Cartagena is without a doubt Colombia’s new tourist hub in the Caribbean. Its magnificent Old Town, its vast cultural offer and the sheer infinite food and nightlife options make this the most charming city to visit in Colombia. Here are some suggestions on how to spend a few days in Cartagena.
History and overview:
Cartagena de Indias was founded by Spanish explorer Pedro de Heredia in 1533 and became a major Spanish sea fortress in the Caribbean. The fortress served as a colonial stronghold for centuries before Colombia’s independence in 1819.
The capital city of the Bolivar department is nowadays Colombia’s main tourist destination and an important academic and cultural hub. The fifth largest Colombian city (behind Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Baranquilla) has undergone drastic transformations pertaining to infrastructure and safety in the last 10 years which are visible all over the city.
On par with many Latin American cities, Cartagena’s barrios (areas) are extremely diverse, ranging from immeasurable wealth in Bocagrande to extreme poverty on the outskirts. For the purpose of completing your experience, it is highly interesting to visit the areas outside of the city’s shiny new core in order to obtain a genuine image of the city’s contrasts. As always, caution is advised when visiting a popular neighbourhood.
Hotel Simon de Bolivar: A beautiful colonial hotel close to the Walled City where you can swim and have breakfast while enjoying breathtaking views over the shiny new Bocagrande area.
Hotel La Magdalena: A no non sense option in Getsemani with clean and spacious rooms for very reasonable prices in an excellent location.
Hostal Media Luna: A nice little hostel in the heart of the busy Calle Media Luna which offers standard rooms and a great location for travellers who want to experience the many areas Cartagena has to offer.
Cultural offer and activities:
Castillo San Felipe: The old castle is located outside Cartagena’s main core and offers stunning views over the city’s very diverse areas.
The Walled City: The city’s showpiece district is a maze of small streets boasting beautiful colonial architecture and several churches and museums making it the absolute must visit part of Cartagena.
Museo de la inquisición (Inquisition Palace): The largest museum in Cartagena is the ideal place to learn about the city’s past, its historically significant fortress and the dreadful history of Catholic inquisition in Latin America.
Gold & Esmerald Museums: Two small yet very interesting museums about some of Colombia’s major exports.
Beaches: Bocagrande & La Boquilla: Truth be told, Cartagena’s beaches are not the Carribean dream you may imagine, the beaches on Isla Baru and Islas del Rosario (see next point) are a far better option. If you do not have time to embark on a trip to one of those islands, this guide recommends the beaches in Bocagrande and La Boquilla which are nothing special and full of insisting vendors but still do the job.
Excursions: Playa Blanca & Islas del Rosario: Playa Blanca on Isla Baru is a great day trip excursion although extremely busy, especially on weekends. The Islas del Rosario are a tropical paradise which can be reached on a one hour boat journey but be aware of the disastrous organization of Cartagena’s port which renders a day trip to the Islas del Rosario virtually impossible. It is therefore a better option to book a night on the island in one of its several hostels.
Wine & Dine:
The gourmet option: Don Juan: (Calle del Colegio # 34-60) An amazing restaurant serving a variety of local and international dishes in a chic and modern setting. The restaurant is quite pricey but worth every penny and it is highly recommended to book a table in advance.
The budget option: Plaza de la Trinidad: The lovely little Trinidad square in Getsemani is a charming outside space where locals and tourists gather at night to enjoy one of the many street food options which line the square. The area also counts numerous bars catering for every taste.
La Mulata: (Calle Quero 9 58) A charming restaurant which serves excellent Colombian dishes and provides thereby an excellent opportunity to experience a traditional Colombian lunch in the Old Town.
Cartagena counts innumerable nightlife options in several areas, the most popular being Getsemani and the Walled City while the modern district of Bocagrande is starting to rival those two. Be aware that prostitution is a big issue and that caution is required when partying in Colombia.
Getsemani area: The area has become one of the new epicentres of Cartagena’s nightlife scene, boasting a mix trendy bars and latin style clubs. Calle Media Luna is a street where you’ll find a lively party on nearly every day of the week, with Cafe Havana (Esquina Cra 10) and Bazurto Social Club (Cra. 9 #3042) being the best spots in this particular part of Getsemani.
La Jugada: (Cra. 6 #3425) A stylish and modern bar located in the Walled City stretching over several floors and containing various rooftop areas. The clientele is a mix of locals and tourists and prices are high for Cartagena standards.
Demente: (Cra. 10 #29-29) One of the coolest bars in the lively Getsemani district where you can enjoy a wide variety of Colombian craft beers and a large assortment of tapas.
Clock Pub: (Cl. 34 #7-33 a 7-80) Your traditional British pub in the heart of Cartagena. This pub scores points with its great atmosphere and the live music bands that perform here.
Alquimico: (#34- a, Cra. 6 #34108) Another great bar in the city centre that stretches over several floors and contains a rooftop area. The bar is quite touristy but still a fantastic place to enjoy a drink in the walled city.
Mister Babilla: (Av. del Arsenal No. 8B – 137) A bar/club in the teeming Arsenal street in Getsemani with several rooms and a great drinks selection. Buzzing on the weekend but a shadow of its former glory during weekdays.
Final tips & verdict:
Cartagena is by and large a fantastic city. The city’s main drawbacks, the ubiquitous vendors and the high degree of prostitution do not undermine the beauty and charm of this two faced city.
Very few cities in Latin America can compete with Cartagena’s flair and it therefore ranks high in terms of liveability and general interest for travellers.
Be aware that English levels are VERY LOW in Colombia and even though they are a bit higher in touristy places like Cartagena, learning Spanish is highly recommended when travelling in Latin America (see picture below).
Taxis are cheap and omnipresent while Uber is also a passable option.
Cartagena is portrayed to be the safest city in Colombia and safety concerns are indeed minimal but as always, caution is still required. This means not flashing any valuables, not carrying a backpack in a crowded place and not walking into unknown areas. The city walls are moreover known to be a hotspot for thieves after sundown.