Cartagena

Situated on the northern coast of Colombia, Cartagena is a mixture of historical and modern. The port city has quaint cobblestone streets, architecturally incredible colonial buildings, and cultural charm. Only a decade or so ago, Colombia had an infamous reputation as a dangerous, drug-riddled country unfit for tourism. Since then, the drug rings have subsided, the country’s economy has improved, and tourists from all over the world are flocking. Cartagena is one of the most popular tropical beach destinations for vacationers from South America, Latin America, North America, Europe, and Australia.

Beautiful streets of Cartagena
Beautiful streets of Cartagena

Neighborhoods

If you’ve decided to book a trip to Cartagena, trying to figure out where to stay can be the hardest part of planning. Look no further. I’ve been there – I researched the neighborhoods and tried out a few of them myself. Here’s what I found.

El Torre del Reloj, Cartagena
The Cartagena Clock Tower above the walls of the historic old city

The city center is the historic part of Cartagena. It has colonial architecture and picturesque buildings, with walls surrounding the entire city. There are only a few entrances through the walls into the city center. Inside, you’ll find typical balconies with lush gardens, old churches, cobblestone streets, and the University of Cartagena. You’ll find some of the best restaurants, most fun bars and nightclubs, and quaintest hotels. The historic city center is the cultural center of Cartagena!

Cultural historic center of Cartagena
Walking down the streets of the cultural historic center of Cartagena

Getsemani is just outside the walled city center on the other side of the docks. It’s a cool, hip, traditional neighborhood, a bit cheaper than the city center. You’ll find more affordable hostels, bars, restaurants, and cafes in the Getsemani neighborhood. It’s most popular among backpackers and young bohemians.

Bocagrande is a small island connected to the mainland by a highway. It’s affectionately known as “the Little Miami” because of high rises lining Caribbean beaches, shopping malls, and a main strip. Because of its Spanish influence, people also compare it to Ibiza. Bocagrande is an exclusive neighborhood built with first-world standards like restricted access to residential neighborhoods and a separate plant for processing waste water. The only beaches in Cartagena are in Bocagrande.

Bocagrande
Bocagrande, known as Little Miami

Castillogrande is an even more exclusive beachfront neighborhood reserved for the rich. It’s on the same island as Bocagrande but just a bit further. Castillogrande is a newer neighborhood with no Colonial architecture. Houses in this neighborhood cost about $1 million. However, the beaches in Castillogrande are less crowded than the beaches in Bocagrande because there are no hotels in this area.

Castillogrande
The beaches of Castillogrande

El Laguito is another exclusive neighborhood. It’s popular among tourists thanks to its modern infrastructure and hotels like the Hilton. There are several beaches, restaurants, and water sports in the natural lake. You can rent boats and sale on this lake, where El Laguito (The Lake) got its name.

El Laguito
El Laguito, the exclusive neighborhood of Bocagrande

Islands

Isla Tierra Bomba is the biggest and closest island to Cartagena. You can see it from the mainland. In the Colonial era, it was a territory for slaves: Tierra Bomba Island was a quarantine zone where they held slaves in case of illness or injury. Today, about 9,000 people live on the island. It also houses the new Caribbean Naval Base of the Colombian Navy.

Isla de Tierra Bomba
Tierra Bomba Island in the background

About an hour’s boat ride from Cartagena are the coral island chain Islas del Rosario. You can join a day tour from Cartagena’s Muelle de los Pegasos (Pegasus Pier). Day tours run about 130,000-150,000 COP (it is negotiable), or around $50 USD per person. Additionally, you can book a stay in a hotel or hostel on one of the islands and have their hotel shuttle boat pick you up at a prearranged port.

The best swimming beach is Playa Blanca on la Isla Baru. The crystal clear waters and pristine white beaches are full of tourists and locals alike, but there are plenty of places to work on your suntan, snorkel, paddle board, or grab lunch and drinks.

Playa Blanca
Playa Blanca, or White Beach, in Las Islas del Rosario

Isla Grande is a beautiful paradise. It’s definitely worth spending a night in Isla Grande, however it’s worth noting a few things before booking a room. The best hotel on the island is Hotel San Pedro de Majagua. It’s pricier than the others, but it’s gorgeous, safe, and has a wonderful staff. There are man-made beaches, water activities for rent, air conditioned thatched roof huts, and it’s quiet.

Isla Grande
Just an hour’s boat ride from Cartagena is Isla Grande, where you can stay in a beachfront thatched roof hut

Isla Grande is a quiet island without much to do. It’s perfect for relaxing and unwinding, but you only really need one night there. There are two man-made beaches with a few beach chairs on each beach. One is a quiet beach, the other has a bar and music. In the center is a dock where you can hire a boat to snorkel, scuba dive, paddleboard, or go on a boat tour. You can also find bike rentals to pedal around the island and tables with souvenirs for sale.

Isla Grande
The beach at Hotel San Pedro de Majagua in Isla Grande

I highly recommend a snorkeling trip. The guide will take you to a natural lake with coral reefs where you can snorkel for about an hour and see beautiful fish and coral reefs.

Snorkeling in Isla Grande
A guide will take you to the coral reefs to see beautiful fish just off Isla Grande

I also recommend a boat tour of the island with a quick walk in the local village. The boat tour will show you pop star Shakira’s old island house, one of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar’s many houses, where a popular soccer (futbol) player lives, and where some other minor Colombian celebrities have had houses. In the village, you will see an exotic bird sanctuary, the progress of many mission trips that attempted to bring technology into the village, and you will have an eye-opening experience as you see how the locals live.

Pablo Escobar's Isla Grande house
One of Pablo Escobar’s vacation houses on Isla Grande, now inhabited by squatters

There is a secret lagoon in Isla Grande called la Laguna Encantada (Enchanted Lagoon). At night during a new moon, in complete darkness, you can see bioluminescent plankton light up the water. Even a sliver of a moon might be too bright to see the plankton, but it’s worth a shot. The trick is to get someone to jump into the water and swim around to disturb the plankton. You won’t feel them (they are microscopic), but moving your arms and legs in the water agitates them and makes them glow. It’s almost impossible to capture on a camera, but it’s very impressive to see in person!

Enchanted Lagoon
At night, you can see bioluminescent plankton in the Enchanted Lagoon

Things to Do in Cartagena

The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is a fort that stored the Spanish crown’s jewels. It was named for King Felipe, who ruled Spain during the fort’s construction. It was completed in 1798 after 36 years. It’s had to be rebuilt due to many attacks by the English. You can climb the fort for a small fee and see the tunnels, cannons, and incredible views of Cartagena. The best time to climb the fort is right before sunset so you’re at the highest point as the sun sets over the Caribbean ocean.

Castillo de San Felipe
The Castillo de San Felipe is a fort that stored Spanish jewels

You can rent boats and sail on a natural lake near the Hilton hotel in El Laguito neighborhood.

The Casa de Rafael Núñez is a charming mansion just outside the walls of the city center and home of the former president, lawyer, and poet Rafael Núñez. He wrote Colombia’s national anthem and was one of the author’s of the constitution of 1886, which was in use until 1991. His mansion is now a museum featuring some of his documents and personal items.

Take a gastronomic tour with chef Jorge Escandón from La Cevicheria, featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show. First, enjoy a typical breakfast at a local family restaurant, then go to a local market to buy fresh fish, fruits, herbs, and vegetables and learn some traditional recipes of Colombian culture. Finally, go to a local house on the Caribbean Sea to enjoy a creative cooking session with mojitos, wine, seafood, and fresh vegetables.

If you don’t decide to stay overnight on an island, you can hop on a day trip around 8:00 a.m. from the docks right across from the clock tower. Different tours will hit different islands, but you’ll have a whole day island hopping on some of the most beautiful white beaches with crystal clear water. Island trips are negotiable but will usually run around $50-$65 per person and sometimes include lunch.

Island day tour
Boat trip to the Rosario Islands

Just 45 minutes from Cartagena, the Totumo Mud Volcano is a popular tourist activity. It used to be an active volcano but now is a 50-foot tall mud bath where you can get more than a mud mask. Don’t forget your bathing suit, then proceed to float in the mud where volcano attendants will massage the mud into every inch of your skin. The entrance fee and transportation should cost around $20 USD.

Tayrona National Park is a 4 to 5 hour trip from Cartagena. It requires a few steps to get there, but it’s worth it if you have enough time in Colombia. For my 3 day trip, it wasn’t worth spending a whole day traveling, but so many people told me I had to go that I figured I should mention it. There is an entrance fee for the park and plenty of different housing options for different budgets if you want to stay overnight. You can hike, hit the beach, snorkel, catch a beautiful sunset, and get some incredible photos. If you go, let me know how it is for my next Colombia trip!

Where to Eat and Drink in Cartagena

Juan Valdez Cafe is like the Starbucks of Colombia. You can find them in the old historic district, in Bocagrande, and in Getsemani. It’s not as built up and pricey as Starbucks though; you can get an authentic Colombian coffee with pastries for a great price. Great stop for breakfast!

Juan Valdez Cafe
Juan Valdez Cafe: 2 sweet breads, 1 muffin, and 2 frozen coffees cost about $4 USD.

La Cevicheria is a popular tourist restaurant thanks to Anthony Bourdain featuring the seafood restaurant. On a Sunday night, we waited 30 minutes for a table – but it was worth it. You can’t go to a place called La Cevicheria and not order ceviche. It was incredible! If you want the freshest seafood in this Caribbean port city, check out La Cevicheria. Little tip: wait for an inside table so you avoid the nighttime humidity and street vendors approaching your table to sell you trinkets or sing/rap for tips.

La Cevicheria
Try the ceviche at La Cevicheria

One of my Colombian-American friends recommended La Mulata to me as her favorite restaurant in Cartagena. Her words: “if you like seafood, you have to go to La Mulata.” Unfortunately, it’s closed on Sundays, so we chose our date night day poorly. We didn’t get a chance to check out La Mulata, but it got 1295 Excellent reviews on TripAdvisor as well. If you get the chance to go to Cartagena, try La Mulata and let me know what you think!

Cafe Havana is the place to be on a Saturday night. They have a live salsa band play all the salsa you can dance to. Don’t worry about trying to get a seat at the bar, you’ll be too busy dancing the night away! Don’t hesitate to dress the part either, the locals definitely do. There is a cover: 25,000 pesos or $10 USD (it’s not an even match so if you have pesos, that’s the cheaper way to go). Even if you’re unsure if you like salsa, definitely go. It might be a tourist trap, but it’s so much fun and the atmosphere is addicting!

Cafe Havana
Cafe Havana is a must for anyone visiting Cartagena on a Saturday!

Where to Stay in Cartagena

Now that you know about the neighborhoods, it’s up to you to choose which neighborhood to stay in. If you’re like me, you can’t choose and have to try more than one. I chose 3.

In the historic city center, there’s no bad place to stay. Everything is nearby and walkable, and nothing is really more central than anywhere else. We stayed at the Calamari Hostal Boutique. Don’t let the word “hostal” fool you, there were no dorm rooms here. There were actually only five rooms in the whole place. It was a hostel because it didn’t have an elevator, but we stayed on the third floor and it was an easy walk up and down. There also was no hot water, but that’s common in Colombia and it wasn’t inconvenient. The maids cleaned the room every day, there were snacks and drinks in the mini bar, and the air conditioning was perfect. The roof lounge was a perfect place to have a drink or lounge in the sun with views of the city!

If you want a more upscale stay in the old city, try Hotel Casa San Agustin. It’s a luxury hotel across the street from the University of Cartagena. There’s a beautiful courtyard with a pool, lounge chairs, a bar, and a comfortable living space. It’s a little pricier but if you want luxury, this is a great choice.

Another luxury hotel option is the Santa Clara Hotel, a five-star hotel that used to be a convent. It’s a gorgeous hotel that offers French luxury in the form of first-class rooms, gourmet cuisine, a spa, and updated technology. It’s popular for weddings, conventions, and other big events.

Finally, the Hotel Charleston is one of the best five-star luxury hotels in Cartagena. It’s in the Santa Teresa Plaza near one of the main entrances to the old city. The lounge is open to all and has a great bar scene on the weekends. Try a world-famous mojito or caipirinha and dance the night away! In such a prime location, it’s also a great place to people watch and meet fellow world travelers.

Hotel Charleston
The Hotel Charleston on the right, on the corner of the Santa Teresa Plaza

In Bocagrande, just about any high rise hotel will do. High rise hotels line the beaches, and it’s worth the upgrade for the ocean view. We stayed at Hotel Cartagena Plaza, right in the heart of  Bocagrande. It comes with a complimentary breakfast buffet until 11 a.m. It even has hot water! There’s also a roof pool with a bar so whether you’re a beach person or a pool person, the Hotel Cartagena Plaza has you covered. There’s also a Juan Valdez Cafe around the corner and a drug store next door if you run into any problems during your stay.

Hotel Cartagena Plaza in Bocagrande
View from Hotel Cartagena Plaza in Bocagrande

Finally, if you decide an overnight stay on an island is in your plans, check out Hotel San Pedro de Majagua on Isla Grande. It’s the best hotel in the islands! Thatched roofs, beach views, comfortable rooms, air conditioning, and hot water await. There are two beaches, a “party” beach with a bar and music, and a quiet beach where you can relax or wade in the water. There’s a restaurant and bar on site, water activities, boat tours, bike tours, trinket salesmen (not as aggressive as in Cartagena), hammocks, and iguanas running free around the island. It’s also only a two-minute walk to the Enchanted Lagoon, where you can see bioluminescent plankton at night.

This is definitely the best hotel – I can tell you from a first-hand point of view and also from a local Cartagena girl (who now lives in Miami). If you can get the rooms for less than $200 per night, it’s well worth it! Bring lots of cash to tip, but you can also charge everything (including tips) to the room if you forget your cash.

Hammocks and thatched roofs at Hotel San Pedro de Majagua
Hammocks and thatched roofs at Hotel San Pedro de Majagua

Fun Facts About Cartagena

Chess match in Cartagena

  • Cartagena gained its independence in 1811
  • The walls around the historic city center are made of coral stone. They took 200 years to build. They were designed by an Italian engineer who worked for the Spanish crown.
Coral stone walls
Coral stone walls surround the old city
  • There is a monument just outside the walled city center of a girl named Catalina. She was kidnapped at 14, taken to Santo Domingo as a translator, and adopted the customs and religious beliefs of her captors. She returned to her home in Cartagena at 30 years old and helped keep the peace between the Spanish and the indigenous tribes. Inside the old city, check out Las Bovedas (the Vaults) in the Santa Catalina Bastion, where you’ll be able to see beautiful views of the Caribbean Sea.
Santa Catalina Statue
Santa Catalina Statue
  • The shape of the historic city center’s walls from the sky look like an arrowhead. You can see beautiful Caribbean sunsets from the top of the walls.
  • The Charleston Hotel is a famous upscale hotel in Old Cartagena. It was built in the popular Republican architecture style used after Cartagena gained its independence from Spain.
Charleston Hotel
Charleston Hotel
  • San Pedro Church is named for St. Peter Claver, known as the Slave of Slaves. Cartagena was a slave trade port. When sick, weak, dying slaves arrived by boat, Father Claver helped take care of them and rehabilitate them. Once they got well, he set them free. He was declared a saint for his work.
  • In the Colonial era, before Cartagena, the village of Calamari was the most important city in the country. It was surrounded by high walls to defend the city from Spanish pirates. In 1533, the Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia named the port city Cartagena after a city in Spain where most of Heredia’s sailors lived. Now, Cartagena is the most important city in the country.
  • The Santa Clara hotel, once a convent, is now a 5 star hotel.
Santa Clara Hotel
The Santa Clara Hotel, once a convent, is now a 5-star hotel
  • Cartagena has 15 kilometers of volcanic sand beaches.
  • Colombia is the biggest exporter of emeralds. If you’re looking for jewelry, head to Colombia to buy the emeralds direct.
  • Bocagrande is the second most visited district in Cartagena.
Bocagrande beaches
It’s not hard to see why Bocagrande is popular
  • The median temperature in Cartagena is 28°C (82.4°F) with 90 percent humidity. It’s hot all year but has a pleasant breeze from the coast.
  • No one knows why the name Cartagena was chosen for this important port city. It could have gotten its name because of its similarity to Cartagena, Spain. Or maybe it was because many of the Spanish sailors were from Cartagena, Spain. Either way, it definitely got its name from its many bays and inlets.
  • The President of Colombia owns an island near Isla Grande.
  • There’s a plane underwater just in front of Pablo Escobar’s island house on Isla Grande. You can hire a boat to take you to it and snorkel down to see the plane up close.

Special Things to Note About Visiting Cartagena

  • Bring lots of American dollars! Especially singles. They are perfect for tipping, and Colombians will go crazy for American money. If you’re not American, bring lots of cash to exchange anyway. Not many places accept credit cards and there aren’t always ATMs around (there are none on the islands).
  • The power outlets in Colombia are the same as in the United States. You don’t need a converter like you would in Europe.
  • Tips are usually included in restaurant bills. Make sure to check so you don’t overtip!
  • If you go to the islands, don’t accept alcohol from anyone off the resorts. While the locals are very friendly, nice, and helpful, the only tip we received at check in was to not accept alcohol off the premises.
  • Very few people speak English. It’s not as built up as a typical tourist destination, so you can’t assume that in a big city, everyone will speak English. We met only 2 or 3 people who spoke broken English, and they were all trying to sell drugs, bachelor party activities, or private tours. Hotel and restaurant employees most likely will not speak any English at all, so make sure you’re prepared to speak solely in Spanish.
  • Cartagena DOES have Uber! Taxis are negotiable and they see dollar signs when they see tourists, so they will rip you off. If you don’t speak Spanish, it’s almost impossible to negotiate with them. Use Uber. It’s less than $5 US just about anywhere in Cartagena, sometimes as low as $1. You don’t need to speak Spanish, either. It’s one less stress. Just don’t brag about it to the taxis – they hate Uber!
  • Cartagena typically doesn’t have hot water. If you stay in an expensive, modern, first-world hotel, you’ll likely have hot water. If you want the typical Colombian experience, you won’t have hot water. The country is close to the equator so it’s hot all day every day and the heat warms the ground, which warms the pipes. During the day, the water is naturally warm. However if you wait until night-time to shower, prepare for a cool shower (which is a pain for shaving and hair washing).
  • The best days to go out in Cartagena are Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. If you miss the weekend, definitely make sure your trip covers a Wednesday!
  • Cartagena is a super popular destination for bachelor parties. You can cheaply rent private boats, go to private islands, do private day tours, rent cheap apartments in the city center, and stay out late in the clubs.
  • Everyone goes to church on Sundays. The city will be completely empty, so it’s the best time to walk around without getting harassed. If you walk by a church, all the locals will be inside, even the bums sitting on the outskirts!
  • Cartagena is a destination for many South American tourists. So while it is a popular tourist destination, not many people speak English because there just aren’t many English-speaking tourists around.

Have you been to Cartagena? Is Colombia on your bucket list? Is something holding you back from visiting? Tell me your thoughts on Cartagena or Colombia in the comments below!

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Located on the northern part of Colombia, Cartagena is a historical port city with cobblestone streets, colonial buildings, and cultural charm.

P.S. You might also enjoy reading about Cancun or Aruba

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