During the day, the colors of the sea set against the rich color palette of the surrounding buildings in Cartagena are stunning; like the imagination come to life. At night, lively music plays from every corner lending the night an energy and promise of a memorable evening ahead. Cartagena is an ongoing festival where people are whipped into a frenzy of Cumbia music, laughter and aguardiente. Swept up into the magic, you find yourself dancing until the pink streaks of dawn melt into the evening sky and illuminate the sea in a symphony of blue, pink and orange light. If every place on earth were to have one descriptive word by which to identify it, then Cartagena’s word would be “alive.” You always feel alive in Cartagena as your senses are ignited with Caribbean flavors, your ears perk up at Latin music and your eyes sparkle with the colors.


Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of its storied past, Colombia has come far from the days when it snagged international headlines with images of violence and drug trafficking. Today, tourism is booming and the country is being rediscovered as a unique and authentic travel experience just a mere five hours from New York City. Cartagena is the country’s seaside gem; a melting pot of Caribbean and Latin identities set against the backdrop of a beautiful, Spanish colonial city with balmy 80 degree weather and unparalleled ocean views.

Having been born in Colombia, Cartagena holds a special place in my heart. Two years ago I dispelled every myth I had of travel being too expensive and booked a ticket to Colombia on a whim with friends in tow. I hadn’t been back to my county in over a decade and felt such a surge of love and inspiration from rediscovering my culture, language and heritage. That trip to Colombia sparked an insatiable appetite for travel and its ability to transform a person and eventually led me to start blogging. Now on the brink of traveling down to Cartagena on assignment later this month, I am sharing my favorite ‘must-have’ experiences for the first-time visitor:

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Cocktails and Sunset at Cafe del Mar

Nestled atop the wall of the old city, or La Ciudad Vieja, rests Cafe del Mar. This outdoor cafe is hailed as being the spot to watch the sunset while sipping on the city’s best mojitos. While admittedly a bit pricier than the average cafe or bar in Cartagena, it is worth splurging on at least one cocktail and taking in the idyllic sunset with the warm ocean breeze on your face.


Day Trip or Overnight Stay on Isla Baru

As it goes, one of my favorite experiences in Cartagena doesn’t take place in the city at all, but rather on the neighboring island of Isla Baru. Just a short boat ride away, you will find yourself in the definition of paradise: sugary sand beaches, warm turquoise waters, lazily swaying palm trees and perfect temperatures. You can catch a ride to Isla Baru from the main marina with the option of either a day trip or overnight stay. Not many tourists realize you can spend the night on Isla Baru and end up flocking back to the city around 4pm. The in-the-know traveler will stay behind at a beach bungalow hostel (available on the beach) and will reap the benefits of having paradise to themselves once all the tourists and vendors have left.

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Wandering Cartagena’s Old City

Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said, “the problem (with Cartagena) is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.” It is true. To wander the streets of the old city is like that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps into Oz and her world goes from black and white to technicolor. Every corner is a photo op, every street is a dream and every building is romantic with winding vines and hot pink flowers wrapped around its balconies. You fall in love with Cartagena and never quite fall out of love with it. Get lost in the Old City, let yourself wander the streets aimlessly, discover little cevicherias and parks, Botero scuptures and live music – and somehow you’ll always end up exactly where you need to be.


A Visit to Castillo San Felipe

A fortress in Cartagena standing tall above the Old City with a view of Bocagrande, Castillo San Felipe was built by the Spanish during the colonial era in an effort to protect the city. Today, the fortress retains much of its original state and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that gives a nod to the city’s past. A visit to Castillo San Felipe offers beautiful views of Cartagena – although the savvy traveler will know to visit either early in the day or late in the afternoon to avoid the scorching heat and blazing sun.


A Trip to Volcan de lodo el Totumo

It may not look like much, but El Totumo is a natural volcano that rises 49 feet above the ground and spews mud instead of lava and ash. Legend has it that a local priest used to sprinkle Holy Water into the once fiery mouth of El Totumo, believing it to be the work of the devil. After serving El Totumo one too many servings of Holy Water, it is said the lava turned into the lukewarm mud it is today. For no more than $20 USD you can hop on a day trip from Cartagena to El Totumo, which includes roundtrip transportation and lunch at a small fishing village.


Local Eats at Mercado Bazurto

Chaotic, unique, local, dirty, sprawling, delicious – these are just a few of the words that descripe the Mercado Bazurto; Cartagena’s chaotic local market place that is an adventurous stop for foodies in search of authentic Colombian fare. From fisherman to fresh fruit, Mercado Bazurto has seen the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern walk amongst its winding stalls in search of unique flavors. For the visiting tourist, keep in mind this market place is quite conducive to pickpockets and petty theft so be aware of your surroundings and leave any flashy jewerly or high end items at home.


A Visit to Cartagena’s Arepa Lady

Everyday Elaine Gomez Lozano sets up her cart on the corner of Carrera 11 and Calle 38 in Cartagena’s Old City and gets to work on making handmade arepas from scratch. With her food stand positioned in front of the crumbling wall surrounding the city’s historical district, Elaine caters to the passing locals and tourists looking for a quick and savory bite. For 40 years, Elaine (whom I’ve come to refer to as The Arepa Lady) has stood on this very corner whipping up her modest arepas by flattening and shaping the maize, tossing the arepas in a vat of hot oil and serving them alongside colorful salsas in vibrant hues of green and red. For less than the cost of a New York subway ride, anyone passing by can enjoy a treat as true to Colombia as the local making them.

Cartagena is home to endless experiences to be enjoyed and pleasures to be had – from delectable meals to stunning scenery. After that first trip to Cartagena, I must have heard the words “welcome back to reality” at least a dozen times upon my return. I know that every dream must have a reality and every bird must have a nest, but for now I’m happy to share my must-have experiences in Cartagena and look forward to later this month when my airplane pilot says, “welcome back to paradise.”


All photos by Nikki Vargas.