The word "Colombia" doesn't exactly bring to mind colonial buildings dripping in bougainvillea or snow white beaches lapped by turquoise water. But that's exactly what you'll find on the Caribbean coast of this South American country, long devoid of international visitors.
A quick direct flight from New York City or several cities in Florida will take you to Cartagena, renowned for being host to the film "Romancing the Stone." The days here are hot and best spent around a pool or enjoying a siesta, but mornings and late afternoons allow you plenty of time to discover this colonial town.
When it came time for an anniversary trip, we could think of no better location to visit than Cartagena. But with only three days, you'll have to plan well to see—and eat—all that this town has to offer.
You'll likely arrive in town in late afternoon, which gives you just enough time to drop off your bags at the hotel, go for a dip in the pool, and set off exploring the streets and restaurants.
You don't really need a map for the walled city. Just a sense of interest that will guide you from one plaza to the next. Take in the local musicians and fruit sellers before settling down for dinner in one of the many delicious restaurants. We had a delicious and fresh seafood meal at El Boliche Cebicheria, although we later decided that it was more expensive than it should be considering some of our other dinners.
On your first morning, we recommend a visit to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, complete with an audio tour that allows you to explore the fortress' underground tunnels and tumultuous history.
Sacked by the French but failing to fall to the British and American troops, what looks like a small castle now was an important part of Spain's reign in the 17th and 18th centuries.
After enjoying a seafood lunch, retire to your hotel and take a siesta by the pool.
With the weakening sun comes another perfect opportunity to explore the colonial heart of Cartagena. Get lost. Stroll the streets. Enjoy the architecture. Take in sunset on the walls overlooking the water.
And then head to Salou for dinner. At $33,000COP (about US$18) their trio of ceviches was one of the best and most delicious meals we had the pleasure of enjoying.
But Colombia's Caribbean coast isn't just a pretty colonial town. As you likely imagine when you hear the word "Caribbean," a perfect beach is a just a short ride away.
Playa Blanca is where you go to go nowhere. With generator-only electricity and dinner that comes straight from the sea, an overnight here is a back to the basics experience complete with perfect sand and crystal clear water. Whether you decide to spend the night in a hammock or a thatch roof cabana, you'll be sure to remember this opposite-of-luxury experience. (For those not interested in an overnight, a day trip is also possible, along with a boat trip that visits surrounding islands in the Islas del Rosario chain. It's a welcome respite from Cartegena's heat.)
Getting to Playa Blanca is more complicated than it should be. You have the option of either boat or AC van. We booked the one-hour van for $50.000COP round trip from Hostel Malimena. They were the only ones we asked who seemed organized enough to give us some solid information. (That said, a stay here isn't recommended. It was super hot in the reception area, there was no pool, and the guests looked pretty hungover/miserable.)
The van was direct and fast, so we don't regret the decision. You can also do the van one way and get a boat back for $15.000COP, but we heard that the sea was choppy.
Playa Blanca was gorgeous. Just walk right until you find a quiet stretch of beach.
Our "bungalow" at Bungalows "Any" cost us $30.000 COP. It was no luxury, but sleeping to the sound of the ocean and having the beach to ourselves in the late afternoon and morning was worth it. There's now way (or need) to reserve ahead of time, so just walk down the beach and see what you can find.
Final thoughts: Cartagena was touristy and the locals weren't nearly as friendly as they are in other parts of Colombia. It's also hot. I wouldn't skip it altogether because the city is beautiful, but don't build your entire vacation around staying here. There are many things to explore in the area that you may be surprised to discover you enjoy more.
Want to see more of Cartagena? Check out our Cartagena photo tour!
Have you been to Cartagena or Playa Blanca?
Did you enjoy it? Do you have any other suggestions to share with our readers? Let us know in the comments!