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.
Vibrant colors, colonial ruins, dozens of varieties of tropical fruit, fresh ceviche, distinct local culture...
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.
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.
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.
Roof of the Castillo in Cartagena
View of Cartagena from the top of the Castle
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.
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.
The walk is a great way to get perspective on the city, take some pictures of Old Town and the ocean, and people watch.
View of Old Town from the top of 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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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: