Cartagena, Colombia’s enchanting Caribbean burst of culture
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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 travel guide to Cartagena, Colombia!
We’re going to take you all our tips for the city, including the amazing Cartagena day-trips to go on after you’ve polished off all the top things to do in Cartagena, Colombia. We’ll also touch on where to sleep and where to grab some grub and a tipple, though there’s more info on that in our dedicated best places to stay, top restaurants, and bangin’ nightlife in Cartagena guides. Make it all the way to the bottom of this post and we’ll tell you the best time to visit Cartagena.
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 best things to do in Cartagena, Colombia, including aone-night stay on Isla Barú:
Cartagena is a key part of most of G Adventures’ Colombia itineraries, so have a look at what they offer if you’re a little unsure about exploring the area by yourself. They do some really lovely small-group trips that have people bonding for life.
How to pronounce Cartagena: car-tah-HEY-nah (lots of people fall into the trap of pronouncing it car-tah-HEN-yah, which sounds lovely but is sadly incorrect).
Since you’re probably in full prep mode for your visit, after you’ve read this guide to the best things to do in Cartagena, Colombia, make sure you don’t miss these guides:
Nothing comes for free in this sweltering 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.
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 themost photogenic places in Cartagena.
2. Marvel in the city’s history
Make sure you leave knowing the fascinating history of Cartagena by getting yourself a place on a free walking tour of the walled city. This will take you through all the ups and downs of the city’s past. And it’s not just the old town that’s steeped in history; you’ll also find free walking tours for Cartagena’s outer neighbourhoods, such as Getsemaní.
3. Dance the night away in a salsa bar
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.
4. 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 😉
5. Look out from Castillo de San Felipe
For History boffs, this is by far one of the best things to do in Cartagena. Colombia’s north coast has a past of defending itself from pirates who were lured over from the Caribbean by the promise of the city’s riches. It wasn’t called the Heroic City for nothing! Nowadays you can still enjoy the grand ruins of the San Felipe de Barajas Castle, just outside the city walls. The entry fee is just 25,000 COP (£6.25 at time of writing), but be prepared for a HOT time with little shade in parts.
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, and for good quality stuff!
7. Chomp through a Cartagena food tour
Foodies, don’t worry, I wasn’t going to leave you out of the best things to do in Cartagena! Colombia has such a wealth of cultures and climates that it’s always worth doing a food tour once you reach a new region. Bolivar is no exception, with Caribbean-style coconut-infusions, fresh seafood and plantain at every corner. In this incredible Cartagena food tour, you can follow the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain’s legendary visit to Bazurto market.
After you’ve finished shopping for souvenirs, head up to the top of the wall and secure a place to watch the calmness of sunset over the sea. By far the most popular spot for sunset is Café del Mar, but you have to get there hours before to get a table. Don’t worry though, there’s plenty of space along the wall itself!
3 unforgettable day trips from Cartagena
1. 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.
2. Swap the beaches of Cartagena for something more exotic
Although the city is on the Caribbean coast, and it does have long stretches of beach, the beaches of Cartagena are 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 Cartagena day trip. For the days when you’re away from the surrounding beaches of Cartagena, it’s best to find accommodation in Cartagena with a pool to cope with the heat!
3. 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 Millennial 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. To give opportunities back to locals is a fantastic idea.
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. But as we said, food is very good.
Second on every guide to Cartagena eats 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.
The best time to visit Cartagena
Being relatively close to the Equator, the temperature of Colombia doesn’t really change in line with standard seasons, with highs of 32 degrees Celsius ( 90 degrees Fahrenheit) every month of the year. Rainfall is higher in October, where you can expect roughly half the days of the month to have a fast, heavy downpour, but it’ll still be hot so may actually be a relief.
With the weather not too much of a differentiator, the best time to visit Cartagena revolves around avoiding its high seasons. These include the USA’s school summer holidays, Christmas to mid-January and Holy Week/Easter. There are big booms in the prices of the places to stay in Cartagena during these peak times, so if you’re on a budget the best time to visit Cartagena will be February to mid-March, mid-April to May, September or November.
Struggling for ideas for places to go after visiting Cartagena, Colombia? We recommend:
Mompóxfor a beautifully authentic slice of Colombian pueblo life