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Colombia Travel Guide: Top 4 Things to do in Cartagena

Things to do in Cartagena

Where:

 

Cartagena is a Unesco world heritage site located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. It’s the one of the oldest cities in Colombia, founded in 1533, and has loads of Spanish colonial charm. The majority of the city’s population are of Afro-Caribbean descent, so the local culture is totally different from the culture inland.

Wall in Cartagena Colombia

Why:

 

Vibrant colors, colonial ruins, dozens of varieties of tropical fruit, fresh ceviche, distinct local culture...

 

Sunset in Cartagena Colombia
Hats on the street in Cartagena

Things To Do in Cartagena:

Stay in & Explore Getsamani

 

Getsamani is a super charming neighborhood, located right next to the Old Town (the old historic district of Cartagena). There are lots of hostels here, but the local culture remains king.

street in Getsamani Cartagena
Mural of a girl Cartagena
Mural in Cartagena Colombia
Floor in Cartagena Colombia

 

Spend a couple hours wandering down narrow streets and alleys, taking in the colorful homes, bright graffiti, murals, and old churches. You’ll see older couples sitting outside in their street, drinking coffee or playing cards. It’s a really interesting inside look into Colombian Caribbean life.

street art in Cartagena Colombia
Things to do in Cartagena
Alley in Cartagena Colombia
Flowers in Cartagena Colombia
Teatro Colon Cartagena Colombia

 

We stayed at Mamallena hostel in Getsamani. It was reasonably priced, included a pancake breakfast, and has a cute central courtyard for lounging and using the wifi. The staff is helpful if you have questions about booking day trips, or if you’re interested in visiting their sister hostel in Rincon del Mar (and you should!).

 

Visit a Castle

 

One of the coolest things to do in Cartagena is visit the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. It’s a giant castle/pyramid built between 1630-1657, with enlargements in 1762. It’s an intimidatingly huge and impressive structure on the north end of the city.

 

You can walk there from Getsamani by crossing the bridge and following the main road. Just try to make the trip early to beat the hottest part of the day. The structure is huge and you can’t miss it.

Top of the Castillo in Cartagena

Roof of the Castillo in Cartagena

Things to do in Cartagena

View of Cartagena from the top of the Castle

sitting on the Castillo in Cartagena

 

Inside the pyramid, it’s pitch black, except for a few scattered lights. You can see the areas where the military would have hunkered down in case of an attack.

 

Hours are 8am-6pm.

 

Tunnel inside the Castle in Cartagena
Canon on top of the Castle in Cartagena

Walk the Old City Wall

 

The old city is surrounded by a tall stone wall on all sides. The wall is wide and flat on top, so you are able to walk most of it. There are stairs periodically around the wall to climb up or down from the top.

Tower on the wall in Cartagena
walking the wall in Cartagena

 

The walk is a great way to get perspective on the city, take some pictures of Old Town and the ocean, and people watch.

street in Cartagena Colombia

View of Old Town from the top of the wall in Cartagena

view of the ocean from the wall in Cartagena

Looking out to the ocean from the city wall

 

I recommend buying a can of Club Colombia (the most popular local beer) from one of the men selling them from a cooler, and strolling the wall’s perimeter at sunset.

Eat the Street Food:

 

One of my favorite things to do in Cartagena is wandering the streets and sampling the street food on every corner. There is so much variety - from fruit, to grilled meats, to steaming arepas. And I found the quality to be much more reliable than in the many touristy restaurants in the city.

 

There is an excellent ceviche stand on the main road directly across from Old Town. There are many vendors lined up there, but the one I recommend has a huge sombrero on the top - you can’t miss it.

Ceviche stand in Cartagena Colombia

 

You order whichever size you prefer and sit in one of the folding chairs set up in a circle around the stand. The ceviche is prepared a little differently than in other parts of Latin America. It has a tomato sauce base and is a bit creamy. It’s super fresh and delicious.

 

Another of my favorite street food dishes was served in a mini brown paper bag. It’s grilled chorizo, chopped in chunks, and poured on top of polenta squares. It’s then drizzled with ketchup or hot sauce and served with a toothpick. The presentation is clever and the dish is delicious too! You can find a few men selling this on the outer edge of the Old Town.

 

Other delicious street food to look out for:

 

Fresh pressed orange juice

Arepas with queso

Chopped fresh fruit

 

Be Prepared:

 

Weather:

 

Cartagena is hot. Really hot! Try to do most of your walking in the morning or late afternoon. Drink lots of water, wear sunscreen, and take breaks!

 

Beaches:

 

There aren’t any pretty swimmable beaches very close to the city. You can travel to the Bocagrande beach in the western part of Cartagena by bus or taxi, or take a day trip to Playa Blanca - but I have heard mostly negative things about these places. We treated Cartagena as a cultural stop on the coast, and went elsewhere for beach time.

 

Cost:

 

The coast is a little more expensive than the inland cities. In my experience, hotels and hostels cost about 50% more and food is just a little more than Bogota, Medellin, or Salento.

 

When to go:

 

During Colombian high season (late December-January), the coast is busy with tourists, and accommodation can get booked up. Plan ahead if you are visiting during that time of year.

 

Transportation:

 

Cartagena’s bus station is a bit far from the city - a 45 minute cab ride at 20,000COP.

 

The airport is much closer, only 15 minutes in a taxi and about 10,000COP.

 

If you're heading to Colombia, be sure to check out my guides for the 3 Best Adventures in Colombia: 

 

Hiking Valle de Cocora - a valley with the tallest palm trees in the world

Camping Parque Tayrona -  a wild and remote beach

Visiting the San Bernardo Islands - a little known island chain in the Pacific

 

And check out my Top 5 Things to Do in Bogota, and my Top 6 Things to Do in Medellin.

 

9 Responses

  1. Ann Fisher
    | Reply

    I’ve looked at several cruises recently that had Cartagena as a port of call. Thanks for all of great information on things to do in this city! I particularly love your pictures of the colorful streets and the murals. Now my only problem is — one day won’t be enough :-(.

  2. Juliann
    | Reply

    Wow! I’ve been tossing around the idea of a trip to Colombia, but these pictures REALLY make me want to go. I love all the colorful paintings and buildings. I’d love to get an up-close view of the vibrant culture here.

  3. Jen
    | Reply

    Great pictures! I went with a college boyfriend and his family once but I didn’t get to explore on my own, would love to see the street art. I did find we got approached a LOT by vendors, like couldn’t walk down a street without at least 10 people following trying to sell something. Doesn’t seem like you had that experience

  4. Jenn and Ed Coleman
    | Reply

    Cartagena seems like an Old World city. It’s amazing how a 600 year old city, complete with castles can mix with the Caribbean vibe. I can almost imagine a calypso band playing Celtic folk music.

  5. Cat
    | Reply

    Wow, Getsamani is such a charming neighborhood. I love all the bright mural arts – great spots for photos for sure! I can see myself spending hours there!

  6. Allison Wong
    | Reply

    This city is so vibrant and colourful! Love how the modern graffiti blended with the historical colonial past.

  7. Julianne
    | Reply

    As others have mentioned, the colors in Cartagena are gorgeous — I had no idea how bright everything is. Some of your photos of the castle and tower remind me of the fort in San Juan, Puerto Rico for some reason… I find exploring old forts and such to be really interesting. I’ve also recently become obsessed with arepas and would definitely order one in Cartagena!

  8. Ivy
    | Reply

    How hot is hot! Id love to go but I dont fare well in places that are too hot haha. Are there cooler seasons when its not as bad? Im surprised it costs 50% more for hotels! Thats quite a big difference

  9. Katie
    | Reply

    I’m loving the street art and now am craving some ceviche! I want to go here so bad.

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