As Charleston and the entire east coast were getting slammed from winter storm Grayson, our Crystal Cruises‘ Crystal Serenity voyage from Key West to Cartagena, Colombia caught the tail end of it. For two straight days, we rocked and rolled our way to South America.
Despite gale force wind, torrential rain and rough seas, we arrived on time into this 16th century Spanish city. My first visit to Cartagena.
Colorful and Crowded Cartagena
Our first glimpse of Cartagena was a skyline of shoulder-to-shoulder gleaming white high-rise buildings that curved along the waterfront. Not exactly your typical-looking Caribbean port.
If you’ve read any of my city guides, you know I’m not a big fan of a ship’s group shore excursions. I much prefer to wander around a city, stopping for lunch or a drink in-between window shopping and mindless meandering. But not here.
Let me clarify. I’m not advocating for women to wander the streets of a foreign city alone. Though I’m not a fan of group shore tours, I will take a shore tour if I don’t feel comfortable or if I want to visit an out of the way point of interest. Once I have my bearings and know how to get around, then I’m off on my own.
Read next: My Crystal Serenity review
Cartagena was sort of like that. Crystal Serenity docked in the industrial area. The city furnished shuttle service for the 900-ft distance to the cruise terminal. Little did I know but the cruise terminal would be the highlight of my day in Cartagena.
As are most highlights tours, ours was a bus ride through a very crowded city. Car horns honked and men carefully guided their donkey carts laden with beautiful fruit, across the streets.
Note to self #1
On city highlight tours, survey the buses to be used and look for the one with the least passengers. Usually this is the last bus in the row, as most people tend to board the buses that are closest to the ship. My bus had 12 passengers. Perfect.
So, for things to do in Cartagena, Colombia, I’d recommend all of these for any cruise day in port, whether with Crystal Cruises or Carnival Cruise Line.
First stop was the Rafael Nunez House and Museum. He was elected president of Colombia in 1880 and again in 1884 and led the creation of a new Constitution for Columbia, which was signed in the office in his home. Interesting to see and we only spent about 25 minutes there.
Back on the bus. We entered the old city where we’d have 20 minutes to shop. As the bus lumbered past each colorful archway that housed tourist shops, we were told that we should visit Shop #3, our drop-off and pickup location. So who’s cousin owned that shop, I wondered.
After another short bus ride, we had about 40-minute to walk through the old town…but no time to stop in a cafe or shop at the nice boutiques. A few historical points, a few minutes at a Catholic mass and then back on the bus again.
Refreshments promised and delivered
The rooftop of the Art Lifestyle Hotel, across from San Filipe Fortress (Romancing the Stone was filmed here) was a welcome relief from the tropical heat. Up to the 3rd floor rooftop restaurant and terrace for a frothy lemonade and coconut milk drink, a few photos and we were on our way back to the ship, in time for a late lunch.
That was it for the four-hour shore excursion.
We were in port until all aboard at 8:30pm. At about 4:30, just before sunset, I walked the short distance from Crystal Serenity to the cruise terminal, past rows and rows of stacked cargo containers and three Colombian Navy ships. The perfect setting for an NCIS Cartagena episode, should the show add another location.
At the terminal, I followed the signs to the bird sanctuary. It was a hilarious cacophony of squawking and screeching by dozens of free-flying, rainbow-colored macaws. As I wandered the elevated wooden path, I found two anteaters rolling about in the sand and little monkeys scampering past, looking for fruit.
A few souvenirs from the handicrafts and jewelry shop, and I headed back to the ship. That was it for my day in Cartagena.
It’s what I didn’t do that I’m kicking myself about…
There was an evening shore excursion with a capacity of 19 people. For $209, a bus transported everyone to the old city for a walking tour after dark. A stop for a cocktail on a hotel rooftop capped off with a multi-course Colombian dinner at a restaurant called, Carmen. Brilliant.
Apparently, this was THE shore excursion not to be missed. Cartagena comes alive at night with vibrant music and colorful lights and everyone outdoors having fun.
Note to self #2
If I’m ever again on a Crystal Cruises Panama Canal cruise, I will dish out the $209 for the nightlife dinner experience.