Cartagena is a perfectly preserved colonial town next to the Caribbean. During the narco heydays, Cartagena was considered the only “safe” spot in Colombia for tourists. It was where foreigners vacationed, cruise ships docked, and wealthy Colombians built their vacation homes.
Traveling to and backpacking around Cartagena is something every visitor usually does. It sees some of the highest numbers of tourists anywhere in the country.
Today, this colorful colonial city remains one of the most popular destinations for tourists and Colombians alike. Rich Colombians — and now foreigners — still build vacation homes here, cruise ships still dock, and the influx of tourists has grown with an increasing number of direct flights from North America and Europe.
Out of all the stops on my Colombian tour, Cartagena turned out to be everything I thought it would be.
It had the kind of heat and humidity that melted you in place, it was very expensive, and was filled with throngs from cruises, tours, bachelor and bachelorette parties, and gringos trying to score drugs (and shady streetside pushers happy to oblige).
Throw in packed streets and too few “tourist” activities and I was ready to get out of there as soon as I had arrived. (Seriously. After a couple of museums, a walking tour, and a visit to a beach or two, you’ve pretty much seen the city.)
But, when it did come time to leave, I found myself downright crestfallen.
In the midst of all those touts and tourists, I found an architecturally beautiful and vibrant city. A place on whose edges the crowds disperse and lovely little Colombian cafés appear. A city with cutting-edge restaurants, lively music, town squares full of life, and funky bars.
Cartagena is not about seeing the sights.
It’s about the vibe and experience.
This guide to visiting Cartagena will give you everything you need to know to experience the local side of the city, find the hidden beaches, eat some of the best food in Colombia, and have a wonderful visit.
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Cartagena
1. Walk the Old Walled City
2. Go to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
3. Visit Playa Blanca
4. Explore Getsemani
5. Visit Plaza de Trinidad
Other Things to See and Do in Cartagena
1. Go island hopping
Cartagena doesn’t have a lot of nice beaches, which is why island-hopping around the Islas del Rosario is so popular. The Islas del Rosario are a collection of 27 islands just off the coast. If you want to visit the larger Islands, you can either go by road (there is a bridge) or on the public boat. If you want to snorkel the reefs and see some of the smaller islands, you will need to take a private boat. You can book tours online, or if you can get a small group together, it’s worth walking down to the port early and negotiating a private tour with a local. Expect to pay from 300,050 COP ($90 USD) and up for the boat trip.
2. Watch the sunset from the wall
As the sun starts to go down you will see a constant stream of people heading towards the wall next to the seafront to secure their spot. Most people take a few bottles of beer and enjoy sundowners with friends. The most popular bar in town around this time is Cafe del Mar, famed for its perfect sunset views and live DJ sets. Arrive early as it gets super busy.
3. Visit La Boquilla
La Boquilla is a small fishing village just outside Cartagena that’s best known for its busy beachfront. While the town lacks the polished finish of Cartagena, it more than makes up for it in cheap eats and cold beer best enjoyed on the beach. You can also hop on a mangroves boat tour to see the area’s natural mangrove tunnels, including the scenic “Tunnel of Love.” Tours start from 116,686 COP ($35 USD).
4. Do a free walking tour
There is so much history in Cartagena, especially within the city’s architecture. A free walking tour will help break it all down for you. Free Tour Cartagena’s free walking tour will help you to relive history in places like the Clock Tower, Inquisition Palace, Aduana Square, and Heredia Theater. They’ll also take you through neighborhoods like Getsemani, and they offer a free food tour (though you’ll pay for the food) too.
5. Visit the Palacio de la Inquisición
The baroque-style entrance and large wooden balconies covered in bright flowers houses a museum displaying the instruments of torture used by the Spanish to stamp out heresy amongst the native Colombians during the Spanish Inquisition. The main source of torture was known as the strappado: the victim was suspended in the air with their hands tied behind their back, and then a series of weights were added. There’s also the rack, where victims were stretched. It’s 20,000 COP ($6 USD) to visit.
6. Mix with locals at Mercado de Bazurto
If you want to taste a different side of Cartagena, get away from the old city and take a trip to Mercado de Bazurto. It’s easy to get disoriented here — the market is a virtual labyrinth. It’s dirty, loud, and fascinating. The market itself sells an incredible variety of freshly made food at rock bottom prices, so be sure to go with an empty stomach.
7. Do a street food tour
Colombia’s Caribbean coast is the best place to be for foodies. Even the arepa con queso is a game-changer compared to the dry, tasteless arepa that you might find elsewhere. It can be tricky to seek out the best street food places, however, so a street food tour is the best way to go. Duran Duran Tours offers a great tour through open-air markets where you’ll sample some local delicacies before finishing up with a meal at a local family’s home. Cartagena Connections and Free Walking Tour Cartagena also offer in-depth street food tours.
8. Visit the Museum of Modern Art
Located inside the converted part of a former 17th-century Royal Customs House, the Museum of Modern Art is small and its collection includes artwork from mostly local and national artists. Alejandro Obregón, one of Cartagena’s most famous painters, has several pieces here. There’s a cool photography exhibition detailing the city’s transformation throughout history too. Overall, you don’t need more than 45 minutes here. Admission is 8,000 COP ($2.40 USD).
9. Go to Tierra Bomba Island
Tierra Bomba Island is just a 15-minute boat trip from Cartagena. There are four small towns here, each with different beaches. Punta Arena is the best town to get dropped off at, as some of the island’s cleanest, most pristine beaches are around here. Relax, book a cabana on the sand, and enjoy a seafood lunch. To get there, take a small boat from the pier next to the Castillogrande. A round-trip ticket is about 16,670 COP ($5 USD).
10. Take a mud bath in a volcano
A popular but cheesy day trip is to the 15-meter high Totumo Mud Volcano (also known as the “Volcano of Youth”) where you can climb down into a pit and soak up the minerals from the naturally heated volcanic mud. A round-trip tour costs about 100,016 COP ($30 USD). You can pay extra for a massage while you soak in the mud as well.
Cartagena Travel Costs
Hostel prices – Cartagena has some great accommodation options, although you will notice a big increase in price in comparison to the rest of Colombia — most dorm beds are 46,674-53,342 COP ($14-16 USD) for six to eight beds. Four-bed dorms cost about 66,677 COP ($20 USD) per night.
A private room will cost about 158,000 COP ($50 USD) per night, and that’s about as low as it gets.
Budget hotel prices – Budget hotels are plentiful in Cartagena and often cheaper than private hostel rooms. A room in a two-star hotel can cost as little as 60,010 COP ($18 USD), but expect to pay more like 100,016 COP ($30 USD) per night.
Airbnb is also available in the city, with shared accommodation starting at 32,000 COP ($10 USD) per night for a shared space (like a dorm). The average price for a private room is 166,695 COP ($50 USD), while an entire home or apartment starts from about 333,388 COP ($200 USD) per night.
Food – If you’re on a budget, you can eat for under $50,000 COP ($15 USD) a day. Whether it’s an arepa for 4,000 COP ($1.50 USD), an empanada for 1,500 COP ($0.50 USD), or fish with beans and rice for lunch for as little as 10,000 -16,670 COP ($3.50-5 USD), there are plenty of cheap options for eating out in Cartagena if look for them.
For a three-course meal at a basic restaurant with table service, expect to pay around 38,000 COP ($12.00 USD). A beer at the bar will cost about 7,000 COP ($2.10 USD) while buying it at a store will be half that price.
Cartagena is known for it’s food and you can find some world-class fish, pizza, high-end Colombian food, and gastronomic food here. Mains cost about 70,000 COP ($20 USD), while starters are about 34,835 COP ($10 USD).
OXXO stores are a great place to stock up on snacks and alcohol — most are open 24 hours. For a week’s worth of groceries, you are best off finding an Exito. Expect to pay around 63,000-94,000 COP ($20-30 USD) for the essentials.
Some of my favorite places to eat in Cartagena include Demente, Caffé Lunático, Restaurante Donjuán Cartagena, La Mulata, Carmen, and La Cervicheria.
Backpacking Cartagena Suggested Budgets
If you are backpacking Cartagena, my suggested budget is about 133,355 COP ($40 USD) per day. This is assuming you’re staying in a hostel dorm, eating street food, visiting a few attractions, and using local transportation or walking everywhere.
A mid-range budget of about 300,050 COP ($90 USD) will cover staying in a budget two-star hotel, eating out at basic restaurants for all your meals, doing more activities and tours, and taking taxis a few times a day.
For a luxury budget of about 616,770 COP ($185 USD) per day, you will stay in a four-star hotel, eat out for all your meals, enjoy lots of drinks, take taxis everywhere you want, and enjoy all the tours and activities you want.
Cartagena is a lot more expensive than other Colombian cities, but it is totally doable on a budget. You just need to stick to eating local street food, staying in dorm rooms, and walking everywhere as much as you can.
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in USD.
Cartagena Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
- Take a free walking tour – If you want to get a great overview of Cartagena, take a free walking tour with Free Tour Cartagena. Don’t forget to tip!
- Eat like locals – It’s easy to eat on a budget here if you stick to local Colombian food. You can also find a lot of cheap food like arepas for 4,000 COP ($1.50 USD), empanadas for $1,500 COP ($0.50 USD), or fish with beans and rice for lunch for as little as 10,000-16,670 COP ($3.50-5 USD).
- Couchsurf – Accommodation isn’t cheap here, but staying with a local will make it free! Not only will you save some money, but you’ll get firsthand knowledge from a local.
- Cook your own meals – While eating out isn’t too expensive here, if you’re on a budget it will be cheaper if you cook your own meals. Head to a local grocery store and save your budget!
- Walk everywhere – If you don’t mind walking, this is the easiest and cheapest way to explore the city. Most of the main sights are well within walking distance if you are staying in the La Candelaria area.
- Skip the cocktails – Colombia has a lot of awesome cocktail bars now, but these drinks are expensive, usually costing around 20,000 COP ($6 USD). If you’re on a budget, you should skip the cocktails and stick to beer.
- Pack a water bottle – A water bottle with a purifier will help you save money and thousands of plastic bottles by purifying the tap water for you. My preferred bottle is LifeStraw ($49.99).
Where To Stay in Cartagena
Accommodations in Cartagena are a lot more expensive compared to other places in Colombia, especially in the Old Town. Your best area for budget accommodation is outside the old city. Here are some of my favorite places to stay in Cartagena on a budget:
How to Get Around Cartagena
Bus –The main method of public transportation in Cartagena is the Metrocar bus. A one-way trip costs 3,000 COP ($0.90 USD). However, most everything you’ll want to see and do in Cartagena is within walking distance. Many locals will tell you to avoid the bus altogether as it passes through some shady parts of town.
Taxis – Taxis in Cartagena the best way to get around if you want flexibility. There are no set fares in the city. Everything is a negotiation. The average fair within Cartagena is about 4,000 COP ($1.50 USD). Confirm your price before you.
When to Go to Cartagena
Cartagena is hot all year round, with temperatures usually in the mid-80s °F (high 20s°C). The busiest time of year is from December to April (winter) when temperatures are the most pleasant, and there’s very little rainfall. This period is also when the city receives the most tourists, however, so you can expect inflated prices and big crowds.
Cartagena’s winter months (June to August) usually bring lots of rain and overwhelming humidity, so you might want to brave the crowds and visit during the peak season. Plus the summer season is the best time of year for lounging on the beaches and enjoying outdoor activities. Just be prepared to spend more on accommodations!
How to Stay Safe in Cartagena
Safety is often one of the biggest concerns for people when planning a trip to Cartagena. They have a common saying in Colombia “no dar papaya” this translates as “don’t give papaya.” What it really means is though don’t give anyone the chance to steal your stuff!
That means no walking around with your phone out, never keep anything in your pockets (especially when on public transport), and always keep ahold of your bag! If you are eating out either keep your backpack on your lap or place your foot or a chair leg through your strap. It is very common for someone to do a bag swap (meaning they swap their empty bag for yours).
You should issue caution when withdrawing money from an ATM. Try to avoid the ATMs on the street if possible and go into the bank to use the ATM, that way you can put your money away discreetly without being watched.
There aren’t many common street scams in Cartagena; it’s mostly opportunistic theft. As long as you keep your possessions close, you shouldn’t have any issues.
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, get out of there. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID.
Look for hotels or hostels with 24-hour security. You always want someone around in case you need assistance. If you don’t feel safe somewhere, don’t hesitate to move on.
Avoid drug tourism. The drugs cartels have crippled this country. Locals don’t like it because drugs have so devasted the country and doing it just further cripples the country. It’s really disrespectful. Also, doing drugs here is illegal, and you don’t want to end up in a Colombian prison.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it in Cartagena!
For more in-depth coverage of how to stay safe in Colombia, check out this post we wrote that answers some frequently asked questions and concerns.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Cartagena Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to South America. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the ones I use the most and are always the starting points in my search for travel deals.
- Momondo – This is my favorite booking site. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engline which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
Cartagena Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Cartagena Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Even if you don’t plan on visiting Colombia anytime soon, One Hundred Years of Solitude should be on your reading list. It’s one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed books, and it tells the story of the rise and fall of the fictional Colombian town named Macondo through the Buendia family’s history. The book borders on fantasy, but it’s a work of art and the setting is perfect.
The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Juan Gabriel Vásquez is considered one of South America’s best writers. In this New York Times-bestselling book, Vásquez tackles the complicated history of his home country. In Bogotá, Antonio Yammara learns about a hippo that has escaped a zoo once owned by the notorious Pablo Escobar. This causes him to reflect on a time when Escobar’s cartel in Medellín clashed with government forces in the streets and the skies; a time when Antonio witnessed his friend’s murder and his entire family was affected by narco violence. This isn’t light reading, but it’s worthwhile.
Short Walks from Bogotá, byTom Feiling
It’s been hard for Colombia to shake its reputation of violence and narco trafficking, but what is the real Colombia like? In this travelogue, writer and journalist Tom Feiling tries to uncover how a country is rebuilding itself after decades of violence. He travels down roads that were previously too dangerous to travel, all the while talking to former guerrilla fighters, nomadic tribesmen, and shady millionaires. Some of the accounts are shocking, but they’re all true and fascinating. It’s a great piece of reporting.
The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia, by Michael Jacobs
On the River Magdalena, Michael Jacobs attempts to travel without technology – but he quickly makes an exception for a cell phone to keep in touch with his mother suffering from Alzheimer’s. The irony isn’t lost on Jacobs, as Colombia has the world’s highest numbers for early-onset Alzheimer’s – and then he encounters Gabriel Garcia Márquez, whose own failing memory brings him to the river. When Jacobs is apprehended by quirky guerrilla fighters, his life begins to take on a surreal likeness to Márquez’s best works. I won’t spoil the ending here, but it’s safe to say this travel memoir is beyond belief.
Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia, by Garry Leech
A hybrid of journalism and memoir that reads almost like a novel, independent journalist Garry Leech brings together a detailed and shocking account of the 8 years he spent working in the most remote and dangerous regions of Colombia. Through this book he uncovering the unofficial stories of the people he met living in conflict zones. The book is framed around the eleven hours that Leech was held captive by Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla group, the FARC in 2006. Leech brings the readers a much needed humanizing account of the war on drugs, offering fresh insights into U.S. foreign policy, the role of the media, and how if effected normal Colombians caught in the middle of the brutal war.
Cartagena Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling Colombia and continue planning your trip: