The True Cartagena Colombia Travel Guide for 2021 From The Expert

Dear Reader

My name is Frank and I run a travel agency based in Bogota, Colombia. If you have any feedback or suggestions, please write them in our comments section. Thank you and have a great trip to Colombia!

1. Introduction

Cartagena 

Cartagena is the capital of the department Bolívar.

It was founded in 1533 as a Spanish colony and had a large seaport from which various products were shipped to the metropolis. The department is located on the Caribbean coast and has an average temperature of 27ºC (80ºF). With an area of around 600 km2, Cartagena has a population of around 1 million people. It is the most touristic city in Colombia. It is visited by foreigners and Colombians alike.

You can find more information about Colombia, its travel destinations and much more in our Colombia travel guide.

2. What to see in Cartagena and Activities

2.1. Tours

Free tour Cartagena

Daily guided tour of the old town starting 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Start at the Plaza de Santa Teresa

Beyond Colombia

Various free tours. The “classic” starts every day at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. next to the large statue in the  Camellón de los Mártires

2.2. Activities and sights within Cartagena

There are many ways to get to know Cartagena. If you want, you can book a carriage ride through the walled city. You can also explore the city by bike, a service offered by some hotels and agencies.

A ride through the city in a traditional Chiva, listening to loud music and drinking traditional Colombian alcohol is another way of getting to know the city. This is a lot of fun, especially among friends and larger groups.

Museums

 Palace of the Inquisition (Historical Museum of Cartagena)

If you are interested in the history of Cartagena and Colombia, this museum is a must. In a beautiful 18th century building you can find some of the region’s history in addition to the various exhibitions.

The Cartagena Historical Museum is located next to the Plaza de Bolívar, one of the most beautiful squares in the city. The opening times are from Monday to Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and on Sundays and public holidays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission for adults costs 21,000 COP.

 Zenú Gold Museum

Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the local Zenú culture lived in the south of Cartagena. This museum contains 902 archaeological objects (including gold, ceramics, shells and bones) that give visitors an insight into the pre-colonial era of the region.

The museum is in the middle of the walled city and is within easy walking distance.

 Naval Museum of the Caribbean

As the name suggests, this museum focuses on the country’s naval history. It shows models of ships, boats, officer and pirate clothes and other objects from the colonial period. Video guides are available in different languages.

The Naval Museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and admission costs COP 16,000 (USD 5).

 Museum of Modern Art

The perfect pastime for anyone interested in art. The Cartagena Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1960 and is the first museum of modern art in Colombia. There are more than 400 works in his inventory. There are works by Colombian artists from the region (some of the most representative in the country).

Opening times are Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Sundays from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Entry costs 10,000 COP ($ 3).

Public spaces

 Ramparts

The walls of Cartagena de Indias were built at the end of the 16th century to protect the city from attacks by enemy armies and pirates. They have been preserved and restored so that visitors can enjoy their beauty.

I personally recommend visiting the San Francisco Javier Bastion for a coconut lemonade. You can definitely enjoy the best sunset in the city at Café del Mar. Get delicious drinks and something to eat there. From 5 p.m. it gets pretty crowded. The prices are correspondingly high.

The west-facing wall offers a very good alternative. On this you can walk along and have a relaxed beer. In any case, there is no shortage of traders who offer you a cold beer.

The main points of the wall are:

  • Bastion of Santa Catalina
  • The vault market, where you can also find various shops
  • The bulwark of Santo Domingo
  • The monument to India Catalina

Bocagrande

This is the modern area of Cartagena where also the nearest beaches are. In my experience, however, I do not recommend them, as they are always very crowded and street vendors and massage ladies are a nuisance. In addition, the beach is not really beautiful.

There are also several large hotels and one of the largest shopping centers in the city, the Plaza Bocagrande shopping center.

There are also various restaurants.

Bocagrande is about a 10-minute walk from the historic center of the city and can be reached on foot along the beach, by bus or by taxi. People started to leave this area of the city when beach tourism arrived in Cartagena and left the historic center until years after its recovery. Currently, most of the property in the area is used for commercial purposes, so most of the time is busy.

San Felipe de Barajas Castle (Fortification of San Felipe de Barajas)

San Felipe is more than a castle, it is a fortress built for the same purpose as the wall, mainly to defend the city from possible intruders. Construction began in 1536 in a strategic location that, due to its height, enables enemy movements to be monitored remotely. In 1741 the city was able to withstand an attack by more than 27,000 English soldiers with only 3,600 soldiers in its defense.

The fortress has a very interesting history and is one of the most visited landmarks in Cartagena. I do not recommend a visit at noon because the sun is very strong in Cartagena and there is hardly any shade. I also recommend a visit with a guide. You can then visit the tunnels and learn the whole interesting story. The view is also spectacular and perfect for selfies.

Opening times are from Monday to Sunday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and the admission price is 25,000 COP (price 2019). For more information on this and other fortifications, please visit: http://fortificadoscartagena.com/en/.

Walled city

Cartagena’s historic center, surrounded by ancient walls, is a colorful place with classic architecture. The past is preserved here. There are many historic buildings in very good condition that are used as hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes or shops.

Since it can get extremely hot and humid on some days, I personally recommend taking an extended siesta in the air-conditioned hotel room. At least I prefer to be out in the evening, because then all the romance of the lights comes into play.

Muelle de la Bodeguita y de los Pegasos

The two old ports of Cartagena, from which trade with Spain and other countries was carried out, are both in the Bay of Animas.

From there, boats go to several islands near Cartagena.

Churches and Convents

Convento de la Popa

This monastery and church are at the highest point in Cartagena, from where you can enjoy a panoramic view of the city. The monastery has been inhabited by the Augustinian religious community since 1610 and since then the locals have worshiped the Virgin of la Candelaria.

We recommend visiting with a guided tour or at least with a vehicle, since arriving on foot can be unsafe.

San Pedro Claver monastery and church

This church is located in front of the customs square and preserves the remains of the patron saint of human rights who gave it its name. This temple, which has been very well preserved since the colonial era, is selected by many couples to celebrate their wedding (Cartagena is a popular wedding destination). There is also a museum, where you can learn more about the life of this saint.

Cartagena Cathedral – Cathedral of Saint Catherine of Alexandria

For me, this is one of the most photogenic churches I’ve ever seen, especially at night. It is definitely worth a visit. The very striking architecture is exceptional and there are various paintings inside.

Santo Domingo Monastery

Another church with a lot of history. The monastery is one of the most visited attractions in Cartagena. Recently restored, the monastery and church have been part of the Dominican order since the 16th century.

Santo Toribio Church

This 17th-century church has been declared a National Monument and is located in the San Diego neighborhood in the historic center.

Squares and markets

Plaza de los Coches

In this square is the statue of the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Heredia, who founded Cartagena. At this place there is the bell tower, which leads to the ports and the Getsemaní district.

Plaza de la Aduana

This is the largest square in the historical center. Here you will find various sellers of fruit, water, sweets etc. In the middle of the square is a statue of Christopher Columbus, the “discoverer” of America.

Plaza de Bolívar

As in many parts of South America and in most cities in Colombia, the main square is named after the liberator Simon Bolivar. The statue of General Simón Bolívar stands in the middle of the green park full of trees that provide shade for visitors. In front of this square is the Inquisition Palace (Cartagena History Museum).

Las Bóvedas

Originally built as a storage vault and later used as a prison cell, the vaults are a good place to buy souvenirs and Colombian handicrafts. It is a very touristic place. You also have a view of the sea.

Mercado Bazurto

If you are looking for an authentic experience and want to learn more about Colombian cuisine and culture, this is the perfect destination. The traditional Colombian market is not yet very popular with tourists. You can find fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, herbs and natural medicines there. You can also try typical local dishes and get to know the warmth of the people of Cartagena.

2.3. Outside the city

Totumo volcano

Yes, there is a volcano near Cartagena and you can conquer the crater!

Locals and tourists visit this place for medical purposes, as there is not lava but mud inside the volcanic cone. With a height of 15 meters, the crater can accommodate about 15 people at the same time. After a relaxing mud bath, you can rinse your skin off in a nearby lagoon.

The volcano is about 1 hour from Cartagena. You just follow the road to Barranquilla, Vía al Mar. Entry to the volcano costs around 10,000 COP ($ 3).

National aviary

This bird park gives you an impression of Colombia’s biodiversity. Visitors can admire the large number of birds from Colombia and Latin America on 7 hectares, spread over different ecosystems (tropical rainforest, coast and desert). The tour lasts approximately 2 hours.

The journey from Cartagena takes about 1 hour. Entry for foreign adults is 60,000 COP ($ 18).

In Cartagena there are also 2 good golf courses. If you like the game of golf, Colombia is an absolute golfers paradise and luckily we specialize in golf trips in Colombia. You can find useful information in the previous link.

2.4. Beaches around Cartagena

Fenix ​​Beach

Fenix ​​Beach is just 10 minutes from Cartagena. Located on Tierra Bomba Island, this hotel offers daily schedules to pick up tourists from Cartagena’s Harbor. It’s a classic beach club with nice beach beds, good music and food, and views of Cartagena.

Boca Grande

Bocagrande is one of the city beaches and, in my opinion, more torture than relaxation. Not only is it not very clean and mostly very crowded, you are also constantly bothered by intrusive sellers.

El Laguito

El Laguito is an area at the end of the Bocagrande peninsula. It has a beach frequented by locals and offers water sports. There is also a large selection of restaurants and bars, including street vendors.

La Boquilla

This beach is somewhat reminiscent of Miami Beach. The beach is huge and the hotels line up for miles. La Boquilla is very close to the airport.

However, there have been many scams in the past and tourists have had to pay inflated prices. In addition, there are always robberies in the area. So you should consider beforehand whether you really want to visit this beach.

Manzanillo

Manzanillo del Mar beach is about 30 km north of Cartagena. I heard that this beach was a great alternative to Bocagrande and El Laguito a few years ago, but prices are rising there too and safety is not entirely clear today. However, the normal foreign tourist has no reason to visit this distant beach.

Playa Blanca

I am not a fan of this beach. It is mostly overpopulated and the uncontrolled flow of tourists destroys the beautiful local nature. Waste concept? Sustainability? If you take a look behind the beach, you immediately understand why this place should be avoided.

3. Accommodation in Cartagena – Hotels and Hostels

Following some of my personal recommendations. I think accommodation is one of the most difficult topics in cities like Cartagena to give a clear advice as tastes differ a lot. I therefore recommend you also to check the pages of Hotels.com, Booking and/or TripAdvisor.

Also there are always good options on:

: Price Range

Casa San Agustin
Calle de la Universidad No. 36 – 44
Excellent Luxury Standard
Perfect Boutique hotel

Charleston Cartagena Hotel Santa Teresa
Carrera 3a # 31-23
Excellent Luxury Standard
Very nice big hotel

Hotel Tcherassi Mansion
Calle Sargento Mayor No. 6-21
Very good Luxury Standard

Hotel Spa Tcherassi
Calle Del Curato No. 38-99
Very good Luxury Standard

Hotel Quadrifolio
Calle del Cuartel 5 No 36-118
Excellent Luxury Standard
Old style boutique hotel where you feel like staying with family

Sofitel Legend Santa Clara
Calle Del Torno 39-29
Excellent Luxury Standard
One of the best in town

Casa Claver Loft Boutique Hotel
Calle de las Damas no. 3- 134
Excellent Luxury Standard
Apartments style hotel

Bantu Hotel
Calle de la Tablada 7-62 San Diego
Excellent Luxury Standard
Nice boutique hotel

Hotel Casa La Factoria
Calle de la Factoría no. 36-13
Excellent Luxury Standard
Nice and new boutique hotel

Following the link you will also find a good overview and descriptions of the best luxury and boutique hotels in Cartagena.

4. Where to drink a Coffee

Café del Mar
Historical Centre, Baluarte de Santo Domingo
One of the most visited places by the beautiful sunset. A bit expensive if you ask me

San Alberto
Historical Centre, Calle de Los Santos de Piedra Cra. 4 #34-1
One of the most awarded coffees in Colombia. They bring their products from the coffee farm in Buenavista, Quindío

Librería Abaco
Historical Centre, Cl. 36 #3-86
A quiet place to work and have a coffee or a lemonade

Café Época
Historical Centre, Calle de la Artilleria #33-24
One of the best cafes in the city and with a well-trained staff

Beiyu
Getsemani, Cra. 10 #29186
Very good coffee and delicious breakfast

Baluarte Francisco Javier
Historical Centre, Baluarte Francisco Javier
This is a place on the wall where you can enjoy the sea breeze. The coconut lemonade is amazing!

5. Nightlife

In Cartagena you will find a varied nightlife. In the old town there are several bars with live music and some places to dance, mainly near the bell tower. A stroll through the cobbled streets and the magical atmosphere of the city are also worth a visit. If you are looking for a party, the Getsemani sector offers a wide range of places. Below some of the places I recommend going out at night:

Bazurto Social Club
Getsemani /Av. Del Centenario Cra. 9 #30-42
To enjoy the Cartagena popular culture along with its most representative Champeta music

Alquímico
Historical Centre / Calle del Colegio #34-24
While it is not a place to dance, it offers innovative cocktails and a very interesting atmosphere

Donde Fidel
Historical Centre / Entre plaza de los cohes y plaza de la aduana
Very good place to enjoy salsa music and enjoy a cold beer

Quiebra Canto
Getsemani / Cra. 8 B No. 25-110
Another good place to enjoy salsa and dance.

Café Havana
Getsemani
Cuban style bar

6. Cultural Agenda

Cartagena is one of the most touristic cities in Colombia and is visited by both local and foreign tourists. For this reason, there is an extensive festival program all year round:

January – February

  • Festival internacional de música “Hay Festival”: Music and literature Festival
  • Fiesta de Nuestra señora de la Candelaria: Religious party with gastronomic and musical shows

March

July

  • Festival departamental de bandas de Bolívar: Music festival, mainly bands with wind instruments

August

  • Cartagena Pride

October

November

7. Neighborhoods

Cartagena is a large city, but tourist life is concentrated in a few areas along the coast.

Historical center

This is the most important and oldest district in the city. There are museums, houses and colonial streets and the widest tourist offer. In my opinion, the center has lost authenticity. As tourism is extremely concentrated in this zone, there are fewer and fewer residents as the costs increase continuously.

As a tourist, it is a very good place. For sure it has a lot of gastronomic and cultural offerings, which makes it the tourist center of the city. Unfortunately, as a tourist, you are constantly harassed by street vendors and other freelancers.

As mentioned above, accommodation in this part of the city is more expensive.

Getsemani

Due to the booming tourism in Cartagena, the tourist offer could not only stay in the historical center, but also permeates other areas. Getsemaní is right next to it, outside the city walls. Getsemaní is still inhabited by locals and you can feel the charm of this neighborhood on every corner. You can find decorated streets, hotels, restaurants and cafes. If you stroll along the streets, the residents who usually sit in front of the entrance or who you see through the open windows and doors greet you. It is still an authentic area of ​​Cartagena.

Boca Grande

This is the modern part of the Cartagena tourist region. You can also find the city beaches there. It is mainly national tourism that focuses on this area. For foreign tourists, I clearly recommend the historical center or Getsemani.

In contrast to the historic center and Getsemaní, you will find tall buildings, hotel chains and shopping centers.

Outside the city

There are many accommodation options outside of the city of Cartagena.

Morros in the area of ​​La Boquilla

This area is in close proximity to the airport and offers several beachfront hotels. Each hotel has its own private beach, making it a great option for visitors who want the Caribbean Sea in sight.

Manzanillo

This area is about 20 minutes north of the city. It’s similar to La Boquilla with several beachfront hotels. You can find street vendors there again, which is a constant annoyance for me.

Islands

Various islands near Cartagena also offer a great range of accommodation. You can even rent entire islands. So if you are looking for sun, beach, sea and rest, you should definitely check these options.

Fenix ​​Beach on Isla Tierra Bomba

San Pedro de Majagua  on Isla Grande.

Baru is home to the Isla del Encanto Hotels and the Hotel Las Islas. I have a separate blog about the Hotel Las Islas

8. Shopping

All kinds of souvenirs can be found in Cartagena. Street vendors and various shops have a huge selection to offer. There are also jewelry stores, national and international designer shops and a few months ago a new shopping center opened in the historical part of the city.

La Serrezuela

Plaza Bocagrande

9. Where to eat

Celele
Calle del Espiritu Santo, cr 10c # 29 – 200, Getsemaní
Contemporary cuisine of the Colombian Caribbean

La Mulata
Calle del Quero #9 – 58
Excellent Caribbean cuisine

Mardeleva
Calle de Los Puntales # 37-16
Nice atmosphere, yummy and there is live music

El Espiritu Santo 
Calle del Porvenir No 35-60
This is where you will find casual and traditional local food. Very authentic

Pezetarian
Cra. 35 #8A-19
Small place but very nice sushi and seafood

Oh lala
Calle Larga,Callejon Vargas esquina – Getsemani
Local dishes made by a French chef! Also options for vegetarians

10. Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit Cartagena is the dry season. Since Colombia is close to the equator, there are no seasons. However, there are rainy seasons that vary from region to region. The best time to travel is from January to March, as the humidity is lower. The high season lasts from December to January. It gets crowded again in Easter week and Colombians flock to Cartagena on the countless holidays. International tourism traveled to Cartagena all year round. However, it gets particularly crowded as soon as a large cruise ship arrives.

11. Airport

Rafael Núñez International Airport is located in the Crespo district, 10 minutes from the historic center. Taxis are always waiting at the airport.

The airport is open around the clock.

International Flights to Cartagena

National Flights to Cartagena:

12. Transportation in Cartagena

Public transport in the city of Cartagena is mainly buses and taxis. Buses are paid in cash and are very crowded at peak times.

Taxis are a great way to get around, but many of them don’t have or ignore taximeters.

However, if you prefer to have your own vehicle, be it a car, boat, yacht or even a helicopter or plane, as a travel company based in Bogota, Colombia, we specialize in tailor-made and luxury travel in Colombia. We are happy to help you organize a trip.

13. Common Scams in Cartagena

Free massage:

This is one of the most common and annoying tourist traps. Ladies come to the beach and offer massages. Even after saying no several times, you get a free sample, which they will charge you later anyway. These ladies are sometimes so penetrating that you can only get rid of them by screaming. Do not accept free massages.

Free sample:

Vendors of oysters or other products also offer a free sample. After the first free sample, further free samples will be offered, which will ultimately be invoiced anyway. Remember that nothing is free!

Products and services at inflated prices:

No matter where you go in Cartagena, you are always offered products or services. Whether a beach chair, food, beer, no wish remains unfulfilled. From time to time, however, sellers charge usury prices that are completely unrealistic. Therefore, always ask in advance about the prices before buying a product or using a service.

Photographs with palenqueras:

Palenqueras are women in brightly colored dresses with fruit baskets on their heads. Many years ago these were normal fruit sellers. With the tourism boom in Cartagena, however, they are now busy posing for photos with tourists. Often this type of service is not clear and after taking the perfect photo you are asked to pay. Therefore always ask for the price beforehand.

Emeralds:

Colombia is one of the largest emerald producers in the world. Package tours in Cartagena practically always lead to a corresponding shop. If you are not familiar with the matter, you should refrain from buying it.

14. What I like about Cartagena and What I don’t like

Cartagena is the true pearl of the Caribbean. The city is beautiful and very romantic and I know nothing comparable. One can find beautiful boutique hotels and great restaurants and nightlife is also awesome. Also in the neighbourhood of Getsemani you find not only luxury but also all kind of great offers and locals still live there which gives it a great mix. Chartering a private boat and spending a day in the Rosario Islands is the cherry on top of a great holiday.

Cartagena could really be the perfect luxury destination of Colombia or even the Caribbean. Unfortunately the local government is as bad as it can be and from the countless mayors in the last years some went even to jail. In the old town tourists cannot walk freely anymore without being molested by street venders, singers or whatever performance artists that want to make a living. Also scams are more and more common.

Also Cartagena became a sex tourist destination and in the evening you sometimes see hundreds of “senoritas” waiting for clients around the main entrance. The problem of child abuse/sex seems to be a very big issue around the city. As the disparity between rich and poor is probably the biggest in Colombia, the areas outside tourist zones are not safe for foreigners.

Dear Reader

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2020-07-14T15:55:50+00:00

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