A city unlike any other in Colombia, Cartagena (specifically the old town) will leave you in love with its charm, admiring its colonial architecture and feeling alive with its buzz.
This city really does have something for everyone and caters to all budgets. From lively salsa bars, to rooftop cocktail clubs and historical city walks to turquoise blue Caribbean beaches.
Downsides – only 2 for us. 1 – it’s a tourist mecca with cruise ships arriving each day, this means it can get pretty packed during peak times (specially Saturdays). 2 – Outside of the old town, Getsemani and Bocagrande, the locals live a very different reality. Quite literally cast out of the tourist part, you’ll find they have very poor living conditions. It would be good to see more of the money made from tourism invested to develop the poorer parts of Cartegena.
So, what should you do in this awesome city… don’t worry, there’s plenty to choose from! After spending 5 days there, we’ve put together our favourite things you must see or do.
What to do in Cartagena!? Our top 15:
1. Watch the sunset on the old wall
Cartagenas city wall is impossible to miss, it surrounds the old town and runs right along the beach, making it a perfect spot to watch the sunset. Grab a few beers, pick your spot and enjoy! Location: Bulwark La Merced and Santiago Apóstol. Cost: free.
2. Explore the spooky underground mazes in San Felipe Castle
This is good fun, the castle itself is pretty much a huge piece of solid rock, you can see why attackers found it hard to get in! It had to be built like this because it was a treasure storage stop before being shipped to Spain. Within the castle you’ll find an underground network of dark, eerie stone tunnels to explore. Plan your visit here. Cost: $25,000COP/$8USD pp
3. Watch the lively music and dancing at night
Every night street artists put on an incredible show of cultural dancing and music, another thing you won’t miss because of the sound. We could spend hours watching the insane explosions of energy put into their moves, it’s one of our favourite memories in Cartagena. Location: in front of the Clock Tower. Cost: donation.
4. Party like the locals at Donde Fidel salsa bar
This bar named after the local legend is one lively place & full of locals. If you don’t know who Fidel is, you will by the time you leave as his photos cover the walls, he also makes the occasional appearance in the bar. Salsa shoes on & off you go! Location: Portal de los Dulces. Cost: a beer.
5. Drink cocktails at a rooftop bar
There are a few around Cartagena, though our favourite was Alquimico. The rooftop cocktail bar has a really cool vibe & you can also play pool on the second floor. This was Shay’s ideal house, he loved it so much. Check their menu here. Cost: £££
6. Chill in a cosy cafe
Cartagena has a lot of cafes, though we were keen to find the ones less touristy. (Also with good wifi and in a cool setting). Hear are our top recommendations:
Folklore Colombian Cafe – This was our favourite, a really chilled atmosphere, great wifi, a nice water fountain outside & a huge selection of coffee (Iban was happy). ££
Época espresso bar – A nice small coffee & cake bar with a relaxed vibe & 1930’s look to it. ££
Stepping Stone – The most ethical cafe in Cartagena with a great mission & great menu. Tom, Hannah & Vanessa set up the cafe & employ local disadvantaged workers living in poverty, helping to boost their skills, improve their living standards and pursue long term careers. It’s an awesome place. ££
7. Visit the market outside the old town
As we mentioned in the intro, outside of the old town is a very different reality from what the tourists see, so it’s a place you should visit. The main part we’d recommend in the street market, a jam packed place with hundreds of stalls. Take your time, keep a hand on your belongings and explore it for an hour or so. Location: walk along Avenida Pedro de Heredia, away from the old town.
8. Visit Rosario islands, not Playa Blanca
Playa Blanca may be sold to you by tour guides as a beautiful beach to visit, and it would be if it wasn’t for the locals working there staying by your side until you buy something / constant fumes in your face from the jet skis and never feeling relaxed with the amount of people walking near your bags. No exaggeration, it’s such a shame the beach has ended up this way & we hope something is done to restore it. In the mean time, pick Rosario Islands for a day trip instead. Cost: $200,000COP/$65USD pp
The reality of Playa Blanca –
9. Visit a secret park with monkeys, iguanas & sloths
We’re about to share with you a hidden secret of Cartagena! We walked past this small park each day and didn’t think much of it until one day we walked through. Suddenly we spotted iguanas, then monkeys and then a sloth! We couldn’t believe our eyes, these animals are so close to you. If we’re honest, we’re not too sure how they ended up there as it’s in the middle of a city, though there are people looking after them & making sure on lookers don’t get too close which made us feel better. This is definitely a place to visit that only locals seem to know about. Please don’t feed or touch the animals. Location: Centenario Park. Cost: free.
10. Try some street food & watch Plaza la Trinidad come alive at night
If there’s one word we’d use to describe the local way of life an nighttime in Cartagena, it would be loud! Families with speakers outside their houses, local squares bustling with street performers and pop up street food stalls… it’s awesome. One particular square where this happens every night was right near where we stayed, you have to check it out. Location: Plaza La Trinidad, Getsemani. Cost: free.
11. Jump into a volcano and get covered in mud
One of our absolute favourite day trips from Cartagena, Tortumo mud volcano. Climb up the stairs of probably one of the worlds smallest volcanoes (15ft) and get yourself inside! Yes you’ll be getting up close and personal with other visitors, yes it’s become a complete tourist attraction though it’s worth it. You will read other blogs that tell you locals strip and scrub you down in front of people… this isn’t true, or at least they have certainly stopped. 2 pieces of advice – 1. Opt for the massage: it costs you a tiny amount more ($5,000COP/$1.60USD) though you get much more space. 2. When the locals offer to wash the mud off or pour water on you, just say ‘no gracias’, that’s all it takes. We booked it through this operator. Cost: $70,000COP/$22USD pp, including lunch.
12. Wander around the streets, soak up culture & enjoy the architecture
From bunting lined streets, to houses of all shades of colour and boutique hotels to stunning colonial houses, just wandering the streets in Cartagena has a lot to offer. Grab your camera, get your insta outfit on and have a fun afternoon exploring. Make sure you visit Getsemani neighbourhood, the real Cartagena. Cost: free.
13. Buy fresh coconut or fruit juice from a street seller
The sun is hot, you’re walking around a lot, so what better way to cool down than a freshly chopped coconut or freshly squeezed fruit juice. You’ll see the street sellers as you walk around, pick your favourite flavour and enjoy. Cost: $2,000COP/$0.70USD.
14. Take a selfie with or spot the ‘Palenqueras’ of Cartagena
Ok so we had two feelings about this… The fruit ladies who you’ll spot in their vibrant & colourful outfits, carrying real or fake fruit used to be a real thing in Cartagena for a short period of time. A while back, a tourist paid them to take a photo and now it’s become purely about this. The outfits / the fruit and the smiles are just for making money, not to actually sell fruit. If you don’t pay… you won’t be getting any smiles.
So we just felt like it wasn’t that real, though credit to these women, they know exactly who to spot from a crowd and before the tourist knows it, a fruit bowl will be on their head, surrounded by a few singing and dancing women… followed by getting their wallet out. We’ll leave the choice to you. Location: various places around town, you’ll spot them. Cost: donation.
15. Visit the statue of India Catalina
Catalina is an icon and the city’s treasure. When the Spaniards invaded the area, they took Catalina because of her beautiful looks to become a slave. She learnt Spanish in Santo Domingo and was used as interpreter.
Colombia have their own version of the Oscar, handing little replicas of the statue to the winners of the film festival.Location: Avenida Venezuela, on the way to San Felipe Castle. Cost: free.
So thats the Top 15! Let us know what you thought of Cartagena, is there anything else you discovered to add onto the list? If you have any other questions about the city just drop us a comment or WhatsApp and we’ll help you out.
Shay & Iban 👬 🍍