Cartagena, Colombia, is the jewel of the Caribbean coast. This is a city with a history as heavily seasoned as its unique local cuisine. Once a Spanish Colonial walled-city, Cartagena de Indias employs more than a dozen kilometers of Spanish Colonial architecture, colorful walls, easy strolls and relaxing park settings. An easy walk-around, Cartagena is not a place to rush through your sightseeing stops. Rather, this unique city is a place to be spontaneous in. A simple stroll will take you through the labyrinth of culture, history, and innovation for a young future.
This city’s impressive strides of preservation is unparalleled in a world where things are constantly changing. The bars and restaurants provide a new feel to a, for the most part, preserved city. Catch yourself in a time warp while admiring the massive churches whose spires overlook lush green plazas and parks, travel back in time through the beautiful terraced Spanish-style houses lining the streets with vines and overlooked by an almost constantly blue sky. Take a promenade down Cartagena’s corniche or beaches (which are one of the best ones in Colombia!) while viewing (or swimming) in the city’s spectacular ode to the Caribbean. Cartagena is truly the queen of the sea.
What is Cartagena known for?
The city of Cartagena is a vibrant city known for its sunshine, coastline, and history. What people know best about this dynamic city is its burgeoning nightlife, robust salsa scene, delicious local cuisine and the mix of Spanish, Indegenous and Caribbean cultures.
What to Do in Cartagena?
Cartagena is a vibrant city that is a beautiful place where the old and the new are constantly in harmony. While there are many, many things to do in this tourist paradise, we will make sure to outline what we think captures the best of this Caribbean hotspot!
Learn about Colombia’s colourful past
The Palace of Inquisition, once the seat of the Holy Office by the Spanish Colonial government built in 1770, now serves as a museum showcasing a plethora of historical artifacts. The building itself is a wonder of its own, with its Baroque influences with a heavy Spanish Colonial style. While the museum displays coins, maps, weapons, and imperial assets, what brings people to this museum is the collection of torture equipment used by the Spanish Colonial forces on individuals believed of crimes at the time.
Explore the Deep Blue
The Rosario Islands are an archipelago off the coast of Cartagena, being one of the National Parks in Colombia. This island was protected by the government to protect one of Colombia’s vastest coral reefs. In-depth tours are available as well jam-packed activities such as swimming, snorkelling and even fishing! The islands also have an oceanarium and an aquarium where people can view the natural wildlife that inhabit the abyss.
Take your palette on a journey
As much as Cartagena’s atmosphere has a lot of flavour, its cuisine will not disappoint, either. Some local delicacies include Mojarra, which is a fried whole fish with coconut rice, golden fried plantain and some vegetables. Other dishes include Cazuela de Mariscos (seafood casserole on a base of coconut milk), Posta Negra Cartagena (pot roast in brown sugar), and Kibbeh (originally brought over by the Lebanese migrants in the early 1920s).
Some cool spots for the foodies:
- La Cocina de Pepina located in Getsemani is the place to try Cartagena’s unique Carribean flavour. They serve Posta Negra Cartagena as well as other Cartagena classics! A great place to eat on a budget.
- Zaitun Cartagena located in the walled city is central to Cartagena’s unique Lebanese-Carribean fusion. Mixing the flavours of Carribean/Colombian food with Colombia’s interesting Lebanese influences create restaurants like Zaitun. Lebanese food tends to be very versatile, so that being said, vegan options are available in Zaitun.
Where to go in Cartagena?
The Old City
Located in the heart of Cartagena, the Old City district is one of the oldest parts of the city. The Old City once made up the walled fortification of the Spanish Colonial government mostly to keep rival nations and pirates out. For many Latin American countries that reject their Colonial past, Cartagena is unique in the way of preserving this portion of their city so well, from their winding streets, cathedrals, mansions and bright cultural art displays and music on every turn!
Entertainment is the first thing people will mention about this neighborhood. What can be compared to New Orleans in the United States, Getsemani’s pavement jumps with the rhythm and the beat of salsa and courses through the many veins of this quarter. While sleepy during, the nocturnal atmosphere makes way for memorable experiences. Let loose with a couple of cocktails and reconvene from the heat of the day.
Want the feel of Copacabana without wanting to go all the way to Brazil? Bocagrande in Cartagena tells a story of the relaxed, easy living feel that the middle class of this city experienced in the 1950s. Lined with high-rise hotels and the condos, Bocagrande became a glamorous but relaxed portion of the city. Today, Bocagrande is dotted with excellent restaurants and shopping opportunities along the shores. The beaches here have private and public spaces for you to take a quick bathe in the sun, or a quick bathe in the Caribbean.
Do you need an escape from the Bohemian energy of the Old City? Don’t feel like strumming the guitar along the shores of Bocagrande? La Boquilla is where you can splurge a bit and lavish in the glitz and the glamour that this Northern district has to offer. Other than blocks of luxury condominium complexes, the whitewashed buildings and terracotta roofs also employ lots of shopping and fine dining.
Is there Uber in Cartagena?
Uber’s presence in Colombia is complicated, at best. After Uber left Colombia for a month in February 2020, they returned (although technically illegal) with a new set of rules and regulations. You are able to rent a car through Uber, and it includes a driver.
Uber is a great option for short, on-demand rides. For longer distances, like traveling between cities, we prefer Daytrip. You can book them in advance so your driver will meet you exactly when you want to depart (they’re usually early in our experience!), and the sightseeing stops are a great opportunity to experience more of the local culture while you travel!
Where to stay in Cartagena
The Old City
Looking for a place you can easily access the best of Cartagena easily? Do you like to be in the centre of it all? The Old City is the perfect place for the organized traveller. The centre is extremely safe (even at night!), close to all the major attractions and has the historic charm that attracts people to this city in droves! Not to mention, in the case of a pirate attack, the walls will protect you!
Living La Boheme is something that attracts the youth to Cartagena, as well as the people who just want to party! The cool street life, the trendy bars and cafes and its proximity to the Old City proves Getsemani to be a popular stay in Cartagena.
At the foot of Bocagrande lies Laguito. This is perfect for the travellers who want a taste of the laid back, easy living by the Caribbean. A short walk to the Caribbean beaches, Laguito also serves great shopping and lots of restaurants!
Is it safe in Cartagena?
While Cartagena employs a certain amount of reputation with respect to drug warfare, it is worth noting that the peak of it ended over 25 years ago. Today, Cartagena is a booming city and does not experience nearly the same violence as it had a quarter of a century ago. With this being said, it is worth noting that like anywhere, you should exercise a certain amount of awareness. Read the environment in which you are in, and not to flash your precious belongings around in the street. Also, do watch your possessions while being at the beach as unattended items are most likely to be swiped when you are on the beach. Never leave your drink unattended as you wouldn’t normally at home.
Also read: Is it safe to visit Colombia?
Can you drink the water in Cartagena?
Colombian tap water is safe to drink in Bogota, Cartagena, Cali and Medellin. The tap water from these major cities from protected, fragile natural water sources. This being said, while basking in the coast of Colombia or in smaller towns, purified water is easily obtainable with sizes up to five litres sold for under a dollar.