If you’re wondering why you should choose Cartagena as your next destination, wonder no more! Cartagena has it ALL-literally everything for every single traveler I’ve ever met. Not to mention that it’s city center and castle has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984.
As soon as we told anyone that wasn’t well traveled that we were going to Colombia, their first concern was safety. Fortunately, Cartagena is a very safe city, as long as you’re a responsible traveler (don’t go wandering down back alleys at night, etc.).
Never Ending Pops of Color and Architecture
Cartagena is a photographers (and Instagrammers) playground. Every cobblestone street is bursting with color and ornate architecture that is sure to please any wanderer. Not to mention that it’s home to one of the coolest neighborhoods of street art, Getsemani.
History & Culture
Previously a slave port to the America’s, its city walls are busting full of history at ever turn. You wont be able to miss the beautiful palenqueras as they wander by with colorful dresses and fruit bowls.
I love Cartagena because it offers up SO much delicious food. Colombians sure know how to make mouthwatering coffee, arepas, treats, aguardiente and SO much more. Not to mention the abundance of fresh fruit (be sure to sip on a local coconut during your visit)! There’s also plenty of options for vegans.
Tired of roaming around the city?! Head down to the beach at Bocagrande or La Boquilla for a day in the sun! If you’re a clear, blue-water hunter like we are, then I highly suggest a day trip to the Rosario Islands.
Are you sold yet?! If I haven’t convinced you yet, check out the top 10 listed below…
10 Things You MUST Do in Cartagena
1. Roam the Streets of Casco Antiguo (Old Town)
The streets of Casco Antiguo are a photographers (and Instagrammers) dream come true. Pops of color coupled with beautiful architecture at every turn make it the PERFECT place to get lost in the streets of the walled city.
Be sure to stop and see the Torre del Reloj (yellow clock tower ), a historically important monument, Plaza Aduana, Plaza Santo Domingo and Plaza Bolivar. Also don’t forget to stop in the cutest book store that ever existed, Abaco Books and Coffee.
If you’d like to have the beautiful streets all to yourself, take my advice and get up early. We started our day with breakfast at Epoca Cafe (order coffee and an Arepa, you’ll thank me later) at 8am and then, afterward, we basically had the entire town to ourselves for a solid hour before the streets started to flood with tourists.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of this great city, check out Free Tour Cartagena. They offer free tours of Getsamani, Old Town, a food tour of the Bazurto market and several others.
2. Revel in the Street Art of Getsamani
Getsemani is the Wynwood or the Brooklyn of Cartagena= the part of town that used to be unsafe but what is now hip, fun and artsy=a section that you MUST SEE when you come! Not only are the streets filled with beautifully decorated murals of street art, you’ll also find street vendors selling delicious Colombian treats, street musicians, pubs and many unique bars.
Getsemani was once filled with prostitutes and thieves, but has completely turned around. Now it’s the go-to part of the city for EVERY visitor.
We explored Getsemani by day, but I honestly regret not returning for it’s well known nightlife. Cafe Havana came highly recommended, so if you go, let me know if you loved it!
Free Tour Cartagena offers an excellent graffiti tour, which gives all the history and details behind each spectacular mural.
3. Buy Fruit from the Palenqueras (and grab a photo-be sure to tip them!)
Palenqueras are the iconic symbol of Cartagena. In present day, these colorfully dressed women, who descended from runaway African slaves, carry fruit bowls on their heads to make their money off of taking photos with excited tourists. The history of these incredibly beautiful women runs much deeper than modern day tourism, though.
Palenqueros and Palenqueras were the first free men and women of the New World after they gained their independence from Spanish power in 1691. Because the town was isolated and poor (and sadly, still is), the local women would pack baskets full of locally grown fruit and take the long walk into the city to sell them each day.
Nowadays they rarely sell fruit, but make their money by posing for photos with tourists instead. I admired many of these women from afar when we were roaming the streets and I couldn’t help but be in awe at how these descendants of free African slaves have evolved over the years to continue to do whatever it takes to provide for their families.
TIP: Be sure to tip these hard-working ladies for a photo-not only is it the right thing to do, it is how they solely make their money!
4. Watch the Sunset from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Ok ok, so, I’ll be honest here, we didn’t actually watch the sunset ourselves from the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. Why? Because we stayed in the dopest hotel ever (Hyatt Regency Cartagena) that had even better views of the the sunset each night. BUT, if we didn’t stay at the Hyatt, I certainly would’ve enjoyed a cocktail (or two) at Cafe Del Mar.
Constructed in 1536, the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is the iconic fortress of Old Town. It’s located atop the Hill of San Lázaro. In In 1984, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the rest of the old city of Cartagena.
TIP: On a tight budget? No need to drop $15 per drink at some Boujee restaurant. Grab a bottle of wine or a few beers from a local grocery store and hop up on the city walls facing west to watch the sunset over the water. I promise it’ll be just as perfect!
5. Ride a Chiva Bus
A chiva bus is a Colombian-style party bus. The word actually translates to a female goat in spanish, but it has nothing to do with the animal (unless you’re a party animal, that is-see what I just did there?).
Exploding with music, lights and people, this party on wheels is something you can’t miss if nightlife is on your agenda in Cartagena!
There are countless different companies that offer chiva bar-hopping tours throughout the city, so just head over to Tripadvisor and look them up (or ask your hotel/ Airbnb host which is the best in the city).
6. Spend a Day Island Hopping the Rosarios
One of my biggest regrets about our visit to Cartagena, was not structuring enough time to visit the Rosario Islands (we were spending 5 nights on San Andres immediately afterward, so I didn’t plan for the Rosarios).
I highly suggest structuring an extra day in your itinerary to spend the day boating around the crystal-clear blue waters of the islands. Located 100km (62 miles) off the coast of Cartagena, this archipelago offers up snorkeling, beautiful beaches and even is home to an island formerly owned by Pablo Escobar.
TIP: Do your research for a tour of the Rosario’s, as many of the companies have poor reviews. Talk to your hotel or Airbnb host for the best recommendations.
7. Have Dinner at La Cevecheria
If you’re anything like me, you were more than inspired in your life by the late, GREAT Anthony Bordain. On his trip to Cartagena in 2008, Mr. Bordain was in Cartagena filming his 12th Episode of No Reservations and his FIRST STOP was La Cevecheria.
La Cevecheria is a seafood restaurant. Interestingly enough, Ceviche is a typical dish of Peru, but this restaurant has added it’s own local twist to it, making it more soup-like, than salad-like. It’s topped off by a corozo sauce, which is made from the fresh, local exotic fruit of Cartagena.
If budget permits, you don’t want to miss this restaurant!
TIP: This restaurant is obviously VERY popular, so be SURE to make a reservation to avoid long wait times.
8. Have an Arepa and Coffee at Epoca
Picture this. You’re sitting in the cutest cafe in the middle of Old Town Cartagena, when the associate brings out the most unique mechanism you’ve ever seen that brews coffee (it’s a siphon) . Like Houdini, the associate brews this incredible cup of coffee for you like Walter White making the blue (for those of you that don’t know, it’s chemistry and Breaking Bad!). As you sip on the coffee, out comes this delicious steaming hot corn bread pocket filled with egg and meat. Are you drooling yet? Because I still am.
THIS is Epoca Cafe. The absolute highlight (food-wise) of our trip to Cartagena. The service was excellent, atmosphere on point and of course you know how I feel about the coffee and the food. My only regret was discovering this on our last day so I couldn’t go back again the next morning!
Fortunately, there are TWO locations in the Old Town of Cartagena, so you’ll have your pick. I def advise going early, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that Cartagena is a very popular place and this little cafe will fill up quickly!
9. Dance the Night Away and Take a Shot (or two) of Aguardiente
It’s no secret, Cartagena has incredible nightlife. If you’ve come to Colombia to cut a rug, you’ve come to the right place. The bars in El Centro and Getsemani are where the party starts.
Cafe Havana is BY FAR the most popular club in town for tourists. They have the best cocktails and live music. I read La Movida is good as well, although we did not make it there.
If clubbing it up isn’t your thing, check out La Casa de Cerveza (the House of Beer), because who doesn’t like a good pub in a new country?
If you drink alcohol, then you CANNOT come to Cartagena without trying Aguardiente. It’s a 24%-29% black licorice flavored alcohol (anise), which surprisingly goes down super smooth as a shot.
TIP: Cartagena is a LATE city. Usually these bars don’t even open until 6-7pm and stay open until the wee hours of the morning (3-4am). Also take note that most clubs are open only Thursday-Saturday. This is Cartagena, so do dress in nicer attire (no flip flops, obviously).
10. Soak in the Sun in Bocagrande
While Bocagrande isn’t even close to the nicest beach in Cartagena, it’s totally conveniente for a day of soaking in the sun. Located just 10 minutes by car outside of the city, this strip of sand with tall, shiny hotels in the backdrop is the perfect place to go to soak in a few hours of Vitamin D.
When we arrived in Cartagena, our taxi driver told us that Bocagrande is the ‘Miami skyline’ of Cartagena, and I tend to agree with him. There are what seems to be an endless amount of hotels lining this strip, including our beloved Hyatt hotel.
NOTE: Because of its close proximity to the city, this beach is the busiest during high season and weekends. Also, be alert to fight off some aggressive vendors walking round attempting to sell things like sunglasses and sunscreen.
Where to Stay in Cartagena
Josh and I have wandered the globe near and far and we’ve stayed in everything from a hut without air conditioning/hot water in Bali, to an over-the water bungalow in the Maldives. The Hyatt Regency Cartagena is one of the most beautiful hotels we’ve been in thus far! What makes it so special, you ask?! THE POOL and its VIEWS!
As previously discussed, the sunsets in Cartagena are nothing short of magical AND, if budget permits, I HIGHLY advise you skip the sunset at Cafe Del Mar at the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and post up at the infinity pool instead! We made sure to sight see all day and get back one hour before sunset to post up and take in the views.
Fun Fact: The Hyatt is NOT expensive by any means when in comparison to hotels in the USA. Their base room starts at just $119 a night!
If you’re looking for something more affordable and closer to the city center (the Hyatt is located in Bocagrande-about a 10 minute taxi ride from town), Airbnb is COMPLETELY safe and always a GREAT idea!
For $55 off your first AIRBNB booking, click HERE!
How to Get Around Cartagena
Fortunately, getting around Cartagena is a breeze. The entire Old Town and Getsemani are best navigated on foot (be sure to wear proper footwear). Uber is easily used and taxis can be hailed just about anywhere.
We pre-arranged transport to/from Rafael Núñez International Airport with our hotel. They charged us $20 each way for the 15 minutes ride.
TIP: Meters aren’t used in taxis in Cartagena, so BE SURE to ask for the rate up front. While every taxi driver we asked quoted us the same price, I was told that the taxi drivers in the city tend to have a reputation for overcharging both tourists and locals. We paid about $5 to get from Old Town to Bocagrande.
Tips to Know about Cartagena
While Cartagena is safe, there are a few things that others warned us about prior to coming that I feel are necessary to share with you as well.
The currency in Colombia is the peso. As of 2020, one USD will get you $4013.81 Colombian Pesos.
A friend of mine told me that she went to Cartagena, she pulled money out of an ATM and it was COUNTERFEIT. So, needless to say, I’d air on the side of caution if I were you in regards to ATM’s. You’re more likely to receive counterfeit money from ATM’s located in small shops and bars. Definitely go to a reputable bank recommended by your accommodation. Additionally, you can receive counterfeit money in return from taxi drivers, so be alert or try to have exact change!
We were SO severely ripped off at the airport, I’m still infuriated as I write this several months later. DO NOT exchange money at the airport when you arrive. We received $75 for the $100 we exchanged (losing $25). Insert knife in heart.
Western Union has better rates and there was one located at the Bocagrande Mall right next to our hotel, the Hyatt (there are several all over the city). They charged us $15 for $200 of USD exchanged to pesos.
GET UP EARLY
Even if you rage out the night before, I HIGHLY suggest waking up early to roam the streets. You’ll have the city ALL to yourself! It wasn’t until 10am that the streets started to fill with people, so we had a solid 1-2 hours each morning to explore (and take lots of pics and vids)!
San Andres is a gorgeous little Colombian island located off the coast of Nicaragua. Fortunately, it’s only a 1.5 hour flight from Cartagena. We skipped the Rosario Islands in Cartagena because we went to San Andres immediately afterward. Check out my blog post on San Andres for more info!
A city that we were completely blown away with was Panama City and, luckily, it’s only a 1 hour 20 minute flight from Cartagena. This city offers up delicious eats, rich history (Panama Canal), incredible architecture and so much more! Check out my blog post about Panama City for more info.
Fortunately, my city, Miami, is just a quick 1 hour and 15 minute flight from Cartagena. If you’ve never been to the Magic City before, then you’re in for a treat! Miami has something to offer everyone, whether you want to party, relax on the beach, run a marathon or anything else you could imagine! Fortunately, I’ve got you covered on all things Miami in my multiple blog posts.
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XOXO The Traveling Blondie
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