Ultimate Travel Guide to Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena was established in 1533 and soon became an important port city for the Spanish Empire (which called what is present-day Colombia New Granada). The city’s strategic location made it hugely important for the empire’s trade routes, including trade of Peruvian silver and enslaved Africans — the latter of which led to a still-thriving African culture in the area (especially near the first freed slave town of Palenque).

Thanks to its lengthy history and well-preserved buildings in the Old City (Walled City), the historic area of Cartagena was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. Many travelers visit Cartagena to see the colorful colonial buildings in person, and get a feel for the lively tropical atmosphere.

If Cartagena sounds like a great spot to explore, then keep reading for our in-depth guide on the city, including the best spots to adventure, top cafes and restaurants and everything else you might need to know to have a great time in Cartagena.

\\ Need to Know

There are a few basic things that travelers need to know before heading to “The Magic City.” If you are curious to know more about Colombia in general, make sure to check out Backroad Packers.

Where is Cartagena

Located along the Caribbean Coast in the northern part of the country, Cartagena has a population of 1,028,736 people — making it the 5th largest city in Colombia. It is about 2.5 hours from Barranquilla and 13 hours from Medellin.

How Do You Say the Name

Cartagena or its full name, Cartagena de Indias, is pronounced as KAR-tə-JEE-nə (hay-na NOT hen-na). We made this mistake many, many times…

Weather in Cartagena

Honestly, it is pretty much the same temperature year-round — hot and humid. Though there are months where it tends to be drier (January-March). But when we were there during the “rainy” season (all of July) it still only rained on us a handful of times and always during the evening. Plus, because it is relatively close to the equator, the number of daylight hours doesn’t fluctuate too much.

TIP: because of the oppressive heat and humidity, we recommend taking a siesta during the main heat of the day (noon-4). One of our favorite ways to while away this time was to relax in a coffee shop (see the best ones below).

\\ A Brief History of Cartagena

Cartagena was founded in 1533 by the Spanish — more specifically Pedro de Heredia, a Spanish conquistador — on the site of the one-time indigenous village of Calamari (archeological records put humans living in the area as far back as 4000 BC). Heredia named the city after the Spanish port city of Cartagena, which is located in southeastern Spain.

Soon enough, the city became one of the most important ports in the entire Spanish Empire, as well as a thriving center for political, ecclesiastical (religious), and economic activity (it even had the first fire department in the whole Americas). But because of its economic prosperity and location along the coast, the city was frequently attacked by pirates and privateers, including Sir Francis Drake.

It got to be so bad that eventually King Phillip II of Spain decided to bring in an Italian engineer to draw up plans for fortifications. While it would take two hundred years to complete, eventually the entire city (including the Getsemani neighborhood) would be surrounded by an “impenetrable” wall (many of the walls still stand today, hence the old city is also called the Walled City).

Cartagena would be ruled by the Spanish for 275 years, and it was only until 1810 that the people of the city declared independence (and promptly threw the Spanish governor out of the city). Spain of course retaliated by sending 59 ships, and over 10,000 men to attack the city in 1815. Even though the people of Cartagena won (and were even awarded the title “Heroic City” by the Liberator, Simon Bolivar), the period after the war was not good: due to loss in funding, trading and a terrible cholera outbreak, the city fell into sharp decline.

Luckily, the city started to see vast improvements under the presidency of Rafael Nuñez, a Cartagena native. Under his leadership, the central government invested in a railroad and other infrastructure improvements and modernization. Today, the city relies heavily on maritime and petrochemical industries, and of course, tourism.

Learn more about Cartagena’s long history here.

\\ Top Places to Explore & Things to Do in Cartagena

Take in the Walled City

The original area of Cartagena is still surrounded by a big limestone and coral wall, an obvious reminder of the cities rougher, pirate-plagued past. Within the walls is where you will find the bright colored colonial buildings that make Cartagena so popular for tourists.

We recommend walking around the old city both early in the morning to get photos and really be able to see the beauty of the buildings (make sure to check out the artsy doorknobs), and also at night so you get a feel for the liveliness of the city. But be warned: the old city is full of hawkers, so be prepared to be goaded into buying yet another trinket (or sun hat).

Our favorite spots to explore:

  • Monumento Torre Del Reloj, the pretty yellow clocktower that was once one of the few entrances to the walled city. In a darker time, it was also where many slaves were eventually sold.
  • Plaza San Diego, a small little plaza in the middle of the old city that has a famous statue of Jose Fernandez. You can sometimes also see wild parrots here.
  • Baluarte de Santa Catalina, is one of the more popular spots to watch the sunset over the ocean. Nearby is Las Bovedas, a one-time prison, and current souvenir shop.
  • Plaza de Bolivar, this lush plaza was once the main meeting point for the elite of Cartagena. Just next to it is the (in)famous Palace of the Inquisition, where 767 people were punished for crimes such as blasphemy, heresy and witchcraft (only 5 people were put to death).

Walk Around the Hipster Barrio of Getsemani

The other historic area of the city, though one with a bit rougher history, is the Getsemani barrio (neighborhood). Once the home to prostitutes and drug deals, Getsemani is today Cartagena’s hippest area — and one of the rising hipster hotspots in all of Colombia.

Some can’t-miss spots in Getsemani include Plaza de la Trinidad, one of the oldest squares in the city, Calle de San Juan with its bright and colorful graffiti, the small alleyways with multi-colored umbrellas off of Carrera 10B and the fantastic restaurants and coffee shops that dot the small neighborhood (some favorites were Demente for tacos and Beiyu for coffee and healthy snacks).

Explore Other Neighborhoods like Bocagrande, Manga & El Cabrero

While the Old City and Getsemani get most of the press when it comes to areas to explore in Cartagena, definitely don’t miss their neighbors Bocagrande, the glamorous, touristy area with lots of skyscrapers, Manga, a quiet, tree-filled neighborhood with some historic colonial-era homes, and El Cabrero, located just outside the Walled City, and home to popular beaches and small, locally-owned businesses (this is where we lived).

Cool Down at the City Beaches

Cartagena is not necessarily known for its beaches, mainly because the sand is volcanic so it always looks gray and kind of dirty (though it isn’t). While there are prettier beaches nearby the city, definitely don’t skimp out on spending at least a couple of hours chilling on the Cartagena city beaches. Our favorite beaches were the four in the El Cabrero neighborhood, mainly because they were either really quiet or full of local families enjoying the waves.

The beaches in Cartagena are very well taken care of, and though the water looks dirty, we promise they are quite clean. In fact, we frequently saw people cleaning up trash on the beaches. Similarly, the water is very safe to swim in because they were built to be little tidal pools (with rocks creating a sort of U shape).

While the beaches in El Cabrero are very chill, the beaches in Bocagrande are much more touristy. So expect more services (food, drinks, etc.), but also more people and more hawkers trying to sell you stuff.

NOTE: if you are looking for more traditional sand beaches, head to Boquillas and Manzanillo, both located just outside of town to the north (past the airport).

Get a Great View at La Popa (& the Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa)

For one of the best views of Cartagena, consider heading up to the top of La Popa — the tallest point in the whole city. From the Convent (and even from the parking lot outside) you can see all of Cartagena, including the skyscrapers in Bocagrande, the Old City and of course the Caribbean Sea farther out.

The historic religious complex dates all the way back to 1607, when the original wooden chapel was erected. A year later, construction began on the present convent (it would take almost 7 years to complete). It was during this period that the original name of Santa Cruz, was changed to its current name: La Popa.

Throughout its history, the convent was a common target for attackers — including the (in)famous privateer, Sir Francis Drake. Similarly, during the early stages of the Republic, the Augustinian Recollects (the religious order that called the convent home) were forced to leave due to safety and the place was abandoned for years until it was eventually turned into barracks — which at one time even housed the famous Liberator, Simon Bolivar. It wouldn’t be until 1961 that the convent would actually be returned to the Augustinians.

DETAILS

| COST: 12,000 pesos ($3.15) per person to enter the convent grounds.

| GETTING THERE: unfortunately, you cannot walk up to the top of La Popa because it is said to be quite dangerous, especially for tourists (read more about that here). Instead, take one of the waiting mototaxis or taxis to the top. It cost the two of us 50,000 pesos to go up and down on a mototaxi (expect to pay between 35,000–50,000).

Learn More About the City’s Military History at Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Just outside the city sits Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, once one of the most impressive military structures in the entire Spanish Empire (and definitely one of the best-preserved). Plan to spend a couple of hours exploring the batteries, the tunnels and taking in the views of the surrounding city.

If you are looking to learn more about the fort before visiting, check out this page. Similarly, there are QR codes scattered around the fort itself, allowing you to learn as you wander around.

DETAILS

| COST: 25,000 pesos (about $6.60) per person as a traveler (costs 20,000 pesos as a Colombian) to enter. There is an option to get a guide (in Spanish or English), which costs around 20,000 pesos.

| WHERE: just outside the Old City (you can see it from the wall), and definitely within walking distance.

Shop Like a Local at Bazurto Market

Located quite a distance from the Old City, Mercado de Bazurto (Bazurto Market), is an awesome spot to get an idea of how the locals of Cartagena often shop. This maze-like market is slightly chaotic — though in all the best ways. Expect tight tunnels, loud music, scooters zipping past and people selling all sorts of items.

We recommend coming here to do a bit of your own shopping — for the prices are tough to beat (especially the local produce), and they likely have everything you could need (spices, home goods, clothes, shoes, furniture). We even found a whole bag of chia seeds at a very decent price.

DETAILS

| GETTING THERE: the market is located off of Avenida Pedro de Heredia, just over 4 kilometers from the Old City. We recommend taking the public bus (Transcaribe) to reach the market instead of walking (the stop is called BAZURTO).

| TOUR: you don’t need to take a tour (we didn’t) but we understand how helpful it would be to have someone with in-depth knowledge of the market show you around. This tour looks great.

Drink Coffee (Lots of Coffee)

While Cartagena is not located near the coffee growing region (more on that in a later post!), it does still have some darn good coffee — plus, some super hip cafes. Many of the best coffee shops are located in either the Walled City or the Getsemani barrio.

Plan to spend a bit of time exploring different spots to find which one fits your taste. Just know that many cafes do not open early (the earliest we saw was 7 AM and that is really only if the café owner feels like it). You can also get a small cup of coffee (like a shot size) from people selling them on the streets in colored thermoses. We never tried this so we couldn’t give you an accurate idea of the cost (but it is probably quite low).

Some of our favorite cafes in Cartagena were:

  • Bozha, in the Old City by the Centro bus stop
  • Folklore, in the Old City by the yellow clocktower
  • San Alberto, in the Old City by Plaza Santo Domingo
  • Beiyu, in Getsemani off Carrera 10C
  • La Esquina de Pandebono, not really a café, but they do serve cheap (about $0.50 per cup) and tasty coffee in the morning, plus they have good baked goods (the café is located off Calle 36)

DETAILS

| COST: between 5000–7500 pesos ($1.26 — $1.90) for a coffee; less if it is just a plain drip or Americano

| HEALTH: some of the more touristy cafes (Folklore, Bozha) do offer alternative milks, like almond or soy (leche de soya)

\\ Where to Eat

Cartagena has a wide array of restaurants to choose from. From small hole-in-the-wall eateries, to uber fancy rooftop restaurants with views of the Caribbean. Below were a few of our favorites.

Felice Pasta

This small corner restaurant is located in a quieter part of the Old City (very close to Bozha). Stop in for a dinner of fresh, homemade pasta (the pumpkin ravioli is amazing) or a sweet treat (try the chocolate croissant). If going for dinner, try to get the table outside so you can people watch.

We visited Felice twice and both times the staff was nothing but warm and welcoming. Plus, they were super friendly and even spoke good English. Definitely recommend this restaurant for a cozy date night in the city.

DETAILS

| WHERE: located in the quieter part of the Old City, find the exact location here.

| ORDER: all the pasta is homemade so you can’t really go wrong; but, we loved the pumpkin ravioli and lasagna.

Andres

This is by far the most high-end restaurant we tried in Cartagena. Located on the top floor of the fancy La Serrezuela Mall (near the edge of the Old City), Andres is a riot in color and design. Plus the food is absolutely incredible.

If you are looking to try local specialties, including the aforementioned seafood soups, at a fancier restaurant, this one should be near the top of your list. While the prices are definitely closer to what you would pay in America or Europe (for the two of us it cost 174,680 pesos — $45.76), the flavors of the food is totally worth it. Plus, the vibe is just coooool.

DETAILS

| WHERE: Andres is located on the top floor of La Serrezuela Mall. Find the exact location here.

| ORDER: the Sancocho de Pescado, the patacones (with cheese or meat), coconut lemonade and the veggie empanadas

My Sushi Delivery

Located outside the Old City in the much quieter El Cabrero neighborhood, this small, hip sushi spot serves up some great rolls at affordable prices. We ordered the Sailboat, which was the perfect amount for two sushi lovers (we were stufffffed afterward), which cost 90,000 pesos ($22.50) total. This is a fantastic spot to try the local seafood in a different way — plus, because it is outside the Old City you will likely only find locals eating there.

DETAILS

| WHERE: close to the beach in El Cabrero, find the exact location here.

| ORDER: if you like seafood and want to try all their unique rolls, go for a combo (we liked the Sailboat).

Pezetarian

We found this spot on Happy Cow (a great app for finding vegetarian and vegan restaurants) and were pleasantly surprised at just how tasty the food was. We ordered the Colombiano hot bowl and the arroz de la huerta (a vegan rice bowl with vegetables). Both were absolutely delicious. If you are looking for a hip spot in the Old City for some healthy food, definitely check Pezetarian out.

DETAILS

| WHERE: in the heart of the Old City off Carrera 7. Find the exact location here.

| ORDER: honestly everything looked good! But the coconut lemonade for sure, as well as any of the rice bowls (so fresh!)

NOTE: Find more vegetarian and vegan restaurants around the world on Happy Cow, and consider downloading the app.

\\ Where to Work

Thanks to Colombia’s rapid ascension in the eyes of digital nomads, there has been a sharp influx of great spaces to get work done — including a good number of top-notch coworking spaces. Below are a few great spots to work from in Cartagena.

Coworking

Selina Cartagena Cowork

Located in the Old City, this colorful and hip coworking space is a great place to focus, but to also meet fellow digital nomads. Amenities include: personal lockers, fast wifi, standing desks, an onsite Airbnb, a pool, a yoga studio, free coffee/tea and an outdoor terrace. Plus it is open 24/7.

DETAILS

| COST: $13.51 per day, $48 per week for a hot desk (open seating); $126.24 per month for a private office

| WHERE: Calle Larga (25) #8B-148, (in the Getsemani barrio)

TuWork

Located in the Bocagrande area, this coworking space is a great option for people looking to network and meet up with fellow team members. Its amenities include: an outdoor terrace, fast wifi, free coffee/tea, ergonomic chairs, a kitchen, networking events, workshops and community lunches.

DETAILS

| COST: $11.37 per day, $49.25 per week for a hot desk (open seating); $467.28 for a private office for a month (for 4 people).

| WHERE: Bocagrande Calle 6A #3 32, Cartagena, Colombia

Cafes

Thanks to the increase in travelers, and especially remote workers and slow travelers, there has been a steady rise in coffee shops that cater to people looking to work on their laptops. Today, many of the popular (touristy) coffee shops will have fast internet, ample seating, and of course, great coffee.

One great spot to check out is Cafe Quindio, thanks to its super strong internet, high number of tables and chairs, good food, ample power outlets, of course, delicious coffee. Just note that the only Cafe Quindio in Cartagena is in La Serrezuala Mall, and that it opens at 10 AM.

Other great cafes to work from are Bozha and Folklore. Find our full café list above.

\\ How to Get to Cartagena

Because it is such a popular city both internationally and within Colombia, it is relatively simple to reach the city of Cartagena. Below are the most common ways, though it is also possible to of course drive to the city for the highways surrounding it are super nice.

Flights

All flights into Cartagena land at Rafael Nunez International Airport, located about 20 minutes from the Old City. It is a small airport, so expect minimal security lines and an easy immigration process.

You can fly into Cartagena directly from international cities such as Panama City, Panama; New York, USA; Fort Lauderdale, USA; San Jose, Costa Rica: Lima, Peru: and Rome, Italy. Within the country of Colombia, you can fly directly into Cartagena from Bogota, Cali and Medellin non-stop, and from many other larger cities with a layover.

COVID UPDATE: as of August 2021, you do not need to present a negative Covid test, proof of having Covid previously, or proof of a vaccine to enter the country. Learn more about Colombia’s Covid response here.

Bus

Almost all major bus companies will have routes to Cartagena from other cities throughout the country. The main bus station (Terminal de Transportes) is located on the outskirts of the city and takes about 30 minutes to reach the Old City by taxi.

Common bus routes include: Medellin → Cartagena ($37, 14 hours), Santa Marta → Cartagena ($13, 4.5 hours) and Bogota → Cartagena ($31, 20–24 hours).

The best way to buy a bus ticket is either through Busbud or directly at the bus station itself — which is what we ended up doing and it was very easy and straightforward.

NOTE: the buses in Colombia are quite nice. We went with the bus company Brasilia when we eventually left Cartagena, and actually enjoyed the trip. The seats were comfortable, the power outlets worked and the bathroom was quite clean (no TP though).

Boat

If you are feeling adventurous, there is an option to take a passenger sailboat from Panama to Colombia. But because there are no fixed schedules for ferry travel, you will need to coordinate with a booking agent in advance to find out exact departure times and dates.

The route between the two countries usually takes between 3–6 days and costs up to $600 depending on the boat, the exact route, and the activities provided by the provider (sometimes these activities can include snorkeling and scuba diving).

Learn more about taking a boat here.

NOTE: because the Darien Gap (the bit of land connecting Panama and Colombia) is impassable due to safety concerns, some of the ferries allow you to bring motorcycles and bikes across. Though if you have a vehicle, you will likely need a bigger ship.

Cartagena is an exciting city located in the heart of the Colombian Caribbean Coast. It is a lively, boisterous place with lots of history, character and culture. Hopefully, this guide will help you plan your own adventures to the “Magical City.”

Find even more information on Cartagena, as well as more in-depth travel guides and slow + adventure travel inspiration at www.backroadpackers.com.

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Backroad Packers

Two adventurers creating in-depth travel guides to inspire you to have your own grand sustainable adventures.