Cartagena, Colombia’s enchanting Caribbean burst of culture
We ended up spending far too long in Cartagena, Colombia (full name Cartagena de las Indias), but loved it anyway. A hotspot for cruises with direct flights from Miami, it has a very different feel to the rest of Colombia. This is the place where backpacking ends and true tourism begins. However, this doesn’t detract too much from the undeniable charm of Cartagena’s beautiful streets. So behold, our guide to Cartagena.
How to pronounce Cartagena: car-tah-HEY-nah
We’ve visited Cartagena perhaps 7 times now on various trips (it’s a firm favourite when taking our family & friends on a tour of Colombia), and with our GoPro footage of the last 2 visits we finally put together a little video for you of our top things to do in Cartagena, including a one-night stay on Isla Barú:
Cartagena is a key part of most of G Adventures’ small group Colombia itineraries, so have a look at what they offer if you’re a little unsure about exploring the area by yourself.
Since you’re probably in full prep mode for your visit to Cartagena, Colombia now, make sure you don’t miss these guides either:
Nothing comes for free in this city. If a group of young men comes up to you and asks where you’re from or your name, try and slip off into the shadows. Not because they’ll rob or harm you, but because they’ll inject this info seamlessly into an embarrassingly long (though sometimes hilariously good) rap, following you down the streets with their boombox until you tip them. If you find yourself similarly tagged by a mime, unfortunately there’s no hope for you.
All over the streets within the walled city you’ll see Palenquera ladies dressed in traditional Caribbean-Colombian attire, with vibrant dresses and large headwear. Many will also carry fruit bowls on their heads. Casual as they might look, and unlike many other places in South America, this isn’t actually the way they would normally dress – this is a tourism job; they make their money not from selling their fruit but from charging tourists for photos. Some will therefore understandably get irate if you try and sneak a selfie without tipping. Don’t be shy, a photo with the ladies is only a dollar or two, and can be a lovely souvenir from your time in Cartagena.
Where to stay in Cartagena
To begin our accommodation guide to Cartagena, let us explain that the city is split up into 4 main areas for consideration – within the walled city, just outside the walled city in Getsemaní, along the coast to the East and on the peninsula, Bocagrande, to the South-West. While you might find some nice AirBnB apartments out on the peninsula, this part of the city is mainly just offices so not much culture going on. It’s also flagged as more risky in terms of personal safety.
Talking of personal safety, we don’t recommend staying anywhere past the San Felipe Castle. We checked out Hotel Allure Kanela for a swanky few days when Lozzy’s auntie and cousin came to visit Colombia – which is an excellent option if you have the budget – but that distance from the city is about as far as we would be comfortable going. If you arrive into Cartagena via bus rather than plane, the taxi journey from the terminal will show you all you need to know about why people stick to the city walls. Despite the wealthy centre, there is a huge amount of poverty in Cartagena, and development in the outer areas seems sadly deprioritised.
Cartagena’s walled city
Typically, the walled city is where it’s at, and so if you’re looking to be in the centre of all the action and around the grandest of architecture, this is the place to be. The best hostel we found was The Clock Hostel & Suites, which made it into our fave accommodation of South America list. The hostel is in tip-top condition with incredible showers, and the sleeping pods you get are good enough to have enough space for your backpack along the side of the bed (trust us, this is special). You also get 10% off at The Clock pub in the clock-tower square, which does the most delicious and hugest pile of nachos anyone could ask for.
República Hostel is also another popular spot and is a really nice place – we only spent a single night here in the end before we set sail for Panama via the San Blas Islands, and after expecting a quiet night in found that it was one of the coolest and most sociable places we’d been in Cartagena. We’ll definitely stay there again on another visit to Cartagena.
For a more luxe feel, and perhaps if you’re staying in a larger group, the mezzanine rooms and suites at Soy Local are really excellent. Very decent breakfast delivered to your room every morning too, though slightly oddly they ask you to do your own washing up afterwards.
It has to be said that, being the tourism hub that the walled city is, most of the accommodation there is on the expensive luxury side. However, if you’d like to stay out of the grasp of tourist traps and somewhere with restaurants you don’t have to remortgage your house for (slight exaggeration…) staying just outside the walls in Getsemaní is a great option.
Getsemaní, just outside Cartagena’s walled city
How to pronounce Getsemaní: get-sem-ah-KNEE. Things are a lot more local feeling around here, but it’s still colourful and strung with pretty bunting. Getsemaní is an area that has absolutely boomed since we wrote this guide to Cartagena the first time round in April 2018 versus 2019. Once up and coming, it’s now definitely up and rising with umbrella ceilings and gentrified bars to boot. One of the top hostels in this area is Selina, equipped with rooftop pool and bar.
East of the walled city
We did trial staying outside the walls along the coast to the East for one of our many visits, given that it’s the edge along the coastline with views of the slightly lacklustre beach. While our stay at Hotel Aixo Suites was good value for money, and we enjoyed the rooftop pool, in the area itself there’s not much around except high-rise, mid-range hotels, and getting a taxi in and out of town every day was a bit of a bore. It was much more difficult to find decent meal options in this part of the city.
Things to do in Cartagena
1. Fill your feed
The streets of Cartagena are CRAZY BEAUTIFUL, and it’s truly an Instagrammer’s dream. If you want a low-down on all the top picturesque spots to check out in Cartagena, make sure to read Mariana & Carlos’ guide to the most photogenic places in Cartagena.
2. Dance salsa
Cartagena has a wealth of salsa clubs to choose from. Top salsa bars are Café Havana (which gets packed on a weekend so get there fairly early), Quiebra Canto and the decidedly no-frills Donde Fidel. While the priciest of these top 3, Café Havana is especially known for its great atmosphere, and normally has a live band to set the scene.
3. Get drunk on a chiva bus
These windowless, flashing-lighted mobile boomboxes are the perfect way to get into the party spirit in Cartagena. Plus, the fresh breeze as you drive around this stifling city is not to be scoffed at. You will probably spill most of your drinks as you dance standing while the bus drives you around the streets of Getsemaní, and you won’t be doing much sight-seeing during the ride, but align your expectations of this Cartagena chiva experience and you’ll have a fantastic time 😉
4. Look out from Castillo de San Felipe
History boffs will enjoy the grand ruins of the San Felipe de Barajas Castle, just outside the city walls, which was key in defending this rich city from pirates and conquests. You can enter for just 25,000 COP (£6.25 at time of writing, 2019), but be prepared for a HOT time with little shade in parts.
5. Wade out into the Pink Sea
This is definitely gaining traction on social media this year! The pink sea, or El Salar de Galerazamba is actually the result of light-absorbing microbes in a salt mine, so for this reason it’s only this pink colour during the months of February and April, before the water gets too high for the microbes to be concentrated enough. The pink sea is 45 minutes from Cartagena, and entry to the site costs 5000 pesos. While most people get an organised tour there for ease, you can also arrange an independent visit to Cartagena’s pink sea by getting a public bus to Galerazamba, then a mototaxi to the salar.
6. Shop till you drop
Cartagena is an excellent place for souvenir shopping. While there are stalls and shops everywhere in the walled city, we found the cheapest to be along the arcade at Muelles, which is built into the far north-western wall on Carrera 2. You can’t barter too much here, but then again you don’t need to. This had some of the cheapest prices we’d seen in Colombia, for good quality stuff! After shopping there, don’t miss climbing La Muralla defensive wall at the end of the day to watch the calmness of sunset over the sea.
It’s worth saying that although Cartagena is on the Caribbean coast, and it does have long stretches of beach, the beach is really nothing to write home about, so if you’re after a sandy getaway you’re best popping down the coast to El Rincón del Mar in the South-West or Parque Tayrona and Palomino to the East. Quicker to get to, however, is the paradise of Isla Barú and the Rosario Islands. You’ll find some strips of beach immediately east of the walled city where the high-rise hotels are, but not really worth a day trip. Best to find accommodation in Cartagena with a pool!
9. Visit Totumo, Colombia’s only mud volcano
And a strange definition of one, too. Volcan Totumo sits an hour’s drive from Cartagena, and though called a volcano, it’s more of a giant 15m molehill with a small mud bath at the top. Bizarre as it may seem, the mud is said (in legends, not necessarily science) to have healing properties, and it’s an interesting way to relax at close quarters with some strangers-soon-to-be-best-friends. Take lots of small change for tips, as there are people on hand to massage/grope you, guard your clothes, wash you in the river, etc. etc. Drink a huge amount of water before you go, as there’s little shade during the trip, and be warned that the ladders and steps leading up to the Totumo mud volcano can get very slippery. Still keen? Check out tour options here.
Nightlife in Cartagena
No guide to Cartagena would be complete without a note on the nightlife! We’ve compiled a list of the 12 best bars, rooftops and clubs in Cartagena, which will tell you all the best establishments to head down to and have a few/many beers of an evening.
You don’t have to go to pricey bars to enjoy the nightlife in Cartagena, though. Once only on a Friday and Saturday night but now every night of the week to cater for the increased attention from tourists, the main square of Getsemani – Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad – comes absolutely alive with buskers and music in the early evening. Remember to tip the performers if you stand and watch!
Grab a taco wrap from nearby KTaquitos or an arepa from the Arepa Paisa stall and settle down in the square to watch the show. If you want something a bit more classy, get a balcony table upstairs in El Guero. You’ll find several more good bars and clubs around Getsemaní, mostly in between Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad and Cartagena’s walled city, so have a wander! We love El Patio for its cutesy decor, 7-for-5 beer buckets and excellent empanadas – the perfect place to start your night.
Where to eat in Cartagena
Cartagena has such a wealth of restaurants, and we had some greeeeat food all around the city. Read our top choices for where to eat in Cartagena’s walled city and Getsemani here. However, given Cartagena one of the most expensive, touristy spots in the whole of Colombia, we also cooked in a fair amount.
A little sprinkle of truth for you – at the top of almost every guide to Cartagena is Stepping Stone Café. On top of the food it offers, it’s a sustainable project. As you munch on your first world smashed avocado brunches, you’ll also be helping out young locals from disadvantaged backgrounds who are given training and experience in the food & hospitality industry by the café. Despite all the money brought in by tourism, the local community often don’t feel much of the benefit, with many restaurants and cafes owned by expats and very few offering opportunities to locals outside the wall who have little or no experience in the industry. The atmosphere is good and the food is incredible – but we’re going to be fairly brutal in saying that perhaps this safe bubble breeds a lack of need to improve. We were served twice by the same guy, months apart, and he was probably worse the second time around – everyone’s order had at least one thing wrong, and he quite aggressively fought us on what we’d asked for versus what he’d served up. No shits were given.
Second on every guide to Cartagena is the renowned Beiyu for the banana bread, but unfortunately we felt this was pretty over-hyped and over-priced for tourists. We preferred the chillaxed vibe with great café at the coffee shop at Maloka Hostel, or the banana bread from Café de las Novias. If you’re looking for a great coffee shop to grab a traditional Colombian flavour, go to Sabor de la Montaña within the walled city.
For something a little more budget, check out Cháchara, and for a mid-afternoon snack make sure to get the nachos at the Clock Pub. As mentioned before, KTaquitos on Calle 29 is bloody fantastic.
Struggling for ideas for places to go after visiting Cartagena? We recommend:
Mompóx for a beautifully authentic slice of Colombian pueblo life
Minca for chilling in nets over the jungle
Tayrona Park for hiking to Colombia’s best mainland beaches