A Realistic Cartagena Travel Guide
Cartagena is Colombia’s most popular tourist destination, famed for its immaculately preserved old town and unique costeña culture. The old town is undeniably beautiful and it’s a popular destination wedding choice for Colombians. Cartagena gets lots of sunshine and a local guide told me the two seasons here are hot and hotter. Yet, your typical travel guide won’t tell you that a visit to Cartagena has its flaws.
Manage your expectations because the beautiful pictures don’t tell the whole story. Within the old town, there are lots of people selling things on the street and they can be fairly aggressive. In certain parts of the old town there are prostitutes and cocaine dealers at night. Additionally, there’s no proper drainage system. So if it rains for even 2 hours, the streets flood and the power might go out. All in all, these factors did detract from the beauty of Cartagena for me.
I recommend spending most of your time in Getsemani which is only a 5-minute walk from the old town. It’s a neighborhood where locals still live and you won’t be hounded by street sellers. It’s cheaper than the old town and it’s a very pretty neighborhood in its own right.
This post may include affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a comission at no extra cost to you.
How to Get the Old Town
Cartagena is a rare city whose airport is closer to the city center than the bus terminal. The airport is only a 10-minute taxi ride from the old town and the bus terminal is 30-45 minutes away depending on traffic.
Bookaway is a great resource that allows you to compare the prices of buses and flights, and secure your seat in advance!
What to Do
Walk the streets of Getsemani – Cartagena’s most colorful neighborhood is a pleasure to walk around with its incredible street art. It gets a lot of tourist traffic, but locals still live here. You’ll likely see a few families playing cards and drinking aguardiente in the streets. Plaza de la Trinidad is a popular spot for street performers at night.
Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa – The convent itself is unspectacular, but it has the best views of Cartagena. It’s dangerous to walk up there alone, and when you get close, guys on motorcycles will offer a ride to the convent for 5,000 Colombian pesos (COP). When you want to head back down, the people selling souvenirs outside the convent will call a moto-taxi for you. The entrance to the convent is 13,000 COP.
Free Walking Tour – A great way to learn about Cartagena’s historical importance and to get recommendations from a local. There are two walking tours, the historic town and Getsemani. The Getsemani tour is more focused on culture (awesome tour!) and the other focuses on history.
Search for Sloths at Parque Centenario – Believe it or not, there are sloths and sometimes a few monkeys that live in a park just outside the old town. It all began with two donated sloths, and now they have kids. They are adorable and unphased by the presence of people.
Mercado de Bazurto – While this market sells nothing particularly unique, it’s incredibly hectic. The market is worth a visit to get a picture of what Cartagena is like outside the tourist zone.
Rosario Islands – Most tours will take you to Isla Grande, Cholon, Playa Blanca, and some include a bioluminescence plankton lagoon. I have to say I was really disappointed with this experience. It’s a 14-hour day where you spend less than 2 hours on the islands and 6 hours on a not so nice beach.
The water isn’t clear enough for snorkeling and it’s difficult to relax at the beach. Local women walk up and down the beach grabbing the arms of men in hope of getting paid for a massage. Plus, you spend 40 minutes at a party island which you can’t really enjoy unless you’ve been drinking all morning. Honestly, it felt like I paid 240,000 COP to spend a day at the beach.
Where to Eat
La Mulata – I highly recommend a visit here for the shrimp dishes. The food is wonderful, the service is quick, and it’s good value for Cartagena standards at around 30,000 COP per plate.
El Bololó – A restaurant in Getsemani with delicious Caribbean style bowls for 23,000 COP.
Los Fritos de Dora – A food cart in Plaza San Diego serving the regional speciality of arepas de huevo. Expect to wait 10-15 minutes in line, but it’s 100% worth it.
Restaurante San Valentin – A popular lunch spot with a lovely interior and surprisingly affordable meat and seafood dishes.
Where to Stay
Casa Del Pozo Boutique Hostel – Located in Getsemani, this is a beautifully designed hostel with a rooftop pool and bar. The staff is very knowledgeable about Cartagena and you’re just a 5-minute walk from the old town.
Viajero – Viajero’s are consistent throughout Colombia. The hostel itself isn’t the nicest and there’s no hot water, but there’s always a fun social atmosphere.
How Long to Stay
All things considered, 2 days is enough time to spend in Cartagena. There are better places on the coast for a beach day and there’s not a whole lot to see outside the old town and Getsemani.
Now that you’ve read the Cartagena travel guide, check out the most important things to know before visiting Colombia!
Where to Next
Lost City Trek (5 hours by bus) – Hike through the jungle for 4 days to a Tairona city abandoned over the fear of Spanish diseases.
Medellín (16 hours by bus) – Renowned for its nightlife, the city of eternal spring is famed for its history surrounding Colombia’s drug cartels.
Bogotá (90-minute flight) – Capital city with great museums, the country’s tallest waterfall, and one of the most iconic nightclubs in the Americas.