Each country in South America is known for offering something unique in regards to tourism. For example, Perú is known for its rich indigenous history, Chile for its stunning national parks, and Argentina for its modern cities. Colombia, however, doesn’t have just one claim to fame. Instead, the country is booming with tourism because of the variety of experiences to be had in its cities, mountains, and beaches.
Without a doubt, Cartagena is the most popular city to visit. The colonial architecture of one of South America’s first cities will take you back in time. The beaches and fresh ceviche will make relaxing on your vacation simple. The locals will invite you in to experience their culture, and you’ll spend nights dancing with strangers until the early morning. Cartagena is a raw experience of what makes South America special. There are simply so many things to do in Cartagena that you’ll never be bored.
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How to get to Cartagena
Cheap and quick flights from the United States are helping boost tourism in Colombia. Budget airlines Spirit and Jetblue fly to Cartagena’s Aeropuerto International Rafael Núñez from Fort Lauderdale for very cheap. If you are flying from North America or Europe, see if you can piece together an itinerary where you can get to Fort Lauderdale and then take a budget flight to Cartagena. If traveling to Cartagena from South America or even within Colombia, flying will probably be your best option.
There are buses that leave from Bogota and Medellín, but the trip is over 18 hours long from either city. Once you arrive at the airport, there are colectivo buses and taxis that can take you to wherever you may be staying. It’s important to agree on a price with your driver beforehand to avoid getting ripped off when you arrive at your destination.
What to expect in Cartagena
The locals speak Spanish in Cartagena, but you’ll be surprised by the number of people that can communicate in English. Your hotel receptionists, restaurant waiters and waitresses, and tour guides will likely be fluent English speakers because of Cartagena’s large tourism industry. Chances are you’ll probably encounter a few drunk men who will want to piece together an incomprehensible sentence in English too. Don’t be alarmed or offended! They’re just trying to be friendly.
The currency of Colombia is the Colombian Peso, abbreviated COP. You won’t have any trouble finding a place to exchange money, but I would recommend avoiding doing so on the street and instead visit an official casa de cambio or exchange house. One of the easiest ways to get Colombian pesos is withdrawing from an ATM with an international debit or credit card. I recommend visiting your bank before you head to Cartagena to become familiar with international withdrawal and transaction fees. Credit cards are widely accepted, and if you have minimal fees it may be more effective to use your card then pay with cash.
Tipping is common in Colombia. At restaurants, for example, you will see a suggested tip at the end of your bill. Of course, this is not mandatory to pay, but you may get some dirty looks upon leaving the restaurant if you don’t. You should also tip people at your hotel, your tour guides, and baggage handlers at the airport. Taxis are the exception when it comes to tipping in Colombia. They don’t expect one, but of course, they will be grateful if you do so.
Colombians are known for being some of the friendliest people in the world, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some bad eggs. Be sure to exercise caution when wandering around Cartagena at night. You should always stick with a group and avoid flashing anything expensive you own. Most pickpockets occur near banks, on the beach, or the area surrounding the famous clock tower. Make a copy of your passport and leave the actual thing at your hotel. This is the last thing that you want to get stolen!
How to get around Cartagena
Cartagena is quite easy to navigate, and chances are you’ll be spending your time in 4 main areas: the Old City, Getsemaní, Boca Grande, and La Boquilla. The most convenient way to get around is by using Uber. You can request a ride at any time and avoid having to give directions to a driver who may not speak English.
Taxis are common, but they are typically more expensive than Uber. The Metrocar is the local public transportation system, which is the cheapest way to get around but can also be a bit confusing.
The best time to visit Cartagena
Due to the city’s proximity to the equator, Cartagena is one of those places that you can enjoy year-round. However, everybody has their opinion on when the best time to visit is. If you want spectacular weather, January through March are the best months to take advantage of the city’s spectacular beaches.
On the other hand, the months of August through November have much more rainfall, which means much less of a crowd and cheaper prices. The busiest times of the year are December and the week before Easter when Colombians escape the city and flock to the country’s beaches. Be sure to make reservations well in advance if you plan on visiting during peak tourism times.
Things to do in Cartagena
Shop in Markets
The markets in South America are an adventure in themselves. Personally, they are my favorite places to wander around and experience the local culture. In Cartagena, the Mercado de Bazurto is the place to do just that. It’s massive, chaotic, and you can find just about anything you could possibly ever need. The market is located away from the tourist side of Cartagena, so be sure to ask for help on how to arrive here.
If you want to buy Colombia souvenirs for your family and friends back home, be sure to stop by Las Bóvedas. This market is situated in the arches of an old prison located in the San Diego neighborhood. Another one of my favorite markets is Portal de los Dulces, which is dedicated solely to Colombian sweets. I recommend visiting this one with friends and trying as many different candies as possible. You won’t be disappointed!
Learn about Colonial Architecture
Cartagena was one of the first major cities that the Spanish established during their conquest of South America. For this reason, colonial architecture gives Cartagena a charming, historic feel that takes tourists back in time. The Old City is especially romantic, and there are a few different buildings that I recommend visiting to learn more about colonial architecture. When you enter the Old City, you will be greeted by a massive clock tower. This clock tower, which dates back to the early 1600s, is now one of the main landmarks in Cartagena.
The Convento de Santo Domingo will make your imagination run wild, and you’ll spend the afternoon creating stories of nuns who lived there in the 1600s. It’s a great place to do a tour, but also to relax for a bit. The convent overlooks the Santo Domingo Square, where you can grab a drink, enjoy a meal, or just spend an hour people watching.
The Palace of the Inquisition is another spectacular building, but it is also home to the History Museum of Cartagena. The Church of San Pedro Claver, San Felipe Castle, and Casa Rafael Nuñez are three other buildings you cannot miss when trying to experience the awe-inspiring colonial architecture of Cartagena.
Take a Mud Bath
One of my favorite ways to escape the city of Cartagena is by visiting the Totumo Mud Volcano. While you can visit independently, I recommend doing a tour to make things simple. The volcano isn’t what you typically would imagine. It’s a small 15-meter tall mound full of warm mud.
The mud bath is actually a natural spa treatment, and you’ll see a noticeable difference in your skin later in the evening. Of course, you and your bathing suit will get quite dirty. But it’s a super fun, once-in-a-lifetime experience and a great way to laugh with other travelers.
Visit Cartagena’s Museums
When you walk around Cartagena, you will feel like you’re stepping back in time. Visiting some museums in the city can build context around the different places you visit, and ultimately make your trip more rewarding. The most popular museum in Cartagena is the Zenú Gold Museum, which is located in a spectacular colonial mansion. The museum has a huge collection of gold artifacts but also tells the story of how the discovery of abundant gold in Colombia impacted its history.
The Emerald Museum is another popular museum in Cartagena that is structured in a similar manner. Art buffs will love the Museum of Modern Art, which has a large collection of works by famous Colombian artist Daría Morales. Another place that I recommend visiting is the house of San Pedro Claver.
This Roman Catholic saint played a fundamental role in the development of Cartagena. His compelling story is shared throughout his home, which makes visiting the church built in his honor a more enriching experience.
You can’t leave Colombia without having tried to dance salsa at least once. Cartagena comes alive at night, and if you know how to salsa dance you will have no trouble meeting new people. If you’ve never danced salsa before, I recommend taking classes at Crazy Salsa to get some confidence in you before going out.
When you feel prepared for the dance floor, head to Donde Fidel, Café Havana, or Salsa Quiebra Canto. One way to take your night to the next level is to book a spot on a chiva bus. You’ll see these colorful busses bumping with music and dancers any night of the week. If you want to party hard, or rumbear as locals call it, a chiva bus is your best bet.
Relax on the Beach
The allure of Cartagena is not solely due to the rich history and vibrant architecture. Oftentimes these things overshadow the fact that Cartagena rests right on the Caribbean sea and there are plenty of beaches where you can relax on your vacation. The best beaches are on the Rosario Islands, which are about 45 minutes away from Cartagena on a boat.
The islands have a posh reputation, but if you have the money for it, be sure to get here as soon as possible. The beaches are incredible. Playa Blanca and Barú are two other great beaches that are located a bit further away from the tourist center in Cartagena but are well worth the visit. In Cartagena itself, La Boquilla and Castillogrande are two beaches that locals and tourists love to spend time at. These beaches may not be the prettiest, but you will be able to arrive much more easily.
Places to visit in Cartagena
The walled city of Cartagena is the epicenter of tourism in the city. Once inside of the walls of the Old City you’ll never want to leave. There are simply too many things to see and experience. Plus, there are many hostels and hotels for travelers to stay at. Most of the different places to visit in Cartagena are located in the Old City.
At the entrance is a giant clock tower, an awesome meeting point due to its visibility and central location. Yes, Cartagena has some awesome neighborhoods to discover, but the Old City is really the place to be for tourism.
San Pedro Claver Church and Convent
The history of Cartagena is intertwined with the Catholic Church. When the Spaniards arrived to colonize South America, they used religion to subdue the local population. This church was built by the Jesuits between 1580 and 1654, and once you step inside you’ll feel just how ancient it is.
The remains of Saint Pedro Claver lie at the altar of the church, a man who dedicated his life to the black slaves of the colonies. Plan on spending a few hours wandering around the most important church and convent in Cartagena, learning stories as you go and deepening your historical understanding of the city.
Plaza Santo Domingo
The Plaza Santo Domingo is another staple of Cartagena. The place is always buzzing with vendors, so come prepared to haggle or say “no, gracias” many times. There are lots of bars and restaurants surrounding the plaza, making it a nice place to spend the evening soaking in Cartagena’s chill vibes and listening to live music. In the center of the plaza is one of Fernando Botero’s famous statues, “Gorda”.
If you want to learn more about the legends surrounding the statue and other parts of the plaza, be sure to take a local tour. Finally, this plaza is the center of nightlife in the Old City! Come to start your night out on the town here and chances are you’ll never leave.
As I mentioned earlier, the beaches in Cartagena aren’t spectacular. Fortunately the Rosario Islands, which have the picturesque white sand beaches and turquoise waters, are only an hour away. Island hopping from Isla Baru to Isla Grande to Tierra Bomba is one of the best ways to enjoy the area.
Each island has something unique to offer, whether that be jet skis to rent or private secluded beaches. Playa Blanca is the most popular beach to visit. The picturesque white sand beach is lined with palm trees. It’s relaxing and romantic but also a great base for snorkeling.
San Felipe Castle
This massive castle is another one of Cartagena’s most popular landmarks. When Cartagena grew from a small colony to an impressive metropolis, the Spanish needed to defend their prized city. The San Felipe Castle was built to protect the city from invading pirates and other outside forces.
I recommend doing a tour of the castle or reading about its history before visiting. While the castle is impressive in and of itself, it also provides a spectacular panoramic view of Cartagena and the Caribbean sea.
Getsemaní is the soul of Cartagena. It’s vibrant, full of character, and there is always something going on in the neighborhood. Instead of colonial architecture, Getsemaní’s houses are all different colors of the spectrum. One of the most popular places to visit in the area is Plaza Trinidad. Here you can mingle with locals, enjoy a drink, or just sit and observe the daily life of Cartagena’s locals.
Wandering around Getsemaní is also very enjoyable. There is street art and graffiti all over the place, adding to the character of the neighborhood. While the Old City is the famous attraction in Cartagena, Getsemaní is the place that will make you want to stay in the city forever.
What to eat in Cartagena
Fresh is the best word to describe the food in Cartagena. Fruits and vegetables are locally sourced and the sea provides excellent protein options. The fact that the city is a melting pot also brings unique and rich flavors to traditional Colombian dishes. Most restaurants have a menú del día, which includes a soup, a drink, and the main dish.
It’s typically the cheapest option with rice, beans, salad, and your choice of meat. The most popular dish in Cartagena is ceviche. La Cevichería is the spot locals recommended to me, but you can find fresh ceviche at most restaurants here.
Some days you can go without eating a complete meal because there is simply so much delicious street food to sample. Arepas are a Colombian staple and are large corn flatbreads filled with meat, spicy sauce, and vegetables. Arepas de choclo are sweet arepas that are served with melted butter and sweet cheese.
Empanadas are another Colombian staple. The dough is fried and stuffed with different types of meat and cheese. Like arepas, these are also found on almost every corner in Cartagena.
Be sure to snag a fresh fruit juice to go along with your street food. Colombians love juice, but they also consume a lot of coffee. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is. You will always see someone selling coffee out of a thermos on the street corner. Colombia has the best coffee in the world, so be sure to stop in a coffee shop to try a specialty brew.
Where to stay in Cartagena
The Old City
The Old City is the best place to stay if it’s your first time visiting Cartagena. You’ll be located near the main Cartagena attractions and won’t have any trouble meeting out travellers. Your hostel or hotel will probably cost more than other areas of Cartagena, but you’ll save a bunch of money on transportation. El Viajero is the most popular hostel in the Old City and has parties every weekend. If you want to stay in a boutique hotel, the Old City has a lot of different options. Bantu Hotel is one that I recommend because it has an outdoor pool, hot tub, and bar.
Getsemaní is where all of the hipsters, musicians, and artists of Cartagena flock. For this reason, it has grown in popularity with backpackers visiting Cartagena. While the Old City is known for its colonial architecture, Getsemaní is known for its graffiti and street art. This neighborhood has a lot of character and there are always local events and concerts to hang out at. Hostel Getsemaní is a favorite for backpackers because of its proximity to Media Luna street and Plaza de la Trinidad.
The hotels in Getsemaní are much more affordable than those in the Old City. My favorite hotel in the neighborhood is Casa Relax B&B because it’s located inside of a historic colonial home. If you want to escape the tourist bubble on your trip, be sure to stay in Getsemaní.
San Diego is another option for travelers who want to be near the Old City but have the option of escaping the main tourism center. The neighborhood still has the old feel of the Old City as there are many colonial buildings and structures. This is also the place where young people come to kick back and relax. The Santa Clara Hotel is one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. It is an expensive place to stay but worth the experience. For budget travelers, I recommend Hostel Green House.
Tours to do in Cartagena
A hop on, hop off tour is one of my favorite ways to see the city. I can spend as much time as I wish at a certain place and still get all of the information I need to educate me about the place I’m visiting. Cartagena simply has so much to see that a tour is the easiest way to make it less intimidating.
Snorkeling is my favorite way to enjoy the water. Spend the day island hopping around the Rosario and Cholon islands and get a glimpse at all of the life that exists underneath the surface. This is a great way to escape the city for a day.
Sampling different foods is my favorite thing to do when traveling abroad. Doing a street food tour with a local allows for you to not only learn about the food of Colombia. You will also be able to experience different parts of the city and get a local’s tips for Cartagena.
Going out on a chiva is my favorite way to experience the nightlife in Colombia. One of my most memorable nights out was on a chiva bus hopping around to different bars and clubs. If you book this tour, be sure not to plan anything for the next morning!
Day trips from Cartagena
Isla del Pirata is the place to go if you want to spend a day in true relaxation. Booking a tour takes away all of the hassle, and you’ll have lunch and drinks provided for you.
These two islands are the most popular in the Rosario Islands archipelago. I recommend this tour for families or couples who want to have a more active beach day. Each beach has plenty of different things to see and do.
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Recommend budget tours in Cartagena
- Cartagena Shore Excursion: Guided City Sightseeing Tour
- Full-Day Rosario Islands Including Barú, Cholon and Playa Blanca
- Cartagena Private Popular Market Tour with Cooking Class
- City Sightseeing Cartagena Hop-On Hop-Off Tour
- Day Trip to Rosario Islands
- Half-Day Tour to Totumo Mud Volcano from Cartagena
- Baru and Playa Blanca Transportation and Lunch from Cartagena
- Caribbean Salsa Dancing Class
- Helicopter Tour Cartagena – Ciudad Perdida(Lost City)
- Helicopter Tour Cartagena – Island Magic
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