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Explorer’s Journal: Cartagena dreaming with Destination Expert Julia

One of our Destination Experts hits the ground once again to gain firsthand travel knowledge on our premier destinations and share expertise with you. In this edition of Explorer’s Journal, Julia Steck immerses herself in the tantalizing flavors and idyllic beaches of Cartagena, Colombia.

Hola from Colombia! I’m Julia, a Destination Expert with SA Expeditions, and I recently celebrated eight years living in South America. Recently, I visited the Caribbean coast of Colombia for six days. Follow along as I explore this region, with a two-night stay in Cartagena and three nights in the Barú peninsula.

To the Walled City of Cartagena

Arriving in Cartagena was easy. Since I live in the Sacred Valley, I flew from Cusco to Lima (which had an incredible view of Apu Veronica), and then took the direct LATAM flight from Lima to Cartagena, which is now offered a few days a week. One thing to note about Customs in Cartagena is that the line can be very long, up to an hour wait. If you’re planning a visit, ask your Destination Expert about the expedited process.

It was a quick drive from the airport to Cartagena’s casco antiguo, or historic center, where I checked into the Casa San Agustin. It’s hard to imagine a better boutique hotel honoring the history of the 17th century, with original frescoes in the library and centuries-old wood-beamed ceilings in the 20 guest rooms and 11 suites. For our first meal, we made a reservation at Vitrola, an old-school spot a few blocks away with live music and a classic Caribbean menu.

Apu Veronica Mountain aerial view from above and hotel Casa San Agustin in Cartagena, Colombia
Left: Apu Veronica view on Cusco to Lima flight. Right: Charming pool area of Casa San Agustin. (Photo: Julia Steck)

A foodie’s dream tour

The next morning, I set out on the “Bazurto by Bourdain” food tour with Foodies Cartagena. Andrea, our local guide, took us to discover the Colombian food market Anthony Bourdain fell in love with. We started out with fried Sierra fish with yucca before walking the aisles to sampling a variety of fresh produce including Pajarito and aji dulce peppers and fruits like nispero, zapote, sour guava, and corroso – a type of coconut that looks like grape, is very sour, and used for making juice, BBQ sauce, and oils made from the big seed in the middle.

In efforts to walk off all the food, we then checked out the vibrant neighborhood of Getsemani, which hosts some of the city’s best restaurants and bars. This neighborhood is also home to an impressive amount of street art and vendors, making it the perfect spot to snap some colorful pictures.

Hot dishes from the Bazurto market and Alquimico bar in Cartagena, Colombia
Left: Some tantalizing foods offered at the Bazurto market! Right: Alquimico bar, recommended by the World’s 50 Best. (Photo: Julia Steck)

In the evening we decided to check out a few recommendations from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Bars in Cartagena. We returned to Getsemani for dinner at a cozy restaurant called Celele. They offer two seats a night, and reservations (and a deposit) are required. After dinner, we went to Alquimico, a trendy bar just down the street from the Casa San Agustin. Alquimico has three levels including a rooftop, and each floor offers a unique menu of food and drinks.

Colombia’s Caribbean paradise

Off we go to Barú! After a 45-minute boat ride from Cartagena, we arrived to the white sand and turquoise waters surrounding Las Islas resort. Upon check-in, we were shown to our treetop bungalow which comes fully equipped with air conditioning, Wi-Fi, private deck with jacuzzi, premium bath products, and most importantly, bicycles! The property also has seafront bungalows with private plunge pools.

We ate lunch at the Choco beach restaurant before further exploring the property on our bikes. In addition to a full gym, there’s a yoga and meditation space you can reserve in advance. Las Islas also boasts one of Colombia’s best spas. The sunsets are not to be missed from Las Islas bar, located on the third floor of the Club House, with a 360-degree view.

SA Expeditions Destination Expert Julia Steck and treetop bungalow in Las Islas resort, Baru, Cartagena, Colombia
Taking in the Caribbean air. Check out our treetop bungalow! (Photo: Julia Steck)

Cuisine and activities along the coast

Breakfast is served al fresco right over the water, with some sea creatures swimming right up to the platform. Las Islas offers an impressive breakfast buffet, including many local specialties such as arepa with eggs and carimañola, a fried yucca dumpling. Both dishes are often served with suero, which is similar to sour cream or cream cheese and is quite popular in Colombia. All good fuel for an active day of outdoor activities!

Many SA travelers visit the Rosario Islands during their time in Cartagena. We opted for a day of snorkeling and exploring the archipelago of San Bernardo. Some other popular experiences include an Astrotour, bioluminescent plankton night tour, cooking class, and a tour through the mangroves. The water is quite warm in this region, so no wetsuit is required for snorkeling, though a top is helpful to prevent sunburn.

Arepa with egg and Destination Expert Julia Steck and friend snorkeling in Baru, Cartagena, Colombia
A tasty breakfast of arepa con huevo before heading out to snorkel! (Photo: Julia Steck)

Dreaming of the Cartagena Caribbean? Your Colombia Highlight Expedition calls you for a trip of a lifetime! You can even take your adventure from the Caribbean to the Pacific and add Panama or the Galapagos Islands to your journey. Get in touch with a Destination Expert to start customizing your dream vacation.

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