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. Dating back to the mid-1500s, I really didn’t know much about this tropical city. All I remembered was that it used to be a dangerous place to visit. And Romancing the Stone was filmed here.
What to Do in 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.
I’m not advocating for women to wander the streets of a foreign city alone. Even though I’m not a fan of group excursions, 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. So I signed up for Crystal’s city tour.
Crystal Serenity docked in the bland and dusty 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 quirky highlight of my day in Cartagena.
Cartagena was loud and crowded. Despite the heat, people were chatting on the streets, buying cold drinks and wonderful-smelling street food.
Read next: My Crystal Serenity review
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.
City Tour of Cartagena
So, for things to do in Cartagena, Colombia, I’d recommend all of these for a 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. Next, was shopping time in the historic part of town. We entered the old city with 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.
Cartagena Cocktail Time
The rooftop of the Art Lifestyle Hotel, across from San Filipe Fortress (Romancing the Stone was partly filmed inside the wall) 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. With time to kill, 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. But it was a new and interesting experience and I’d definitely want to return. Sometimes it takes that first visit to a distant port to learn what to do and then return.
It’s what I didn’t do that I’m kicking myself about…
The Best Shore Excursion in Cartagena
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. This included a cocktail on a hotel rooftop capped off with a multi-course Colombian dinner at an upscale restaurant called, Carmen. Brilliant. And I didn’t do it.
Apparently, this was THE shore excursion not to be missed. Who knew? 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 with a stop in Cartagena, I will dish out the $209 for the nightlife dinner experience.
Next time I take a Panama Canal or any cruise that includes Cartagena, I’m going to plan my shore excursions well in advance. This is too cool of a place to miss out on some really excellent experiences.
Read More:How to Choose Your Panama Canal Cruise