What You Need to Know About Cartagena
Cartagena is Colombia’s fifth-largest city and the most popular for foreign and domestic tourists alike. Cruise ships have been stopping here for years, but it’s so much more than a day trip, hop-off destination. The city is vibrant and bursting with contrasts: slow-moving and fast-talking, wealth alongside poverty, ruled by functional chaos. You’ll be served soup in 90-degree weather, see old ladies and toddlers dance to salsa in the street, and try fruits you’ve never heard of.
The oppressive Caribbean heat isn’t for the faint-hearted, so we recommend three to five days to explore the city. Here’s what you should know:
It’s loaded with history.
Cartagena’s Centro, often referred to as “the Old City” in guidebooks or “the Walled City” by locals, was conquered by the Spanish in 1533. The walls have seen pirate attacks, slave traders, and naval battles, as well as waves of artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals. Check out the iconic Castillo de San Felipe fortress in the morning or early evening to avoid the heat. It was built on a hill in the 1600s by the Spanish, and even if you’re not a history buff you can appreciate the solid architecture and eerie underground tunnels. Later, spend an afternoon in one of Cartagena’s air-conditioned museums like the Palace of the Inquisition, the Naval Museum and the Gold Museum.
Consider getting your beach time somewhere else.
Cartagena hugs the Caribbean ocean and the waterfront sunsets are spectacular. Playa Blanca is Cartagena’s most popular option, and gorgeous blue water framed by palm trees will fulfill your Caribbean dreams – if you can find a space among the crowds. Unfortunately, rapid overdevelopment has had a harsh impact on the ecosystem surrounding Playa Blanca and the Rosario Islands, so we recommend skipping those tours. For a local beach day, try Tierra Bomba or La Boquilla, two options closer to the city, and less crowded. La Boquilla has a few kitesurfing schools if you want to try something more extreme. However, if you’re looking for that white sand, photograph-worthy experience, you might be better off finding your way up the coast to Santa Marta (4-5 hours by bus). Parque Tayrona and the surrounding beaches can be a delightful natural contrast to Cartagena’s cobblestones.
It’s cheap! (But not that cheap.)
The dollar (or Euro) to the peso exchange rate is in your favor right now, so you can arrange an enjoyable visit without spending a fortune. Cartagena is a tourist town though, and prices have been adjusting to agree with the rising dollar. This means hotel and rental prices are slowly increasing, so you’ll want to shop around when booking. Still, a beer is around $1 USD, a cab ride $3-4 and a fancy dinner for two can be easily found for under $50.
Things happen on the street.
Sometimes tourists tend to stick to the sterilized, air-conditioned world, but you can access plenty of food, entertainment and shopping in Cartagena right outside. Shop for souvenirs, jewelry, and art on the wall or around the major churches like the Cathedral, and don’t be afraid to bargain a bit! Grab a snack from a vendor – fresh-cut fruit, coconut water, fried arepas de huevo and deditos de queso are around every corner and a good way to try typical cuisine. You’ll also see living statues and street performers, as well as musicians as the sunsets. Plaza Trinidad in the Getsemaní neighborhood always has something going on after dark, even if it’s just a local Zumba class (join in!)
*Please pass on the horse and carriage, though, and opt for walking or biking. There has been ongoing controversy about the animals’ treatment.
You don’t have to do anything.
Did we mention the heat? Cartagena is hot. While you might get a breeze sneaking through the walled Centro from November to March, the temperature consistently hovers around 90 with 90-100% humidity. Luckily, the Centro and Getsemaní are perfect for lazy exploring. Wander around to admire the street art full of social and cultural commentary, the intricate doors, and the architecture, then post up at a cafe with a cold Aguila beer or a maracuya (passion fruit) cocktail to read, chat or people watch. Cartagena’s best entertainment occurs around 6 pm when you can catch a brilliant sunset over the ocean from the top of the wall. An afternoon in your hotel pool or hammock isn’t a bad option either.
Spanish Makes a Difference
As Colombia’s main tourism hub, Cartagena can be navigated without speaking the language. Most hotels, tourist attractions, and transportation agencies will have staff with basic English skills or at least a translated brochure, and many restaurants feature bilingual menus. That being said, we think it’s easier to dive deeper into the coastal Colombian culture with knowledge of Spanish. People from Cartagena, cartageneros or costeños, speak rapid, somewhat blunt Spanish with a heavy accent, but they love to talk, especially about their city and culture. Striking up conversations with locals can give you insight that no brochure or audio guide ever could (and it will help you negotiate taxi fares!) and can create a true cultural exchange that goes beyond tourism. If you don’t speak any Spanish, that’s ok too! A smile and “Gracias” goes a long way.
Keep these things in mind when you plan your Cartagena trip and enjoy this unique, beautiful coastal city!
Here more about what to do in Columbia in Travel to Colombia – Amateur Traveler Episode 143: