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I currently live in New York, where winters can be brutal, and once the festivities of Christmas are over, things can start to feel drab. With Spirit Airlines offering cheap flights from New York to Cartagena via Fort Lauderdale (we paid around $250 round trip!) me and my friends decided to escape the cold and jet off to Colombia for five days in search of sun, sea and sand.
One of the great things about Cartagena is that the airport is so close to the city centre, so if you can only snag a few days off work you don’t need to spend much time in transit. Within 15 minutes we were through the airport and pulling up outside our vacation rental in a taxi.
Situated on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, the city has two main tourist areas – the Old Town with its colorful buildings and cobblestone streets, and the beach area of Boca Grande, which is where you’ll find the larger hotels. There’s also the nightlife area of Getsemani, which is where several hostels are located.
Cartagena is one of those places that has the perfect mix of everything – nightlife, sightseeing and beaches. You can’t leave the city without taking a visit to some of the islands, such as The Rosario Islands and Cholon. It’s a beautiful city with lots of brightly colored buildings, great food, and best of all prices are fairly affordable so your trip won’t break the bank. While it is touristy compared to places like Medellin or Bogota, Cartagena is a charming place and it’s very difficult not to fall in love with this city.
If you have a few days or even a week, there are plenty of great things to do in Cartagena:
- Rooftop at the Movich Hotel
- Blue Apple Beach House
- La Cevicheria
- Playa Blanca
- Cafe del Mar
- Dinner at Alma
- Cholon party island
- Wander the Old Town
- La Jugada
- Visit Teatro Heredia
- Rosario Islands
- Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
- Horse and carriage ride around the city
- The Pink Sea of Colombia (El Salar de Galerazamba)
- Visit the mud volcano
- Dance salsa at Cafe Havana
- Party in Getsemani
- El Baron
- Montesacro Resto Bar
- Arepas at Sierva Maria
- Where to stay in Cartagena
- How many days do I need in Cartagena?
- Safety in Cartagena
- A final word
Rooftop at the Movich Hotel
For the best views of the city, head to the Movich Hotel rooftop at sunset. The roof offers 360-degree panoramic views of the walled city and beyond – you can see absolutely everything from up there. Order a cocktail, relax and maybe even take a swim in the hotel’s rooftop pool.
Blue Apple Beach House
One of the highlights of my trip was definitely Blue Apple Beach House. This boutique hotel and beach club is tucked away on the southern shore of the Tierra Bomba, one of Cartagena’s best islands. You don’t have to be staying at the hotel to visit – you can just make it a day trip and book the hotel’s shared boat service, which costs $20 round trip per person. Sun loungers are $10 per person, while food and drinks are a la carte. The pool has a really chill vibe and on weekends it has more of a party atmosphere, with DJs playing in the afternoon.
Visited by Anthony Bourdain in an episode of his show No Reservations, La Cevicheria is a cute restaurant in the Old Town that serves – you guessed it – ceviche. In addition to ceviche you can also choose from many different seafood dishes, including octopus salad, black squid ink rice and seafood paella. The food is tasty, portions are good and the menu is reasonably priced.
Playa Blanca is Cartagena’s most famous beach, with powdery white sand, turquoise blue water and plenty of beach shacks serving fresh fish. The downside to Playa Blanca is that it can be very crowded and you’ll be approached by lots of beach sellers, but the atmosphere is fun and it really lives up to its reputation. It’s also 90 minutes away from Cartagena, so it really is a full day excursion.
The fastest and easiest way to get there is by taking a taxi which costs 81,000 pesos (around $22). That’s the option we chose when going to Playa Blanca. When it was time to go back we were approached by people selling tickets for shared speed boats, so we negotiated a fare to take us back. The speed boat was super fun (definitely bumpy though!) and dropped us off at the port in Cartagena.
Cafe del Mar
Not linked to the bar of the same name in Ibiza – Cafe Del Mar is one of the best places to enjoy sunset in the city. Situated on the water on the edge of the Old Town, this bar/restaurant has many tables and chairs to accommodate large numbers of tourists, but definitely get there early to secure your spot. Enjoy the live music and cocktails as you watch the sun go down.
Dinner at Alma
Cartagena has plenty of amazing restaurants and while I’m told it’s more expensive than other parts of Colombia, you can still enjoy incredible dinners at much more affordable prices than you would in the U.S. Our best meal in Cartagena was at Alma – a fine dining restaurant serving Colombian cuisine. This large airy restaurant has a really nice ambience, with colonial interiors and 3 spacious rooms. The food was delicious and I’d go back again in a heartbeat.
Cholon party island
If you like to party then you shouldn’t leave Cartagena without going to Cholon, an island near the Rosario Islands. If you’re traveling in a group then the best way to do it is by hiring a boat for the day, or you can book a shared boat with Hi Cartagena if you don’t have enough people to go with. It’s not cheap ($175 per person) but at least it includes an open bar and food. The famous Cholon party kind of like Spring Break, although the party happens every weekend and major holiday.
All the boats basically moor up on a sand bar and play music – everything from reggaeton to techno. It’s a bit chaotic when you hear so many different types of music blasting out all at once, but it’s super fun and it’s a great way to meet new people. You don’t even need to take food with you as there are vendors that cook up fresh seafood to sell to all the hungry partygoers. It’s a day I’ll definitely never forget.
Wander the Old Town
Cartagena’s Old Town is filled with colorful colonial buildings and bougainvillea-covered balconies. You can spend a whole afternoon just wandering around and taking photos in the doorways. Built in the 16th century, the Old Town earned UNESCO World Heritage status and is packed with plazas, churches, restaurants and shops.
For a fun night out head to La Jugada in the Old Town, which is a nightclub with 3 floors and a tropical rooftop. It’s super fun and we seemed to end up there almost every night! If you like house music, this is the place to go in Cartagena.
Visit Teatro Heredia
Who would’ve thought Cartagena has an opera house? Built in 1911 to commemorate 100 years of Colombian independence, Teatro Heredia is a stunning building with a beautiful pale pink facade. Inside the theater is designed in a horseshoe shape, Italian marble staircases and sculptures. If you cast your eyes up to the ceiling, you’ll see a painting of the nine muses by world renowned painter Enrique Grau. You can take a guided tour inside the opera house, or buy tickets to see a performance.
The Rosario Islands is an archipelago 100km off the coast of Cartagena. There are various organized tours you can arrange if you’d like to go snorkeling and island hopping, or if you’d prefer to do something a bit more relaxing, you can arrange to visit a hotel resort. We made a day trip to Coralina Island, which is a tiny island hotel with bathing platforms, hammocks and plenty of trees for shade. We booked their VIP Gourmet Day Tour, which costs $220.000 COP + a port tax of $17.000 COP. The trip includes pick-up and drop off, boat ride, a welcome glass of wine, gourmet a la carte lunch and use of the facilities.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Situated on the hill of Hill of San Lázaro in Cartagena, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is said to be the “best fortress ever built” by the Spanish in the Americas. Work on the fortress began in 1536 and it was later expanded in 1657.
Designed to protect Cartagena from pirates and enemies attempting to seize treasures destined for Spain, it features a complex labyrinth of tunnels that were used to distribute provisions and for evacuation purposes. They were designed in such a way that any noise would carry the entire length of the tunnels so that Spanish forces could be alerted of any approaching enemies.
Entry costs 25,000 pesos and the castle’s strategic location means it also offers beautiful views of the city.
Horse and carriage ride around the city
It might feel a bit cheesy but it’s still nice to take a horse and carriage ride around the city. Wherever you go while walking around Cartagena’s Old Town, you’ll hear the clip clop of horses hooves on the road. The best place to pick up a ride is Plaza de los Coches, where you’ll see the horses and carriages all lined up. What you pay for your horse and carriage ride will depend on your haggling skills.
The Pink Sea of Colombia (El Salar de Galerazamba)
If you’d like to get out of the city and perhaps grab an incredible Instagram photo, visit the Pink Sea of Colombia, which is northeast of Cartagena. To get there you can book an organized day trip, ride a bus, hire a car, or you can do what we did and organize a driver for the day (we did this through our accommodation). El Salar de Galerazamba is a salt mine that gets its pink color from the rain breaking down salt molecules, along with microalgae that create pigmented beta carotene. The sea is only pink in February and March, so you’ll be disappointed if you visit outside of these months!
Visit the mud volcano
Visitors usually combine this with a trip to the mud volcano, Volcun Totumo. Entry to the volcano costs 10000 pesos and you basically climb down a set of stairs into a volcano of mud.
Various locals will pat you down, massage you and take photos for you with your phone, then scrub you down to get you clean again. These people are from the community nearby and do this to make tips, so make sure you bring some cash with you.
Dance salsa at Cafe Havana
One way to get to know the culture of a place is through the music, and the influence of music is very strong throughout Colombia and Latin America in general. To experience an evening of salsa, pop over to Cafe Havana, which offers live bands, salsa and cocktails all night long. This lively bar has a cover charge and there’s often a line to get in (particularly on weekends) so get there on the earlier side if you can. Things tend to get crowded and sweaty but it’s good fun.
Party in Getsemani
The hip area of Getsemani is located just outside the city walls and its streets are filled with street art. In the day time it’s a great place to wander around, eat some arepas and look at all the artistic murals. At night time things really come alive and the hostel Media Luna Hostel hosts a famous party on its roof on Wednesdays – everybody knows about it! I you want to get chatting to new people from all over the world, this is the place to go.
Alquimico is another trendy bar/restaaurant/club in Cartagena, housed inside a colonial palace. Sit at the art deco bar on the ground floor and order a cocktail or head up to the large rooftop area, which has plenty of tables for groups.
For some of the best cocktails in Cartagena, walk on over to El Baron, nestled in Plaza San Pedro Claver. This bar has some of the best bartenders in town and a relaxed, intimate vibe. Specialty cocktails include Rosarito, with mezcal, pineapple, cilantro, lime, spicy bitters and angostura; and Cucumis Sour, with gin, whisky, hibiscus, lime and cucumber.
Montesacro Resto Bar
After Alma, my second favorite restaurant was Montesacro Resto Bar, which has an inside area and tables on a colonial balcony overlooking the streets of the Old Town. The food is delicious; dishes include pastas, ceviche, grilled fish and squid ink risotto.
Arepas at Sierva Maria
For an affordable lunch we really liked the smoothies, Arepas and fresh fish dishes at Sierva María. This tiny restaurant is inside the walled city and is cheap compared to a lot of the places in Cartagena.
Where to stay in Cartagena
There are two main areas where most people stay in Cartagena – either by the beach in Bocagrande or in the Old Town. I stayed in the Old Town for most of my stay and then Bocagrande for one night when I volunteered to take the next flight out (my flight was full). Having stayed in both I’d say definitely stay in the Old Town. Not only is it more convenient for sightseeing (and beautiful) but I also just felt much safer walking inside the walls of the Old Town at night.
The hostels are mainly located in Getsemani and there are lots of them! Media Luna is a great party hostel if you want to drink and meet people. Also try:
- Viajero Cartagena Hostel
- Casa Movida Hostel
- Casa del Pozo Boutique Hostel
- Santuario Hostel
- Republica Hostel
How many days do I need in Cartagena?
I spent five days in Cartagena, which I feel was the optimal amount of time to do everything there is to do without feeling rushed. Since Cartagena has a laid-back Caribbean vibe, it’s easy to spend up to a week here just relaxing on the beaches and going out at night.
At minimum I’d suggest spending three days here so that you can get out to the islands and explore the city.
Safety in Cartagena
I don’t want to scare you but my friend travelled solo to Cartagena and never came back. A mystery woman spiked with a nasty drug called Scopolamine, also called “Devil’s Breath”, which is mainly found in Colombia. This drug basically turns people into zombies and is used to rob tourists – you can learn all about it here. Sadly, while she may have not intended to kill him, he was found dead in his hotel room. Always, always watch your drinks and don’t accept drinks from strangers. Make sure you educate yourself on this drug and always keep your whits about you.
Remember, while Cartagena is a touristy place, you’re still in South America. At night time, try to stick to the Old Town/Getsemani and don’t go walking around outside the city walls on your own at night. If you’re traveling solo, I always recommend having a friend or family member on Find Friends if you have an iPhone. Let people know where you’re going, don’t carry valuables or lots of cash around and don’t get blackout drunk.
I had a great time in Cartagena but as with anywhere I travel, I try to stay vigilant.
A final word
There are lots of lists on the internet discussing the best things to do in Cartagena, but I couldn’t find any that listed all the things I’ve listed here. We had an incredible time and if you try any of these things I’m pretty confident you’ll have a good time too. Cartagena is one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited and I’d happily go back again. The Old Town is a photographer’s dream and you can’t go wrong with a vacation that involves lots of cocktails and seafood served on the beach.