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The Ultimate Guide To Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena Overview

A beautiful port city situated on the Caribbean, Cartagena is Colombia’s 5th biggest city and home to a million plus people. Not your usual beach holiday destination, this magical city combines historical charm with easy access to palm-dotted islands, white beaches and coral reefs. Once a center of the slave trade, today the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site with an historic old center, tree-lined plazas and cobbled streets where scarlet bougainvillea create a stunning sight.

Neighborhood Guide

  • Getsemaní. Since Colombia’s emergence as a safe destination, tourism to Cartagena has increased, and this picturesque neighborhood has grown substantially to include hotels and restaurants.
  • The Walled City is the historic center of the city making it the most interesting to visit. It also has good restaurants, bars, and hotels.
  • Bocagrande, El Laguito, and Castillo Grande are in the modern part of the city and have a ‘Miami’ feel to them. They are close to the beachfront and have a variety of large chain hotels among the accommodation options.
  • Marbella is a more residential area further from the historic old town at an about 20-minute walk.

Time to visit 

Cartagena is hot year-round, with a dry season and a rainy season. The city’s tropical climate means that, although temperatures tend to stay around a balmy mid-80s/26C year-round, the rainfall varies considerably, and “winter” brings almost constant rainfall. The best time to visit is in the dry season, December to April, which is considered summertime. For your summertime visit, remember to pack hats and sunscreen to cope with the heat and sun exposure.

How to Get There (and Away)

Cartagena’s Rafael Núñez Airport is roughly 2 miles from the historic Walled City and two national carriers, Avianca and Aero República, as well as by international airlines Copa, Mexicana, and American Airlines fly into this airport. If you’re already in the region, you can also get direct flights from Lima and Santiago. 

To get into the city, there is a minimum airport tariff for a taxi. You can also take a local bus into town, but taking a taxi is best because the bus station is a fair way out from the tourist areas you are probably heading to. The Terminal de Buses is situated on the eastern end of the city, and you will still need to take a taxi to your hotel.

How to Get Around

Getsemaní and the Walled City, are the most walkeable parts of the town. If you stay in and around these areas, you can get around on foot, but there are other options. Uber works in Cartegena, and EasyTaxi/Cabify is a popular local alternative app. You can also hail a taxi on the street but be sure to settle on the charge before you set off as there is no fixed rate and prices can vary from taxi to taxi.

Essential Details:

  • Language: The official language of Colombia is Spanish
  • Money: Colombians use the Colombian peso, but most places and stores take credit cards. Note, you will need cash for taxis though. You can use a debit card to withdraw cash at ATMs if you need it, but always be cautious about which ones you use and where you stash your cash once you have drawn it.
  • Entry requirements: Most nationalities can enter Colombia for up to 90 days as a visitor without a visa. You may need to provide evidence of return or onward travel. If you’re issued with a Colombian visa with more than 90 days’ validity, you must register the visa at a Migración Colombia office or online within 15 days of arrival in Colombia or face fines. Check the latest entry requirements with the Colombian Consulate in your home country before you travel.Your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 6 months from the date of entry into Colombia
  • Electricity: In Colombia, the standard voltage is 110 V, and the frequency is 60 Hz. You can use your electrical appliances in Colombia, if the standard voltage in your country is in between 110 – 127 V (as is in the US, Canada and most South American countries). If the standard voltage in your country is in the range of 220 – 240 V (as is in the UK, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia), you need a voltage converter in Colombia
  • Cell Service: The best option if you’re looking to avoid hefty roaming charges is to pick up a pre-paid SIM card

Where to Stay

Where to Stay 

There are numerous hotels with varying price ranges, as well as hostels and Airbnbs so you should be able to find something that suits your budget. Most people feel four days should be enough to take in the sights of the city, but be warned: wherever you stay, this city is expensive so check out your accommodation options carefully.

The picturesque Getsemaní and Walled City are the most popular places to stay, but it’s essential to book before you travel, especially in the main tourist season. Getsemaní is known for its night life and color with street art featuring prominently. 

Bocagrande, and  El Laguito,  are good areas for families on beach vacations and Castillo Grande are also good options but further from the historic part of the city. These areas offer a more modern vibe.

What to Eat

While you can get great food anywhere in Cartagena, San Diego district is known for its popularity with foodies. If you want to get the local flavor, visit the Mercado Bazurto where you will be overwhelmed by the choice of fresh produce and the kinds of exotic fruit juices one associates with the Caribbean.

On the other hand, if you are looking for something more upscale, try a restaurant on the Santa Marta beachfront where you can dine on a coconut milk-based stew filled with a variety of fish, shrimp, lobster, prawns, oysters, and calamari. This superb dish is known as cazuela de mariscos, team it with a limonada de coco – a frothy blend of coconut cream and lime juice and can be enjoyed at any time.

Some other options to try if this is your first visit to Colombia are looking to eat like a local!

  • Bandeja Paisa is considered the national dish of Colombia, it’s a potent mix of red beans, white rice, chicharrón, carne en polvo (chicken), chorizo, fried egg, ripe plantain, avocado and arepa. 
  • Empanadas -these deep-fried stuffed pastries, Latin American classics, can be filled with just about anything.
  • Arepas are also a common traditional dish in Colombia. They’re like empanadas and made with either white or yellow corn tortillas, but arepas don’t have any fillings. They’re also bigger and toasted, and are often served as an side with Bandeja Paisa or as a meal in itself.
  • Sancocho – is a traditional Colombian stew often includes chicken, pork or beef.
  • Fritanga – a mix of fried offal, so give it a try if you can. It’s not to everyone’s taste.
  • Arroz con Pollo – rice and chicken – is stewed together with chicken stock. The dish is hugely popular and simply delicious.
  • Pan de Bono this is a small, round bread-like bite that’s flavored with a sweet cheese. Popular all over the country, pan de bono is eaten as a snack throughout the day and is often served alongside a delicious hot chocolate early in the morning.

Sights of Cartagena, Colombia

There are numerous historic churches and leafy plazas in this city known for its attractiveness, so ask your accommodation provider for some insider hints on where else to visit.

Most Popular Things to do in Cartagena

The city’s best tourist office is located in La Plaza de La Aduana, Casa del Marqués del Premio Real, and some of the top attractions to visit in Cartagena are:

  • Walled City The inner walled town includes the two historical districts, San Diego and El Centro, and the beautiful colonial buildings are believed to be some of the best examples of this architecture in South America. Spend some time wandering through these areas to take in the beauty of the variety of buildings and the general atmosphere of the Walled City.
  • Getsemaní is the outer walled town and its amazing street-art has made it a great destination for instagrammers. The plaza mayor in front of Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad is a particularly popular spot. Locals and visitors gather here from sundown, enjoying the party-like atmosphere with plenty of food stalls. 
  • Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Situated on the San Lazaro hill and a short walk from Getsemaní, this fortress was the largest ever built by the Spanish outside of Spain. Building began in 1657, only for the original fort to be enlarged in 1762 to cover the entire hill. It has a fascinating complex of tunnels beneath it, and it is well worth a visit.
  • Museo de Oro, this gold museum is an ideal visit if you didn’t get to see the one in Bogota. It houses a collection of pottery and gold objects produced by the First people in the area. 
  • Caribe Jewelry Museum & Factory You will find this museum and jewelry store in Bocagrande, and it includes the history of emerald mining in Colombia as well as giving you the option to purchase. 
  • Palacio de la Inquisición  This was home to the notorious Inquisition where heretics were denounced and tortured. Many were burnt at the stake for witchery, blasphemy and magic. Today, it is a museum that houses the torturers’ instruments, among other things, and while somewhat macabre, it is worth visiting to see the architecture alone. 

Other Notable Sights of Cartagena:

  • Palacio Barolo: Palacio Barolo was declared a national historic monument in 1997. Presently, the building hosts several travel agencies, a Spanish school for foreigners, a store that sells clothes for tango, offices and studios of architects, accountants, and lawyers.

Day Trips From Cartagena, Colombia

The best day trips from Cartagena are: 

  • Corales del Rosario National Park. Just an hour’s ride by speed boat from Cartagena, this idyllic group of islands Isla Grande, Cholon and Barú offer you the opportunity to snorkel and view the stunning coral reefs beneath the blue waters before relaxing on the iconic white sand beaches. As with everything in Cartegena, be sure to research tours and book ahead. Visiting this National Park is a popular day trip from the city.
  • Totumo Volcano and Galerazamba Village. This area is famous for its pink sea water and its apparently healing mud baths. This treatment/activity is called lodotherapy and it is claimed to help with a variety of ailments. If you’re not in need of any healing (last night’s cocktails notwithstanding), it’s simply fun to get covered in mud for a while. The pink sea, visible from the Village, is caused by the salt flats in this area. This natural phenomenon appears between December to April.
  • La Bocquilla fishing village. If fishing is your thing, then take a 20-minute taxi ride north-west to this village where you can learn about the traditional fishing methods used by locals. You can also head out with a fisherman and see the methods in action as well as (hopefully!) catching fish yourself. Afterwards, relax at one of the quaint eateries situated on the beach. A good outing for all and a taste of local life!
  • Isla Tierrabomba This natural island barrier sits between Cartagena and the open sea, and it’s where the Spanish built Fuerte San Fernando, one of the most impressive forts built at the start of the 18th century. Situated at the southern end of the island, Fuerte San Fernando, together with the smaller Fuerte San José across the channel on Isla Barú, was an important deterrent to invaders. Take the opportunity to visit Isla Tierrabomba and imagine yourself as a defender of the realm as you a stroll through this incredible old fort.

Cartagena Photo Gallery

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