Are you thinking of visiting the old town in Cartagena?
The heat took me by surprise as I arrived in this popular beach destination and port city by taxi unsure of what to expect.
When I landed in Cartagena from Medellín I knew I was going to love the vibe! What’s more to love than culture and history fused into one?
In this guide we’ll explore Cartagena, the best things to do and see, how to get there, how to stay safe as well as the best time to visit.
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Old Town Cartagena, Colombia
Not only is Cartagena de Indias one of the most visited cities in Colombia but it is also Colombia’s 5th largest city – it’s a cultural gem.
If you’re wondering whether to visit here over other paradises such as Capurgana, Palomino, or Santa Marta, keep reading below.
Is Cartagena worth visting?
With many visitors looking to explore Colombia’s Caribbean coast old town Cartagena is one of Colombia’s most refined tourist destinations.
Every street is a history lesson and with San Felipe Castle, you get closer to colonial times. Visit barrios such as Getsemani and see what more the city offers.
The mix between old and new plays a huge part in the city’s unique charm. No matter whether on a budget or a luxury weekend trip you be able to get involved with street dancers
Aside from the beaches, with places like San Basilio de Palenque which is home to the Planequeas that you see in the streets of Cartagena, you can go one level deeper into the local culture.
Is Cartagena Safe?
The short answer is yes!
But that doesn’t mean that there is no risk! I even wrote a guide on safety in Cartagena to give you more ideas on what to look out for.
Similar to any other popular city in Latin America set up for tourism, there are some areas that must be avoided as a tourist or visitor.
But how safe is Cartagena for Americans?
Or, for unexpecting foreigners in general? Again, it is safe but you really do need to be aware of the location you’re in at all times here.
If you are within the walled city you can almost guarantee that you are safe to roam around but take care when walking the streets alone.
Having said that, there are also some other popular neighborhoods in Cartagena you should be able to walk around freely without worry.
⤵️ Below are other neighborhoods you may want to explore:
- Bocagrande and Manga – Known for its long strip and beach-fronted skyline. This area is connected with the lavish side of Cartagena and is safe to walk around to and from the walled city.
- Getsemani – A neighborhood famous for its nightlife, cafes, bars, and street art. From the walled city, you may feel safer walking here in the daytime first to get acquainted before visiting at night.
- San Diego – A few blocks from the walled city you’ll find this cool bohemian vibe. See colorful street art and of course Plaza de San Diego. If visiting La Bovedas be sure to exercise extra caution.
If you go get yourself outside of the walled city and familiarize yourself with these neighborhoods you will most definitely add a slant of richness to the experience of your stay in Cartagena.
Things to Avoid in Old Town Cartagena
Below are a few things to avoid whilst exploring Cartagena’s walled city.
Obvious to some but overlooked by many because of the friendly and inviting nature of many of the streets and characters you encounter.
⤵️ Below are some ideas to keep in mind:
- Falling to your death – When walking the wall, be careful as there are no rails an, if we, can be very slippy. Also if windy it’s worth being cautious because the wind speed gets quite fast.
- Getting Robbed or Scammed – Whilst strolling doesn’t look too lost or you could be a target for local street lurchers who may want to take advantage of your nationality. This usually starts with a question along the line of “Hey, where are you from?”
- Damaged by the Sun – Protect your eyes at all times the UV intensity is very high in Cartagena. When in Latin America I always carry my favorite travel sunglasses with me to protect my eyes.
It can be very hot during the day so it’s wise to be prepared. You can easily get burned by the sun thinking the breeze is cooling you down.
The best times to walk around
People ask questions like is Cartagena safe at night and, what should I avoid whilst inside the walled city of Cartagena.
I’m not focusing on the potential negatives here but I’ll create a guide that explains what I encountered, so please check back soon.
Whilst in Cartagena I broke my day down into the following slots:
- Early morning
- Mid Morning
- Mid afternoon
- Early evening
- Late evening
The walled city experience is something that can get easily overlooked or under-appreciated if you have other interests in Cartagena.
Why not see my page on the best time to visit Cartagena for more tips?
You may even get distracted by the sheer entertainment alone, which you’ll definitely encounter whilst within this mazed city.
From a locals’ perspective walking along the wall is a special moment to share with friends, family members, or a loved one.
I suggest going in the afternoon (as the sun goes down). You’ll find it more pleasant and it helps you relax whilst taking in the ocean views.
💡Smart Travel Tip
Ensure your camera has plenty of battery, you’ll want to capture the moments. I use one of these handy devices to keep fully charged.
What to do in Cartagena
With so many things to do in Cartagena, you may want to concentrate on the walled city as a starting point.
Take a glimpse of what there is to see in Cartagena to get an idea of the most popular tourist attractions.
⤵️ Below are some of the main tourist sites in Cartagena:
- The Walled city of Cartagena
- Clock Tower
- Teatro Heredia
- Cartagena Gold Museum
- Las Bóvedas
- Steps of La Popa mount
- Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Iglesia de San Pedro Claver
This Cathedral holds a beautiful pieces of art history and architecture. Take a walk from the plaza to see all its beauty with a blink of an eye.
Feel free to wander inside and learn about the history of San Pedro Claver. You can learn by entering the rooms inside the Cathedral.
You’ll find there are guided tour options if you want to learn even more.
Castillo De San Felipe
Whilst looking for what to do in Cartagena you can not miss this true masterpiece of Architecture. Built by African labor, it’s no secret that all the labor was under the command of the Spanish military.
One of the interesting facts about Cartagena is this castle served as a defense fortress to protect the stolen treasures by the Spanish colonizers. The castle also has a labyrinth of underground tunnels.
You can easily walk to the castle from the university in the old city which takes around 15 minutes. But you will start to feel a difference.
I took a taxi which cost around COP$7.000 ($2.5USD). You’ll be asked to buy water or some type of gift on arrival so be ready for that.
💡Smart Travel Tip
Visit Castillo De San Felipe around 5 pm the coolest part of the day to watch the sunset from the top of the castle.
Fidel Salsa Bar
Located underneath the Hard Rock Cafe Cartagena this quirky little bar will have you dancing your socks off.
Head upstairs to feel the vibes going on off on the dance floor.
Forget Rumba! It turns out that the Fidel Salsa Bar is the perfect place to meet and connect with locals in Cartagena. Not to mention the people like you and me who are trying to catch onto the local action.
If you like your classic Cuban salsa don’t miss this place for the world.
Statue of Catalina
Not just a monument, but also a great place to sit and relax.
Located right on the edge of the walled city, the statue of Catalina is set near a cozy little park surrounded by water.
If you were wondering what to do in Cartagena make a visit to Catalina near the top of your list.
Catalina was a warrior abducted by Alonso de Ojeda who led her to Santo Domingo in 1509 and was later sold into slavery. Cartagena has many small statues that tell stories but this was one of my favorites.
Walk along the wall
A trip to Cartagena isn’t complete without walking along the wall. The old city is made up of a grid system of calles running from east to west.
Climb up on the walls and feel the breeze hit your face as you look out into the Caribbean sea.
You can also turn the other way and see the view of the old city of Cartagena as you’ll be a roof level.
I highly recommend you do this a sunset os the view is impeccable and leaves you in awe of Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
Buy fruit from the Palenqueras
You’ve seen them on all the images of Cartagena and they are the first thing you’ll notice when you arrive.
These special ladies known as Palenqueras are the face of Cartagena’s old town and are somewhat of a tourist attraction in themselves.
Their history goes back much further than I will mention here but you can easily interact with them and have your photo taken.
I’d go as far as to say that you can’t leave Cartagena and not have had a photo with these ladies which originally came from San Basilio de Palenque a small town located towards the south of Cartagena.
A tip is expected as these women are at your service for you to be able to take a photo with them as well as offer you thirst-quenching fruits.
Getsemani is a classic neighborhood in Cartagena. My first impressions were reminiscent of walking through old Havana in Cuba.
It’s a neighborhood that still has many locals living there and you’ll find a good mix of comedores selling typical Colombian food dishes etc.
There are many other touristy-styled food joints too. As a tourist, you can expect to be approached by many street vendors.
It feels old in parts and has a more raw appearance if you compare it to the other side of the tourist center.
This is Cartagena’s answer to the bohemian underground scene.
So big in comparison with El Laguito, which is a tourist zone with many modern and tall buildings.
In Getsemaní you’ll encounter colorful street art amongst a mix of classy and common establishments.
Recommended Pit stops:
- Plaza de La Trinidad
- Cafe Havana
- Calle de la Sierpe
If you’d prefer to stay here you can find the famous Selina hostel in this neighborhood. So you can have an accommodating stay with all the usual trimmings you’d expect from these high-quality lodgings.
The Rosario Islands
If you’re looking for the best beaches in Colombia and in Cartagena, you’re in the right place. They’re on the Colombian Caribbean coast and only one hour from the heart of Cartagena.
Be sure to have your beach gear. There’s an island for everyone. Whether it be Playa Blanca, or sneaking off to Isla del Pirata.
Maybe it’s one of the other tiny islands, where there, you’re likely to get a more refined and relaxed vacation in Cartagena, Colombia.
Are you wondering which is the best time to visit Cartagena?
It’s true that the weather is like a dream, there’re two rain seasons per year, and the weather in Cartagena in May is known for the rain.
The best time to travel here is from December to March and from June to August. Also, take into account that the high season in Colombia is from December to February.
Also, Cartagena has some of Colombia’s best beaches with the Caribbean coast just a stone’s throw away from Cartagena’s old town.
You can quickly get a tour to places like Playa Blanca or the Rosario Islands to get acquainted with some of Colombia’s more exotic beaches which will leave you thirsty for more sunshine.
Cartagena Travel Tips
See these travel tips for Cartagena to ensure you have the best stay whether you’re on vacation, backpacking, or traveling with friends.
⤵️ Dan’s Travel Tips For Cartagena:
- Carrying a water bottle with a filter is important if spending any length of time here. The water is not potable here and you need to stay hydrated. Aim to be a more sustainable traveler.
- Cartagena is safe. But just like many other important cities in the world, pickpocketing is a very common crime.
- Look like a local. It’s good advice to avoid attracting attention. Also, don’t flash valuables, carry small amounts of cash, etc
- When withdrawing money from ATMs, try to do it in a Bank. It’s better to avoid using the ones on the streets.
- I traveled to Cartagena solo, but if you’re in Cartagena with the family you may want to have a different kind of experience.
- Why not take a free walking tour here? They are perfect for learning about the history of the city, spending little money, and getting useful information from local guides.
- Check Mercado Bazurto (Bazurto Market) and try the delicious local food. It’s better if you go between 11 am-12 pm. But you need to know that the area doesn’t look so good and some people feel unsafe. So, another option it’s to take a food tour that includes a visit to Bazurto.
- Rent a bike. Just make sure that the bike is in a good condition, have safety equipment and a map is given to you at the rental location.
- Visit San Basilio de Palenque. The first free African town in the Americas. Join a dinner cruise on Cartagenas’ bay for a special night.
- If you take taxis, be sure to negotiate the price in advance.
- I’d seen numerous photos of Cartagena and with it being the fifth-largest urban area in Colombia I had to see it in real life.
- For me, one of the most exciting things to do in Cartagena was just to walk with my camera, get myself lost, and see what happens.
- Think you’ve seen all the streets? Go back and discover them again. The walled city of Cartagena unravels further just when you think you’ve seen it all. Carry a shirt with sun protection for the day time.
- The old center itself is drenched with history from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. All my ideal destinations in a nutshell.
- Despite the hoards of tourists. The colors, setting, and local culture all turn a short stay into a memorizing experience. At every turn, you’ll be united with history as it unfolds in front of your eyes.
- Leave space in your schedule for other parts of Cartagena and random strolls to become one street more acquainted with this beautiful site. This is better done in the early morning.
- You’ll stumble upon many landmarks. It can be wise to know the best times to do certain activities whilst in the walled city of Cartagena.
Map of Cartagena, Colombia
See this map of Old town Cartagena to get a better idea of the area:
Note that Cartagena has some bad neighborhoods that surround the walled city. Please remember to walk with caution and expect people to approach you for things as you walk around.
Got Travel Insurance for Cartagena?
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Old Town Cartagena, Colombia
Of course, if you look deeper you’ll find many more experiences to be had in the historic center of Cartagena.
This guide was designed to show you the best landmarks in Cartagena and give you an idea of what to do in and the around the old town.
Whether traveling to Cartagena for 24 hours or for a week of pleasure. I hope you feel like you have an idea of what to see when you visit.
If you’re traveling to Colombia soon, why not check out my backpacking Colombia guide for more tips on traveling through Colombia?
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