Port of Cartagena (Colombia)
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There, you'll find everything a cruise passenger's heart could desire: a fascinating -- and often dark and bloody -- history embedded in ancient forts, churches and palaces; a walled town filled with exquisite 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial architecture; soft beaches; world-class snorkeling and scuba diving reefs; delightful restaurants; and enough shops to capture your interest without the place feeling like one gigantic mall.
Your only regret, as your cruise ship steams away at the end of the day, will be that you didn't have longer to explore.
Top Cartagena (Colombia) Itineraries
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Where You're Docked
Your ship will dock in the port of Cartagena, where you can either walk five minutes or (for those with mobility issues) take a free shuttle to the visitors' area.
The visitors' area offers an indoor/outdoor cafe; restrooms; an ATM; a menagerie of wildlife, including flamingoes, peacocks, macaws and monkeys; places to sign up for private shore excursions; an Internet cafe; and a sizeable (and overpriced) gift shop, where you can buy everything from coffee, jewelry and clothing to candy, postcards and postage stamps. Tip: We recommend purchasing your souvenirs elsewhere if you're venturing out into Cartagena. You'll find much more reasonable prices.
Good to Know
Cartagena is beautiful and clean, and most locals are friendly, but take usual caution. Avoid wearing expensive jewelry or flashing large amounts of cash. If you have a sensitive stomach, avoid any fruits or vegetables without peels, and stay away from fountain drinks or drinks with ice in them. (Sin hielo, por favor means "no ice, please.")
By Taxi: This is really the only means of transportation for cruise passengers who haven't booked shore tours. From the visitors' area, make your way to the gates, where taxi drivers in blue shirts with "TAXI" imprinted all over them wait to take you where you want to go. On our visit, a driver took four of us on a four-hour tour of Cartagena's highlights for $20 per person.
Cabs aren't metered, but there will be tourism officers near the taxi area to help you negotiate a fair price ahead of time. If your driver is taking you somewhere and bringing you back, you won't have to pay until the conclusion of your return trip to ensure that you won't be ripped off. You can choose to have a driver drop you off and pay a one-way fare, but be aware that it can be difficult to find transportation back to the port. Also be aware of enterprising locals who offer rides to tourists on the backs of their motorbikes. It's unsafe, and it's unregulated.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency in Cartagena is the peso, but U.S. dollars and credit cards are accepted everywhere. If you run short, an ATM is located at the port. You'll find currency conversion rates at www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
Spanish is widely spoken in Cartagena, but most vendors, store operators and attraction employees will be able to speak enough English to communicate with you. If you catch a taxi in port, it's likely the driver will know a decent amount of English. That said, it's a good idea to download a translation app to your phone or bring an English-Spanish phrasebook with you.
Food and Drink
All things are possible in Cartagena, from expensive dining at a five-star restaurant to a tasty, freshly cooked snack from an Old Town street vendor. On our day there, the bold Australian with whom we'd shared a taxi spent $2 on a plateful of butifarras -- small barbecue-flavored meatballs. The equally adventurous will find that the street vendors of old Cartagena offer many other local delicacies, including bunuelos (cheese balls) and arepas de huevo (fried dough balls with eggs inside).
For a sit-down lunch, Old Town offers many outstanding restaurants (open from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.) serving everything from Spanish and Italian to French and Creole specialties at reasonable prices. Your best bet is simply to stroll around, eye a few menus, and see what looks good.
Fogon Costeno: Enjoy a selection of tapas (a perfectly substantial lunch in the midday heat), washed down with well-chilled local beer, at a table overlooking the lively street. The decor is quite appealing with warm ochre-painted walls, fresh white tablecloths and a vast array of local art displayed on the walls. (Calle de la Iglesia 35-38)
Restaurant Vesuvio: Located near Plaza de Santo Domingo, this restaurant specializes in Neapolitan cuisine. (Calle de la Factoria 36-11)
Parrilla Argentina Quebracho: The focus there is on Argentine specialties. Try the roast suckling pig if you dare, or play it safe with a nice steak. (Calle de Baloco 2-69)
Carmen: For a bit of splurge, check out Carmen, which specializes in upscale cuisine that features lots of fish and seafood. It's got a ridiculously trendy atmosphere, offering both indoor and outdoor dining areas. (Calle de Cuartel 36-77; open for lunch from noon to 3 p.m. daily)
El Boliche Cebicheria: If you're craving ceviche, this is the place to be. Served in a fashionable atmosphere on a side street in the colonial San Diego neighborhood, the food's gorgeous preparation is as astounding as its taste. (Calle Cochera del Hobo 38-17)
If you're a java-lover, pick up some authentic Colombian coffee. You'll find the best prices at local grocery stores, but you can buy it just about anywhere at kiosks throughout the areas that are geared to tourists. If coffee isn't your beverage of choice, opt for a nice piece of jewelry instead. Emeralds are one of Colombia's claims to fame, and you can snag some great deals. Just be sure you're buying from a reputable establishment.
Aguardiente, a type of sugarcane liquor, is Colombia's most well-known drink, and it usually comes in shot form. For a more Caribbean experience, try a drink made with Colombian rum, or -- if it's an unbearably hot day -- go with a bottle of Club Colombia beer. Natural coconut water is also popular for nonalcoholic refreshment. Look for vendors selling whole coconuts, which will be cut open for you with a knife so you can drink from them with straws.
Cartagena (Colombia) Awards
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