Cartagena is a Spanish colonial city with plazas, cobblestone streets, courtyard homes and flowered balconies. Among the grandest cities in the region, Cartagena can make for an appealing retirement lifestyle option in the Americas.
Cartagena, located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast a two-and-a-half-hour nonstop flight from Miami, offers a unique cultural blend that combines the best of old Spanish America with the richness of the Caribbean. The courtyard homes and narrow streets take you back to old Spain, while the bright colors of the houses add a Caribbean flair. The traditional Colombian cuisine is reminiscent of Madrid, but the women walking about with giant trays of fruit balanced on their heads remind you you’re on the shores of the Caribbean Sea.
Restaurants are varied and diverse. You can enjoy traditional Colombian arepas from a street vendor and international choices including fine Italian dining, traditional Cuban ropa vieja, and a Middle Eastern kibbe.
Cartagena is not only a top example of Spanish-colonial splendor, but it’s also one of the world’s few remaining walled cities, surrounded by almost 7 miles of stone walls. It’s also one of the best Caribbean retirement options you’ll find. If you’re in the market for a retirement that includes sun, sand, and the sea, Cartagena should be on your list. Its beach areas are attracting growing numbers of expats for good reason.
Considered from a practical perspective, Cartagena gets high marks. The infrastructure is great, the water is drinkable, the streets are well-maintained, the Internet is high-speed, and the international airport is just minutes away. Depending on the season, the weather in this part of Colombia is either warm and dry or warm and humid. May through November are the most humid months.
The big question to answer if you’re considering relocating or retiring to Cartagena is whether you want to live in the historic city or in the beach areas. If you prefer the colonial city, then your choice is whether to live inside or outside the wall. Within the wall, you’ll find Centro and San Diego, two colonial sectors that are almost 100% restored and the heart of Cartagena’s tourist industry. This area is safe, attractive, and also the most expensive in the city. The U.S. dollar is currently at a five-year high against the Colombian peso. At these very favorable exchange rates, a decent 1,200-square-foot apartment with nice city views in Centro will cost you the equivalent of about US$300,000. This would be the bottom of the market for what an American retiree might find comfortable in this part of the city. A bigger place in a better location with a sea view in Centro can sell for millions of dollars.
Far more affordable is the sector known as Getsemaní, which is outside the wall but still in the historic zone. Eight or nine years ago Getsemaní was run down and dangerous. You had to be careful here during the day, and no one with any sense spent time in this neighborhood at night. Today, this is a different place, cleaned up and renovated to include trendy bars, boutique hotels, and popular night spots. It’s also much safer and, though more expensive than before the gentrification, it’s a much more affordable option than Centro or San Diego. On average, properties here can cost half as much as properties inside the wall.
The most popular beach areas include El Laguito, Bocagrande, and Castillogrande, all within walking distance of each other. El Laguito is a bustling tourist destination with an attractive area of cafes and restaurants. Beach vendors sell everything imaginable, from tablecloths to cold drinks and cigars.
For a beach-focused retirement in the Cartagena area, I’d recommend El Laguito. A 1,400-square-foot, four-bedroom apartment with a nice lake view in this area sells for less than US$150,000 at today’s exchange rate, and an oceanfront, two-bedroom unit won’t cost you much more.
Castillogrande is a higher-end residential area with quiet beaches and few tourists. The tranquil, tree-shaded streets are well-kept and lined with attractive homes and apartments. Bocagrande’s character is somewhere between that of El Laguito and Castillogrande. Spanning the short distance between the ocean and the bay, Bocagrande’s ocean side is a quieter version of El Laguito, while the bay side resembles Castillogrande.
The downsides of Cartagena for retirees include the tourist annoyances. In some spots, especially Centro and the beach areas of El Laguito, vendors are ever-present, as are money-changers and tourists. Life is quieter in San Diego, Getsemaní, the off-beach areas of El Laguito and the ocean side of Bocagrande. Tourists and the trappings that come with them are almost nonexistent on the bay side of Bocagrande and in Castillogrande. The other downside to Cartagena can be the climate. If you don’t like hot Caribbean weather, then Cartagena wouldn’t be a good choice for you.
On the other hand, as a retiree in Cartagena you’d enjoy a super selection of lifestyle choices from historic city-center to beachfront at different price points, including some very affordable options, especially at today’s exchange rate. Living in Cartagena, you could be part of living history, immersed in the character and charm of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kathleen Peddicord is the publisher of Live and Invest Overseas, offering retirement and overseas living advice in her free daily Overseas Opportunity Letter and the monthly Overseas Retirement Letter. Her preceding essay originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report.