Cartagena Feb. 2011

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<p>Our cruise ship will visit Cartagena for one day the last week of February 2011. We would greatly appreciate any input other travelers have had regarding tours, a hop-on hop off, seafood restaurants or just good food, sights we should not miss etc. Bill &amp; Pat </p>

Here are some notes from my visit several years ago. I hope they're useful. Your cruise ship undoubtedly will offer a city tour. If that doesn't suit you, I suggest that you take a taxi (if it's too far to walk from the dock) to the Hotel Charleston and walk from there. The old town is small enough to see on foot and you can visit it satisfactorily in a full day.
"Colombia has a reputation as a potentially dangerous destination, but I felt no uneasiness when walking around the old walled city of Cartagena for five days in January 2008. The old city remains a living place. Yes, there are several hotels and plenty of restaurants that attract foreign visitors, but the streets and shops are alive with Cartageneros going about their business. Some buildings have been carefully restored; others retain their somewhat dilapidated charm. Go now before gentrification and growing tourist demand transforms it into a more sterile place.
There are outdoor cafes for lunch in several of the plazas. Among the many restaurants inside the walls, I recommend Da Danni (Italian food) right off the Parque Fernandez Madrid, and San Pedro (serving an excellent if unusual Pad Thai), near the church of San Pedro Claver.
It’s possible to walk on the ramparts around most of the old city. It’s not all that dramatic a walk, but it’s still a good way to get oriented. The naval museum is worth a visit, especially if you’re interested in fortifications and the British, French and Dutch sieges of the city. The small modern art museum can be worthwhile, depending on the temporary exhibits, and the gold museum on Plaza Bolivar, which is free, has some choice small pieces. The Museum of the Inquisition, across the plaza, won’t take much of your time, and the church interiors are surprisingly plain. The cloister of San Pedro Claver is worth a short visit. In sum, the charm of the old city lies primarily in wandering its streets. Plaza Bolivar has comfortable benches for watching the world go by, and the groups on excursions from their cruise ships. Some of the benches there are shaded and cooled by nearby fountains.
There are several ATMs at banks on the Plaza de La Aduana. There’s also a supermarket of sorts nearby at the Plaza de Los Coches (and another near the Casa La Fe). An upscale handicrafts store is Upalema on Calle San Juan de Dios, near the Charleston Hotel and the Naval Museum. The best place for souvenirs, however, is Las Bovedas, a series of 20 or more little shops side-by-side in an arcade near the Santa Clara hotel and just inside the city wall.
Do not expect the Cartageneros to be fluent in English. Even a small Spanish vocabulary goes a long way there, as does a bit of patience and a lot of smiling and gesturing."

Recently on a one day cruise ship stop in Cartegena and agree it is a very walkable city but also extremely hot so take a sun shade umbrella and try and stay on the shady sides of the narrow streets.
Shopping for emeralds is big business in Cartgena with all the precautions one needs for this type of activity. We took the "Grayline" shore excursion (old city walking tour) from our ship and did buy a lovely emerald pendant but only at the Grayline authorized shop so at least there was some recourse if it turned out to be coke bottle glass afterwards. But it was lovely, and we just take it for what it is as our souvenir from Columbia. And if we got "taken" then that too is our souvenir from Columbia!
Our favorite spot was the arcade area near the entrance of the old city where they sold all sorts of local sweets - be sure to buy a little packet of various kinds to sample - really good, not overly sweet and uniquely flavored. It is one of the popular landmark destinations in this town so have some local currency to enjoy though I think they did also take dollars - only a few dollars.
Many of the other ship excursions took them out to a modern shopping mall which also had emerald shops which sounds like a weird way to spend time in Cartegena for the day but it was really, really hot so to be outdoors was too punishing for a lot of the older passengers plus visiting shopping malls often will tell you more about a local culture, than a museum in a tourist district.
There was a shady park somewhere in the old city that is also recommended for people watching but most of the people you will be watching are connected with the tourist industry. It is a pretty little town and all nicely cared for now and certainly reeking of long and colorful history that needs to be absorbed when walking these old streets and transporting yourself back in the time of early Spanish exploration and the world of pirates and treasures.

Dont miss the fantastic Fort Castillo de San Carlos with literally miles of tunnels. This is one of the highlights of the city.