11 Best Things to do in Cartagena, Colombia
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Located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, the city of Cartagena de Indias was once a bastion of Spanish colonial wealth and power. You can see this history reflected today in the charming colonial architecture and impressive city walls and fortifications.
It also has a vibrant culture, fun nightlife scene, and some of the prettiest beaches in Colombia in the nearby islands. Learn all about planning a visit to Colombia’s premier international travel destination in this guide to Cartagena, Colombia.
What to Do in Cartagena
Visit the Walled City of Cartagena
There is a variety of things to do and see in Cartagena. An absolute must is setting some time aside to simply walk the picturesque and colorful streets of the Walled City, or Centro Histórico.
Here you will see flower covered balcones and elaborate wooden doors to the mansions of Cartagena’s colonial elite of yesteryear. Still the cities downtown commercial heart, you’ll also see plenty of hustle and bustle but still find areas with empty streets and quiet plazas.
This is also where you will find many of best restaurants in Cartagena and a number of interesting museums such as the Cartagena Gold Museum, Inquisition Museum, and Naval Museum.
Learn About Cartagena’s History
You can learn even more about Cartagena’s history with a a visit to the Castillo San Felipe Fortress outside the historic center. This massive fort was the site of a major victory over an invading British force in 1741, one of several colonial era attacks on Cartagena.
Much of Cartagena’s colonial wall built to repel those attacks still remains intact and encircles the Old Town today. Walking along the top of it is a true charm. You’ll especially want to catch sunset drinks from Café del Mar, located atop a corner of the wall looking out towards the Caribbean Sea.
Visit the neighborhood of Getsemaní
Head outside the wall where the city’s iconic clocktower stands to the equally historic neighborhood of Getsemaní. The historic home to the city’s colonial artisan class, it is considered to be the true heart of Cartagena’s unique culture that blends African, Indigenous, and Spanish influences.
You’ll find lots of neat cafes and restaurants here, as well as some of the very best bars in Cartagena. Also, be on the lookout for all of the neat examples of street art and graffiti, which make great photo ops.
Watch the Sunset in Cartagena
Watch sunset from Café del Mar, or you might consider heading to the rooftop bar at Hotel Movich, which has a spectacular view of the bay and the modern skyscrapers of the posh Bocagrande distric. Or consider heading out on the bay itself for a sunset cruise, an excellent way to start an evening in Cartagena.
Go Dancing after Dark in Cartagena
After dark, put on your dancing shoes and head to one of Cartagena’s many dance clubs. For an old school salsa only vibe, head to Café Havana, where Hillary Clinton was once famously spotted cutting loose. Or head to Mister Babilla, which plays a mix of different music. If you want something more low key, head to the Plaza de la Trinidad in Getsemaní for street beers and people watching or enjoy a few beers at the outdoor tables by the Clocktower at Donde Fidel.
Take a Day Trip to the Rosario Islands
A can’t miss day trip from Cartagena is doing a day on the beaches of the nearby Rosario Islands. Located about an hour away by boat, they are a chain of picturesque coral islands surrounded by crystal clear Caribbean waters.
A great way to do this is by chartering a private boat for the day to take you around to go snorkeling, stop at some of the beaches, or perhaps head over to party spot Cholón Island. However, it can be pricey to do this if you’re on your own and can’t put together a group. There are some shared boat tours, as well as a number of resorts that offer day passes.
Of course, spending the night at one of the best Rosario Islands hotels is also a great choice, and perfect if you want a true escape with some exquisite rest and relaxation. Las Islas, Isla del Encanto, and Islabela make great choices.
Head to the Beach
There are also beaches in Cartagena proper, with the best ones being in Bocagrande. However, even those pale in comparison to the white sand beaches of the islands, and have a tendency to be overcrowded and have lots of pushy vendors. The beaches on the island of Tierra Bomba just across the bay offer a happy medium but still can’t beat the beaches on the islands. Grab your beach bag and enjoy a day of Colombian sun and sand.
Visit the Mud Volcano
There are several other interesting day trip options near Cartagena. For something very unique, head to the Volcán del Totumo mud volcano, located about an hour north of Cartagena. This surreal looking volcano is filled with squishy mud. It is supposedly good for the skin, and taking a dip is certainly an interesting experience and story to share.
Visit the Pink Seas of Galerazamba
Nearby, you can see the Pink Sea of Galerazamba. A sea salt mine, the high salinity in the water causes microorganisms there to thrive, which give the water its pink color. It’s a really pretty sight. Lots of tours combine the mud volcano and pink sea together.
Visit the First Free Town in the Americas
For a more cultural experience, consider visiting San Basilo del Palenque, often times just called Palenque. A few hours south of Cartagena, this town originated as a village of runaway slaves. After several failed attempts to conquer it, the Spanish crown granted it status as a free town, the first such town to receive royal recognization in the Americas. Residents preserved many aspects of their traditional African cultures, and the language many of the village elders speak is the only known African-Spanish creole language.
If you visit, you can learn more about the town’s history and culture. You will most likely get a drum and dance lesson too. You will also get a chance to see a bit of the other side of Colombia as Palenque, like much of rural Colombia, has been largely neglected by the government.
Visit the City Market of Bazurto
Finally, if you wanted to see a bit more of the other side of Cartagena itself, consider doing a tour to the city market of Bazurto. The main city market, it can be a bit of an assault on your senses. It’s not recomendable to go on your own, but there are a variety of tours that go here, and they offer a chance to sample some of the freshest fruits and seafood you’ll find anywhere.
Where to Stay in Cartagena
The best areas to stay in Cartagena, especially for first time visitors are inside the Walled City or in neighboring Getsemaní. It puts you close to the action within walking distance to many of the city’s attractions, best restaurants, and cafes.
It is also where you will find many of the city’s best boutique hotels. Especially great are the Sofitel Santa Clara and Charleston Santa Teresa, both located in former convents. For something a bit more modern, consider the Hotel Movich or Townhouse Boutique.
For something more budget friendly but nice, check out the Hotel Don Pedro Heredia.
You could also opt to stay in one of the more modern, high rise hotels in Bocagrande. There are lots of nice restaurants here as well, and this area does offer easier to access to the beaches in town. The Cartagena Hilton, the Estelar, and the Hotel Caribe make fine choices for where to stay here.
If you would prefer to stay in an apartment, these three areas all have good AirBnB options as well.
Other Practical Tips for Planning a Visit to Cartagena
?Colombia has a bit of a reputation, however Cartagena is very safe to visit. Like any medium to large sized city that gets a lot of tourism, it does have some petty crime like pick pockets. If you use common sense safety tips like keeping valuables and flashy jewelry at home, not carrying large amounts of cash, and being aware of what’s going on around you, you should be fine.
?There are also a few common tourist scams. The most prevalent are taxis and vendors on the beach overcharging. For taxis, always make sure you negotiate and agree on a price before getting in the car. For most areas around the tourist zones of Cartagena, you should be paying no more than $20,000 Colombian pesos. Taxis are prevalent, easy to flag down, and the best way to get around.
?With vendors, on the beach or otherwise, be aware that there are no free samples. Be especially weary of the massage ladies and oyster mongers that offer free samples, they will want you to pay. Vendors can also be quite insistent, so practice your best “no, gracias” before coming, and if you do want to buy something be sure to negotiate and agree on price.
?Cartagena can get very crowded with foreign and Colombian visitors around the Christmas and New Years holidays as well as during the June to July summer vacation and Easter week, so keep that in mind and be sure to make reservations in advance and expect crowds during those times. If you want to have a more peaceful time in Cartagena, travel during the off season in the spring and fall.
Cartagena Travel Guide Conclusion
Now you should know everything you need to plan a trip to Cartagena yourself! It’s a lovely city with lots to offer from the charming and fascinating history to the lovely beaches and vibrant culture. I hope you loved learning about the best things to do in Colombia.
About the Author
Adam McConnaughhay lived in Cartagena from 2011 to 2022. He writes about it and other destinations in Colombia at CartagenaExplorer.com.
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