Long discussed among international expats and indie travelers as a must-see destination, Colombia’s Cartagena de Indias has remained somewhat off the mainstream vacation radar of North American tourists. Lately though, Cartagena seems to be coming into its own. With a large portion of the city designated as a world heritage site by UNESCO, recreational access to a number of nearby islands and a fab food scene, travelers can arrive confident in their ability to craft a diverse itinerary. While some find the cost to be a bit prohibitive, there are a number of savings strategies you can use to remain on budget. Here are some ways you can make the most of the destination, while still being able to indulge.
Activities: Tackling the old city by foot is really the best way to go. Grab a map from your hotel and make your way through the streets and squares. Because this UNESCO site is a fully-functioning city, you’ll have the opportunity to take a break from architecture overload for a few minutes of shopping or cocktail sipping as the mood strikes you. This is one of the most impressive walking tours in the world, and costs you nothing but time. For an added touch of romance, consider booking a horse-drawn carriage ride. Evenings tend to be the most comfortable for both you and the horse, and half-hour sessions start at roughly $33. The nearby Rosario Islands offer a fun day trip by boat, and provide a rustic, tropical retreat from the city fray. Totumo Volcano tours are also popular with indie budget travelers, and come with the added perk of being able to indulge in a spa-like volcanic mud bath.
Accommodations: A myriad of hostels and boutique hotels located within the historic walled city make for a diverse buffet of stylish accommodation options. What’s particularly interesting is how much less you need to spend to score an entry level room at some of the best luxury venues the city has to offer. For example, Casa San Agustin has a reasonable amount of charm, is located in the UNESCO district and offers starting rack rates of $300, including breakfast. Of particular note however, is the Sofitel Legend property referred to locally as the Hotel Santa Clara. Choosing to rest your head here allows you to spend your down time in a restored abbey from the 1600s.
The common area comes complete with a lush garden courtyard where you can stroll, enjoy a romantic meal or hang out with the resident toucan who goes by the name of Mateo. Amenities include full spa services and an on-site period chapel which can be reserved for private events such as weddings, dinners or marriage proposals. The entry-level rooms starting at $350 offer the additional benefit of a location in the center of the old city, eliminating daily transportation expenses.
Appetite: Those who want to experience the convent atmosphere, but can’t quite cover the nightly room cost may want to check out the Hotel Santa Clara’s complimentary Wednesday-night wine tasting events. If you find a bottle you want to purchase and enjoy under the abbey arches, you can do so along with a light snack. Affordable small plate selections starting at roughly $6 are also made available at the events, providing a price point that’s affordable for all. Fresh fruit fans will find lots to love during their time in Cartagena de Indias. In fact, the diversity of fruit is one of the first things you’ll notice upon strolling the city and sampling the fare. Whether you choose to indulge at the various food carts which are part of the lively street scene, or enjoy a quiet escape at one of the many restaurant venues, fruit will never be far away.
You don’t have to be in the city very long before observing an inescapable fact. In Cartagena, coconut is king. Frugal foodies can use this to their advantage by designing their own comparative food tour around coconut pie and coconut lemonade, two of the city’s most popular menu items. Nearly every dining establishment offers their own version of each, so if dishing out for multi-course meals doesn’t suit your budget, consider ordering coffee and pie or lemonade with an appetizer during your visits to some of the nicer restaurants. It’s a great way to step out of the street fray and experience the atmosphere at a variety of venues for much less than you would otherwise spend. The coconut pie at Alma for example, has a flaky crust with a gooey center which sets it apart from some of the others, while the coconut lemonade at Marea comes in an enormous glass and makes a luscious treat to enjoy along with their mozzarella salad plate.
Photo Credits: All photos by Myscha Theriault
Myscha Theriault is an internationally-syndicated travel columnist with the Tribune News Service. Her work has appeared in publications around the world, including Stars and Stripes, the Seattle Times, the Miami Herald and more.