How I planned a long-haul, affordable (and enjoyable) holiday with my baby

In front of us, a green, orange and pink bus pauses to let in passengers. Inside, people jump up to the heavy rhythms of champeta music, making the vehicle leap up and down on its suspension.

Lights – red, purple, yellow – flash on its exterior. The volume increases. My husband and I watch as our nine-month-old, who’s propped up in his pram, lets out a squeal of joy.

I hadn’t heard the term “baby sensory” until we had our first child. It refers to colours, lights and other interesting things for babies to see, or hear or touch. It’s an important part of their development, but you can really pay for it: up to £15 for a 45-minute-long session in a dark room with fairy lights and tin foil. Or you can make it part of your holiday. In Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, just stepping outside the hotel is a sensory experience.

Aerial shot of Cartagena, Colombia at sunset showing the old and new city
The Old City and new City of Cartagena (Photo: Getty)

When it came to choosing a winter break with our firstborn, my husband and I knew we wanted to go somewhere with guaranteed warmth.

We considered the Caribbean islands, but our last trip to Antigua, where a room at an Airbnb cost £150 a night and meals at unremarkable restaurants were coming in at £75 for just two mains and beers, made us rule it out as unaffordable. The likes of Dubai, although easier to reach, didn’t have the same cultural appeal, while Asia felt a little too far for the length of time we could be away (just over a week). We settled on Colombia.

While many new parents don’t seem to make long-haul trips in their child’s first year, I always knew travel would be a big part of my life. I’d have to travel a little differently with a child, but I would still travel. I also wanted to make the most of the time before my son started crawling or walking, and to enjoy the fare-free, or cheaper, flights for children under two (when they sit on an adult’s lap).

street of the historical center in cartagena de indias with a colorful sky and old buildings
The colourful streets of the city’s historic centre (Photo: Getty)

My husband and I had travelled, separately, to Cartagena in our early twenties, when the only things that weighed us down in life were the rucksacks on our backs. How would we find it as semi-responsible adults, carrying a precious human bundle instead?

Colombia has a lingering, outdated reputation as being somewhat dangerous, and might not be UK travellers’ most obvious choice for a family break. But we knew there had been huge changes in safety for residents, and tourists, and that, in 10 years, the country had transformed from backpacker territory to holidaymaker favourite.

The affordability once you arrive, beaches just a boat ride away and the buzz of a restaurant- and bar-filled city tempted us as new parents – not quite ready to leave their old travelling ways behind – to give it a try.

Hannah Summers' family
Hannah and her husband enjoyed wandering the streets at their own pace (Photo: Hannah Summers)

The Clock Tower signals it’s 8pm and we push the pram on, out of the walled Old City to Getsemani, the neighbourhood that we knew for its hostels and red lights when we backpacked here 15 years ago. Most people wouldn’t have stepped foot out of the Old City then, and you couldn’t blame them.

Today, though, Getsemani has some of Cartagena’s best restaurants, rooftop venues and Barbie-pink bougainvillaea-draped houses that double as bars selling £1 beers.

Nearby, street stalls sit in a haze of chicken skewer smoke. Art installations, including hundreds of multi-coloured umbrellas, dangle overhead, providing even more free sensory for our wide-eyed child.

When he’s not watching impromptu dance offs in Plaza de Trinidad, he’s grinning at passersby. Everywhere we go he’s greeted with smiles. “Hola, chico”, people say.

In fact, he receives so much attention that he tries his very first wave here on these streets, something he continues to practise as we take late afternoon strolls through Parque del Centenario, a small green space in the city where he watches dozens of iguanas creep around in the shade.

We keep our time here relaxed, strapping on the sling and making the most of the free walking tour around the Old Town. We stumble across La Mulata, where zingy prawn ceviche with coconut rice and huge chunks of avocado, and a side of fresh passion fruit juice, comes in at just over £8 per person. Dishes are tweaked for our son to try. It’s so cheap, lingering on the memory long after we pay, that we go back four times.

On other days we take boat trips out to the beaches. While Cartagena has some decent stretches of sand outside of the Old City, for that real postcard-worthy stuff you head to the Rosario islands, an archipelago a 45-minute trip away. You can settle beneath the palms and paddle in shallow, calm water. Or, if a pool is preferred, then there are dozens of beach clubs closer to the city.

We love Makani on Tierra Bomba island, where a young waitress offers to hold our son, giving us the rare luxury of concentrating on the meal in front of us – grilled prawns, eye-smarting spicy sauce and plantain, followed by a gooey brownie with mango.

View of Bocagrande area buildings from Isla Tierra Bomba, a Colombian island off the coast of Cartagena de Indias.. (Photo by: Nano Calvo/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The view from Tierra Bomba Island (Photo: Getty)

Later, in the pool, he splashes around in an inflatable while adults guzzle potent and pretty “coco loco”, the creamy, coconutty Colombian equivalent of a Long Island Ice tea. When we head back to the mainland, a trio of young Colombian teens stop us.

“We’ll help,” they insist, taking the beach bag, buggy and other paraphernalia that travelling with a child involves, and carefully handing me the baby once I’m settled in the speedboat.

There are moments on our trip, such as when I’m stepping on and off speedboats, where I have flashes of thinking about the worst thing that could happen and what I would do, but I know that each scenario is unlikely. The distraction of having a baby in tow also makes me more vulnerable to pickpocketing (although I felt this more in Barcelona and Paris than I do in Cartagena).

But, for the most part, I sense I can relax. We love parking the pram up at pavement side bars in the early evening, but it’s our hotel, Casa Quero, that adds a sense of reassuring home comfort.

The city has some big-name brands, yet it’s the smaller boutique hotels that I crave when travelling with a child. In these properties, I feel as though we’re being treated as new friends, rather than as a number.

Located in a restored building in the Old City, Casa Quero has huge, light-filled rooms with double height ceilings, calming blue and white decor and heavy shutters that are ideal for naps. We cool off in the rooftop pool and ease into the day at breakfast, where the cook chats to our son while he tries local fruit – papaya, mangoes and perfectly ripe avocado, plus specially prepared arepas.

For our week in the city, people at the hotel coo and fuss over our son, but in all the right ways. In fact, it’s a sense of a genuine adoration for children that encourages us to leave him with Andrea, who works at the hotel. It is the first time we leave him past bedtime with anyone other than his grandparents.

Babysitting here is cheap (around £7 an hour) and reassuring; through dinner at La Cocina de Pepina we try a £20 a head regional Colombian tasting menu, totally relaxed that our son is in arms more experienced than ours.

When we get back, we find the baby spread across Andrea’s chest while she moves back and forth in a rocking chair. By the time we’ve brushed our teeth, she’s lowered him back in his cot asleep, without our help. I’d anticipated an affordable Caribbean adventure, but I hadn’t expected it to feel so easy.

Getting there

Fly indirect with Avianca or via Miami with low-cost airline, Norse.

Booking it

Journey Latin America offers a seven-night stay in Cartagena from £916pp, The price includes accommodation at Casa Quero on a B&B basis and transfers. Boat trips and tours can also be arranged.

Savings on airport parking are available with Holiday Extras,