CARTAGENA: THE ULTIMATE CITY GUIDE
Everything you need to know before you visit Cartagena
The city’s history, what to do, where to stay, where to eat, and everything else you need to know
However many places we travel, in whichever countries or continents, there is always something to relish in the first hour of arriving. That wide-eyed, slightly off-balance feeling of being somewhere so entirely new. As the doors of the bus hiss open, when you walk out of the airport arrivals hall, as you step onto the train station platform, that little twist of energy at the bottom of your rib-cage a precursor to the next adventure.
We had the novel delight of arriving into Cartagena (Colombia’s most picturesque city) by catamaran, having just sailed from Panama via the San Blas Islands (you can read more about that trip here). That bubble of excitement at arriving in a new city exaggerated by having such an immediate & wide first view from the port.
The sun was already searingly hot as we clambered above deck that morning - The light multiplied by a calm harbour & the mirrored glass of glossy apartment buildings. An urban heat that felt very different from the island sunshine. The crew had fetched fresh buñuelos (fried cheese dough balls) & crispy egg arepas for breakfast that we ate with one hand, hurriedly packing with the other, before jumping in taxis to take us into the heart of the older part of town.
Within minutes of our taxi navigating the narrow streets we were smitten. Town-houses washed with flaking butternut paint, tiendas cloaked with trailing bougainvillea flowers, men with carts laden with sliced mango & fresh coconut, and the slow hustle of a city waking up. We had planned for 3 nights in Cartagena & couldn’t wait to start exploring (after a shower, some after-sun & a nap somewhere that didn’t sway…).
When we booked our boat trip we decided that our stop in Cartagena would be something of a holiday from our normal back-packer standard, particularly regarding accommodation - a way to replenish our sleep after 5 nights in a 3ft by 6ft cabin (we’ve included all the research we did on places to stay below). But just because we were staying somewhere a little nicer, didn’t mean we missed the opportunity to get under the skin of the city: We’ve included our top 7 things to see & do for a full spectrum Cartagena experience.
BUT before all that…
Staying true to type, we wouldn’t publish a guide without a little bit of background, especially when the city in question is as rich in culture & history as Cartagena.
Founded in 1553 by Spanish Commander Pedro de Heredia, today’s Cartagena is built over an abandoned village that was known as Calamari. Unsurprisingly, the first to settle there were from Cartagena, Spain, and they christened the city Cartagena de Indias in honour of their home town. The city prospered as the principle port on the Caribbean coast and specifically as something of a warehouse for the plundered gold of the continent, storing it before ships transported it back to Spain.
A city that has a reputation for being the main storage unit for stock-piled South American gold may as well have painted an enormous red and white target on their harbour walls, such was the appeal for every buccaneer in a 500km radius. Cartagena was sacked & sieged frequently, not least by the infamous (Sir) Francis Drake who ransomed the safety of the town for 10 million pesos.
In an effort to protect the city, a series of forts & extensive city walls were constructed, defending it from other sieges & successfully preventing pirates from further looting (even when they tried really, really hard - like Edward Vernon, a particularly persistent buccaneer with 25,000 British soldiers & 186 ships up his sleeve).
But Cartagena’s perils didn’t end there. The city played a significant role in the revolution for independence from Spain in the early 1800s. In fact it was the first city to claim independence in 1811 inspiring other cities throughout Colombia to follow suite. The Spanish weren’t massive fans of this idea, and in 1815 sent forces to re-conquer & pacify the town; 6,000 people died of starvation, disease & military attacks. Cartagena had to wait 6 more years for its liberation.
Today Cartagena remains Colombia’s largest port, a critical industrial centre specialising in petrochemicals & one of the jewels of tourism in the country.
So where to start?
Top 7 things to do in Cartagena
Walk the walls at Sunset
The construction of the cities imposing walls took almost 2 centuries and extend 7 miles around the historic centre, flaring into bastions & fortifications frequently. Walking along the walls offers a fantastic westerly views across the Caribbean. Buy a cold beer from a local with a cool-box, perch on the edge, and settle in for the show.
Sip cocktails on a balcony in the old town
Escape the somewhat incessant street hawkers who prowl the old town by finding a first floor bar with a balcony. People watching from the windows of a colonial town-house, mojito in hand, will always be a great way to pass the time. We loved El Balcon (EAT, DRINK, LOVE). Colourful cocktails, great tapas & super friendly owners overlooking Plaza de San Diego. https://www.facebook.com/elbalcondesandiego/
Explore Bazarto Market
A little off the beaten bath for the average sight-seer, but one not to be missed. If you’re feeling a little saturated by picturesque streets & instagrammers, exploring this labyrinth for the senses will help set you straight & bring you back to consciousness. Grab a 10 minute taxi from the centre and be prepared to get flung into the depths of local life. After touring through the bakery section, the Hawaiian shirt stands, & the knock-off sports kit, don’t give up until you find the fresh produce. Some of the most exotic & adventurous ingredients can be found here. Be super vigilant as pick-pockets are rife and tourists are rare & juicy targets. Head in early to experience the full force of the vegetable, fish & meat markets & all the local drama.
Mercado de Bazurto, CF7G-79, Cartagena.
Head to a Salsa Bar
Salt & pepper, ham & cheese, avocado & toast, no pairing is quite as strong as Colombia & Salsa. The rapid stepping, hip swinging, close-holding dance-form is weaved deeply into Colombian culture. As such, a trip to one of it’s major cities would not be complete without heading to a club to listen to some live music and give it a spin (literally). Alternatively it is not at all frowned on if you choose to simply practice some unashamed voyuerism. If you’re traveling alone salsa should still be on your list… make eye-contact with a dancer and you’ll be swept up in a heartbeat.
A few of the best social salsa clubs in Cartagena:
Cafe Havana: Live music, strong drinks, packed every night until 4am
Esquina, Cra. 10, Cartagena, Getsemaní
Bazurto Social Club: Live champeta music, sweaty, colourful, a guaranteed good time. Open from 8pm - 2am with things ramping up from 11pm. Don’t miss out on trying a few bites from the exceptional menu to keep you going into the night.
Cra. 9 #3042, Cartagena, Bolíva
Donde Fidel: Small, authentic, rich in Salsa history and something of an institution. We had beers in the courtyard but didn’t manage to venture up up to the first-floor dancefloor. There are some serious salsa dancers regularly in attendance so be prepared to get involved.
Portal de los Dulces, Cra. 4, Cartagena, Bolívar
Visit the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas at Sunset
The Fortress of Cartagena and a UNESCO world heritage site in it’s own right, this imposing castle was built on the Hill of San Lázaro. It’s not at all difficult to see just how strategic a position the castle was where it allows phenomenal views across the old town & the bay. Head up towards the end of the day when the crowds have thinned out & the light is lower - sunset burns the bricks a red-gold.
Get lost in Getsemani
Located outside of the walled city, Getsemani has a little more local soul and is frequently described as the ‘edgier’ part of town. Whilst this is definitely true and the atmosphere is whole league more chilled out then the historic centre, the same beautiful streets filled with colourful buildings, creeping wall flowers & excellent bars can still be found here. The only real difference was the addition of some spectacularly colourful street-art and a lower density of street hawkers trying to flog us cheap souvenirs (they tried to sell us fresh coconut & mango instead - we’ll take that any day my friend). Wandering around here is an absolute treat. We preferred it to the historic centre by a country mile.
Hit the beach
Head to Isla Barú just off the coast. Fine white sands, palm trees, rum filled coconuts, the whole package. An ideal place to recover from a long night at Cafe Havana. Along Dusty Roads has a great & very comprehensive guide on how to get there from Cartagena that you can check out here.
Where to Stay
When we researched where to stay in Cartagena we came across great options in 3 main areas: Centro Historico (the Old Town/walled city), Getsemani & Bocagrande. Whether you’re on a budget, or up to drop some pesos, we’ve collated a few options below:
This bright, busy & incredibly pretty part of Cartagena sits within the city walls and is one of the oldest parts of town. Bustling with tourists, touts & locals alike, you’ll walk from elegant colonial squares to balustraded convents; along cobbled streets lined with pastel painted tiendas to reach impressive Spanish palaces. Despite the occasional ‘rap-attack’ (groups of teenagers surrounding you & free-style rapping at you for tips), or the occasional overly friendly street seller, it’s a great place to explore & the opportunity to stay in the heart of a UNESCO world heritage site. Worth noting here that rates for accommodation in Centro Historico are higher than elsewhere.
For the Glam: TownHouse Boutique Hotel & Rooftop
There is no shortage of boutique hotels & converted colonial mansions to stay in Cartagena, but for a bit of an extra edge TownHouse is a great option. Boasting one of the best views across the Historic Centre from there seriously elegant rooftop, Townhouse’s motto strikes a cord: ‘Glam doesn’t have to be boring’. Each room has it’s own distinct personality thanks to some well chosen artwork & bright interiors. A neon sign alongside the rooftop bar reads “Bitch, where’s my Champagne”.
Aside from an excellent location right in the heart of the walled city, Townhouse offer coffee machines in every room (some with balconies), dip-pools on the roof to cool off & the option of an airport shuttle. Life is easy.
Calle Segunda de Badillo 36-88, San Diego, 130001 Cartagena de Indias | Double rooms from £188 per night
For the Savvy: Be Lounge Hostel
Just 2 minutes walk from one of the major palaces in the old town, Be Lounge Hostel has a stellar location at a reasonable price. The interior here is particularly beautiful where they’ve combined clean, practical living & sleeping spaces with original & restored features of a 400 year old colonial town-house. All rooms have air-conditioning, some have balconies. They have a small but sociable roof-terrace for cracking beers & star gazing.
Centro Calle de la Mantilla no 3-49, Calle 36 no 3-49, Centro Historico | Doorms from £11 per night, Privates from £30 per night
Getsemini is just outside of the walled city, narrow streets, great wall-art, chilled atmosphere, friendly locals. Our favourite part of Cartagena.
For the Glam: Casa Lola
Casa Lola is set in a two historical 17th and 19th century colonial buildings in the main route into Getsemani. If you’re a fan of interior design Casa Lola is a great place to check out - bedecked in a variety of artisanal & antique artworks, great textiles & smooth masonry. The inner court-yard & restaurant area is large, spacious & cool - an ideal place to chill out. The quiet rooftop boasts 2 swimming pools set in the terrace with an at-sun-lounger bar service. If you’re really feeling flush you can opt for massage treatments, facials & even a blow-dry.
Mixed reviews on the helpfullness of the front-of-house staff and be sure to request a room off the main court-yard i.e. with windows looking out, not in (we’ve heard they are dark & a bit noisy). Otherwise a beautiful hotel with great style.
20-108 Calle del Guerrero, Cra. 10, Cartagena, Bolívar | Doubles from £125 per night
For the Savvy: Santo Domingo Vidal
Located down one of the prettiest streets in Cartagena, Santo Domingo Vidal is a colonial style house surrounded by local families and slightly aside from the more high density tourist areas in Cartagena. Rooms are spotlessly clean, brightly accessorised & well proportioned. Wake up to mango trees & parrots on the patio, a filling breakfast & friendly staff willing to help you plan your Cartagena experience.
Getsemani, Calle San Juan #25-72 | Cartagena, Colombia | Dorms from £12 per night, Privates from £32 per night
Located south of the centre of Cartagena, Bocagrande is without doubt the modern luxury quarter of Cartagena which, despite it’s quaint colonial reputation is still a thriving urban metropolis. Glossy hotels & modern high-rise apartment buildings lining the beach characterise this area. If you’re seeking the beach & a bit of urban-luxe, Bocagrande is the best place to base yourself.
For the Glam: InterContinental Cartagena de Indias
Bear with us, we wouldn’t usually recommend a hotel chain that you’ve probably stayed in for a work-conference in Birmingham… but the Intercontinental has some of the best views across the beach and back into the city. It’s sleek, clean & everything you would expect from an international hotel. Go all out with a corner suite for Panoramic views.
Carrera 1 #51, Cartagena, Bolívar | Doubles from: £100 per night. Corner Suites from: £240 per night
For the Savvy: Penthouse 360 (Homestay)
AirBnB is a good place to start in order to find some great places to stay at reasonable prices in Bocogrande (from around $35 per night). Alternatively The Penthouse 360 (a homestay with rooms on high-floors) is another great example of alternative & well priced lodging. Opting for a shared bathroom saves you money whilst still getting you a clean & comfortable room with great interiors, excellent views & access to a pool.
Doubles with shared bathroom at Penthouse 360 from £35 per night.
Use this discount code to sign up for AirBNB.
Where to eat
Great: Colombitalia Arepas
#30-101a, Cra. 10 #30-1, Cartagena, Bolivar
We’re going to be bold here and suggest that this place has the best white-corn filled arepas in all of Cartagena. The small arepa street kitchen is located just opposite the main street into Getsemani (just look for the crowd hovering on the street in front of a little restaurant. Arepas stuffed with cheese, salsa, chicken or meat are cooked in front of you & handed over wrapped in paper, piping hot from the grill. Add a cold cerveza and you’ve got a lunch for champions for under $4.
Better: La Cevicheria
Calle Stuart 7, Cartagena, Colombia
Yep, we’re toeing the Antony Bourdain Line here and adding our voice to the many that recommend heading to La Cevicheria in the heart of the old town. Interesting local dishes, incredibly fresh ingredients, super friendly staff, owner & chef and a laid back atmosphere. Be prepared to spend a little more here and take your time. The food may be revered but the service can be a little slow. No worries, we’ll wait… una mas cerveza por favour.
Cra. 10 #29-29, Cartagena, Bolívar
Even thinking about this place makes us smile. Located on the the corner of the main square in Getsemani, Demente has everything a destination restaurant should have. Unassuming exterior, great atmosphere, low lit, somewhat industrial interior (complete with heavy metal rocking chairs) and a menu that makes you want to order everything (we basically did). The tapas style plates are ideal for sharing between cocktails & people watching. We stayed hours. Make sure to try the secreto de cardo (secret pork with chimichurri) & the crab dumplings. MmmMm.
If you’re planning to leave Cartagena and head North, don't book your flights just yet… check out our post on sailing between Panama & Colombia via the idyllic San Blas Islands: the only way to get to Central America.
We loved Cartagena; the colours, the flavours & the vibrancy. If you have any suggestions that you think we’ve missed drop us a comment below! We’d love to hear your thoughts.
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