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Cartagena, Colombia has become a top tourist destination in South America, and with good reason. The vibrant coastal city is warm year-round and attracts visitors with its tropical vibes and rich culture. After spending a few days in Cartagena’s historic walled city, it’s easy to see why people love it. The Spanish-colonial architecture, the cobblestone streets, and the brightly colored walls draped in bougainvillea make it picture-perfect.
The city has something for everyone, whether you want to relax on the beach or take in the sights. The area is walkable and its beaches are easily accessible. You can eat your way through the city, dance the night away, or sip on the world’s best coffee. Find out everything you need to know about visiting Cartagena in this complete Cartagena travel guide.
Cartegena Travel Guide:
Best Time to Visit Cartagena
Cartagena, Colombia has a tropical climate with two seasons: the wet and the dry season. It can be a year-round destination but the best months to visit are generally January through March. These months are considered the dry season. During this time, the weather is warm but not overly humid and nights can be breezy. This is a popular time to visit, so expect crowds and more costly accommodation. December and April can be great as well but may see a little rain.
The off-season is the period from August to November. These months are the least popular because of the large amounts of rain. However, this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker unless you are primarily going for the beach. These months can be perfect for the budget traveler since great hotel deals can be found.
The temperature in Cartagena doesn’t vary greatly from month to month but the amount of humidity can make it feel much hotter than it is. I visited at the beginning of May. The weather was hot and humid with a couple of brief morning rainstorms. Traveling to Cartagena during the most humid months is doable if you plan your day well. I suggest starting early at 7 am with activities, taking a midday break indoors, and then going back out in the evening.
How Much Time in Cartagena
Three days in Cartagena is perfect. It’s enough time to explore the walled city, see most of the major sights, and spend a day at the beach. If you wish to do a day trip from the city, you may want to add an additional day.
The walled city is easy to explore on foot and a lot can be seen in a single day. The hip and nearby neighborhood of Getsemani can be covered in a day as well. Three days is enough time to enjoy the city at a reasonable pace and have time for some shopping and great food.
How to Get Around Cartagena
The walled city is extremely walkable. I recommend staying within the walls and exploring its sights on foot. Taxis are readily available, but the streets are so congested that walking is often faster.
If traveling outside the walled city or going long distances, I suggest Uber. Uber is technically illegal in Colombia but as of May 2022, it is still available. Don’t be alarmed if the driver asks you to sit in the front. This is so it appears you are a known passenger. The wait for an Uber may be longer than that of a taxi but if you don’t speak Spanish, it will be the easier option. The driver will have the location of your destination whereas, I found taxi drivers rarely had a phone and relied on me to direct them.
If you are in a rush, there are always plenty of taxis and your hotel will be able to arrange one for you. A taxi is also best for travel to/ from the airport. Always agree on a price with your driver in advance.
Safety in Cartagena
Colombia was once deserving of its bad reputation but today many of Colombia’s large cities are generally safe, with Cartagena being one of the safest. Within the walled city, you’ll find a strong police presence. However, they aren’t present because it’s a dangerous place, they are there because it’s a large tourist attraction and they want to keep it safe. Violent crime against tourists is very rare.
Like any city, you will want to take general precautions. You’ll want to be aware of your surroundings at all times. Streets can be crowded, especially on the weekend and pickpocketing does happen. Keep your valuables secure and don’t carry more money than you need. Don’t wear anything overly flashy.
Avoid walking alone after dark. Walking to/ from dinner within the walled city is generally ok. There are usually people out, just make sure to stick to busy streets. Be aware of scams and avoid rougher neighborhoods that are further from the walled city.
Things to Do in Cartagena:
1. Walk Around the Walled City
Construction of Cartagena’s walled city began in 1586 and was designed to protect the city from pirate attacks. The area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. Today, you’ll find well-preserved colorful colonial buildings and cobblestone streets within its walls. You can explore the walled city on your own or go on a free walking tour.
Free walking tours are offered twice a day, Monday through Saturday, and last about 2 hours. This is a great way to see all the major sights and learn about the city’s history. If you choose to explore independently, it’s easy to get around on foot. Make sure to stop at the Catedral Santa Catalina de Alejandria and take a midday break in the shade-covered Plaza Bolivar.
2. Take Photos with the Palenqueras
The Palenqueras are fruit sellers originating from Palenque de San Basilio, a town just south of Cartagena. For years, the women in colorful dresses have walked to Cartagena’s old town, balancing large bowls of fruit on their heads. However, today they sell less fruit and primarily make money to support their communities by posing for photos. You should agree on a price before taking any photos.
3. See the Street Art in Getsemani
A visit to Getsemani is a must-do in this Cartagena travel guide. Getsemani is a hip neighborhood located just 10 minutes from the walled city. It’s a popular area with backpackers but is less touristic than the walled city and has a more authentic vibe. Not long ago, Getsamnai was a dangerous area but has since transformed and is now known for its street art. Many of the murals tell a story of Getsemani’s history and represent issues the barrio currently faces, such as gentrification and tourism. Book a graffiti walking tour here.
Plaza de la Trinidad is a lively square in Getsemani where people come for street food, inexpensive drinks, and socializing. Make sure to try the empanadas. There are also some great rooftops and bars scattered throughout the area. Cafe Havana is very popular in the evenings.
4. Have a Rooftop Drink
Take a break from the afternoon heat and relax on one of Cartagena’s rooftops with a drink. Cartagena has a handful of great rooftops. Some of the most popular within the walled city are Townhouse Boutique Hotel and Sophia Hotel.
Dona Lola in Getsemani is also a great option. It’s a great escape from the busy street below and even has a small pool for a quick cool down.
5. Dine on Fresh Seafood
Cartagena has a great food scene and is known for its abundance of fresh seafood. However, there are a lot of so-so places mixed in with the great ones. I suggest sticking to places that are well-reviewed or visiting my selections in this Cartagena travel guide.
A must try is La Cevicheria. It exploded in popularity after being featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”. It’s delicious and absolutely lives up to the hype. It does get very busy so I recommend going for an early lunch to avoid a long wait.
6. Day Trip to Rosario Islands
The Rosario Islands is an archipelago located off the Caribbean coast, about 62 mi (100 km) from Cartagena. The boat ride from Cartagena takes about 45 minutes. The area is gorgeous and is one of Colombia’s natural national parks. A day trip to the islands is a popular activity and can be visited on a tour. This one visits several islands and allows for time to snorkel and relax on the beach.
7. Go Shopping for Souvenirs
Spend an afternoon shopping in the walled city. There are many clothing boutiques, souvenir shops, and a handful of places with artisan crafts. Shop the boutiques for cute colorful swimwear and flowy beach dresses for women or breezy linen shirts for men. Find high-quality crafts and home goods at El Centro Artesano and Aja Company. Abaco Libros y Café is a bookstore and cafe that has great Cartagena coffee table books to bring home.
Plaza de Las Bovedas is a series of small spaces that once housed prisoners. The spaces now contain tiny shops packed with souvenirs. Portal de los Dulces is a candy market. The block has vendors selling all sorts of candies and traditional desserts.
Where to Eat in Cartagena
Cartagena has a great food scene, but I wouldn’t recommend just walking into any restaurant. I left disappointed after trying a couple of random places so for the remainder of my stay, I tried to stick to well-reviewed establishments. However, many of the recommendations I found online were out of date. Covid apparently hit Cartagena pretty hard and many businesses closed. The following are some of the best restaurants in Cartagena and all are open as of May 2022:
Crepes & Waffles: Crepes & Waffles is a Colombian chain but it’s actually pretty tasty. They open late morning and it’s a great spot for breakfast or lunch. The location within the walled city has an upstairs dining area with outdoor tables overlooking the streets below.
Epoca Espresso Bar: Epoca Espresso Bar has some of the best coffee in Cartagena. The cafe is open most of the day and serves both breakfast and lunch items. They do get very busy so I suggest going early. I recommend the egg benedict. The cafe also has non-dairy milk options.
Alquimico: Alquimico is a great spot for a drink in the evening. The large open space is beautiful and has 3 levels, including a rooftop terrace. The bar serves refreshing craft cocktails made of quality ingredients.
La Taperia: La Taperia is located just outside the walled city. The small but cozy restaurant serves paella and Spanish-style tapas. The restaurant only has a handful of tables so a reservation is strongly recommended.
Carmen: Carmen is one of Cartagena’s most popular restaurants. The restaurant offers a contemporary menu with Colombian flavors. Admittedly, I wasn’t able to eat here. Not because I didn’t want to but because I couldn’t get a reservation. You’ll want to make a dinner reservation about 2 weeks in advance. They do offer a waitlist, but I was told the list rarely opens up.
La Cevicheria: As mentioned above, La Cevicheria is a must in this Cartagena travel guide. It became very popular after appearing in Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”. It gets extremely busy so I suggest going for an early lunch. Everything I ordered here was amazing.
Restaurante Alma: Restaurante Alma is a beautiful restaurant located in Hotel Casa Sana Agustin. The restaurant is open throughout the day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I suggest going for lunch. The restaurant is somewhat on the pricier side and the lunch menu is more affordable. Reservations are suggested for dinner.
The menu does change, but I recommend lobster empanadas, coconut ceviche, tuna tartare, and the Snooky de Coco for dessert. This was one of my favorite meals.
Where to Stay in Cartagena
There are three main areas where tourists usually stay in Cartagena: Centro (walled or old city), Getsemani, and Bocagrande. I suggest staying in Centro or the walled city. You’ll be able to walk to great restaurants, shops, and many attractions.
Getsemani can also be a great choice. Getsemani caters to backpackers and has a great selection of hostels and budget accommodations. Bocagrande can be a good option if you want somewhere quieter and are interested in spending most of your time at the beach. Bocagrande has high rises and big-name hotels offering ocean views.
The Sophia is a beautiful boutique hotel featuring a rooftop pool and deck. It offers a massage service and an onsite vinoteca. The Sophia is conveniently located in the walled city.
Casa India Catalina
Casa India Catalina is a traditionally decorated hotel and is reasonably priced. It’s located within the walled city and close to major attractions. The hotel has a pool, hammocks, and a restaurant on site.
Hyatt Regency Cartagena
If you are looking for a relaxing beach vacation, Bocagrande may be for you. The Hyatt Regency Cartagena is a luxurious hotel located just a few steps from Bocagrande Beach. The hotel has a pool, bar, and restaurant on-site as well as incredible views.
Hotel Casa Lola
Hotel Casa Lola is an incredible hotel located in Getsemani. The hotel is made up of 2 historic buildings attached to one another. The hotel is beautifully decorated and all the plants give it wonderful jungle vibes. It also houses Dona Lola, which I’ve mentioned above.
Airbnb is a great option for finding affordable accommodation within the walled city. Follow the link to the studio apartment that I stayed in. The location and our host were both terrific.
Know Before You Go
- Power Adaptors/ Converters: Colombia sockets use plugs A and B and have a voltage of 110v. Neither an adaptor nor a converter is needed if you are traveling from the United States.
- Currency: The Colombian peso is the country’s currency. Credit cards are taken in most restaurants but you will need cash for many things. Make sure to bring enough money with you and don’t rely on ATMs. There is no ATM on the arrival side at the airport and the ATMs around town are often out of cash or allow you to withdraw very little.
- Visas: U.S. citizens do not need a visa for a tourist or business stay of 90 days or less or for cumulative stays of 180 days or less per calendar year.
- SIM Cards: I usually buy a SIM card at the airport when I arrive. SIM cards are not available in arrivals at the Cartagena airport. There are a couple of markets in the walled city that sell Claro! and Tigo cards.
- Language: Spanish. Some Colombians, especially the younger generation, speak English. However, I would learn a few basic phrases before your trip. I would also download an offline translator just in case you find yourself without phone service.
- Other Things to Bring: Cartagena is close to the equator and the sun can be harsh. Make sure to bring a hat and plenty of sunscreen.
Have you been to Cartagena? Is there something I missed in this Cartagena travel guide? If you’ve enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or share using the social media buttons below. Want to explore other South American destinations? Continue to my post, “The Ultimate Galapagos Land-Based Itinerary“.