Cartagena: The Crown Jewel of Colombia
When traveling to Colombia, we are pretty sure the city of Cartagena will be on your itinerary. Cartagena is a captivating city on Colombia's Carribean Coast with a rich history, colorful architecture and various food, so we have created this travel guide on best things to do in Cartagena to make sure you will see it all and won't miss a thing.
Is Cartagena touristy? Yes. Is it better to leave it out and focus on other destinations in Colombia? No.
No matter how Cartagena has become popular in the past few years among both locals and foreigners and no matter how the prices have grown lately, we still would include Cartagena to your perfect Colombia travel itinerary.
Colorful and narrow colonial streets, unique houses with photogenic doors, location close to the sea, street vendors selling exotic fruits, lively vibe, complicated history, architecture, coffee, buzzing nightlife, many cute coffee houses, and restaurants, it seems that Cartagena has it all.
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It is impossible to write about Cartagena and not to mention the heat. Cartagena is hot and humid all year round, and the weather is sometimes hard to handle, but even when your face is dripping with sweat, we are sure you are going to love this city with an unmistakable atmosphere, a city which has become a synonym for Colombia.
When looking back, the city of Cartagena reminded us a bit Panama City because of the mixture of modern luxurious skyscrapers which create an appealing skyline with the old and historic city center where the life flows slowly, and people still live more authentically, and where you can feel the essence of Cartagena.
The beauty of Cartagena is striking, so plan to spend here at least two days, but longer you stay the more will Cartagena get under your skin. If you are looking for tips and advice on the best things to see and do in Cartagena, look no further as we've got you covered.
WALK THE HISTORIC CENTER
The old city with many churches, plazas, cute streets, pastel-colored buildings, and colonial architecture are one of the main reasons why to visit Cartagena, and if your time is limited, we recommend you to focus on this part of the city.
Cartagena's Walled City is protected by UNESCO, which guarantees an exceptionality of this area, and you can either explore it on own or take one of the informative walking tours.
LOOK FOR STATUES BY FAMOUS COLOMBIAN ARTIST FERNANDO BOTERO
Have you ever heard of Fernando Botero?
We had before visiting Colombia, but to be honest, we never knew how his art looks like.
It was not until our visit to Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena, where we had a chance to get to know the most famous Colombia's artist of modern times better. We believe you will discover one of Botero's most famous statues in Cartagena easily we will give you a hint though how to recognize that it is Botero's work.
Fernando Botero depicts people in large and exaggerates the volume of their bodies, although he strictly denies that he depicts overweight people.
WANDER THE STREETS OF GETSEMANI
What is Getsemani? Getsemani is a vibrant Cartagena's neighborhood close to the historic center.
It is actually that close that you might not even notice the difference as in the past few years this district became very popular among travelers and backpackers of all kind that now you can find in Getsemani many hotels, bistros and hipster coffee houses, although we still think that the authentic feel did not yet get away.
Not that long time ago Getsemani was an area which was better to avoid, especially after dark because of prostitution and drug-related problems but is much safer now, and thriving.
VISIT ONE OF MANY CARTAGENA'S MUSEUMS
Cartagena is also one of the most interesting of Colombia's cities when it comes to the museums.
In case you did not make it to Bogota's Museum of Gold, you can rectify it in Cartagena and visit Museo del Oro Zenu which holds a large number of gold artifacts, and although it is much smaller than the one in Bogota, we have good news for all budget-travelers, because this museum is free.
Among other museums, you can pay a visit to The Chocolate Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Naval Museum or Inquisition Museum - visiting the museums is a good program when the weather forecast doesn't look promising.
GRAB YOUR CAMERA AND INDULGE THE BEAUTY OF CARTAGENA
What did we like the most in Cartagena?
Probably the moment when we left our hotel room, took the camera in hand and walked around without any directions in mind. That's why we would recommend you to plan your time in Cartagena carefully, and then add one day extra to your itinerary which will serve exactly this purpose - to get lost in the city.
Cartagena is incredibly photogenic with its narrow streets, colorful houses, small cafes and locals selling fruits, and we can promise that your time will fly fast while exploring the city at your own pace.
VISIT CASTILLO DE SAN FELIPE
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is a tourist attraction you should not miss by no means when in Cartagena.
Not only the iconic fortress played a significant role in Cartagena's history and its defense, but it is also an architectural masterpiece both underground and above ground. The fortress is located on the Hill San Lazaro which dominates the city and is easily reachable by walk as it lies only 10 minutes walk from the walled city. Because of the heat, it is wise to visit San Felipe fort either early in the morning or later in the afternoon and wait for softer light to take the best photos.
The entrance fee for foreigners is COP 25 000. You can visit the site independently, with a guide or an audio guide, and taking into account Cartagena's troubled past (conquests, slavery), we think it's worth to hear about it from a knowledgeable person.
ENJOY STREET ART
We spent two months in Colombia and noticed, especially in larger cities, that street art is on the rise, and Cartagena is for sure one of the places with many graffitis spread randomly around the city.
The epicenter of street art in Colombia is in Bogota, where you can even join one of many tours specialized in graffiti, but Cartagena is slowly stepping on Bogota's toes in this area.
We believe that street art in Colombia is a form of a revolt, a form of expression that old, murderous times are over and locals are claiming better tomorrow for them, and their beautiful cities.
WALK ON THE OLD CITY WALLS
Cartagena de Indias is not enjoyable only within the city walls, but one of the main features is that you can actually walk on the walls and fully admire how thick and well-built they are.
No wonder when during the history of Colombia Cartagena played numerous times an important role when protecting the whole country against pirates.
Climb up the walls and imagine how it must have been to stand there and watch out for ships getting nearer.
TAKE A DAY TRIP FROM CARTAGENA
When in Cartagena, you don't need to spend all your time entirely in the city as there are several options on where to go, all of them close to Cartagena.
You can travel for example to San Basilio de Palenque, a site in UNESCO because it was one of the first freed slave cities in the Americas. When looking for a place to relax, there is an option to go to Playa Blanca, a beach with fine sand - as it is close to Cartagena, be ready for pushy vendors - it is ok for a day, but if you are looking for a true beach paradise and have a couple of days to spare, we would recommend travel somewhere else as Colombia has gorgeous coastline.
Probably the most popular tours in Cartagena head to Rosario Islands where you can snorkel, relax, and enjoy an unforgettable day. The tour has great reviews and is one of the best things to do when in Cartagena.
You can even stay there in one of the few hotel resorts overnight or for a couple of days.
Before our bus journey to Medellin, we took a half-day trip to another fort, Fort San Bernardo de Bocachica.
We get on a boat from wharf which took about 45 minutes and then walked to the almost abandoned fort. People living close to the fort are very poor, so head straight to the fort, do not show off your belongings and politely refuse everyone who wants to accompany you.
Waterfront in Cartagena is exactly the place where you can see it all.
Skyscrapers on one side, the old walled city on the other one, historic and new ships anchoring in the bay and modern street art - definitely a reason to explore the other side of wall ramparts.
WATCH THE SUNSET
Watching sunset is a magical time anywhere around the world, but is even more charming when near the sea.
Every single blog out there says you must go to Cafe del Mar to get the best experience, but we would honestly want to know how many of them really went there, ordered overpriced food or drinks and enjoyed the sunset.
If you want to witness how the last sun rays of the day disappear and look for a budget-friendly version, simply head to the ramparts above Avenida Santander where you can sit for free and relax as long as you want.
SKYSCRAPERS OF CARTAGENA
Although the best of Cartagena can be found in the historic center, it is always interesting to watch the fusion of the old and the new.
We often find fascinating how the cities evolve, and Cartagena is a great example of a modern city which has maintained to keep its spirit despite the changing environment.
You don't need to walk to the modern part of the city unless you stay there as it is often not pedestrian friendly and there is not much to do, but it is for sure beautiful to watch the skyscrapers from distance and think of the constant change we are part of.
We must admit that we did not have enough time while in Cartagena to visit Totumo Volcano, a place where you can enjoy mud bath under a blue sky, but it is one of the must-visit attractions while in the city.
Opinions about natural mud bath differ, some travelers find it amazing, some cheesy, but you won't know until you try it on own. This tour will provide you with a hassle-free experience.
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TRY STREET FOOD
We must say it aloud. Unlike many travelers, we did not fall in love with Colombian cuisine.
To be honest, out of two months spent in the country, we don't remember many highlights food related. The food is heavy, fried and deep fried again, and they do not use that many fresh stuff as they could (and we were wondering all the time where all the vegetable from the markets go - don't get us wrong, they use it, but not to its full potential).
But from time to time we found something which tasted good and was not that oily, usually on the streets.
Do not be afraid to try fresh juice or freshly made arepa or empanada right on the street from a seller in Cartagena - not only it tastes better than in the shop or restaurant, but you will also contribute to the local economy.
TASTE COLOMBIAN COFFEE
Colombia is a coffee nation, and it is sad that a different commodity made Colombia famous (or rather infamous) abroad.
But times are changing, and it seems that coffee will be the thing why to talk about and why to visit Colombia in the next decade.
Do not get confused here.
While traveling, you will see a man or a lady with a thermos selling coffee on almost every corner, but this is not what you are looking for - unfortunately, most of the coffee which is being sold on the streets in Colombia is second-quality, because the first-quality is often exported to the USA or Europe. The coffee sold on the streets is called tinto and is too sweet and too weak to be enjoyable (according to our opinion).
If you are not traveling to the coffee triangle of Colombia (Salento or Jardin are both great options when looking for a quality coffee and picturesque hikes), Cartagena is for sure the place where you can taste a cup or two. You won't have a problem to find a cute coffee shop in narrow streets of Cartagena.
We think that we don't have to recommend any particular coffee shop here as you will surely discover your favorite one by drinking your way around the city.
NIGHTLIFE IN CARTAGENA
Medellin, another must-visit Colombia's destination is known among expats as a city transformed, a city where it is easy to spend a couple of weeks and work remotely, and although Cartagena has for sure its share of foreigners who arrived once and never left, it is still more a party destination with rich nightlife where backpackers from all around the world let off steam.
Although Colombia is still not the safest destination in South America (you can read more about How to stay safe in South America in this post), Cartagena for sure belongs among the safest places within Colombia, so unlike in Bogota or Quito, you can hit the bars in the city center hard and meet new friends (but, of course, still use your common sense).
BUY EXOTIC FRUITS IN BAZURTO MARKET
If there is one thing we never miss when visiting a new place, it is a local market, and it is not only because we are fruit addicts (well, there might be a connection).
Cartagena's signature market is called Bazurto, still, an authentic place where all kind of food is being sold such as fruits, veggies, meat, fish (you will know when getting closer), spices and much more.
When brave enough, you can even eat your lunch here - the place looks quite clean. As usual, watch your belongings as in any place with many people around, markets in South America are generally paradise for pickpockets. The great thing about Bazurto Market is that this is a market where local people go shopping, it is not an artificial market for rich travelers who do not mind to spend for fruit outrageous money.
The Bazurto Market is a bit of walk from the city center, so we recommend you to take a taxi for COP 8 000, the ride takes around 15 minutes, depending on traffic.
WHERE TO STAY IN CARTAGENA
Cartagena is a very popular tourist destination among locals and foreign travelers as well, and it is quite hard to find budget-friendly accommodation in the city, especially last minute, despite the dazzling number of hotels or hostels.
We recommend you to make your reservation as soon as you know your travel dates.
Budget | Hotel La Magdalena - Set in a colonial house, this hotel is a great choice for all budget travelers who seek privacy, clean and well-equipped rooms in the city center.
Mid-range | Casa Santa Ana Boutique Almirante - Freshly made breakfast, swimming pool and relaxation zone on the rooftop and well-appointed rooms, that's all in the Getsemani part of Cartagena.
Luxury | Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena - Are you looking for the top service and a hotel which will make your stay in Cartagena special? You've just found it. The hotel is located in a former monastery, has a spa, swimming pool, gym, and sauna. Rooms are, of course, excellent.
Alternatively, search for your accommodation via Hostelworld.
HOW TO GET TO CARTAGENA
Cartagena is a large transport hub, for many travelers, it is even the first destination in Colombia or generally in South America, so you have lots of options on how to get to or from the city.
Plane | Cartagena has a large international airport with many flight connections with the USA, Europe or other domestic destinations. We took a long night bus from Cartagena to Medellin, but if we had investigated earlier, we would have taken flight instead. The airport is not far from the city, so you can either take a taxi for COP 13 500 (to the center) or you can prearrange your transport here. When looking for flight tickets you can search Skyscanner to find the best price.
Bus | It took us by surprise that Cartagena's bus terminal is way outside the city center, about 45 minutes by car. Although there are public buses, we decided to take a taxi this time to make sure we would arrive on time. The price for a cab from the city center to the bus station cost us COP 25 000.
When traveling from Santa Marta (a worthwhile stop when visiting Tayrona National Park) to Cartagena, you can take a van instead of public transport which take you to the center, and you save some cash on transportation from the bus station. We traveled with Marsol company and the ticket cost COP 42 000.
WHAT TO PACK
As we've mentioned above, it's hot and humid all year round in Cartagena, and you will sweat a lot in the heat. You don't need to pack much, only bring clothes that breathe, drink a lot of water and put sunscreen on.
Here are 5 essential things to pack for Cartagena.
Suitcase | If your backpacking days are over, bring a durable suitcase.
Sunscreen | We used SPF 50+ sunscreen every day in Colombia.
Camera | To capture all the beauty, pack a quality camera of your preference.
We've also written an in-depth South America packing list where you will find more useful tips and advice on what to pack.
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