Writing this travel guide has been probably the hardest blog post to put together for me. The issue is that I ADORE Cartagena, so my travel advice could either be limited to “just go and you will love it too,’ or to go all out and list every single corner that made me sigh in awe. I think I’ve achieved a healthy medium here for you guys to have a few can’t miss basics, but do let me emphasize again: just go, you’ll love it!
So now let me tell you a little bit about one of my favourite places on Earth. Cartagena is a Caribbean city in the northern coast of Colombia. Given its strategic location as a port, it became one of the most important cities in the mid-1500s under Spanish rule. This time left its mark and it can be witnessed today through its beautiful colourful colonial architecture, but also through the painful history of slavery and inquisition that took place in those very streets.
Nowadays the colonial side of the city is referred to as La Ciudad Amurallada (The Walled City). This area has the particularity that the wall that was built to defend themselves from pirates and invaders is still up, and it separates the old town from the modern city. For most of this blog post, I’ll be talking about this area in particular. Cartagena is a city full of colour, music, flavours and history. The perfect combo if you ask me!
What to pack
Cartagena is hot, the weather is usually around 30 °C (86 °F), and it doesn’t particularly cool down at night, so of course, light fresh outfits are the way to go. You’ll be doing tons of walking, as it’s the best way to discover all the cute streets and houses spread around the colonial town. There are some cobbled streets and many uneven roads, so anything in the heels variety won’t be the most comfortable choice. All I can think about when packing for Cartagena is the colour, so I make sure to bring my most colourful outfits as well.
Short and breezy maxi dresses; kimonos; and shorts are all my go-to's for this gorgeous city. Sunnies will also be a must for walking around town under the sun, and if you’re sensitive to the sun a hat will also be an absolute must. To avoid lunging one on the plane, you can get yourself a cute souvenir buying one of the many hats sold on the streets and shops of the city. Cartagena is also a big party city; so make sure to pack a cute little night outfit.
For spending some time at the beach also make sure to pack bathing suits, cover-ups, and flip-flops. I like to go to the beach outside the city (more on that below), so I make sure to pack comfortable clothes for travel. As in 40-minutes-on-a-choppy-boat-ride-comfortable. Jean shorts and a loose top usually do the trick.
And let’s not forget: tons of sunscreen.
Where to stay
There are many areas to stay in the city depending on what your plan might be. If you’re looking to mainly chill at the beach, there are hotels with a beachfront all across town. Personally, I think the charm in Cartagena is all about the colonial town, so I tend to prefer staying there and travelling out of town for the beaches (again, more on that below). Here are a hotel and a hostel you may be into:
Casa India Catalina -This hotel is a reformed colonial house with great customer service and roomy bedrooms. This place is all about location. You walk out and you’re already in the heart of it all. The hotel has breakfast included as well. It is more old school than modern hotels but it was definitely a very charming place.
Republica Hostel - Republica also has a prime location and a really cool look. It’s the kind of hostel to visit if you’re looking for a bed in a multiperson room and a young vibe with a lot of fellow travellers.
Where to eat
Pastelería Mila Vargas (aka Mila) – beware, this place is dangerous. EVERYTHING, and I mean everything is so delicious you just want to spend the afternoon tasting one dessert after the next. Our favourites were the Milo Brownie and the Chocolate and Arequipe Cake, with a Moccacino. I’m going through withdrawal just writing this paragraph. Just too good.
Café del Mar – This place is absolutely iconic because of its beautiful view, so if you can make it out in the afternoon and stay through the sunset you won’t regret it. Get a few beers and enjoy the end of the day at one of the most gorgeous locations in la Ciudad Amurallada.
Plaza Santo Domingo – There are several restaurants located around this plaza facing the Santo Domingo church. I don’t have a recommendation in particular, but it’s a good place to get some food and enjoy music and people watching in a very central location.
La Casa de Socorro – This restaurant is not in the old town but in the neighbourhood of Getsemani. The food here is absolutely delicious and it’s a must if you’re visiting this area. I ordered the Pulpo al Ajillo (Garlic Octopus) and I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that I’ll probably never eat something as delicious again.
What to do
Walk – The charm of Cartagena’s old streets can be best seen just strolling around town. Walk, walk a lot, and then walk some more. At every turn you’ll find something that will catch your eye. There are also free walking tours available at 9:30 am and 4:00 pm. You can meet a guide at the Plaza de La Aduana (also known and easily recognizable as the Clocktower Plaza). I’ve heard mixed reviews on this, and personally the tour guide that gave us an English tour did not really speak actual English. But, if you take it with some humour you may even learn some things about Cartagena. Also, you may be luckier and actually get a for-real-English-speaking guide.
Las Islas del Rosario – Cartagena’s sea is not the Caribbean dream you may be thinking of. It’s not particularly bad, but to visit actual crystalline beaches with white sand and the most gorgeous sea, you can visit the Rosario Islands. You can purchase a day trip to many of these islands for a range of prices that will determine how private and crowded the island might be, as well as if it offers extra services.
You will take a boat ride to the beach that takes about 40 minutes and then spend the day under the sun. These day trips usually include lunch as well.
I visited the Bora Bora Island which was absolutely gorgeous but definitely on the pricier side. It was absolutely stunning though, and worth every cent. However, and as I explain a bit more below in my note about tips, there are a lot of hidden prices on the package, so as unfortunate as it sounds you just kind of have to come to terms with the rules of the game and let go to enjoy the day to the max.
Getsemani – This neighbourhood is a bit underappreciated if you ask me, but it’s an absolutely hip and charming place to visit. There are many cool spots to see, and you can learn some about the great graffiti culture in the neighbourhood. At night you can see many street performances and let the ambiance take over.
**A note on tips, prices and scams: Cartagena is definitely and 100% a tourist trap. People will always try to overcharge foreigners, and will at times even demand a tip. Feel free to bargain for better prices and be quite persistent if you must, and never feel forced to tip unless you’re genuinely pleased with the service. Do know there are situations in which people are only making money on a tip-basis, such as the free walking tours, the ladies dressed in folkloric outfits that will offer to take a picture with you, the street singers, etc. So it’s probably best to not take their picture or ask for their service if you can’t tip them a few thousand pesos. Whenever you purchase something such as an excursion make sure to ask a million times exactly what it includes, they will always have surprise last-minute charges that can put a damper on your day, so coming in knowing that’s how they work and always bringing just in case extra cash with you will avoid you some unfortunate disappointments.
To check out some more of my favourite moments in Cartagena feel free to head over to the gram and check out my Cartagena highlights! I’ll see you there!