Cartagena is a popular destination full of colour, music, salsa, murals and atmosphere. The city is located in the northwest of Colombia and therefore an ideal base for visiting the sights in the north. Cartagena is an attraction in itself where you can easily enjoy yourself for a few days. The city never stands still. Especially not when the sun goes down and the lights and music come on. Then you hear (live) music everywhere and you see people dancing in the cafes and streets. But there’s more to do than dance!
Getsemaní and Old Town
The most famous neighborhoods of Cartagena are Getsemaní and Old Town. Getsemaní is known for its street art and flags stretched from house to house. Every new street you walk in has new colors and murals. The street food is also delicious in Getsemaní. The most famous dish is the Arepa. It is a corn-based sandwich that is filled with (mozarella) cheese, vegetables and/or meat. Many variations are possible. And often you only pay a few euros for it.
The other part of the historic center is Old Town. In this section you will find more colonial high houses, each with its own color. Old Town is also surrounded by a city wall. This is a popular place to walk over and at the end of the day settle down with a beer and watch the sun go down. In Old Town you will also find many restaurants and shops. Cartagena’s Cathedral is also located there.
Both neighborhoods are wonderful places to walk around. Don’t be surprised if you can buy something or be offered something on every street corner. From paintings to fresh fruit and from souvenirs to tours, you can get everything. In the evenings, especially on weekends, the city is a bustling place. There are multiple street performances and music plays through the streets and squares. Wherever you walk, you’ll find a place to have a drink and dance. Café Havana has live music every Wednesday to Sunday and the dancing is not skipped. If you want to visit Café Havana on these days in the evening, you pay 40,000 pesos/€10 entrance and keep in mind that the café itself is not cheap. But the atmosphere is good! Another cafe with live music is Tertulia, just down the road. But outside these cafes you will find many other places and squares with music. You don’t have to be bored in Cartagena.
Explore the city
Besides doing your own walking tour by walking Getsemaní and Old Town, there are other ways to explore the city. This can be done, for example, with a free walking tour or free bicycle tour. You then walk or cycle through the city and get to know the neighborhoods and streets. It is advisable to do these tours often at the beginning of your trip/arrival in a city, so that you know the city a little better afterwards. A tip to the guide afterwards is also recommended.
Several city tours are offered in Cartagena. Think of a hop on hop off bus and street food tour or more organized tours along the murals, the city wall or a coffee tour. The prices of the tours vary per activity but start around €25.
If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, you can go to the city park Parque Centenario. Right in the city and full of animals. You can spot monkeys, sloths, iguanas and many birds. Nice for a change between all the music, colors smells of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Take a salsa lesson
In the land of salsa, dancing is included on a daily basis and almost unavoidable. For a dance lesson or just (again) dancing, you can go to Crazy Salsa, for example. This is a dance school where you can take dance lessons for all levels, in a group or privately. Prices start from 60,000/€15 and you can contact them via social media (instagram or facebook).
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is the largest and immense castle that the Spanish built in their colonies. It is located just outside the Getsemaní district and was built in 1536 as a protection against the pirates and other enemies. The location is strategic, allowing a good overview of the sea and the land/city. The castle has very thick walls where you can stand between the battlements, a large system of corridors and several viewpoints over the city. If you want to visit the castle, you can visit it daily between 07:00 and 18:00. Opening hours and days may differ on special days. You can check this online. Visiting the castle costs 27,000 pesos/€6.75.
Cartagena is located on the outskirts of Colombia and the sea is therefore important to the city. The largest cargo ships are moored daily in the cargo port. But the smaller ports are also active and in daily use. The Manga harbor is mainly used for the smaller boats and ships. In the harbor Muelle de los Pegasos are mainly the ships and boats that are used for pleasure sailing. Here you can also make trips by boat.
Surrounding tropical islands
Around Cartagena you will find several (tropical) islands where you can go on a day or multi-day trip. The Rosario Islands and the Barú Peninsula, among others, are popular destinations to escape the city. The Rosario Islands can only be reached by boat, where you can choose from several islands. Barú is a peninsula and connected by a bridge, so you can get there not only by boat, but also by taxi and bus. Like the beaches around Cartagena, such as Playa Marbella, the islands are popular and touristy. Be aware of crowds, especially on weekends and special days. If you want to avoid the crowds a bit, it is best to go for several days and choose accommodation a bit further away. You can easily book your trip to the islands in the center of Cartagena. There are many tourist offices that can help you. If you want a boat for yourself, it is easiest to go to the Muelle de los Pegasos harbor. Most boats to the islands leave from there. You could approach a captain yourself to make a deal.
Not only boat trips for a whole day are possible, you can also spend part of the day on the water. In addition, seeing the sunset from the water is a very nice option. Several boats depart from the downtown harbor, Muelle de los Pegasos. You can walk along the harbor on the day itself and speak to a captain (also for the islands, for example). If you want more certainty or more convenience, you will also find several options online. The most common are the big old pirate ship and the big catamaran Bona Vida. You can book online or via WhatsApp. Prices often start around €20 and a drink and snack are included. Depart at 5:00 PM and return around 7:00 PM, sailing out of the harbor towards the open sea and taking in views of Cartagena’s skyline as the sun sets.
How do you get there and back?
Cartagena is the largest city in Northern Colombia. Many people reach the city by plane, bus or boat from Panama.
In the city you can reach a lot on foot, depending on where your accommodation is. If you stay near Getsemaní and Old Town, you can walk a lot.
In Cartagena, taxis/Ubers run to cover longer distances in the city. For example to the airport, which is relatively close to the center or to your hotel in the evening.
Cartagena has Terminal de Transporte on the outskirts of the city. A bus station with buses that go to larger cities such as Medellin and Bogotá. If you look at the website of the bus station you can view the bus rides and times online. But also book and reserve tickets so that you are assured of your ticket. A shuttle bus is recommended for destinations such as Barranquilla and/or Santa Marta. These minibuses are often faster than the coaches and are still very affordable. Both Berlinastur and Marsol run back and forth from Cartagena to Santa Marta with Barranquilla as a stopover. Both cost 60,000 pesos/€15 to Santa Marta for 4.5 hours.