Immersing yourself in an unfamiliar culture offers a sense of discovery, a fresh family experience and the opportunity to create unique memories. This is a big reason why so many families are choosing to travel to Cartagena, Colombia. Families soak up the colorful, exuberant street life along the cobblestones, admire colonial architecture and museum exhibits and indulge in delicious street fare. My 5-day travel throughout the country and time spent with locals provided great insight into the history of Cartagena, leaving a piece of the city in my heart and a deep love and respect for the people who make Colombia travel so truly special.
Cartagena’s Walled City in the heart of the old town carries the legacy of the Spanish Conquest, preserved throughout the museums, cultural centers and historic landmarks. For families with younger children, the pirate scavenger hunt offered through This Is Cartagena is a perfect choice. The hunt keeps little pirates searching for clues throughout all the major hot spots, such as Parque Bolivar, the Gold Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, La Presentacion heritage center, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and the Cooperacion Española.
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For families with tweens and teens, we absolutely loved and highly recommend the Bike Tour with Gerardo Nieto. Gerardo is a film producer, philanthropist and bike aficionado who gives a half-day or full-day private bike tours of Cartagena, allowing families to experience the city’s beauty, landmarks and secrets through the eyes of a local. The tour can be done in English, Spanish or Italian.
I had always assumed Cartagena would be dirty and parts too dangerous to navigate alone, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover the exact opposite. The colorful neighborhood of Getsemani is where Cartagena truly comes alive, as tourists and locals are one and the same. The street art-filled walls provide the backdrop for crowded sidewalks filled with friendly residents looking to chat, play a board game or sell you a homemade arepa or cup of freshly diced mango. At night, Latin music can be heard at every corner, and Colombians and visitors put on their finest duds and fill the streets to dine and drink while children run around the square and play with local peers.
Colombians mean serious business when it comes to family and dining, and dinner is not to be taken lightly or rushed. Restaurants are filled up to the wee hours of the morning (reservations are a must at the top spots) with sophisticated locals and tourists laughing over seafood and crisp wines and well-mannered children joining in the conversation. Our favorite meals were had at the restaurants Carmen, Maria and the famous Donjuan, which also offers cooking classes for the whole family and was the highlight of our trip.
Yes, you read that correctly … Cartagena is located on the Caribbean Sea. After two days of city tours, children’s feet need a break, and sailing through the Rosario Islands is the perfect way to relax and soak up the gorgeous sun. We chartered a mini yacht through This Is Cartagena and stopped at several islands throughout the day. Our favorite spots were the shores of Playa Azul, where you can rent a jet ski or hop on a banana boat for some fast thrills, and Blue Apple Beach House, which serves a decadent lunch by the pool and offers complimentary kayaks and paddleboards on the beach.
While the boat comes with a bilingual guide, we opted to hire our own guide, This Is Cartagena founder Rainbow Nelson, to keep the Colombian education alive while we worked on our tans.
Abacos Libros y Cafe: Housed in an old building, this coffee shop is covered wall to wall with Spanish and English books.
Cafe del Mar: A happy-hour landmark located on the city walls with uninterrupted views of the Caribbean Sea, it draws international crowds in droves. Arrive at 5:30, order a mojito for the adults (plus a virgin one for the kids) and watch the sun go down.
Cafe Havana: If you have access to a sitter, do not miss the opportunity to experience this gem. Live music, salsa dancing and decor that reflects Castro’s Cuba will keep you energized and up way past your bedtime at this famous democratic night spot.
Casa San Agustin: Centrally located, these three historic colonial residences were combined a few years back to create 30 luxurious rooms that balance modern-chic Latin style with the warmth and elegance of a private home. Splurge for a room with a private plunge pool.
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