Cartagena, known since the colonial era as “Cartagena de Indias”, is a city and one of the major ports on the northern coast of Colombia in the Caribbean Coast Region. By the sea, is the walled Old Town, founded in the 16th century, with squares, cobblestone streets and colorful colonial buildings. With a tropical climate, the city is also a popular beach destination. Cartagena was the first stop of four on our trip to Colombia this past May. In this post, we share tips to help you plan your trip to Cartagena (or to help you decide if you want to visit!)
1) When to visit: Be prepared for warm humid weather year-round!
We love the heat and found it very hot in Cartagena! When we visited in May, it was about 33 Celsius but felt closer to 40 Celsius due to humidex (the humidity was at 80%!). As you can see, it tends to be hot in Cartagena year-round. We appreciated the overcast skies because, without the shade, it was even hotter! It also doesn’t help that the walled city is very closed in and so the breeze is limited.
2) Pack light: What to pack
Light as in – don’t bring any heavy clothes. Heavy as in – no more material than necessary. Wearing pants will make you want to cry. Grab all your lightest, airiest, loosest, sweat-resistant pieces and expect to sweat through all of them! Bring a hat….or 3.
3) How long to stay? We’d suggest 2-3 nights in the city, with possibly more time if combining with a nearby island.
We spent 3 nights and had 3 full days in Cartagena and felt that was sufficient. We had ample opportunity to check out the walled city, Getsemani, have a few good meals, enjoy rooftop patios at sunset, and relax at our hotel. We did not visit Boca Grande or do a boat tour to a beach because we decided to spend a few nights at Punta Faro on Isla Mucura instead. Cartagena is a popular stop for cruises and we think you can spend a few hours here and get a feel for the place, admire the architecture, have some food/drinks, and even venture to Getsemani.
4) Where to stay: Stay in the Walled City (Ciudad Amurrallada) unless you want to stick to a lower budget or have ocean views.
Most people either stay in the walled city (Ciudad Amurrallada), Getsemani, the neighbourhood just outside of the walled city, or the Boca Grande area (where the beach and tall skyscrapers are). The larger chain hotels are located in the Boca Grande area, and some offer great rates and spectacular views from the high floor rooms. From this area, you could walk about 20-30 minutes each way to the walled city or take a taxi. Accommodations in the walled city and Getsemani are smaller boutique hotels and are often more expensive. We decided to stay at Casona Del Colegio, a boutique hotel in the walled city to avoid transferring back and forth to the walled city, where most of the restaurants and bars on our list were located. The hotel also had a rooftop terrace and pool, spa, full bar and restaurant. Our room was exceptionally well soundproofed as it gets very loud in Cartagena into the evening. We also appreciated the windows that open, something that is often lacking from large chain hotels in modern skyscrapers. Overall, Hotel Casona Del Colegio offers a very relaxing atmosphere to absorb and immerse yourself into Cartagena’s high energy and vibrancy.
5) Rooftops at Sunset: Visiting a rooftop at sunset for some cocktails and food is a must.
Sunset in Cartagena is a magical time as the day’s heat dissipates and a new energy emerges. One of the best ways to enjoy this transition is with a cold beverage at one of many rooftop terrace bars/restaurants. We visited Townhouse and Buena Vida. We enjoyed Townhouse as it was more spacious, had tasty snacks, and the casual atmosphere wasn’t completely overwhelmed by an “Instagramers-in-the-wild” scene. While Buena Vida was nice, we were a bit disappointed by the dishes we ordered, and the aforementioned Instagram scene was in full-force that night with guests practically falling over each other to capture those perfect shots.
6) Eat at Celele: Celele offers unique food and supports local farmers.
Our first dinner in Colombia was at Celele – ranked by Travel & Leisure as one of Latin America’s top 50 restaurants! Celele’s chefs traveled the coast and spoke to people to find ingredients and preserve recipes that were at risk of being forgotten. Located in an old house in Getsemani, we’d say the setting is casual-upscale but not pretentious. The food was similar; beautifully presented without being intimidating (ie: no molecular gastronomy inventions here). While we loved everything we had, the Caribbean flower salad and panna cotta really stood out though. Make a reservation in advance or you might be disappointed as it’s small and very popular!
7) Eat ceviche: Sampling ceviche due to the abundance of fresh seafood in Cartagena is a must!
Seafood is a staple in Cartagena, and ceviche is a very common dish at most restaurants. We love ceviche as it makes a light, tasty, and healthy meal in warm weather! Our favorites were at La Laguna Azul, a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant located at the market. From the outside, you are not sure if it’s a convenience store, an Irish pub, or extra outdoor seating area for the market. This low-key setting, combined with fantastically fresh seafood and wonderful flavours made it feel like the kind of hidden gem Anthony Bourdain might have once stumbled across (courtesy of an in-the-know local fixer of course!). Ironically, our least favorite ceviche was from La Cevicheria (a local ceviche restaurant that he did visit many years ago). Perhaps we were unlucky, but it felt as though La Cevicheria popularity with tourists may have impacted their quality over the years. We left feeling disappointed with the majority of the dishes we tried, and the overall vibe was slightly chaotic with a seemingly endless stream of tourists crowding to get tables (reserving in advance turned out to be essential here) and street vendors trying to sell their products to those in line and seated at the outdoor tables. Finally, we also felt that the ceviche at Costa (located in Hotel Casona Del Colegio) deserved an honorable mention. It was also very fresh, well presented, and unique due to the addition of green mango in their recipe.
8) Eat at La Mulata: La Mulata offers up home-cooked Colombian food in a homey setting.
We really enjoyed our meal at La Mulata. The rustic-modern decor, welcoming staff and simple menu appears to be popular with both tourists and locals. On arrival, we were served a bowl of piping hot fish soup that was delicious. We also found the service to be very friendly and helpful despite no one speaking English and the menu being completely in Spanish with terms we’d never seen before (…nor did Google!). They also make really good and refreshing mojitos!
9) Wander aimlessly: Ditch the Google Maps and paper maps and just get lost.
Google Maps is not always that helpful in Cartagena’s walled city due to how small, narrow, and winding the streets are. Yes, pin places to your map but wander aimlessly until you find them. That’s how we found Abaco Libros y Café, a small bookstore with an impressive collection of Gabriel Garcia Marquez books while looking for La Paleteria. Have coffee at Libertario: Libertario is a small café in Getsemani. It’s the perfect place to grab a hot cup of coffee, or cold brew while comfortably watching life happen for locals and tourists alike. Spend lots of time in Getsemani looking at all the murals. Grab a beer or cocktail to go and walk the streets to stay hydrated. If you don’t want to wander aimlessly, there are many tours offered to help guide you!
10) Language: Start learning Spanish NOW!
We were somewhat surprised by how little English is spoken in Cartagena due to how touristy it is. People come to Cartagena from all over the world but there are definitely many Colombian tourists as well. However, we used our basic Spanish skills and Google Translate and didnt have too many problems. We think it would be hard to get by with no knowledge of Spanish at all. This is a tip for traveling to Colombia in general: learn as much Spanish as you can!
11) Safety: Take precautions and don’t do dumb tourist shit.
Overall, we feel that Cartagena is a safe destination to visit. We encourage everyone to practice common sense and take precautions you should take in many other destinations, i.e. don’t take cash out in crowded and busy areas, don’t wear flashy and expensive things, don’t wear lots of jewelry, don’t walk with your phone in your hand, don’t leave your possessions unattended and in easy reach for passersby, research where to walk in advance, use ATMs located inside (tip, the Bogota Airport has lots of ATMs with no fees so it’s a good place to take cash out!), don’t drink too much and wander late at night, and don’t buy drugs!
12) Cash or Credit Card: Both are accepted widely.
We mostly paid with credit cards in Cartagena but always had some cash on hand just in case.
13) Avoid Taxis if possible – Uber worked better for us.
We ended up only using one taxi during our time in Cartagena (from the airport to our hotel) as prior research suggested this was the best way to go. Despite researching options in advance, we still encountered issues on our arrival in Cartagena. The machine that generates official taxi rate receipts was hard to find (and use) and even once we had the slip, someone looking like an official taxi driver in the waiting area was quick to offer to take us…but only to one of the official taxis parked in the queue 10 feet away and provide our destination to him (all this for a tip of course). This official driver then tried to charge us double the fare when we arrived at our hotel, which he quickly adjusted to a lower amount when we reminded him of our machine-generated receipt. Not a great first impression.
While the majority of our time was spent walking, we also tried using Uber and didn’t have any issues. Be advised that the official state of Uber in Cartagena (and Colombia in general) is somewhat of a mystery. While we consulted many guides, blogs and even asked locals, each time we received slightly different information. That aside, all our Uber experiences in Colombia were good.
14) Be prepared for lots of street vendors: Many people are trying to earn a living on the streets.
The number of vendors can get annoying sometimes, especially when navigating the streets of the walled city, but people are all trying to earn a living and tourists need to be respectful of that. The Palenque ladies ask you to pay to take a photo with them (never photograph them without paying), rappers with boomboxes will suddenly befriend you while incorporating you into their song, people sell art and jewelry, and others may occasionally walk into a café or restaurant and ask you for money. It’s likely you will encounter 50+ vendors per day and it can feel overwhelming. We found people to be pushy at times but also respectful when you say no. There are also tons of police in Cartagena and that seems to keep things in check due to the party atmosphere.
15) Getting Here: How to get to Cartagena from Canada
There are some international flights to CTG – Cartagena Rafael Nunez Airport seasonally, but it is very easy to arrive at BOG – Bogota El Dorada Airport and take a connecting flight to Cartagena. We flew from Vancouver to Toronto, then to Bogota and onwards to Cartagena. We chose to fly Avianca and booked flexible refundable tickets as they were reasonably priced and also allowed for unlimited changes. Overall, we found Avianca to be decent and it was very easy to travel by air within the country.
Overall, we really enjoyed our stay in Cartagena! In many ways, we expected Panama City to be like this but it was, but only on a very small scale. The walled city and its energetic vibe, Getsemani’s quieter but artistic alleys, the food, the people, the intense heat that lead you to believe you were acclimating only to end up in a puddle of your own seat when you walked 10 steps or more, and the amazing hotel we stayed at made it a truly and memorable experience!