If you are planning a trip to South America…consider yourself SO lucky! We found Cartagena, Colombia a colorful, romantic and charming city. It was an absolute treasure to be explored and a cultural experience to be enjoyed. The architecture of the city reflects its Spanish heritage and wandering through the colonial cobblestone streets and plazas of Cartagena is a must. Prepared to be enchanted! We are already looking forward to a return visit:) It was a great destination and all the activities we did are great for all ages. Don’t miss out on the best 4-day travel guide to Cartagena to find out the best food, history, culture, activities, and accommodations that Cartagena has to offer.
The city was founded in 1533 by the Spanish and is the second oldest city in Colombia. It was one of the most important trading hubs. The walled city of Cartagena was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984 and was the first city in Colombia to be honored with this distinction. Cartagena has a privileged location on the Colombian Caribbean coast. It is surrounded by 11 miles of beaches and enjoys year-round warm waters.
The Best 4 Day Travel Guide to Cartagena
Cartagena Insider Tips
Get ready to SNAP
Cartagena is colorful and wonderful and has a mixture of Carribean, Spanish, and Colonial influences. It was also just named one of the most Instagrammable cities – IN THE WORLD. So a good camera is a must! Nearly every spot you turn in the historic center is a perfect photo opp. Take note, the BEST time for that insta worthy shot is to get out early in the morning when the sun is rising and gently lights up the colorful facades and flowers. You will want to hit the snooze button but the second you get out and have the city to yourself you will be so glad you woke up early!
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Dress lightweight and breezy
The weather in Cartagena is well… hot, sunny, and humid. Even in the early morning and late evenings, it is HOT. It was all about light summer dresses, sunglasses, and comfy sandals for us. Also, it can rain – hard! One day it went from being gloriously sunny to a complete downpour in about 2 minutes. Not even kidding. Pack an umbrella in your luggage and keep tabs on the weather. If it looks like it might rain, we suggest taking the umbrella with you. The rain isn’t cold but it is heavy so it could still ruin your plans if you are soaking wet.
Cartagena is a hot cruise ship port. We honestly tried to avoid the more touristy areas and stay off the beaten track in the middle of the day because the more touristy areas were unbelievably busy with hordes of cruise ship tours. Also, the street vendors are far more prevalent and pushy when the cruise ships are in port. Which brings us to our next point…
Be prepared to kindly by firmly say “no gracias” to the street vendors. I swear some of these vendors have sales degrees from an Ivy League school – they are that good. If you engage with them, they will follow you, and continue to encourage you to buy their product. If you do not have an intention to purchase, don’t pretend to be interested in their product just to be nice. It is FAR easier to be firm but polite from the beginning and say no.
Inside the historic center, you can find many people who speak English. However, Colombia, in general, has one of the greatest language barriers we have encountered. Brushing up on some easy Spanish phrases or having a tour guide could really help you as you venture outside of the old city walls.
Where to Stay in Old Town Cartagena
Our biggest recommendation, regardless of your budget, is to stay inside the walled historic city. The price point inside the historic city is going to be a tad more but we promise, you will not regret it.
One of the best hotels we have stayed in this year and our top recommendation is the gorgeous Hotel Casa San Agustin. Holding the distinction of being one of the Small Leading Luxury Hotels of the World, San Agustin is a little bit of a splurge. However, if it is in your budget we recommend splurging for the location (it is PERFECTLY located in the historic city), the accommodations, service, food, and amenities are worth it!
*Looking for a way to smartly budget and save for more travel? See our post on how we make traveling the world fit our finances here!
Gorgeously situated inside the walled city you will find great service and accommodations at the Sofitel Santa Clara. The Sofitel also has a softer price point than Casa San Agustin and I have seen recent deals for $200.00 per night. The Sofitel also is supposed to have one of the best restaurants in the city.
If budget accommodations are your thing, there are many hostel options in the super trendy Getsemani district inside the walls. To give you a head start on your budget research options, we have linked one of the best articles on the top hostels in Cartagena by the Broke Backpacker here.
Where to Eat in Cartagena
Cartagena was recently named the culinary capital of Colombia so there is no shortage of tasty AND inexpensive food. See the links to our absolute faves below!
Crepes and Waffles (oh my gosh – THE BEST and so moderately priced. I could eat here every week!)
Gelateria Tramonti– our favorite place for a sweet treat!
What to See in Cartagena and Surrounding Areas
As a UNESCO world heritage site, there is so much history packed into this city. We suggest touring inside and exploring the historic walls for at least two days (or more) and then getting out to see the more “real” slices of life and taking a day trip to the Rosario Islands or Palenque.
In addition to these super awesome historic sites and activities we suggest below, Cartagena has some amazing beaches and our friends over at Layer Culture have the best beaches in Colombia
What to do Inside Cartagena’s Historic Center
Walk around on top of the Colonial Walls
The Old City is surrounded by 7 miles of thick fortress walls that took over two centuries to build between the 17th and 18th centuries. The walls protected Cartagena des Indias from everything from pirate attacks to enemies of the Spanish Crown (ahem – looking at you England). Today they are the perfect place to grab an ice cream and watch the sunset. (Note: The walls get HOT and crowded in the middle of the day. We suggest heading to them in the morning before the cruise ships have arrived or in the evening around 4:00 as they are all leaving.)
Horse Carriage Rides
Taking a nighttime carriage ride to see the old city colorfully lit up and bustling with locals and tourists alike is so fun. One of the best places to find a carriage and jockey is near the Portal de los Dulces (although you can find them all over the city once the sun goes down). We suggest talking to a couple of different jockeys and finding someone who you mesh well with and will give you a short little historical background on your tour.
On the night we were looking for a horse ride the first man we stopped to talk to was curt and short and we felt like it wouldn’t have been worth our money. We walked a little bit further and talked to someone else, decided to go with him, and had a fabulous time! We also were able to have him drop us off right near our hotel which was perfect. Make sure you secure the price beforehand and expect to spend about $40.00 – $60.00 USD for an hour ride.
Take a Historic Walking Tour
This can be done in a group tour, a private tour, or self-guided. There are plenty of placards around the city explaining in both Spanish and English what the site is and its historical importance if you are wanting to take it at your own pace and explore on your own. There are also some free walking tours that you could take. We haven’t taken one of these but the link for the free group walking tour is here.
We took a private tour that we booked through Pure! Travel Colombia and loved it! One could easily explore the city and visit all of the churches and homes of interest all day. Our favorite stops on our tour were the Plaza de los Coches (The Portal of the Judge and later the Portal of the Slaves), Portal de los Dulces (Portal of the Sweets), the Sanctuary of San Pedro Claver, and Casa de la Aduana (Royal Customs House).
Visit the Museo del Oro Zenu
We had already visited the fantastic Museum of Gold in Bogota and so we decided to skip out on the Museum of Gold in Cartagena but we have heard great things about it and if you are unable to go to the one in Bogota on your trip to Colombia we recommend you make sure to visit it here. Gold has an exceptionally strong importance to both pre and postcolonial Colombia and seeing some of the pieces is fascinating. (Note: The Gold Museum in Bogota is superior to the one in Cartagena, so if you have seen the gold museum in Bogota you might want to skip this and go explore the Naval Museum of the Palace of Inquisition)
Let Loose, Get Lost, and Explore
Like Venice in Italy, one of the best things about Cartagena is getting off the main streets, getting lost and just exploring and wandering. We loved simply admiring the flowers climbing the walls, the colorful homes, and seriously awesome door knockers. Make sure when you are wandering the city that you make your way over to Getsemani, which has been named the hippest “hood” in Cartagena.
Relax in Plaza Santo Domingo
There are many gorgeous Plaza’s in the Old City but by far our favorite was the Plaza Santo Domingo. In the center of the Plaza is a statue by Colombia’s most famous artist Botero. There are buskers, it is bustling with people and is the perfect place sit down and sip on a Limonada de la Coco (trying this drink is an absolute must in Cartagena, nearly every restaurant will sell it and it is AMAZING!)
Visit the Choco Museum
Who doesn’t love chocolate? On the day it rained, our time outside got cut short so we decided to give the Chocolate Museum a try. First, you will get a little bit of background on chocolate and its importance in Colombia and then have a chance to make your own special little chocolate bars to take with you.
While this chocolate museum wasn’t as awesome as the chocolate class we had attended in Switzerland (you can see more about that here) it was well worth our time and we are glad we did it. There are several different lengths of tours/classes you can take and we did Mini Chocolate Workshop for $15.00 USD per person.
Shop for Colombian Emeralds
The best part about this activity is that it can be tailored to any budget. You can buy emeralds starting around $30.00 USD and ending in the thousands. The most important thing about emerald shopping is making sure that you go somewhere reputable and legitimate. We recommend Galeria Arte Joya Procolumbino. We bought three different stones, each at different price points, and had two of them made into custom rings. Honestly, we can’t recommend them enough.
Best Activities Outside of Cartagena’s Old City
See iguanas, sloths, and monkeys right in the heart of the city! Need we say more? Keep the visit to this park to the daytime hours. Sometimes it can get a little sketchy after dark.
Visit Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Explore 850 meters of tunnels of this old Spanish fortress. It is very cool and you could explore these tunnels for hours. However, like some other areas of the city. It can get REALLY busy and REALLY hot. We suggest you get here right when it opens.
See expansive views of modern Cartagena and the Caribbean pier. Be sure to look at the early postcolonial Colombian maps while you are here, they are fascinating!
See how the Locals Live at the Bazurto Market
One of our most favorite things we did was visit the Bazurto Market a few miles outside of the walled city. It really gives a perfect insight to life in modern Colombia and the market is so large, it feels like its own little city. (Note: While we felt totally safe and comfortable exploring the Old City of Cartagena on our own, this is somewhere we suggest you go with a guide. Very few tourists go out here, and we honestly may have become lost. It is pretty overwhelming and we were so thankful that we had both our guide and our driver with us. Again, we had guides from Pure! Travel Colombia and they were excellent.
Visit the Fishing Villages and Mangroves at La Boquilla
Take an eco-tour to the local fishing village which is located just 20-30 minutes outside of the walled city. Step into the canoe of a local guide and see the mangroves that have provided fish to the local people for hundreds of years. We really enjoyed this as it gave us some insight into the economy and how people in Cartagena live today. At the end of the canoe tour, we stopped to watch some fisherman pulling up their morning catch at the nearby beach. It was so cool! You can book your tour through Ecotours Boquilla.
If you are an adventurous eater, we suggest taking a Street Food Tour of Cartagena. Stop at the local vendors inside and just outside of the walled city and snack on the local fair. Again, we had booked through Pure! Colombia and they did an excellent job. (Note: Some of the food is pretty adventurous, and we had the best time seeing it prepared but didn’t try it all ourselves. Our guide was fabulous with this and we had a great time seeing a slice of local life.)
Take a Day Trip
Okay, so here is the deal. The Rosario Islands ranks near the top of almost every top 10 list of things to do while in Cartagena. We went to Isla Majagua and did. not. love it. The beach was eh and the boat ride back was a complete disaster (Think getting completely DOUSED with stinging salt water for a straight hour. It honestly felt like we were on the cast of Deadliest Catch. Hahaha. Seriously. We were drenched! The lady next to us was heading to the airport for a flight and had on white pants. Let’s just say this, she was NOT happy! Even in a swimsuit, it was not enjoyable.)
That being said, if we were heading back to Cartagena, we would give the Rosario Islands another try but attempt to go to a different island and use a different boat charter. Do some research and see what works best for you!
If you are looking for awesome Colombian beaches, look no further then the 10 Best Beaches in Colombia written by our friends over at Layered Culture. One of the beaches included is Playa Blanca, which just near Cartagena and it is amazing!
Palenque was the first free African town of all of the Americas and it has been named as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity site by UNESCO. If you are into history, visiting this town a couple of hours outside of Cartagena is for you.