The first question most of my friends asked when I mentioned that I had planned to travel to Colombia is why? Or is it safe there?
I understand Colombia's drug trafficking past is still on Americans' curious minds, but yes, the major cities in Colombia are safe to visit and the local people are more than welcoming.
Looking for a mix of culture and beach time, we chose Cartagena, Colombia. Airlines like Copa, JetBlue and Delta make this destination easy with short flight times and little time zone difference from the United States. Cartagena's airport is smaller in size and landing after 10pm we cruised through customs and easily found our taxi driver that I had prearranged through our hotel, the Hotel Quadrifolio. This beautiful and charming hotel is located inside the old walled city and is 4 1/2 stars all the way with comfortable bedding, plush robes, Hermes bath products, working air conditioning and decor that mixes the South American traditional with an artistic flare. The included breakfast was served in a beautiful open-air dining room and the service was efficient and attentive.
Day 2, we were off for the beach and sun part of the holiday and chose to stay with the rustic and beautiful Hotel Coralina. They sent a private boat over to Cartagena to gather their guests for that day (they do allow for a limited amount of day guests as well which would give you from 10:30am-3:00pm to enjoy lunch and the beach) and we left the bay entering some choppy waters towards the Islas del Rosario. After an hour trip, we pulled into Coralina Island where we were greeted with huge smiles from the hotel's staff along with bottled waters and chilled glasses of wine. The resort is owned and managed by Pierre who's family is of European heritage and has an intriguing history. They do a remarkable job hiring local islanders, using eco friendly practices and serving wonderfully locally sourced food for the delicious three meals a day that are included in your stay. Here you can enjoy relaxing with the cooling sea breezes, swimming in the crystal clear waters, snorkeling along the reefs with a local, or taking a gentle and quiet canoe trip down the mangrove tunnels on nearby Isla Grande.
Don't expect luxury service with ice buckets and staff at your beckon call. However, what the hotel lacks in 5 star luxury, it makes up with the 5 star natural and beautiful surroundings. The staff will do everything they can to make your stay comfortable and enjoyable. Be patient for that fresh mojito; you're on island time. If you are the type of traveler who needs to be connected to the outside world 24/7, this may not be the best choice for you. However, there is limited wi-fi available in a central hut if you need.
We stayed here 3 nights, but I believe a 2 nights stay would be sufficient for most. There are 6 rooms here, however, I would recommend choosing one of the 3 deluxe sea view rooms with private bathrooms equipped with showers. One of these rooms is literally right over the water (we were lucky enough to stay here, see photo below) and the remaining deluxe double sea view rooms are located on the beach set just a few feet back from the water.
You'll enjoy lazing in hammocks, swimming along the hotel's coastline, sipping freshly made juices and I can't forget to mention the $15USD 30 minute massages right on the beach - say yes to this relaxing part of your holiday.
During our journey back to Cartagena, the crossing had some higher seas. Let's say be prepared to keep cool and salty with some of the waves making it into the boat.
Upon arriving, we were looking forward to checking into the 5 star Sofitel Legend Santa Clara in the old city.
The Sofitel Santa Clara is designed into an old convent originally built in 1621 located on the Plaza de San Diego. The central courtyard is lush with jungle like vegetation and surrounded by the beauty of the convent's old stone arches.
In the historic building there are 19 suites plus surrounding the modern pool area, there is an additional 100 deluxe double rooms. I highly recommend the character and luxury of the suites. We had the pleasure of staying in the Sofitel's two-story, two bath Colonial suite that comes with your own personal butler. This service was incredibly luxurious and makes your stay in the city a breeze with dining recommendations, reservations, taxi/driver arrangements; anything you need, you'll have a personal concierge at your service.
The first evening we loaded into a horse drawn carriage ( this is one of those "touristy" things, you must do! ) to enjoy a 30 minute tour of the old city. Listening to the horse's hooves hit the cobbled streets, the street music starting to come alive and feeling the cooler temperatures as night fell was captivating.
We tried several restaurants in town but the one that stands out as a pleasant surprise is Crepes and Waffles. We were delighted to have a break from the local standard seafood cuisine and discover this casual restaurant which has an lovely rooftop terrace with church views and cool breezes. The food here was delicious and affordable- we had three savory crepes, one sweet crepe, one waffle and three drinks for $20USD. Another piece of advise I'll share is skip the Cafe del Mar for cocktails on top of the murallas (old wall). Recommended in several guide books, but very touristy, expensive and the worst service we experienced in Colombia. Instead, grab a bottle of wine around 5pm and find yourself a spot near the Cafe on this wall dating back to the 17th century for an up close view of the sea and sunset.
You may want to check out some of the local sites and museums as well. We enjoyed the free Museo del Oro Zenu and the nearby Emerald Museum for a glimpse at why Colombian emeralds are so valued and the "the best" in the world. It's worth a taxi trip to the Castillo de San Felipe, considered the Spanish's most impressive fort in the New World. However, be sure to avoid the heat of the day or be prepared for intense heat. We arranged for the same taxi driver to bring us to La Popa; home to a convent with a lovely courtyard and plus at the highest point in the city, you'll have a commanding view of Cartagena. You won't need to spend much time at either location and both have an entrance fee.
Colombian handicrafts include handmade woven bags with cotton and wool and beautiful designs and colors ranging in price from $20-$100USD. Expect to see them in the plazas as well as high quality Artesanias de Colombia stores. Also, you'll find straw hats, handmade beaded and woven bracelets ( $3-$10USD ) and local paintings by the Plaza Bolivar. Calle Santo Domingo is Cartagena's "Rodeo Drive" with upscale shops selling Colombian made bikinis to handmade leather goods.
A walking tour plaza to plaza is highly recommended and in the evenings you'll be likely to find street musicians and also impressive dancers in traditional dress performing a combination of African/Caribbean/Indian dances.
Finally, there are a few local companies that are offering visitors a tour of the sprawling local market, Mercado de Bazurto. Be ready as this is not for everyone. It's a bit grimy and not for the faint of heart, however, it is an authentic immersive experience to meet the locals and see where the top chefs are shopping for your 5 star dinner in town. I found it to be an incredible sight to view the amounts and variety of fresh fruit in Colombia. Our mouths were delighted when tasting the local curuba (similar to passion fruit), lulo with it's sweet lemon like flavor, tamarindo, pitahaya, granadilla, uchuvu which tastes similar to a very sweet cherry tomato, the papayas, 5 types of bananas..I could go on and on!
A UNESCO World Heritage site, go to Cartagena filled with architecture, history, culinary delights, color, music, art and hospitality.