ALMOST ALWAYS ON THE TOP OF MOST TRAVELERS LISTS, CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA HAS A LOT TO OFFER.
HERE ARE THE TOP 9 THINGS TO DO IN CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA FROM TRAVELERS WHO
LIVED THERE FOR A MONTH.
Located along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, the historic town of Cartagena is likely high on many traveler's lists. With its colorful boulevards, elegant architecture and overall European feel, this metropolis is a lively spot that pulls tourists in with its music, food and culture.
We spent a month in the city, exploring its various neighborhoods and beaches, and getting a feel for what Cartagena was actually like. Below are some of the best adventures to be had in and around the city, including some that are definitely more off-the-beaten-path (perfect for you adventurous travelers).
THE TOP 9 THINGS TO DO IN AND AROUND
1. The Walled City (Old City)
If you have looked up any photos of Cartagena then you probably already have some idea of what the walled city, or old city, looks like. Colorful, ornate buildings dating back to the time when the region was known as New Granada and the ruling party were the king and queens of Spain. The historic center is pretty well preserved, so much so that in 1984 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But be aware that because it is by far the most popular area for travelers to explore, hawkers will constantly be trying to sell you stuff and the food and drinks are more expensive.
The historic area is located along the coast and is completely surrounded by an old stone wall (hence the name) that was used to protect and fortify the city against invasions.
NEED TO KNOW
This is the epicenter of Cartagena, so expect it to be the most touristy, the busiest and the most lively (usually). Almost all of the photos you see of Cartagena are of the old city (Walled City), including all of the colorful historic buildings, the tall ornate churches and the street performers. At night the place can get pretty crazy, so if you are interested in getting good photos or just wandering around the buildings without being hawked at the whole time, we definitely recommend going earlier in the morning (like around 5:30-6 AM),
TIME NEEDED TO EXPLORE
We recommend giving yourself a full day to explore it, with a nice break in the middle (the heat of the day) to relax and recharge at a coffee shop or restaurant in town. Some of our favorite cafes are Café Quindio, Folklore and Bozha.
Free! But be prepared to spend money on things like food and drinks. And maybe a trinket or two.
📣 If you don't feel like exploring the city on your own - or you just want more insight on the history and architecture - then consider booking a Cartagena Historic Tour with Get Your Guide.
EXPLORE MORE | HOW TO USE THE PUBLIC BUS IN CARTAGENA
\\ Cerro de La Popa & Convent of Santa Cruz de La Popa
Okay story time. When we visited La Popa, we planned to do the 1.8-kilometer walk from the bus station to the convent/hilltop. But as soon as we turned onto the road that takes you to the top, many taxis and mototaxis started saying we needed to get a ride. Now we are fit and pretty stubborn - so of course we were like "no we want to walk" (plus it looked like a pretty walk). But they insisted that it was not safe and that we would be in serious danger if we walked through the neighborhood and the little park.
It took us about ten minutes of talking to two mototaxi drivers, and then us deliberating on our own to decide what to do. The main issue for us was that we didn’t want to pay 50,000 pesos ($14) to get a ride to the top because a) we are pretty thrifty and don’t like spending money on things we feel like we don’t need b) we were actually looking forward to the walk up the hill and c) we felt like we were being taken advantage of because we were tourists and didn’t know whether it was safe or not.
In the end, a police officer came over and said that it was indeed not safe to walk up to the top and that some people up there do have guns and might mug you or worse, kill you. So we got a ride up to the top and then back down. But, and this is where the story gets kind of funny, because we hadn’t been planning on spending 50,000 pesos to get a ride, when we got to the top, we realized we didn’t have enough money to actually get into the Convent... So instead, we just looked out at the view of the Cartagena skyline instead (which was still nice).
What can you take away from our somewhat bad experience? Well, firstly, we definitely suggest bringing more money (see below for entrance fees) than just 50,000 pesos. Secondly, after getting back home and doing our own research, we found that other people had said that the walk up was not safe as well. But a part of us still wonders if all travelers are saying that because they had a similar experience to us - taxis and mototaxis bombarding you with information on the lack of safety. But yet how would travelers know unless one actually forgoed the taxis and walked up? And is it worth risking your safety just to save less than $15? Oh man the deep, curious thoughts of a traveler…
In the end, even after all the trouble of getting to the top, the views from La Popa were pretty great. It is the highest point in the city (besides the super tall hotels and apartment buildings) so if you want a great 360-degree view of Cartagena, we definitely recommend checking it out.
Located about 2 kilometers from the Walled City down one of the major roads (Avenida Pedro de Heredia). You can walk or take the bus from the Centro Station (find it here) to La Popa Station (about two stops away).
One hour is really all you need at the top, unless you want to be up there for all of sunset in which case you might need a bit more time.
12,000 COP or about $3.15 USD (€2.75 Euros) per person
EXPLORE MORE | EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT GETTING
\\ Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Sitting just outside the walls of the Old City, this massive fortress is one of the most iconic destinations in all of Cartagena. Originally built by the Spanish starting in 1536 (though it would be added onto more than 100 years later), Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas was originally known as Castillo de San Lázaro because of its location on San Lazaro hill. But the Spaniards eventually settled on the current name in order to honor King Philip IV of Spain.
When the castle was finally finished, it consisted of eight batteries and a garrison of 200 soldiers and 4 gunners - making it one of the most formidable defensive complexes of Spanish military architecture. Today you can tour the castle (fortress) and walk along most of the batteries and a few of the interior tunnels.
Located right outside the Walled City; it is about a 1-1.5 kilometer walk from the historic district
NEED TO KNOW
We suggest checking out the fortress later in the day and staying for sunset (the views of the city and beach are top-notch). While there are signs around the building talking a bit about the history, we suggest using the QR codes (there is an English option) to learn more about the castle (or doing a bit of research beforehand).
About two hours to tour the whole fortress
25,000 COP ($6.60 USD or €5.70 Euros) per person as a traveler/foreigner
\\ Mercado de Bazurto
Located a bit farther away from the historic area, this traditional market is a great way to connect with the local food scene and local culture in general. We headed to Mercado de Bazurto (mercado is market in Spanish) to see what it was like and to see the price difference on some of the more common goods (especially fruits and vegetables). Turns out, the market is way more hectic than any public market we had been to before. The sights, sounds and smells were a lot - but it felt so good to once again be outside of our comfort zone. Plus, tucked away on one of the many side "alleys" we actually found a lady selling chia seeds - which was a real win.
Located about 4.5 kilometers from the historic city down Avenida Pedro de Heredia (same road you take to get to La Popa); you can walk to it (we did and it was relatively easy) or you can take the public bus (get off at the stop called Bazurto - easy enough).
NEED TO KNOW
If you aren’t prepared for tight, loud, hustling groups of people then maybe Bazurto isn't for you. But if you are looking to explore what a traditional market is like in Cartagena, then definitely plan to wander around the crazy maze of shops and stalls selling practically anything you could ever need or want.
We spent about an hour in the market and felt that we definitely only scratched the surface of it. Depending on whether you want to dive in deeper (like having a meal in the “food court”) you could spend a couple of hours here.
Free! But we suggest grabbing a couple of things while checking it out - especially fruit - because it is much cheaper than other stores in the city, especially near the historic area (Old City).
\\ Isle de Baru (Playa Blanca)
When our first weekend in Cartagena rolled around we realized that we didn't really have an idea on what to do. Should we rent a motorcycle? Should we just spend the weekend wandering around the city? Or should we go to one of the local beaches? After deliberating a bit, we decided to head out of town to nearby Isle de Baru (aka Baru, aka Playa Blanca). And while we enjoyed swimming in the turquoise water, in the end, we headed back home tanner, tired but also a bit jaded on the whole thing. Why? Because we had quickly realized that we are in fact, not beach people. But more on that in a later post.
The beach of Playa Blanca is located about an hour southeast of the city. The whole area is known as Isle de Baru (which is actually a national park), so if you see Baru or Playa Blanca you can rest assured they are the same thing.
NEED TO KNOW
This is probably one of the top day trip destinations from Cartagena, so expect to find the beach, especially on weekends, veeery busy. Luckily, even when it is super hectic (like it was when we visited) you could still find some quieter areas if you were willing to walk far enough. Also, expect to spend most of your time in the water swimming as it gets hoooot along the beach. You can also rent a couple of covered beach loungers or beds, hang out in one of the numerous beach restaurants (most serving a traditional meal of fried fish, coconut rice and plantains), get a massage, or just wander along the beach.
A full day (~ 6 hours) and even a night if you want to experience the beach without all of the people
This totally depends on how you want to get there, if you want to buy anything (food is more expensive), do any activities (like snorkeling, renting a jet ski, etc.) and if you want to spend the night at one of the hostels located along the beach (we did not).
It cost us 65,000 COP each for the tour to the beach which included transportation on a nice bus and lunch at one of the restaurants. We then spent 15,000 pesos on a locker for our stuff (we brought our camera and drone), 40,000 pesos on a thing of fruit (yes we know we waaay overpaid), and 50,000 COP (for both of us) to go snorkeling for an hour. In total, the day at the beach cost us 235,000 COP or around $61 USD (€53 Euros) total.
\\ National Aviary
Taken directly from the aviary’s official website, "Aviario Nacional in Cartagena, Colombia is a conservation organization that seeks, through a modern and representative exhibition of avifauna in natural environments, to promote knowledge about Colombian biodiversity, its sustainable use and responsible management.'
So if you are worried that this is another “pseudo-zoo” rest assured that it is in fact not only suitable for the birds themselves, but it also prides itself on conservation, sustainability and promoting knowledge about the birds to the outside world. Within the 7 hectares that the park takes up, you can find three different ecosystems and 21 exhibitions, which altogether contain 190 species of birds and about 2000 specimens overall.
Funny enough, the aviary is located right across the street from the turn off for Playa Blanca so you could easily combine the two spots into one day trip (and many tours do).
2-4 hours to do the full tour
60,000 COP per adult (non-Colombian), so roughly $16 USD (€14 Euros) per person
\\ Tierra Bomba
This rather large island is approximately twenty square kilometers in size and is actually part of the Bay of Cartagena. Thanks to its quiet white sand beaches and blue waters, plus its historical and natural riches, Tierra Bomba has quickly been gaining traction as one of the best spots to escape the busyness of Cartagena. Some of the top locations to seek out on the island are Punta Arena for great beaches and Bocachica for great history (including a couple old Spanish forts).
You can actually take a boat directly to one of the towns and then hike to the other (Punta Arena --> Bocachica, or vice-versa) which takes around 2.5 hours and includes even more history.
Located just south of the city, this is actually that piece of land that you can see from the end of the Bocagrande area - specifically the El Laguito and Castillogrande neighborhoods. To reach the island, grab a boat from the La Bodeguita Pier.
Plan to spend a day on the island, either hanging out on the beaches or exploring the historical fortresses and interior. You can also spend the night on the island at one of the many hotels in Punta Arena.
Usually, transport on one of the local boats (lanchas) costs around 15,000 pesos ($5.20) for each person, each way. You can then expect to pay around 25,000 pesos ($8.70) for lunch and, if you need it, 20,000 pesos ($6.95) for a cabana and two lounge chairs on the beach.
\\ Cartagena Botanical Garden "Guillermo Piñeres"
Hidden on the outskirts of Cartagena, and not far from the lively little town of Tubaco, sits one of the best day trip destinations. This botanical garden, once part of the Matute Estate and its owner Maria Jimenez de Pinares, is today one of the most important natural institutions in research, education and conservation of the flora and fauna of the entire Colombian Caribbean ecosystem, including one of the most endangered biomes the Dry Tropical Forest.
About an hour outside of Cartagena off highway I-90. There are signs for the Botanical Garden off of the highway (you do pass it and then take one of the highway U-turns (retornos). From the highway it is 2 kilometers down a dirt road. The full address is: Sector Matute km 9 Autopista I-90, Naranjas, Turbaco, Bolívar
NEED TO KNOW
If you are starting to miss nature while in Cartagena (we know we were) then this is a great spot to spend most of your day (we spent 4 hours there). Because of its lush environment, the garden has become one of the last refuges in the area for migrating birds and various wildlife - including howler monkeys! Just remember to come prepared with sunscreen, bug spray (very needed), water and good shoes for the stone paths do get slippery.
Another thing to note is that the garden is open 6 days a week (not Mondays) from 8 am - 4 pm. We rode our motorcycle there and were able to park it just inside the gate (no extra charge).
We spent 4 hours in the garden and definitely took our time savoring all the plants and animals (especially the howler monkeys). Even if you are less inclined to stop and smell all of the roses like us, expect to spend 2-3 hours exploring.
19400 COP per adult (as a non-Colombian), so around $5 USD or €5.40 Euros
EXPLORE MORE | HOW TO RENT A MOTORCYCLE IN CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA
\\ Volcan del Totumo & Pink Beach
There is just something about a mud volcano that makes you forget about all the negative side effects of tourist traps and wrangles you in to see for yourself what exactly said mud volcano is. While this time we did choose to forgo an actual tour group (but this tour looked pretty good) and head out on a rented motorcycle instead (find out where we rented ours at the link above), we still realized very quickly that Volcan del Totumo is just one big tourist extravaganza that happens to have a mid-size mud hill in the middle.
Now, this might all sound like we disliked the whole experience, but in fact, we didn’t really mind most of it. The mud hole itself was definitely unique (if a tad smelly), the views of the nearby lake were nice, and the people we met while slowly flailing our way through the oozing mud were friendly and talkative. What made us leave with a bad taste in our mouths was the fact that everything cost something.
The mud volcano is located about an hour from Cartagena off of highway 90A (the same road the eventually leads you to Barranquilla). There is a sign on the right hand side of the road, and from there it is about another 1 kilometer to the actual volcano. While you can get there with a tour group, it is also super easy to reach if you have your own set of wheels (like we did). The drive itself follows the coast and is very pretty.
NEED TO KNOW
Like we said, Volcan del Totumo is very touristy so come prepared to be hawked at at every turn. We ended up showing up on our bike, heading up to the top for about a 20-30 minute soak (which is honestly more than enough time), having our gear watched over by one of the local “guides” (he also took about 200 photos of us while soaking), and then washed off the mud in the nearby lake before grabbing a quick empanada at one of the small stores/restaurants. By the end, we felt like we were being shuffled around against our will and didn’t really enjoy much of it. Plus, once everyone started asking for money for every little thing we really started to get annoyed.
Spend about 20-30 minutes in the actual mud hole (pool) and then maybe another half hour getting rinsed off in the lake and grabbing a quick drink or snack at one of the many restaurants.