Correctly called Cartagena de Indias, the walled city of Cartegena was founded in 1533 by conquistador Pedro de Heredia as the first Spanish colony in the Americas. The entire city inside its original walls is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walk through the Clock Tower entrance into this unique place, the districts of El Centro and San Diego to explore extraordinary Cartagena MICE venues.
Rafael Nunez International Airport (CTG) is five miles to the northeast along the far side of the thin strip of land on which also sits Cartagena's walled city. The airport has direct flights to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and New York City, and seasonally to Montreal and Toronto.
Adjacent to the Clock Tower entrance of the walled city, the principal MICE venue Cartagena de Indias Convention Center (or, to give it its full name, the Cartagena de Indias Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala Convention & Exposition Center) has more than 65,000 square feet of space for events for up to 4,500 persons. On three levels, it includes the Getsemani Auditorium (named for the district of streets close by, a veritable warren) for 2,000 persons, the Grand Hall Barahona, its largest space, and a large patio out front called the San Francisco Esplanade.
Cartagena MICE hotels inside the Old City are small and boutique in nature, not suited for larger groups but perfect for their offsite functions. There are a couple of group-worthy hotels close to the convention center area, the 89-room Charleston Santa Teresa Cartagena, which has a restored Colonial chapel that doubles as meeting space for 220 persons, and the 33-room Allure Chocolat, which has space for events of up to 110 persons. The large hotels are nearby on the 7-shaped peninsula that has the Caribbean on one side and the Bahia de Cartagena on the other. Here are found the 341-room Hilton Cartagena, which has 14 meeting rooms and the Grand Salon Bolivar with room for 1,500 persons; the 250-room Almirante Cartagena, which has seven function rooms, the largest able to cater to 350 persons; and the 90-room Dann Cartagena, which has space for events of up to 200 persons.
It's recommended to stay in or very close to the Old City to enjoy the unique MICE spots. One perfect way of seeing the city is to hire a fleet of Chiva buses—a very Cartagena idea that locals do, too, not just tourists—that tour the streets of the city at night, along with an onboard bar and musicians playing the Colombian-Caribbean music called vallenato (think Carlos Vives, a little Shakira) for trips that last between three and four hours. Fixed-position choices include the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a Colonial-era fortress built in 1536 and with a maze of tunnels, slanted walls and room to host groups of up to 2,000 persons; the San Ignacio and San Francisco bulwarks, another site that the city's CVB can help out with and which in comparison are almost new (built in the 1630s to protect the harbor of Bocagrande) and with room for 1,000 persons; the Museo del Oro, or "Gold Museum," which dazzlingly displays the precious materials; and the Museo de Arte Moderno, which occupies two buildings, one dating to the 17th century, the other one to the 19th.
Excellent restaurants that do have space for larger parties in the Old City include the Restaurante Don Juan; Restaurante Brujas de Cartagena, or "The Witches of Cartagena," which has a main dining room, five other private rooms, including a cellar, and a terrace; Donde Olano, which has a very Colonial feel with arched rooms; and tastefully decorated Alma Restaurant in the upscale, 24-room Casa San Agustin. In Getsemani is the La Cocina de Socorro, which has an "Old Havana" feel to its colors, atmosphere and aspect of slightly faded grandeur.
Legends of Cartagena being besieged and battered by such English privateers as Francis Drake and John Hawkins still abound in the songs of its colorful, excellent street musicians. Stroll with them around the city's glorious streets and then into its wealth of churches and Colonial buildings. Later on, walk to the top of the La Popa hill to see it just as wonderfully unfurled below, a grand city sprinkled with some Gabriel Garcia Marquez magical realism and fairy dust.