As a mother of three young daughters who were all bit with the wanderlust bug, I could hardly refuse a trip to Cartagena, Colombia to witness our close friends’ marriage vow renewals. I booked us a direct flight on Jet Blue from New York’s JFK into Cartagena, Colombia and paid under $400 a ticket.
At the recommendation of our guests of honor (she is a native Colombian), we spent the first two nights at the Holiday Inn Cartagena, Morros. My friend advised that this hotel was close to the airport, had a pool and private beach, and did not have has many beach peddlers who could annoy us on the beach. The hotel was beautiful and had a vast breakfast buffet each morning. My daughters loved trying the new tropical fruits and juices and everything tasted delicious. The in-room television had an English speaking kids channel. The pool was small- and there were only a few coveted seating areas in the shade. And contrary to what we thought, there were beach peddlers waiting for us the minute we stepped off the private hotel property into the sand. They were friendly and not too intrusive- but even though we refused their services, they were never too far away.
The hotel was about 15 minutes east of Cartagena’s Old Town and as we drove towards the walled city, we were able to capture this iconic shot (which included my kids as well as our friends).
I loved the contrast between the walled city and the progressive new city. Cartagena, founded in the 16th century, exudes mystery, romance and adventure with its cobblestone streets, colorful colonial buildings, intriguing history and local pride.
There were plenty of things to do with the kids in the walled city. We first visited the Choco Museo where we received an education in chocolate (in English) and were able to enjoy the fruits of our labor after participating in a private mini chocolate workshop. I was able to purchase several souvenirs (like Colombian hot cocoa mix) from their gift shop and they even had a tiny cafe.
We were there at a time where Colombia was in the World Cup finals, so while exploring the walled city, we also watched the game with several hundred locals at a two story restaurant that was known for its chicken and had large screens everywhere. (I forget the name)
Cartagena’s Old Town has many quaint streets filled with lively vendors, stores and restaurants. A photographer’s dream as everywhere you turn, there was a bit of whimsy or history mixed with vibrant colors.
Our next hotel, Hotel Balcones De Alheli, was centrally located within the walled city. It included a continental breakfast (fresh fruit, muffins and eggs) which they served on the rooftop, as well as a small rooftop pool. The hotel was old, but it had a lot of character and the staff was very friendly and attentive. The views from the rooftop were amazing. I believe we paid less than $75/night.
We took a day trip on a hired boat and went snorkeling on a private island, but also went to the aquarium, Oceanario. As we hopped off the boat, we were greeted by a seafood vendor with the fresh catch of the day.
We witnessed the infamous trained sharks and dolphins shows (in Spanish) and saw other sea creatures indigenous to the area. It was a small aquarium, but the kids enjoyed their time there. I would say we spent about 2 hours and saw everything. It was very sunny and there were little to no shady areas for my Casper-like children who started complaining about the sun and heat. The sea air and spray on the boat ride back soothed us all to sleep for a bit.
We spent the next day witnessing the memorable vow renewal at a beautiful old church and then took an evening horse and buggy ride within the walled city.
We then attended the reception at Cafe Del Mar, where we were surprised with a dance ceremony performed by beautiful Colombian women.
The next day we explored more of the walled city, shopping & sampling the local foods. A hit with all the kids were the frozen juice pops (“paletas”) and the refreshing coconut juice (“coco frio”) straight out of the coconut.
On our second to last day, we ventured out of the walled city to the Getsemani neighborhood to check out the infamous murals we had heard about. It took us a little time to find it- but with some walking around, we did locate the beautiful murals and some wonderful little shops as well. It was worth the exploration- though I wouldn’t recommend taking children there at night.
That night we dined at Cande Restaurant (in the walled city). We enjoyed fabulous fresh seafood and wonderful dance entertainment. Throughout the courses of our meal, several dancers came out in different costumes to perform various dances. Our favorite was the morbid death dance- but each and every one was a treat!
On our last day, we again ventured out of Old Town and over to the Hilton Cartagena and purchased pool passes for the gang. For $30 each, we had access to multiple large pools, water slides, a gaming room and bar/food service. The kids hopped from pool to pool, while the moms lazed on loungers. My girls appreciated the familiar American food choices (burgers, chicken tenders & fries) and it was nice to hear the English language spoken again. This was the only place where we were surrounded by American families. It is relatively inexpensive to stay here- though it is further west beyond the walled city and in a densely populated area. I preferred staying among locals for our immersive experience, but for those who do not speak Spanish, this seemed to be quite the destination.
We all loved the charm and treasures of Cartagena. We discovered new foods and expanded our knowledge of the Spanish language. This is definitely on our list of places to return!