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Cartagena, or Cartagena de Indias, as it is formally known, is Colombia's largest port on the Caribbean. It's a frenetic, bustling city of the old, the new, and everything in between. With a multiracial population of just over 1 million people, Cartagena--located in Colombia's Bolivar Department--is the fifth largest urban area in Colombia and a center of industry and commerce in the Caribbean basin.
Rich in jewels and history, this Columbian city is characterized by its fortress walls, twisted streets, colonial buildings and balconied houses. It was also the film sight for the movie "Romancing the Stone," which starred Michael Douglas, Kathleen Tuner and Danny DeVito.
You're in for a big treat if you've booked a Caribbean or Panama Canal cruise with Cartagena on the itinerary, as this lovely old town and resort on Colombia's Caribbean coast is quite deservedly the country's most popular cruise destination for Panama Canal transit.
There, you'll find everything a cruise passenger's heart could desire: a fascinating -- and often dark and bloody -- history embedded in ancient forts, churches and palaces; a walled town filled with exquisite 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial architecture; soft beaches; world-class snorkeling and scuba diving reefs; delightful restaurants; and enough shops to capture your interest without the place feeling like one gigantic mall. Your only regret, as your cruise ship steams away at the end of the day, will be that you didn't have longer to explore. Cartagena has become an increasingly popular cruise destination for ships on Panama Canal and Southern Caribbean cruises. In 2015, Cartagena is slated to host 195,000 passengers sailing on 107 ships season lasts from late September to mid-May.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ship dock at the Sociedad Portuaria, located three miles (about five kilometres) from the city centre. The Port of Cartagena de Indias is located about 4 km from the old city. It offers: 6 docking sites in an industrial environment. The area around the port is not "inviting. Taxis are not allowed inside the port,, but have to remain at the main gate. where you can either walk five minutes or (for those with mobility issues) take a free shuttle to the visitors' area. Strict rules by the taxi union prohibit the operation of shuttle buses to the city (a shuttle is provided from the gangway to the port exit). Be aware that taxi drivers tend to be very aggressive. They accept U.S. dollars, but be sure to agree on the fare before leaving the port. dock in the port of Cartagena, . 

There is a free shuttle bus from the ship's pier to the cruise terminal where you can get taxis to the Old City. You can easily walk to all of the different sites in the Old City. From one end to the other is about 30 minutes but half the fun is all of the sites and people along the way.
Inside the port the taxis are posted to cost $20 one way for 4 people. The normal fare outside is about $10 for a trip to Old Town. (10 minutes ride).
Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Considered by many as one of the world's most beautiful, fascinating and magical cities, Cartagena was founded by Spanish conquerors as a main port to bring Europeans and their goods into South America, and transport gold, silver and all sorts of plants, animals, minerals and handicrafts from all over the continent across the Caribbean and on to the Old World.
Cartagena’s old city is its principal attraction, particularly the inner walled town consisting of the historical districts of El Centro and San Diego. It is a real gem of colonial architecture, packed with churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces and mansions with their overhanging balconies and shady patios.
Today the city hosts intellectuals and plenty of beautiful restored homes among exotic, highly attractive and dynamic plazas, waterfronts and other public spaces. One of the most hospitable venues for any tourist looking for a good rest, Caribbean and Colombian magical realism and tropical ambiance or natural wonders. The city hosts many conventions but the two of major interest to Europeans and americans are without doubt the classical Music Festival held in the first two weeks of January and the South american version of the (UK) Hay Literary Festival towards the end of january. Both are particularly imaginative with world class performers, writers and critics.
Getting Around
By Taxi: This is really the only means of transportation for cruise passengers who haven't booked shore tours. From the visitors' area, make your way to the gates, where taxi drivers in blue shirts with "TAXI" imprinted all over them wait to take you where you want to go. On our visit, a driver took four of us on a four-hour tour of Cartagena's highlights for $20 per person.
Cabs aren't metered, but there will be tourism officers near the taxi area to help you negotiate a fair price ahead of time. If your driver is taking you somewhere and bringing you back, you won't have to pay until the conclusion of your return trip to ensure that you won't be ripped off. You can choose to have a driver drop you off and pay a one-way fare, but be aware that it can be difficult to find transportation back to the port. Also be aware of enterprising locals who offer rides to tourists on the backs of their motorbikes. It's unsafe, and it's unregulated.
Cartagena is beautiful and clean, and most locals are friendly, but take usual caution. Avoid wearing expensive jewelry or flashing large amounts of cash. If you have a sensitive stomach, avoid any fruits or vegetables without peels, and stay away from fountain drinks or drinks with ice in them. (Sin hielo, por favor means "no ice, please.")
Crime levels in the major tourist areas of Centro Historico, Bocagrande, and Castilogrande are considered comparably lower but are continually areas of much petty theft and other similar crimes. Avoid public transportation.
A Caution For Walking
Walking in the Old City is safe and fun. However, please do not attempt to walk from the port area to the Old City – the cruise ships dock is in the industrial port area of the city and the surrounding neighborhood is not suitable, or safe, to walk through.
Taxis have uniform rates in Cartagena, which should be posted inside the cab. Even so, it is wise to agree on the price before getting into the cab. If you get the same rate from 3 different drivers, then it is probably a fair rate. Some taxis accept Colombian pesos only, so be sure to check before getting in the cab.  Official taxi drivers are easy to spot; they'll be wearing crisp, pale blue shirts with "TAXI" stamped all over them.
Water taxis in Cartagena are generally speedboats, and are available at the port area. You can go to one of the Rosario Islands, which have excellent beaches. Be aware that the boats go extremely fast, and large waves make for a bumpy ride.
Things To See and Do
Enter the city through the historic Torre del Reloj, one of Cartagena's most recognized architectural sites. From there, you'll find yourself in the Plaza de los Coches, where you can buy traditional Colombian and Cartagenian candy and sweets at the Portal de Los Dulces. Next head down Calle de la Amargura, past La Plaza de La Aduana (stop here if you're looking for tourist information), to La Plaza de San Pedro, where you can visit the Iglesia/Claustro/Museo San Pedro Claver, constructed in 1580, as well as the Museo de Arte Moderno, a decent modern-art museum right off the square. Walk down Calle San Juan de Dios to the Cartagena Naval Museum, where you can take in antique naval instruments and objects. Walk past La Plaza de Santa Teresa, up Calle de A. Ricaurte (which becomes Calle Santa Teresa) to Plaza de Bolívar, where you can visit the free Museo del Oro as well as the Palacio de La Inquisición and La Biblioteca Bartolomé Calvo, once Cartagena's most important libraries. Be sure not to miss Cartagena's much photographed Catedral, built in 1586, destroyed by English pirate Francis Drake, and recently remodeled and opened to the public. Now walk up Calle Nuestra Señora del Carmen before arriving at the Plaza de Santo Domingo, one of Cartagena's most popular and vibrant plazas. Be sure to visit the Iglesia/Claustro Santo Domingo, a lovely 450-year-old church. Take a break at Plaza Santo Domingo for a light lunch or snack at one of the plaza's many outdoor cafes, where you can enjoy the colonial atmosphere.
With your energy restored, head north on Calle de la Iglesia (which becomes Calle de Don Sancocho), past El Teatro de Heredia and La Plaza del Merced, and turn right on Calle de la Merced (which becomes Calle Del Estanco del Aguardiente and Calle del Sargento Mayor). Next turn left on Calle Chochera del Hobo, where you'll find La Plaza de San Diego, with its many stores, restaurants, and the famous Hotel Santa Clara. A short walk up the Calle de las Bóvedas will take you to Las Bóvedas, a former jail, used during the independence period, that has been converted into 23 souvenir shops.
Plaza de Bolivar: If this is your first visit and time is at a premium, it's the heart of the Old Town -- the prettiest part of old colonial Cartagena -- that you'll want to see. Go through the second gate and head left toward Plaza de Bolivar. You'll hear the tinkling fountains in this lovely little park before you get there, and you'll know you're in the right place when a gigantic bronze statue of South America's liberator, Simon de Bolivar, rises above the treetops.
Centro Amurallado - Old Town
This is the heart of Cartagena, the old walled city protected by the fortress intended to protect the city from pirates and storms. Within the walls, there are colonial buildings, plazas, churches and convents. Accommodations and restaurants within this area, called El Centro, highlight their colonial origins. Also within the walled area, the section of Getsemani is less expensive, but worth a daytime stroll.
Getsemani: Between Old Town's first main gate and its second, you'll find yourself in an outer area called Getsemani, which circles the Old Town and is home to lively, low-cost cafes, shops and bars.
Museo del Oro y Arqueologia: At one corner of the square is the Museo del Oro y Arqueologia or gold museum (free admission) and a jewelry store heavily promoted by sellers who rove outside trying to usher in customers. If shopping's your thing, this is a good place to bargain for rubies, emeralds and gold. Also worth seeing is Cartagena's 16th-century cathedral, which lies nearby and was once bombarded by Sir Francis Drake.
El Centro and San Diego: A simple stroll through the narrow streets of the two Old Town districts of El Centro and San Diego is a pleasure in itself. Cartagena is full of colonial churches, monasteries and palaces, and even its ordinary houses are a delight, with wrought iron balconies crammed with pots of vivid geraniums and cascading with rich red and purple bougainvillea.
Las Murallas: If it's not too hot, a stroll around Las Murallas, Old Town's dense walls, will reveal striking sea views. If you prefer some shade, enjoy the tranquil dappled courtyard of the 17th-century Convento de San Pedro Claver, which lies in the street of the same name. Its small museum charges a nominal fee to enter. Next door, the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver has a fine Italian marble altar.
The Old Walled City (La Ciudad Amurallada) was built in the 17th century. It features Colonial Spanish architectural and plenty of destinations like museums, cathedrals and the shops and boutiques in what was once the dungeons of the fortress. The entrance to the city is through the Clock Tower Building (Puerta del Reloj). This is the best (and safest) place to go exploring in Cartagena.
Palacio de la Inquisicion: If history, atmosphere and the darker side of human nature are of interest to you, head to Cartagena's most remarkable attraction, the Palacio de la Inquisicion (Plaza de Bolivar, free admission). This wonderfully spooky museum will certainly cast a chill over the sunniest Caribbean afternoon. Just inside the door lurks a figure swathed in black, topped off with a pointed executioner's hood. The main exhibition room contains pillories, a rack and a variety of rusting torture implements so bizarre that their use almost defies the imagination. Outside, a sunny, tree-lined courtyard contains a gallows and a chopping block, and other small exhibits show the type of paraphernalia involved in witchcraft. If you see one thing during your stay in Cartagena, make sure this is it, but be sure to allow yourself about an hour to go through it all.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas: The entire Old Town is one giant fortress with still more fortifications outside its gates. The most notable exterior fortress is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, which was first called for in 1533. Construction started in 1639, and it took 150 years to complete. When it was finished, the fortress proved completely impregnable, to the chagrin of various marauding hordes. You'll have fun roving the battlements and exploring the warren of underground tunnels, which were designed to amplify the faintest footfall so that enemies could not creep through. Tip: This is not the place to wear steel-tipped stilettos. Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas stands proudly overlooking the city and harbor. Dating back to the mid 1500’s, this walled fortress once withstood a massive three-month siege of the city by the English in 1741. The Spaniards held firm in their fortress, despite being heavily outnumbered. The castle is less than 2 miles north of the port, which will be about 10 minutes by taxi.
The Palace of the Inquisition (Palacio de la Inquisicion) may seem a bit macabre, but the instruments of torture and items from the Spanish Inquisition offer a fascinating glimpse into that dark era. The musuem is located within the Old Walled City in the Plaza Bolivar, which also features a cathedral and the Museo del Oro Zenu.
To the south of the walled Old Town is an L-shaped peninsula broken into three districts -- Castillo Grande, El Laguito and Bocagrande -- that make up the "seaside resort" of Cartagena. Filled with high-quality hotels, bars, shops and restaurants, this area is a magnet for vacationing Colombians and international tourists. Scuba enthusiasts can get equipment and tours at a number of dive shops in Bocagrande; book in advance to be sure you'll have plenty of time to explore the underwater attractions. If you don't mind looking like a tourist, take a horse-drawn carriage ride. They run along the waterfront from Bocagrande to Old Town.
a national park popular with tourists, is famous for its coral reefs, crystalline waters, and beautiful beaches. The islands are about 45km (28 miles) from the city and can only be reached by boat. You can arrange a trip to Las Islas del Rosario through your cruiseor by heading to the Muelle Turístico, where you can buy tickets directly. Boat trips generally cost between COL$35,000 and COL$60,000, though you will also have to pay a national park tax of COL$9,400. Your boat will most likely take you to the Acuario San Martín on the Isla San Martín de Pajarales, where you can enjoy a dolphin show and observe other marine animals. Another choice on Isla San Martín de Pajarales is to go snorkeling. The island has excellent coral reefs, and if you've already seen your share of aquariums and dolphin shows, go for the snorkeling.
After visiting the aquarium, most boats will head to Isla de Barú, where you'll have a typical Cartagena-Caribbean lunch, complete with coconut rice, fried plantains, and a whole fish (eyes and all). Your tour will give you about 3 hours on Barú, where you can go swimming, sunbathe, or explore the island. Beware that beach vendors here are persistent, and the best way to be left alone is to get in the water as fast as possible.
If you don't have time to head to Las Islas del Rosario, visit Cartagena's main beaches -- Bocagrande, El Laguito, and Castillo Grande, in the south, and, in the north, La Boquilla and Marbella. They aren't particularly breath-taking, but if you're just looking for a swim and a little sun and sand, they'll do.

Most Convenient Beach: Closest to port, you'll find La Boquilla, which lies about 5 miles north of Cartagena and is easily reached by taxi. A 10-minute cab ride beyond Boquilla is Manzanillo Beach. Both are well maintained each night by large tractors pulling sand rakes.
Prettiest Beach: Playa Blanca,definitely is the best beach close to Cartagena - you can reach it overland or by boat.With its white sand & crystal water Playa Blanca is probably one of the best “playas” in Colombia! It is definitly worth to stay there for some days. There are several places where you can rent hammocks, get food & drinks." White-sanded Playa Blanca lies about 14 miles south of Old Town and is generally reachable by bus or boat. Tickets for both are sold in Cartagena's main market, Mercado Bazurto, but departures are early (around 9:30 a.m.), so it's impractical for cruisers to get there unless it's by taxi or on a ship's tour.
Best Snorkeling Beach: There are also fine beaches and good snorkeling in the Rosario Islands, 27 of which lie in a chain about 19 miles south of Cartagena. Most cruise ships will run beach tours there; cruisers can also find local water taxis or organized private tours to take them to the islands. It's worth considering if you want a scenic boat ride and a hassle-free day.
Best for First-Timers: The four-hour "Best of Cartagena" tour will show you the main sites -- including the Fort of San Filipe de Barajas, the Naval Museum, the Church of San Pedro Claver and the Inquisition Palace -- while also allowing time to shop for local handicrafts and international goodies at the Pierino Gallo mall.
Best for Party-Lovers: The three-hour "Chiva Bus Party Tour" will provide complimentary drinks and transportation through various sites including Manga, Pie de la Popa, Centro, Boca Grande, Laguito, Castillo Grande and Santa Catalina's Bastion.
Best for Families: For those traveling with kids, check out "Cartagena City, La Popa Hill and Folkloric Show" for four hours of sightseeing at the La Popa Monastery and Fort of San Felipe, followed by a folkloric performance at Cafe del Mar.
Best for History Buffs: Spend four hours reliving the history of raids on the Spanish Main on the "Cartagena by Land and Sea" tour. A local guide will regale you with tales of land and sea battles involving Spanish locals and various well-known pirates.
Eating Out
All things are possible in Cartagena, from expensive dining at a five-star restaurant to a tasty, freshly cooked snack from an Old Town street vendor. On our day there, the bold Australian with whom we'd shared a taxi spent $2 on a plateful of butifarras -- small barbecue-flavored meatballs. The equally adventurous will find that the street vendors of old Cartagena offer many other local delicacies, including bunuelos (cheese balls) and arepas de huevo (fried dough balls with eggs inside).
The water is drinkable right from the tap in most of the major cities, but be prepared to buy some bottles if you go to the countryside. Agua Manantial Bottled water is recommended, it comes from a natural spring near Bogotá. An advice make sure you do not use ice cubes, or drink any beverage that might contain non distilled water, ask if the beverage is made with tap or bottled/boiled water.For a sit-down lunch, Old Town offers many outstanding restaurants (open from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.) serving everything from Spanish and Italian to French and Creole specialties at reasonable prices. Your best bet is simply to stroll around, eye a few menus, and see what looks good.
Seafood's the name of the game in Cartagena. In general, food is steeply overpriced in the inner walled city, but you'll find some of Colombia's most atmospheric and romantic restaurants here. In Getsemaní, you'll find many uncharming eateries offering cheap almuerzo corriente, while the modern city offers midrange and chain-restaurant options. During high season, it's smart to book ahead at Cartagena's more exclusive establishments, particularly at dinner time; during low season you may be the only diner present. Keep in mind that Cartagena restaurants are more expensive than anywhere else in Colombia, and choosing to dine in restaurants in one of the Cartagena's many plazas will likely cost you.
In addition to the places listed, La Vitrola, Calle Baloco no. 33-201 (tel. 5/660-0711), is one of Cartagena's most traditional restaurants, with nightly live Cuban music. El Santísimo, Calle del Santísimo no. 8-19 (tel. 5/660-1531), specializing in fusion cuisine, is well known for its religious decorations. San Pedro, Centro Plaza de San Pedro Claver (tel. 5/664-5121), also offers fusion cuisine, featuring sushi, Asian, and international dishes -- be sure to make reservations here in high season.
Fogon Costeno: Enjoy a selection of tapas (a perfectly substantial lunch in the midday heat), washed down with well-chilled local beer, at a table overlooking the lively street. The decor is quite appealing with warm ochre-painted walls, fresh white tablecloths and a vast array of local art displayed on the walls. (Calle de la Iglesia 35-38)
Restaurant Vesuvio: Located near Plaza de Santo Domingo, this restaurant specializes in Neapolitan cuisine. (Calle de la Factoria 36-11)
Parrilla Argentina Quebracho: The focus there is on Argentine specialties. Try the roast suckling pig if you dare, or play it safe with a nice steak. (Calle de Baloco 2-69)
Carmen: For a bit of splurge, check out Carmen, which specializes in upscale cuisine that features lots of fish and seafood. It's got a ridiculously trendy atmosphere, offering both indoor and outdoor dining areas. (Calle de Cuartel 36-77; open for lunch from noon to 3 p.m. daily)
El Boliche Cebicheria: If you're craving ceviche, this is the place to be. Served in a fashionable atmosphere on a side street in the colonial San Diego neighborhood, the food's gorgeous preparation is as astounding as its taste. (Calle Cochera del Hobo 38-17)
Plenty of choices in Bocagrande, in the center of town, El Centro, and Getsemani for tabernas, discos and bars. Use caution in Getsamani, but all the nightlife is lively, with Caribbean and Colombian music. Take a nap before you go nightclubbing.
Shopping in Cartagena is a happy mix of inexpensive souvenirs and high-end luxury items. There are numerous small shops scattered everywhere – in alleys and along the main streets. Prices are lower here than in the various malls. These shops offer a nice selection of art, local crafts, and leather goods, such as purses, handbags, wallets and belts. Below are some of the best shopping options in Cartagena:
If you are looking for handicrafts, head to Las Bóvedas -- former jail cells turned souvenir shops. In the historic center are also plenty of high-end boutique shops selling Colombian designer clothing, leather goods, and emeralds. For discount shopping, head to Getsemaní, where you can buy cheap clothing, shoes, and just about anything else you can imagine; just don't count on top-notch quality. For a shopping mall, your best bet is El Pueblito, Carrera 2 no. 4, in Bocagrande, La Matuna, Carrera 8 no. 40, in El Centro, or Pierino Gallo, Calle 1L no. 1-12A, in El Laguito.
The Colombian textile industry is well-recognized and reputable around South America and Europe. Clothing and lingerie are particularly regarded as high quality and very affordable. Cartagena has a wide range of shops selling crafts and souvenirs, and the quality of the goods is usually high. Most stores are open 7 days a week. The Bocagrande and El Laguito districts have good shops, and the city's largest shopping mall is the Centro Comercial Pierino Gallo. Las Bovedas is an old prison that is now an indoor market selling works of art and souvenirs.
Centro Comercial Pierino Gallo is the main shopping complex in Cartagena. It is located about 5 miles by taxi, from the port area.
Near Pierino Gallo, you will also find good shopping in Bocagrande and El Laguito.
Las Bovedas is an excellent choice if you're in the Centro or San Diego neighborhood. This market was once a dungeon, and offers a variety of shops that have local arts, crafts, souvenirs and more.
Tip: It seems everyone in Cartagena's Old Town wants to sell you emeralds; if you decide to purchase Colombia's favorite stone, do so because you love the look of emeralds, not because you think you're getting a good deal. Unless you're an expert, it's hard to know the quality of your purchase.
If you're feeling really lazy (or can't take the heat), a short, free shuttle bus ride will take you to a lushly landscaped park area at the dock gates, where there is an indoor/outdoor cafe, shops, picnic tables and sea views. Here you can pick up pungent Colombian coffee for $20 a kilo (one kilo = 2.2 lbs.) or hunt for deals on exquisitely embroidered tablecloths, locally crafted wood carvings and chunky glass jewelry.

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