There is really no need for an introduction to Cartagena, Colombia’s most Instagram-prominent city. Cartagena is the perfect place for a warm-weather getaway.
Cartagena has it all, that tropical Caribbean vibe and a historic old-town packed with colourful colonial architecture and cobblestone streets. Then there’s its charismatic locals, the nearby tropical islands and some incredible street art. Cartagena also has a very mixed culture. Yes it’s very Colombian but it also has a huge Spanish influence, together with a strong African influence from the country’s slave trading days.
Cartagena is one of Colombia’s most picturesque cities, so I won’t bore you with words. Instead, I’ll use pictures to show you why you should visit Cartagena. Enjoy!
Cartagena’s Old Town
The highlight of any visit to Cartagena is its colourful walled old-town. Make sure you spend time exploring it. Get lost in the streets and take lots of photos, you’ll want to! Cartagena’s old-town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
Cartagena’s stone city walls
Cartagena was once a very important city in the Spanish Empire. The city was flowing with gold, gems, and slave labour. It was also the prime target for pirates. So to protect it, the Spanish decided to build a huge fortified wall around the city.
It took almost two centuries to build the city’s imposing stone walls but they were clearly very well built because they still stand to this day, barely degraded. The city walls extend eleven kilometres around the historic centre. Take a walk along the top of them for some incredible views of the old-town and of the Caribbean sea. Be sure to visit very early in the morning or for sunset because it gets crazily hot up there during the day.
The Getsemani neighbourhood is the backpacker district of Cartagena. But even if you are not staying in a backpackers, you will want to explore this area. In fact, it was our favourite part of Cartagena. You’ll discover more colourful streets, more walls covered with creeping flowers and lots of amazing street art, all without the crowds of the old-town. It’s a win-win.
Last but not least, the Getsemani district has some really nice cafes to enjoy a nice cup of Colombian coffee at and some great bars for your nightly cocktails. Be sure to check it out.
The Rosario Islands
Just over an hour off the coast of Cartagena, you can explore the beautiful Rosario Islands. You can go there on a day trip but we’d suggest spending a night or two there to truly enjoy this paradise and to have some time away from all the bustle of Cartagena. This is especially true if you head to the Rosario during the week when very few locals will be visiting. There, you can relax on quiet beaches, go snorkelling and canoe amongst the mangroves. At night, you can swim in the lagoon amongst the bioluminescent plankton. It’s an experience not to be missed.
You may be lucky to witness some lovely sunsets while in Cartagena or on the Rosarios. Just grab a cocktail or a glass of wine, sit back and enjoy!
What do you need to know about Cartagena?
- It’s very touristy, which means that if you want photos with empty streets in them, you will need to get up really early. Cruise ships often visit Cartagena for the day, which contributes to the large number of tourists crowding the old-town.
- It’s really hot and sweaty! Cartagena can get very humid. Expect to get quite hot and bothered when walking around outside, especially during the peak of the day. It’s another reason to explore during the early morning and to relax by the pool or on the beach for the rest of the day!
- It’s not cheap. Compared to the rest of Colombia, Cartagena was very expensive. I suppose that’s what you get when you stay somewhere touristy. But expensive or not, it’s still worth a visit.
- Free walking tours of the old-town and of Getsemani are offered daily. They’re always a great way to learn more about the city’s history and to get some tips on what to do and where to eat. Remember to tip your guide!
- It’s tout-central. Yes, due to the large numbers of tourists, Cartagena is also crawling with touts. They can be very annoying because they keep coming up and hassling you to buy things. Whether it’s at the beach, outside your hotel or in the old-town, they’ll be there. Be careful when buying day tours from them. Do you research before signing up to anything.
Where to stay in Cartagena?
There are three places we’d suggest you stay, depending on what you can afford and what you want from your experience.
Cartagena is divided into two sections, the old part (including the old town and Getsemani) and the new part (where modern skyscrapers and condos have been built in the last few years; Bocagrande falls into that category).
The Old Town
This is the most expensive place to stay in Cartagena, for obvious reasons. You’ll be close to the main sights, the best restaurants and the best shops. If you only have a few days in town and are not worried about the cost, I’d suggest staying here.
Some accommodation in the Old Town
Good value: Maloka Boutique Hostel
If you’re on a budget but want to be close to the action, Getsemani is your best bet. It’s close to the old-town and also full of restaurants and bars. Getsemani is backpacker central, so you will definitely find some pretty cheap places there.
Some accommodation in Getsemani
If you want to be closer to the beaches, or if you’d rather rent an apartment than stay in a hotel but still want to be close to the action, Bocagrande is for you. There are many hotels in Bocagrande but also plenty of Airbnbs to rent. Depending on where you stay in Bocagrande, it can be as short as a 15 minute walk into the old-town.
Some accommodation in Bocagrande
If none of those places take your fancy, try using HotelsCombined to search across all of the major accommodation sites. We use it all the time.