Arguably the biggest flex I have ever done was surprising Drew for his 25th birthday with a plane ticket to a mysterious secret location. His birthday is in April and the trip wasn’t scheduled until Thanksgiving / November, which gave me a lot of time to make it as perfect as possible. Pro tip: plan a vacation around a holiday so you can combine your days off work with your vacation days to take as few official days off as possible. This made my 5 night long trip only require 3 days off. If you’ve noticed, I try to travel every change I get, so little ways to cheat the system make it all possible.
I decided on Cartagena while I was up late on night in my hostel in Istanbul, where I had traveled alone. I had taken Drew’s suggestion of somewhere warm and Spanish speaking and done some sort of random research that led me to the Caribbean seafront ancient city of Cartagena. From there, I was on a project that was almost as fun as the trip- planning a secret trip that would be our longest and furthest trip we’ve taken together.
Cartagena was amazing because it felt untouched by American tourism. No one immediately spoke to us in English, there were few, if any, cheesy chain restaurants, there was no excessive tourist activities like banana boats or those water hoverboards, it just felt like a classic beautiful place for people to relax and enjoy the culture. I know I wouldn’t have found that off some Groupon to Puerto Rico which would have been easier and probably cheaper. This was definitely memorable- and comes highly recommended by me.
The flight: I booked two flights through Kayak on Avianca, which is Colombia’s primary airline. I chose them because they were cheapest, probably because we were leaving on a Monday, and it was so far in advance. And the arriving flight had a 5 hour layover in Bogota. But the travel gods remedied that and had the first leg delayed due to weather so it was only 90 minutes. There are no direct flights to Cartagena from NY, or most places, except Miami. You have to fly into the capital of Bogota, which is South, and then back up. Ultimately, with an average layover, you can expect this to take 6-8 hours from NYC. I scored our tickets for under $400 each which was fantastic, but I expect then to be closer to $600 typically.
The hotel: I split up our trip into two different vibes and locations so we could get a taste of the diversity of Cartagena. I wanted to start our trip with a hotel because they are generally easier to navigate and can offer more advice than a rented apartment or home. After a LOT of research on Trip Advisor, I went with the Alfitz Hotel, a boutique hotel in the walled city with only eight rooms. There are a few king rooms, a few suites, and one or two family sized rooms with a kitchenette. I opted for a suite because I had to be lavish, and it was TWO STORIES. Each room is themed after a different part of Colombian history which is also awesome. Since we got the suite, it was around $210 a night, but there were rooms for around $180 which includes breakfast for two. It was beyond worth it, especially the sweet touches they added. I emailed them in advance and they had someone pick us up from the airport which was such a help because we were exhausted, had a bottle of champagne in the room, AND I had mentioned it was a special/surprise trip and they decorated the room with rose petals. This probably impressed me more than Drew who was the one it was surprising but I loved their commitment and willingness to help.
This cute little pool was right outside of our room
I am honestly obsessed with this hotel. The amenities aren’t some cheesy all-inclusive get wasted and be a tacky white American place- thank god. There is a very small pool, an amazing three course included breakfast with waiter service (not a buffet), and a rooftop deck with lounge chairs and an enormous hot tub that fills up like a giant bathtub. We used this one late night and drank wine and ate chocolate and were generally romantic and cheesy.
This was just one of the three courses of free breakfast!
Rooftop hot tub- my mom told me this pic was TMI
The most amazing thing we did during our trip (maybe, it was hard to choose) was a Chiva BUS. My Colombian friend Kathy suggested it to us and I expected it to be a sorta whitewashed cheesy tourist thing. IT WAS NOT. The Chiva bus is a semi open party bus where each row receives its own bottle of Colombian rum, which gets replaced the second it is finished, and Coke. Our bus was ENTIRELY Colombian women, and Drew. The bus has a MC who gives a bit of historical info (in Spanish) and mostly hypes the party. Drew didn’t understand anything, and was hollering and dancing when the MC would tell all the ladies to put their hands up. It was perfect. Halfway through, we drove to some little hill by the edge of the wall and had a dance party and ate beef empanadas and egg arepas. Watch Drew get freaky and me cackle in this video of the bus here.
One thing you probably wouldn’t expect is that the beaches in Cartagena are not white sand or beautiful. They look similar to a New York or even San Francisco beach, like significantly less beautiful than even LA or OC. That being said, a one hour ferry away, the Rosario Islands are absolutely beautiful. The packages are all inclusive, and when you have a cab take you to the port, be prepared to be BOMBARDED with people trying to sell to you. We chose the fast boat and I HIGHLY Suggest you do. Thank god I had done some research on this, because they made the slow boat seem fun with live music, but it leaves you with only an hour or so on the island. The island resort we went to was Coco Liso. This was the only element of our trip that was a bit stereotypical vacation scam. It reminded me of the trips I had been on to Mexico where everything secretly costs money, so be warned, that snorkeling mask someone is handing you is NOT free and you won’t get off that island until you pay. We had some drinks, some ceviche, the included lunch, and massages.
Going to the islands is an absolute must and really reasonable. The lunch + boat ride was about $40 each and everything else was extra, but for a full day it was worth it forsure.
The snorkels that we got almost scammed into renting but I obv got us out of it
A short cabride from the walled city, the beach Bocagrande had more of a Miami vibe. We ate at an outdoor steak house and walked along the beach. I definitely preferred the walled city and its historic colonial charm, but this grittier beach vibe was also appreciated.
We went to a bar that came highly recommended to us that had a beautiful view of the water and Bocagrande. Cafe Del Mar, was a bit pricey and very touristy, but I had a mojito and enjoyed the sunset.
We also opted to explore the city on some pretty bootleg bikes we rented for a few pesos. We got them at a random corner store that sold everything from beer, bike rentals, and also was an internet cafe. Seeing the walled city by bike was an awesome way to scope out restaurants, bars, sights, and helped us sort of get a lay of the land. Well mostly Drew, I suck at directions and was too short for my bike.
The apartment rental:
For the second half of the stay, I used Air B&B to rent an apartment in a different part of town. Outside of the walled city, this apartment complex, Morro Epic, looked like a beautiful Miami beachfront condo, modern and white. The complex had FIVE pools, and the craziest part was the owner of the apartment/condo had a cook/housekeeper who made us amazing meals and cleaned the apartment.
This was my Thanksgiving meal on our balcony prepared at our apt for us
This was a huge money saver, as we provided money for her to grocery shop and gave her a great tip, that still was less than the cost of two meals, and she even made us amazing fresh JUICE. If you want details on the apartment, comment below and I’ll send you the air b&b link. It was only $100 a night too! Insanity. The entire time we were there Drew and I just keep googling how we could live there.
I could live here.
Ah yes, you knew it was coming. The food. Colombian food is amazing, and Cartagena with its proximity to the ocean was fantastic. Seafood, fried fish with the entire head still in tact, arepas- which are as amazing for a few pesos on the street as they were in the hotel, Aguila- their national beer, and ceviche, were our primary favorites, but I of course wanted to try everything. Though it all came back to the whole fish. AND PLANTAINS, of course. I’m about to go HAM on the food pics.
Most places we went, we realized we would have been fine just having ceviche because it was warm out and we didn’t want to be bloated, but as you can see below, we clearly didn’t do that.
This was an amazing lunch fish plate that made me too full.
Drew got these stuffed clams
This coconut milk, mixed fish, mango and avocado ceviche was so lit I came here twice.
The above three photos are from El Pulpito
This lemon-y ceviche was honestly the best one I had at a random place I stumbled into
This plate was in an awesome local part of town. The restaurant had no AC but the food was dirt cheap and amazing.