Islas del Rosario, Cartagena

When you are in Cartagena, Colombia, it is not enough to walk the old colonial walls and visit the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (also known as Cartagena Castle). You are beside the Caribbean! Coral sands and aquamarine waters are no longer as far away as a movie screen. You are literally right beside some of the best swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing beaches in the world.

Better yet, if you are in Cartagena, the Islas del Rosario (the Rosario Islands, or the Rosary Islands) are in the municipality, and only one boat ride away.

The Islas del Rosario: A National Park

There are 27 islands all in all in the Islas del Rosario. Because of the great quantities of undersea and aboveground wildlife on the islands, they were protected by Colombia, as a national park, in 1977. It makes a gorgeous pair with the UNESCO World Heritage site that Cartagena, Colombia is.

Islas del Rosario 2

How to Enjoy the Islas del Rosario

First of all, do not take any of the tours being offered. Those who do not know the great beauty of the Islas del Rosario often pop it into their Cartagena itinerary. It gets mixed up with all the tours of the walls and fortifications and shopping centers they need to do in Cartagena itself. Instead, consider the Islas del Rosario a completely different tour from the Cartagena city tour.

First of all, find out how you can arrange your own transportation from Cartagena to the Islas del Rosario. It is simple enough: all boats going to the Islas del Rosario leave from El Muelle, near the Convention Center in Cartagena. For sure the locals will be able to tell you how to get there. Bargain with one of the sailboat captains to take you across to the Islas.

You will not be cramped on either a tourist boat or a speed boat, so you can fully enjoy the slow hour-long trip to the islands. Even better, since the sailboat is all for your use, you can ask the sailboat captains to stop near the island instead of docking. Then you can swim to the island from the boat, or simply enjoy swimming in the deeper water around the sailboat.

To fully enjoy the Caribbean waters, decide early if you want to go scuba diving and snorkeling. As all coral sands beaches are, the Islas del Rosario are ideal for snorkeling even close to the shore. You will be able to see starfish, anemones, even bright-colored clownfish. If you are in a sailboat, it will be easier to go scuba diving in the deeper waters, so you will be able to fully enjoy all the Caribbean has to offer.

Islas del Rosario

The Islas del Rosario: Another World

No matter how many tourists you may bump shoulders with going to the islands, the Caribbean will dwarf the crowds. In fact, that is one of its biggest attractions: the moment you are face down with your snorkel on in the water, following the fish across the white sands, it feels as if you are completely alone. The Islas del Rosario are another world altogether.

Cartagena Shopping

Cartagena, Colombia is known for its thick fortified walls against historic pirate attacks. It is known for the jewel-colored Spanish-style houses with balconies jutting over the first floors. It is known for a great fusion of food, and tasty Peruvian-inspired ceviche. It is known for a night life of cocktail bars and good old fashioned Caribbean beach parties.

However, Cartagena, Colombia is also known as one of the best shopping destinations–especially for emeralds. Let’s take a look at all the shopping options Cartagena has to offer.

Shopping Destinations in Cartagena

Casa Chiqui

Chiqui de Echavarria, a native of Colombia, turned a restored warehouse into Casa Chiqui in the 1930s. Casa Chiqui is a unique house decorated with furniture and accessories from Chiqui’s travels all over the lower half of the world. She has pieces from Bali Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and of course her native Colombia and adopted Cartagena.

Because it is decorated as a house, Casa Chiqui is also the site of many events and weddings. However, everything inside is definitely for sale. As soon as one piece is sold, another piece from perhaps another culture takes its place. It is a display of fusion interior decoration that makes a perfect place to find furnishings.

Lucy Jewelry

Like Casa Chiqui, Lucy Jewelry is named after its founder. Lucy Sanchez has become city-renowned and now world renowned for her emeralds, and the reason is very simple. Besides excellent emerald qualities and settings, Lucy does not pay any tour guides to put her store on their tour stops.

Instead, she focuses on taking care of the store, and her emeralds are up to 15% less than those in the other stores. As a result, the fame of her store has grown organically, and it is now an automatic stop for most visitors to Cartagena. Lucy specializes in finding true emeraldsd that are perfectly set.

Abaco Libros y Cafe

Cartagena shopping would not be complete without a bookstore on the list. Merge rest and reading by dropping by the Abaco Libros y Cafe, where you can browse the bookshelves and break for coffee on your own time. There are regular visitors who can provide conversation any time about the books on the shelves.

Although it looks like a library, Abaco Libros y Cafe is a bookstore. Don’t miss this chance to add to your collections by browsing through the books. Small towns like Cartagena often hold the best book gems, unexpected findings and old friends alike.

Abaco Libros y Cafe

Cartagena Shopping: A Mustn’t Miss

Unfortunately, because of the rise of tourists, it is slightly hard to find Cartagena shopping centers that offer an authentic experience. Las Bovedas artisan center is one of those, a former prison and dungeon now turned history-themed shopping center. Entertainment, however, is best found in hotel arcades; you can perhaps find a friendly game of foosball tables  or air hockey with your fellow guests.

Cartagena Castle

Because of Cartagena’s history as a target for pirate attacks, the walls around the entire city are heavy and an inescapable part of the environment and culture. However, although the colonial walls are historical sites that you can walk along and observe, there are even more fortifications that tell you about the history of Cartagena. One of these is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, also known as the Cartagena Castle.

The Wealth of the Caribbean

The Spanish colonies in Central and South America were sources of great wealth to the Spanish empire. They had both mines and plantations stretching across the New World, and the great Spanish galleons brought cacao beans, chili peppers, gold, silver, tobacco, and more across to continental Europe. To be able to do this efficiently, they needed a seaport. Cartagena in Colombia was that seaport.

As a result, both pirates (non-affiliated crews) and privateers (crews of specific countries allowed by the monarchy to attack and raid ships and properties of rival nations) set their sights on Cartagena. The French and the English were the most active over the years. In response, Spain built the largest fort it has in any of its colonies. Named for King Philip IV, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is a remarkable castle on its own.

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Whoever has the higher ground in a fight has the distinct advantage. A small group of soldiers on a mountain can hold out against an army on the plains. Simply, it’s easier to pick off the enemy when you’re looking down at them. It’s so much harder to do so when you have to look up.

Cartagena Castle

With this principle in mind, the Spanish built the castle on the 130 foot-high San Lazaro hill. It overlooks the town, and more importantly it stands between the town and the sea. The crown of the hill was the first to be covered by the fortress. Eventually, over a hundred years of adding fortifications, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas became a 7-mile wall of several layers and levels. Any army which took over one level or section would still find itself isolated.

The original architect of the castle, Antonio de Arevalo, deliberately designed the fortress for the best defense possible. Even though the fortress is large, there is a complicated network of tunnels sunk into the thick walls and throughout the entire fortress. Each tunnel is so designed that the sound of any approaching enemy would immediately be heard as the footsteps reverberated.

These echoes and reverberations also made it much easier for a small company of soldiers to defend the single fort and city. Instead of using soldiers as runners and wasting valuable time in coordinating information, the tunnels were used as speakers. Any soldier from one checkpoint could call updates down the tunnel, and the message would be passed as fast as the speed of sound, literally.

Cartagena Castle: Not To Be Underestimated

Because of these fortifications, a 3,000 strong Spanish contingent held off 23,000 English troops attempting to take over Cartagena. The design of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas was ideal for Spanish soldiers to hold the city against any number of attackers, whether by sea or land. Until today, it stands as an amazing example of design and strategy.


The Cartagena Colonial Walls

Walls? Walls? How can walls be a tourist spot? In Cartagena, Colombia, which traces its name through Spain to the original Carthage in Rome, the old colonial walls themselves are part of the tourist sites. It shares this with the walled city of Intramuros in Manila, where the colonizing Spaniards lived.

Cartagena Colonial Wall

Struggling with Pirate Attacks

Although tiny by any standards, Cartagena, Colombia was a target of real-life pirates of the Caribbean. France was the first to attack, through pirate Robert Baal in 1544. He was followed by countryman Martin Cote in 1559, and then by Englishman John Hawkins (not Hopkins) in 1568. The Spanish in Cartagena tested out their new cannons on him.

In 1572, renowned British privateer (state-paid pirate) Sir Francis Drake managed to land on Cartagena, destroying Spanish property. This was in the days leading up to one of the Anglo-Spanish wars. The next to attack was Frenchman Baron de Pointis, and then the English took their turn with Admiral Edward Vernon.

Walls Against Pirate Attacks

Tired of being pillaged and attacked every few years, the Spanish began to build the Cartagena walls in the 1500s. They focused on the towns facing seaward, El Centro and San Diego, and had them fully surrounded by walls by 1608. By 1796, Cartagena was surrounded by gigantic walls both landward and seaward.

The Walls Today

Today, the walls that make up the most touristy part of Cartagena–Las Murallas–are the inner walls protecting El Centro and San Diego. Because those walls were the first ones finished, everything that needed to be kept safe were crammed into that small space. There are churches there, monasteries, and even plazas and the mansions of the old elite.

Colombian women in traditional dress walk the streets and sit by the sidewalks, carrying baskets of native and traditional food. You can go inside hotels that were convents, or inns that were elite mansions, and have a taste of how life was when the walls were the only thing between yourself and a pirate raid.

Have yourself a horse-and-carriage ride down the streets for an old-time transportation experience, or walk instead and look at all the sculptures and carvings dotting the streets. A walk will also give you the authentic experience of the uneven cobblestone streets, and a feeling of the warmth of the city.

You can also just spend time at the walls themselves. Walk along them, looking for the cannon-holding fortifications and the lookout towers every hundred feet or so. Turn your head to the other side, and admire the old Spanish houses built literally side against side, the top floors jutting over the bottom floors in their version of the balcony.

Last but not least, enjoy the colors. It is in the Spanish American culture to paint every house a different color from another, and to paint their top floors different from the bottom floors. Every convent, every church, every hotel is painted with the vivid reds, blues, and golds of the Colombian flag; accented in every shade imaginable. When it comes to visiting Cartagena, the old colonial walls are a definite must-see.


Cartagena Food Trips

Cartagena, Colombia has one of the most beautifully complicated histories in Latin America. The town of Cartagena was first established by the Spanish in 1533, by Pedro de Heredia. Its first name was Cartagena de Indias. Discoveries of gold and treasures in the region led to a settlement, and a terrible fire–which razed the village to the ground–led to stone architecture that has lasted until today.

Cartagena also became a slave-trading colony. The new Laws of the Indies pushed by Bartolomeo de las Casas did not allow any of the Latin Americans to be sold into slavery. However, Africans could still be bought and sold as slaves. This lent another dimension to the culture. Because it was a center of trade, it attracted immigrants who eventually became residents, such as French, Italians, Jews, Lebanese, Syrians, and Turks.

All of this history has combined into an interesting fusion of food.

La Cevicheria

Ceviche is a Latin American dish originating from Peru, but the marinade was brought from Spain who brought the idea themselves from Moorish cuisine. The preparation consists of uncooked fish marinated in citrus. The Caribbean provided the fish; the Spanish provided the citrus fruits; and Peruvian-Japanese chefs developed the modern preparation.

La Cevicheria was begun by Jorge Escandon, himself not a native of Cartagena. He and his mother found the little corner shop, and decided to set up La Cevicheria. It is a perfect place to taste the true non-commercialized ceviche of the region.

La Perla

La Perla in Cartagena is truly a pearl of restaurants in that tiny city. It serves world-renowned authentic Peruvian cuisine, and not just the ceviche the region is known for. Customers go to La Perla for the tiraditos, thin strips of cured sea bass or tuna marinated with a capsicum kick. Of course ceviche is part of the menu, and the Ceviche Corvina is among the best.

Better than that, La Perla has a cocktail bar perfect for a late-night outing on the streets of Cartagena. Because Cartagena is a fresh fruit paradise, expect mojitos made with green mango and even a  passion fruit taste. La Perla is the destination for a Cartagena food trip.

El Baron

Sometimes, a food trip just needs one of those rest stops where you can take a break from the food and knock back either coffee or drinks. El Baron is the place to stop. By day, El Baron serves cappucino and cakes, in a quiet atmosphere perfect for rest and conversation.

But by night, the cocktail bar opens to a world-wide array of drinks, gathered by the owner all over the world. He has even made some original specials, like whisky with a rosemary taste and a Margarita laced with paprika. Whether you feel adventurous or just like a great bar experience, El Baron is the place for you in Cartagena.

Cartagena: The Best Place for a Food Trip

Cartagena is not only a feast for the eyes, it is a feast for the palate as well. When your eyes are tired of the stone walls and the weathered battlements, you can talk over the pirate attacks over ceviche or coffee, whichever you like. Either way, Cartagena is one of the best places to go restaurant-hopping for great Latin American cuisine.

Playa Blanca, Cartagena

When you speak of must-see beaches in Cartagena, Colombia, you will hear two named, almost always in tandem: the Islas del Rosario and the Playa Blanca. The first is a small group of islands, the second is a beautiful white sands beach. When it comes to beach-hopping, these are the two beaches you should not miss.

How to Properly Enjoy Playa Blanca

First, Know Your Transportation Options

To get to Playa Blanca, just take a boat or even road transportation from Cartagena. You could take the speedboat for 30 minutes, although it is not ideal if you want some stopovers to go scuba diving or general mid-sea swimming. By bus, motor taxi, or ferry, it takes 3 hours to get to Playa Blanca by land. If you want the general scenic route and dry land under your feet, this is your best choice.

Lastly, if you are taking a tour boat, it will take you around 3 to 4 hours to get to the island. This is because you are certain to travel around several other islands, and stop at several other beaches, before reaching the Playa Blanca. We suggest you try and find a sailboat captain who will take you to the Playa Blanca. They are also more likely to stop mid-sea for scuba-diving.

Second, Know Where to Stay on the Island

The problem with popular beaches is, you guessed it! Other tourists. Tour smart and avoid the tourist entry points on the island. From 12 noon to about 4 in the afternoon, tourists crowd the Playa Blanca to the right as you face the beach. Instead, walk left and the crowds will thin. Continue walking until the isolation is at the desired level.

Further Tips to Enjoy the Playa Blanca

First, Avoid Packaged Tour Deals Like the Plague

The Playa Blanca is worth a whole-day stay, if not an overnight one. Most package deals are the Islas del Rosario tour deals, which will only give you 3 to 4 hours in the Playa Blanca–at the most. Considering that it takes 3 to 4 hours to get to the Playa Blanca by tour boat, and that you’ll need to pay more just to opt in their snorkeling deal, ignore the deals.

Instead, research on the hotels and places to stay at the Playa Blanca, for the whole day or overnight. You will get to spend the whole day or the whole night at the beach, and you’ll still pay less than you will for a too-quick package deal. If you can, have your transportation linked to the hotel fees, so it will be one less thing to worry about.

Second, Go for Hostels on a Whole-Day Stay

Tourists tend to bring their own umbrellas and suffer under the too-little shade the entire day. Instead, walk left (remember that magic left?) and find small hostels renting umbrella-tables and even hammocks for your convenience. The food at the hostels is also reasonably priced, and definitely better than tour package food.

How to Enjoy Playa Blanca: Take Your Time

Playa Blanca is not the kind of beach you dip your toes in just to say you were there. It is an experience in itself, with white sands, blue waters, and wonderful snorkeling spots. To get the most out of Playa Blanca, take your time and enjoy it to the fullest.