Colombia’s Walled City On The Caribbean That You Can’t Afford To Miss (Especially At Today’s Values): Cartagena, Colombia
There are few things that I enjoy more than the charm and splendor of a well-kept Spanish-colonial city. The plazas, cobblestone streets, courtyard homes, and flowered balconies take you back to Spain’s grand colonial era. As a long-time expat and writer, I’ve had the chance to visit dozens of the best colonial cities in the Americas. Among Spain’s grand cities on our side of the ocean, I’d say that Cartagena is the most beautiful, with a lot to offer the potential expat.
Cartagena 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 in places like Cafetería Bocaditos may be reminiscent of Madrid, but the women walking about with giant trays of fresh fruit balanced on their heads remind you that you’re on the shores of the Caribbean.
Restaurants are varied and diverse. You can enjoy everything from traditional Colombian arepas from a street vendor or fine Italian dining at Enoteca on Plaza Santa Teresa to a traditional Cuban ropa vieja or a Middle Eastern kibbe.
Cartagena is not only an example of Spanish-colonial splendor, but it’s also one of the world’s few remaining walled cities, surrounded by almost 7 miles of massive stone wall. And if you like the sea, sun, and sand, you’ll be more interested in Cartagena’s many attractive beach areas just a few minutes away by cab.
From a practical perspective, Cartagena gets high marks. The infrastructure is great—the water drinkable, the streets well-maintained, the Internet high-speed, and the international airport just minutes away.
The neighborhoods of Cartagena offer diverse lifestyle options for most any budget. The first thing you’ll need to decide is whether you want to live in the historic city or at the beach.
If you prefer the colonial city, then your choice is whether to live inside or outside the wall. Within the wall are Centro and San Diego, the colonial sectors that are almost 100% restored and the heart of Cartagena’s tourist industry. This area is safe and attractive and also the Cartagena market’s most expensive sector. I saw a decent 1,200-square-foot apartment with nice city views selling for US$296,000 at today’s exchange rate. I’d say this is the bottom of the market for places where I’d want to live. If you’re interested in bigger and better, prices go into the millions in this part of the city.
In the sector known as Getsemaní (outside the wall but still in the historic area), properties become less expensive. When I first traveled to Getsemaní in 2006, it was run-down and dangerous. You had to be careful during the day, and no one with any sense went there at night.
Nonetheless, at the time, I reported this as a potential upcoming area, where a person with US$200,000 to spend could take a gamble on its future rejuvenation… and maybe turn a nice profit.
Today, even The New York Times travel section is talking about Getsemaní, so its days as an undiscovered bargain are over. It’s become trendy, with attractive bars, boutique hotels, and popular night spots. It’s also become safer and, of course, more expensive. Still, a single home in this part of the city costs about half what something comparable costs inside the wall.
The most popular beach areas are El Laguito, Bocagrande, and Castillogrande, all within walking distance of each other.
El Laguito is the most bustling of these, a beachside tourist destination with cafes and restaurants that’s also popular with expats. The beaches are busy with vendors selling everything imaginable, from tablecloths to cold drinks and cigars. Women prowl the beach with bottles of lotion offering massages to both male and female beachgoers, while the occasional call girl strolls the sands looking for clients.
The best beach buys are in El Laguito. A 1,400-square-foot, four-bedroom apartment with a nice lake view in this area is going for just US$137,000 at today’s exchange rate… while an oceanfront, two-bedroom unit can be had for as little as US$165,000.
Castillogrande is a high-end residential area with quiet, peaceful beaches and few tourists. The tranquil, shady streets are well-kept and lined with attractive homes and high-end apartments. Unlike El Laguito, apartments here tend to be large (over 2,500 square feet) and more appropriate for year-round living.
Bocagrande’s character varies between that of El Laguito and Castillogrande. Spanning the short distance between the ocean and the bay, the ocean side of this neighborhood reminds me of a quieter version of El Laguito, while its bay side looks like Castillogrande.
One thing I don’t like about Cartagena in general are the tourist annoyances, the ever-present vendors trying to sell you something, the scamming moneychangers, and, at times, the numbers of tourists themselves. Early-risers can avoid this by doing your exploring before
9 a.m. Also note that these annoyances are worse in Centro and on the beach at El Laguito… better in San Diego, Getsemaní, the off-beach areas of El Laguito, and the ocean side of Bocagrande… and almost nonexistent on the bay side of Bocagrande and in Castillogrande.
Also, if you don’t like typically hot Caribbean weather, then Cartagena wouldn’t be a good choice for you.
These things aside, as an expat in Cartagena, you’ll have a super selection of lifestyle choices at different price points. You could be a part of living history in Centro or San Diego, immersed in the character of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You could start up a business or restore a home in the upcoming Getsemaní neighborhood. Or you could settle on the nearby beaches, becoming part of exciting, partying El Laguito… the quiet elegance of Castillogrande… or somewhere in between.