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“I’m sorry, you’re taking your kids where for spring break?” I heard many versions of this question when discussing an upcoming trip with my boys to Colombia for spring break. Let’s just say, the destination’s appeal was not immediately obvious to everyone whose knowledge of the country was either very limited or decades out of date. This South American nation of nearly 50 million has undergone sweeping transformation in recent years and is a great family destination.
To see for yourself, we urge you to set your sights on the crown jewel of Colombia’s Caribbean coast: Cartagena (also known as Cartagena de Indias, population 1 million). The city boasts miles of beaches and a beautifully preserved colonial walled city where the vibrant colors almost defy description.
This budget-friendly destination is closer than you may think. From our hub in Washington, D.C., for example, it is just a short jaunt (4 hours) to Panama City, Panama, where you can catch a 45-minute flight to Cartagena (international travelers can also connect in Bogota). For perspective, it was faster and cheaper for us to fly to Colombia than it had been to travel from Washington, D.C. to Seattle the previous year.
Part of Cartagena’s appeal for us was that its distinct areas offered very different experiences. We chose to stay in three separate parts of the city, to get a taste of it all.
Whether you copy our itinerary or make your own, we hope you love it. We sure did!
Day 1: We arrived at Rafael Núñez International Airport (CTG) via Copa Airlines and took a 4-minute taxi ride (seriously!) to Hotel Las Americas on La Boquilla beach in northern Cartagena. This hotel complex has two distinct areas, the low-rise “Casa de Playa” (“beach house”) section, and the “Torre del Mar” high-rise tower. Guests have access to all pools, restaurants, and activities in both areas, but we were happy to have opted for the “Casa de Playa” section and its more authentic Colombian feel (not to mention balcony with a comfy hammock).
What we loved: Almost all the guests during the busy Semana Santa (Holy Week) at this hotel were Colombian. The hotel restaurants therefore served great, authentic Colombian food, and the kids had endless opportunities to practice their Spanish. The beach area in front of the hotel is uncrowded and, while there are some roaming vendors, they can generally be turned away with a simple “no, gracias”. The pool areas were a hit, as were the resident parrot (Lorenzo), owls, and iguanas. The boys ultimately rated this their favorite of the three places we stayed.
Day 2: Relaxation. Settle in for pool games, walks on the beach, great meals, and chilling in a hammock. If you’re feeling slightly more adventurous, head directly across the street for a boat or fishing tour in the Cueva del Manglar (mangrove cave).
Day 3: We moved to a beautiful Airbnb in the historic walled city, with a private rooftop mini-pool. Cartagena can get very warm (how warm is it? Thomas remembers with some horror that his gum actually melted in his mouth), and visitors really feel the heat here away from the sea breezes. That being said, this area is not to be missed. Our strategy was to explore primarily in the early morning and evening hours.
Is it safe? I was initially doubtful when our Airbnb host said it was safe to walk around the walled city 24 hours a day. Apparently, city authorities take tourist safety very seriously, and there are security cameras and patrol officers on nearly every street corner in the historic district, which has translated into very little crime. Sure enough, we walked around at all hours of the day and night and never once felt even the slightest bit unsafe.
What’s more, when the boys (ages 10 and 12 at the time) asked to go by themselves from our apartment to the Exito convenience store a few doors down, I let them (although I will admit to pacing around the apartment the entire time they were gone, questioning my decision to let them exercise a little independence). They returned after a short time with snacks in hand and pride in having gone by themselves, spoken in Spanish to the cashier, handled payment in an unfamiliar foreign currency, and discovered chicken-flavored potato chips.
Day 4: Castillo San Felipe de Barajas & Volcan del Totumo
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Just outside the historic walled city (a short taxi ride away) sits this 16th century fortress perched on the Hill of San Lazaro. This is a great spot for kids to run, explore, and contemplate the stunning views of the city. I figured this would be the highlight of the day but, while popular, it was eclipsed by our next activity.
Volcan del Totumo
Insane. Awesome. Weird. Cool. Those were just a few of the words the boys used to describe our dip in the Volcan del Totumo (the mud volcano)–a popular day trip, just one hour north of the city. Basically you climb wooden stairs to the top of a large mound, then lower yourself down a ladder into a pit of mud believed to have curative powers. No one knows for sure how deep the mud is, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s impossible to sink—trust me, we tried! Locals provide three mandatory separate services at a cost of 3,000 pesos (equivalent to US$1) each that you will receive whether you want them or not. In the mud pit you will be somewhat roughly “massaged” on the back, arms, and legs (service #1). There will also be someone there to hold your phone and take pictures for you (service #2). After you have had your fill of the mud bath, you will walk down the stairs to a lagoon where you will be vigorously rinsed off by local women armed with buckets (service #3). Afterwards, most tours will have time for you to take an outdoor shower, change, and buy a drink or snack before heading back to the city.
The mud feels fantastic and, honestly, my skin has never been softer (although there was a lingering sulphur scent).
What we loved:The whole experience! The boys said this was their absolute favorite activity on this trip.
Day 5: Bocagrande
On day 5, we moved to Cartagena’s most popular beach area—Bocagrande—at the southern tip of the city. You’ll find mostly high-rise hotels here, very full beaches, and extremely aggressive beach vendors. We chose the Hilton Cartagena for its nice pool area and beautiful views but ultimately were unimpressed with the hotel’s limited food offerings, lack of ATM, and generic feel (although some may consider this a plus). The pushy vendors also made it impossible to enjoy the beach. Fortunately, the hotel is walking distance to many shops and restaurants. Head there to dine on regional dishes like posta negra and hop on a Chiva bus.
What we loved: Coconut lemonade
Day 6: Islas del Rosario and Playa Blanca
In the early morning hours we made our way to the bustling city dock to join a boat tour to the Islas del Rosario (Rosario Islands) and Playa Blanca (White Beach)—two areas where you will find stunning blue water. A choppy one-hour speed boat ride will get you out to the islands, where you can enjoy some snorkeling. Tours then drop guests at busy Playa Blanca for a beachside barbecue and the chance to play in the surf.
What we loved: The beautiful blue waters and beachside barbecue. In typical kid fashion, the highlight for the boys was befriending a stray dog on the beach.
Day 7: Downtime at the pool and return home
We left Colombia with great memories and a desire to return to visit Bogota, Medellin, the coffee terraces, Tayrona Natural National Park, and the Santa Marta islands.
Have you been to Cartagena? What is your favorite thing to do there? Do you have any questions? Let us know in the comments!
Getting money: The best exchange rates can be had by using your U.S. ATM card to withdraw pesos (be sure to notify your bank in advance that you will be traveling to Colombia, or you might find yourself denied access). We recommend using an ATM in a branch bank. ATMs generally dispense fairly large bills and, with your ATM receipt, you can go in the branch to exchange those for smaller bills (no receipt, no service though).
Getting around:Taxi rides in Cartagena are very inexpensive (around $3-$4) but be prepared with exact change or small bills. Drivers generally cannot or will not make change. Taxis are so cheap that there doesn’t seem to be any market for services like Uber, which does not operate there.
What to eat: Everything! In particular, try arepa con huevo, posta negra, limonada de coco, fruit in every form, and the ice cream. Dinner reservations are recommended, particularly in the old city.
Travel requirements:At the time of our trip no tourist visa was required for U.S. citizens. Check the U.S. State Department’s site for current visa information.