Let’s discover a colorful Caribbean pearl – the city of Cartagena. In this guest post by Sam we will take a trip to Colombia and visit its Caribbean coast filled with colors, tastes, and remarkable experiences.
I’m not sure you can visit Colombia without adding Cartagena travel to your list. I suppose you could, but why would you? With a stunning and vibrant historic old town, colorful buildings and murals, loads of history, lots of shopping, and a foodies’ paradise, it’s a must-see in Colombia.
Cartagena is fairly heavily touristed so it tends to be more expensive than other areas in Colombia, but it doesn’t have to be. You can have an amazing time in Cartagena on a budget, and this guide will show you how.
Cartagena Travel: Things to Do
There are so many things to do in your Cartagena travel itinerary. Here were some of my budget-friendly favorites.
Join a Free Walking Tour in the Old City
I always recommend doing free walking tours as they provide a great orientation of a new city as well as an interesting slice of history. You also get lots of great recommendations for things to do and places to eat and may even make a new friend or two.
Beyond Colombia offers a great tour of many of the most popular places within the old city walls. They now also offer a free food tour as well as a free tour of the Getsemani neighborhood. The guides provide so much great information about what to see in Cartagena and about the people and the history. You also get a 10% discount at many of the places that they recommend visiting after the tour so it’s a great value.
The tours of the old city are offered daily at 10 and 4 in English, and at 10 in Spanish. They run between 2 and 3 hours and meet just outside the city walls at the statue of Camellón in de los Mártires Square. Your guide will be carrying a white umbrella. Though the free tour is offered at no cost, it’s customary to tip if you enjoy the tour, between 30-35k COP (8 – 10 EUR).
See the Clock Tower Monument and Carriage Plaza
The Clock Tower Monument (La Torre de Reloj) is one of the best-known sights in Cartagena. The gate was the primary entrance to the old walled city and it is just outside this area that the Beyond Colombia free tour begins. The tower was added to the structure in the 1850s.
There are people walking around everywhere, and this is a popular place for vendors to sell their wares. You can find them in the tunnels that pass through the wall, as well as on the other side in Carriage Plaza (Plaza de los Coches), inside the walled city.
Carriages used to pick up and drop off passengers here, and now it is a major area of commerce. In the plaza you can find many Palenqueras, women from the indigenous town of Palenque, selling fruits and sweets. This is a great place to buy some allegria, mangos sweetened with sugar cane, or other locally made sweets to get a real taste of Cartagena, usually for less than a Euro a bag.
Carriage Plaza and the Clock Tower Monument are located at the city wall towards the southern end of the old city.
Explore Street Art in Getsemani Neighborhood
If you want to experience the real feel of Cartagena, go to the Getsemani neighborhood. This is the area where the “undesirables” once lived and tourists steered clear, but not anymore! When you step off the main roads and wander the residential streets you can see what life is really like for the locals. Walk slowly and catch glimpses of daily life where people enjoy their neighbors and sit outside to catch up on their day.
Getsemani is also where you will find the best street art in the city. Most of the streets have colorful and creative murals and there is even an area where the entire street is lined in murals. You can wander for hours just taking it all in. And the art isn’t just on the walls. You will see a few fun and quirky metal statues around the area as well. It’s quieter and less-crowded than inside the walled city and restaurants are a bit more affordable.
Trinidad Church (Iglesia de la Trinidad) is nestled on a small square and it’s a great spot to orient yourself. There are many great places to grab a fresh juice on the square while you check out the view. Or grab a snack from one of the street vendors selling fruit, arepas (cornmeal cakes), and patacón (fried plantains).
Trinidad Church is located atPlaza de la Trinidad in Getsemani, Cartagena, Colombia.
Animal Watch in Parque del Centenario
Parque Centenario is just outside the old city walls and is worth a visit for its hidden treasure: the animals. There is a family of five monkeys that inhabit this park, as well as red squirrels, iguanas, and some others. However, there are a lot of trees in this park and it is a challenge to find the monkeys without your secret weapon: Ricardo.
Look around for a young man carrying a white grocery bag filled with fruit and ask for “los monos” (the monkeys). He is a great guy and adores the animals of the park and will be very happy to share his friends with you. He has named the monkeys and you will be able to feed them some bananas. You might find them without Ricardo, but I can guarantee you won’t have the same experience. If you enjoy the experience, be sure to give him a tip to thank him.
Parque del Centenario is located onAvenida Daniel Lemaitre, Cartagena, Colombia.
Visit the Zenú Gold Museum
This museum has an impressive collection of gold artifacts, second only to the Bogotá Gold Museum (Museo del Oro). It is one of the top museums in Cartagena and is crazy inexpensive to visit.
The museum was established to preserve the legacy of the local indigenous tribe, Zenú. It also houses many pre-Colombian artifacts from the region.
TheZenú Gold Museum is located at3326 Carrera 4, El Centro, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia. The entrance cost is only 5K COP (1.35 EUR). It is open from Monday through Saturday from 9 to 5 and on Sunday from 10 to 3.
The museum is next to Plaza Bolívar, my favorite square in the city. It is filled with lush trees and plants and a large statue of Simón Bolívar, but what I love most about this square are the people. It is a bustling place, both day and night, and has some of the best street food in the city. I got several juices here as well as arepas and other snacks for next to nothing. Just sit here drinking your juice and watch the locals interact.
Cartagena Cathedral (Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria)
Right next to the museum and the park is the Cartagena Cathedral (Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria). This building is simply stunning, inside and out, and worth visiting. You will hear the bells ringing throughout the old town marking the hour.
Head to the Beach
There are day trips that will take you to the best-known beaches outside of Cartagena, including the Rosario Islands. Though these are stunning, there is also a great beach in the Bocagrande neighborhood (Playa de Bocagrande) that is worth a visit. This is the newest part of town where you can find the modern, large hotels and chain-type restaurants. There is a nice stretch of beach where you can watch the waves crashing on the shore.
There is also a great walking path that follows the beach if you are in the mood for some exercise. Look for the one colorful rebel building among the landscape of white buildings.
Bocagrande beach is located at Carrera 1 #1A-23, Cartagena, Provincia de Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia.
Learn How Chocolate is Made
The Chocolate Museum (ChocoMuseo, or Museo del Cacao) has two locations within the walled city. They offer a free museum that educates about the production process and the history of chocolate.
There are also two paid workshops where you learn how to make chocolate from bean to bar. Of course, there is a shop to purchase many different types of chocolate. They also offer some free samples as well as free tastes of various kinds of hot chocolate.
ChocoMuseo is located at Parque Bolivar: Calle 33, #4-12 calle Velez Danies andParque Fernández de Madrid: : Calle 7, #36-145. Both are open daily from 10 to 10.
Take a Step Back Through History
Cartagena has a dark side as a slavery hub during its colonial times that you may want to know more about. If you want to learn about a ray of light within the dark side of Cartagena history, visit the Sanctuary of Saint Peter Claver (San Pedro Claver). He was a Spanish Jesuit Missionary and priest who made it his mission to improve the conditions of the slaves. The “patron saint of slaves” greeted them in the port with food and medicine and helped them to adapt to live in the city.
The sanctuary is a gorgeous building with a lush garden inside. There is a lot of artwork of Peter Claver demonstrating his work for over 40 years dedicated to helping the slaves.
The Sanctuary of Saint Peter Claver (Parroquia San Pedro Claver) is located at Carrera 4 No. 31-00 | Centro Histórico. Plaza de San Pedro Claver., Cartagena. It is open Monday through Friday from 8 to 6 and on weekends from 8 to 5. The cost is 11k COP (just under 3 EUR).
Cartagena Travel: Places to Stay
The more modern hotels with name recognition are mostly located in Bocagrande, but they come with comparable price tags. To find affordable accommodation, I recommend looking in the Old Town or Getsemani neighborhoods.
Old Town Cartagena
One of the most desirable but also a costly part of the city to stay in is inside the walled city in Old Town Cartagena. A hostel is a good option to keep Old Town Cartagena affordable, and the Volunteer Hostal is a great choice. It includes air conditioning, not common in this hot and humid city. This hostel is also very conveniently located near many tourist attractions and two supermarkets.
Staying here can help you do some good as well. Proceeds support a non-profit organization that works to empower indigenous communities, called FEM. And another added bonus for animal lovers is the hostel feline resident.
Volunteer Hostal is located at Calle del Quero # 9 – 64, Cartagena 130012, Colombia. Dorms start at 12 EUR and private rooms at 37 EUR.
Just outside of the walled city, the Getsemani neighborhood offers a vibrant and colorful area with a more authentic and local feel. There are many affordable hostel options including Santo Domingo Vidal Hostal. This place is on a beautiful street and has a wonderful staff. It is very clean and includes breakfast.
Santo Domingo Vidal Hostal dorms start at 14 EUR and private rooms at 35 EUR. It is located at Getsemani, Calle San Juan #25-72 | Cartagena, Colombia.
Cartagena Travel: What and Where to Eat
Cartagena is a food lover’s paradise. You don’t need to spend a fortune to eat well, though, and here are some recommendations.
- Get fruit juice (jugos naturales) anywhere! You can find juice trucks in the squares, on the side of the road, and in shops around town. The fruit here is pure magic. One of my favorites was lulo, also known as naranjillo. It was described as rhubarby citrus and they nailed it. It is both sweet and tart and amazing. You will also find papaya, blackberry (mora), guava, as well as traditional juices like orange juice. Most places sell juice for 1-2 EUR.
- Don’t go to Cartagena without trying arepas (cornmeal cakes). They are a little different everywhere you go and are always good. Also try tostones or patacones, fried plantains. You can get these filling snacks for as little as 1 – 2 EUR.
- Beef or chicken skewers are amazing in Cartagena and you can find a small one for around 1 EUR. Often these carts sell grilled street corn as well with butter and sometimes a light cheese or garlic.
- Mango biche, or unripe mango, is another great fruit to try. It’s sliced, coated with lemon and salt and the perfect mix of slightly sweet, sour, and savory. It’s usually sold for 1 – 2 EUR.
Fish and Meat
Fish, in general, is a big staple in Cartagena. I wasn’t familiar with many of the types of fish, but if you just order pescado a la plancha (grilled fish), it’s amazing. It usually comes with a plantain and coconut rice, which is so good.
Ceviche is also big in Cartagena. It’s fish that marinades in lemon juice and the acid cooks it. If you like lemon, it’s a must try. My favorite place for ceviche was La Cevecheria. It even showcases a picture of my favorite travel documentarian, Anthony Bourdain, and I happened to be seated right next to the picture and got to enjoy my meal with him. There is a wide range of prices based on the size and the type of fish, but you can get filling dishes for as low as 5 to 8 EUR.
Posta Negra Cartagena (also called carne negra) is a local specialty of steak with an amazing mole sauce. La Cochina de Pepina in Getsemani was my favorite and is very affordable. Most dishes are around 20k to 30k COP (5 to 8 EUR). They also offer amazing local soups. It’s only 8 tables but well worth any wait.
There are many local soups to try including fish soup, coconut fish stew, and sopa de pollo (chicken). Though it may seem a bit strange to think about eating soup in the usually-hot climate of Cartagena, they are worth trying.
I got to try a couple of the soups at Cochina de Pepina and almost dove head-first into the bowls, they were so good! For a really inexpensive place, try Porton de San Sebastian in new Plaza Santo Domingo in the old town. I am not sure what I ate, honestly, but it was really tasty and very inexpensive (around 2 EUR).
Cartagena is one of the most popular places to visit in Colombia and there are so many great reasons—it really has it all. Lots to do, great food, artistic and colorful homes in a historic area, beaches, and so much more. There is something for everyone here.
Strike up a conversation with the locals and practice your Spanish. You will find them to be very friendly and they love meeting tourists from around the world. They are very welcoming and are every bit a part of why you will want to go to Cartagena.
Looking for some more articles about the Caribbean and traveling? Check those out:
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- How to save money to travel the world: 15 simple hacks to use even today
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Sam is a travel-obsessed animal lover with big plans to travel the world with her dog. She’s a writer, marketer, and project manager devoted to volunteering as a pet therapy team with her dog and her cat. When she’s not blogging about her travel adventures at My Flying Leap, you can find her either on the top of a mountain or sipping a glass of bold red wine planning for her next trip.