken here (including a Creole that is difficult to understand), and there’s a distinct “island life” vibe everywhere you go. Reggae music is everywhere. Things move slowly. Everyone knows everyone. After just a few days in San Andres, we felt like everyone knew us too (well, there weren’t many American girls running around the island so we stood out). It’s not the fanciest island, but it’s the kind of place I could get used to.
Getting There: We flew from Cartagena to San Andres. To get there, you must pay a tourist fee of 47000 COP at the airport (DAMN COLOMBIA). The flight to San Andres was about 90 min, and we had arranged for a taxi to pick us up via the hotel (30000 COP). It’s a small island (about 165,000 people) and there is one main road that goes around the perimeter of the island, with another road that cuts through the center. It’s a really chill island vibe here. People speak English, Spanish, and this other Creole-type language. Many times we had trouble understanding English spoken by the residents.
Where to Stay: It was really hard to find a place in San Andres to stay, but Playa Tranquilo was amazing and I would totally recommend staying here. The hotel is about 15-20 min from the airport and on the west side of the island, which has a rockier coast. It’s also much much quieter than being in El Centro (which seemed a bit junky and full of teenagers). The hotel had two separate houses and 5 rooms attached to the main building. There’s also a pool next to one of the houses. We scored that house which had three bedrooms and three bathrooms, a kitchen and living/dining room. The house was great, so much space for four people and directly in front of the pool. The only downside was the bathrooms, which are in need of some work and could do with an upgrade. My bathroom had a shower which barely worked and an iffy toilet (since we had 2 other bathrooms, it wasn’t really a big deal). We had breakfast made for us every morning at the house which was a really nice treat (eggs, pancakes – whatever we wanted). Because the hotel is not near El Centro, there aren’t a lot of places near the hotel for dinner, snacks, etc so you mostly have to go to town for meals or pick up food at the supermarket. The cab to town was 20000 COP and the trip took about 20-25 min. Cabs are more expensive in San Andres due to gas being more expensive on the island. On the day we left, they let us stay all day and check out mid-afternoon before we left for the airport around 6pm. And they turned on the cable for us so we could watch the World Cup final!
Things to Do:
We rented a ‘car’ on the island which we thought would make it easier to get around. These are golf carts that you can rent, but they are expensive 267,000 COP for 24 hours. We only got the car for one day due to the cost, but it was nice to have (and not rely on taxis). We got the car in the morning and decided to drive around the southern part of the island and check out some beaches.
Rocky Cay Beach – Was recommended. There were a few beach clubs near there, we stopped at one called Aqua. Parking was 5000 COP and no fee to rent chairs, just had to spend money on food & drink. The Rocky Cay is a small little cay that you can walk to from the beach. It’s definitely rocky so we didn’t climb up since we were barefoot. The water was pretty warm and nice despite lots of seaweed. By later in the afternoon it got pretty crowded at Aqua and we were ready to leave. We wound up coming back here the next day rather than searching for another beach. We had originally wanted to do some sort of sailing excursion, but most of them were through a tour and tend to be crowded on the weekend. The scuba instructor at the hotel said he could hook us up with someone for a private sail but that never materialized…
Iglesia Bautista – Supposed to have the best views of the island. It’s a very old and well maintained church. The view was ok, but we literally spent 2 minutes there.
Hoya Soplador – It’s a blowhole. Total tourist trap but kind of hilarious for pictures and it’s free!
There are a lot of restaurants in El Centro. The area is mostly full of teenagers drinking on the sidewalk at night. Glad we didn’t stay in this area.
Red Snapper is a specialty on the coast and islands, and they serve it with coconut rice, which is to die for, so if you see it offered on beach spots, order it.
La Regatta – Supposedly best restaurant on the island. Food was really good, service was great until it came to getting the check which took forever. We had lobster bisque, salad, fish with coco rice, and a mixed veggie rice, as well as a lambrusco.
Margherita e Carbonara – Italian place. Decent food, pizza was pretty tasty especially since we were looking for something a little different from the usual Colombia fare
Gourmet Shop Assho – Try not to giggle when you say the name of this wine shop which also serves food and coffee. There’s a good variety of food like sandwiches, pasta, meat, salads. We originally had dinner here, returned for sandwiches at lunch another day – they were good but took super long to make them.
Kella Bar – Super chill Reggae bar, right on the beach (so a little windy). Beers were 6,000 COP which was most expensive we ever saw in Colombia (roughly $3). Mostly local dudes there. We definitely felt a bit out of place at first, but very quickly got comfortable here!