Cartagena is Colombia’s most popular destination for tourists and for two good reasons: it’s a beautiful colonial city with a fortress wall, plus it’s right on the water. There are beaches stretching out in both directions. If you’ve never been to Cartagena though, this presents a challenge in finding your ideal hotel. Do you want to walk out your door and stroll the narrow streets of the old city? Or do you want to lounge by a big resort pool and take a stroll on a pretty beach at sunset?

Hotel Delirio, Cartagena Old City

History and Character in the Old City

There are three main hotel zones in the city. In the old  section behind the centuries-0ld fortress wall, you’ll find dozens of boutique hotels and one famous large property. You can find the best luxury hotels in Cartagena reviewed in detail at Luxury Latin America, including hotspots like Tcherassi and Ananda and can find some of the smaller ones represented by the Evoca Group. Some require a bit more digging, however, like the impressive Hotel Agua I visited while I was there, with the public spaces outnumbering the five guest rooms. The photo at the right is the view from its pool deck at night.

The best-known hotel has a long history: Sofitel Santa Clara Cartagena, which was originally a convent built in the 17th century, has 122 rooms, a gorgeous pool area, and more staffers that can speak English than most other old city properties if you need that.

Eastern Beach Hotels

If you’re a beach lover or are attending a convention, the resort hotels strung along the beach to the east of the city (an area known as Los Morros) are the best bet. You’ll have to take a taxi from here every time you want to visit the historic district, but the hotels here have plenty of room for nice pool complexes and the wide beach here is attractive. It’s a short hop to the convention center if you’re here for a trade show.

Pool at the Sonesta Cartagena, beachfront

I stayed in the Sonesta Cartagena, which has three great pools, free Wi-Fi, and easy beach access. There’s a bit of an odd set-up here though that’s duplicated in many hotels in this area: the hotel sits near the road, while the rooms with the best locations and views are actually condominiums owned by Colombians. If the view is not your prime consideration though, you can find great hotel deals here, at the Holiday Inn Cartagena Morros, and at the upcoming Radisson.

The best choice though is the resort right across from the convention center, Las Americas. The older section is good for families with its waterslide and poolside rooms with a hammock on the terrace or balcony. (Why doesn’t every beach resort have a hammock on the balcony?) A newer wing is more contemporary. With beach chairs under palapas and wait service shuttling drinks, it’s a prime place to relax.

Western Beach Hotels

On the other side of the old city are more resort hotels and a bunch are also under construction for openings in the next couple years. (See our previous post on new hotels in Latin America.)

For now anyway, the one at the top of the heap is the Hilton Cartagena. Situated on a promentory with panoramic ocean views, it has a terrific pool complex with a bar and a great restaurant designed to look like a traditional Cartagena home. It boasts polished Hilton service and plenty of bilingual staffers.

The second best option is the Dann Cartagena, also on the water. If you’re reading this in 2013 or later, you’ll probably see a Sheraton and Hyatt pop up on your searches as well. Plug Cartagena into Trivago.com to see the options from dozens of different booking sites.

See more on the area at the official Cartagena de Indias tourism site.

Post and photos by travel destinations expert Tim Leffel. He was hosted by Sonesta Cartagena as part of his attendence at TravelMart Latin America. 

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