CARTAGENA, ALSO KNOWN AS CARTAGENA DE INDIAS, IS A HISTORICALLY IMPORTANT CITY THAT SITS ALONG THE COLOMBIAN CARIBBEAN COAST. THIS CARTAGENA GUIDE OUTLINES ALL OF THE TOP THINGS TO SEE AND DO WITHIN THE COLORFUL CITY.
Located on the tropical Caribbean Coast, the colorful city of Cartagena is one of the most popular - if not THE most popular - places to explore within all of Colombia. The city is a great place to base yourself if you are looking to check out the numerous sunny beaches that dot the nearby coastline (including beaches like Baru and the Rosario Islands), or if you just want to immerse yourself fully in the country's rich colonial history.
If Cartagena or Cartagena de Indias sounds like the kind of spot you want to explore, then keep reading for our in-depth guide on the city, including the best spots to adventure, the top cafes and restaurants and everything else you might need to know to have a great time in Cartagena.
THE ULTIMATE CARTAGENA GUIDE
\\ A Quick History of Cartagena
Cartagena was founded in 1533 by the Spanish - more specifically Pedro de Heredia, a Spanish conquistador - on the site of the one-time indigenous village of Calamari (archeological records put humans living in the area as far back as 4000 BC). Heredia named the city after the Spanish port city of Cartagena, which is located in southeastern Spain.
Soon enough, the city became one of the most important ports in the entire Spanish Empire, as well as a thriving center for political, ecclesiastical (religious), and economic activity (it even had the first fire department in the whole Americas). But because of its economic prosperity and location along the coast, the city was frequently attacked by pirates and privateers, including Sir Francis Drake.
It got to be so bad that eventually King Phillip II of Spain decided to bring in an Italian engineer to draw up plans for fortifications. While it would take two hundred years to complete, eventually the entire city (including the Getsemani neighborhood) would be surrounded by an “impenetrable” wall (many of the walls still stand today, hence the old city is also called the Walled City).
Cartagena would be ruled by the Spanish for 275 years, and it was only until 1810 that the people of the city declared independence (and promptly threw the Spanish governor out of the city). Spain of course retaliated by sending 59 ships, and over 10,000 men to attack the city in 1815. Even though the people of Cartagena won (and were even awarded the title “Heroic City” by the Liberator, Simon Bolivar), the period after the war was not good: due to loss in funding, trading and a terrible cholera outbreak, the city fell into sharp decline.
Luckily, the city started to see vast improvements under the presidency of Rafael Nuñez, a Cartagena native. Under his leadership, the central government invested in a railroad and other infrastructure improvements and modernization. Today, the city relies heavily on maritime and petrochemical industries, and of course, tourism.
Thanks to its lengthy history and well-preserved buildings in the Old City (Walled City), the historic area of Cartagena was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
Learn more about Cartagena’s long history here.
The Famous Cartagena Door Knockers
It is very likely that within ten minutes of walking around the Old City of Cartagena you will start to notice the array of intricate, artistic door knockers on all manner of buildings - especially the ones that look like present and/or former residences.
So what do the door knockers - which come in a variety of shapes and sizes - actually symbolize? Well to start, you need to go back in time to the period when Cartagena was known as Cartagena de Indias and it was a thriving port city under Spanish rule. During this period a popular saying came about, "A tal casa tal aldaba,” which translates to something like “to each house its door knocker.” This quote would soon lead to the practice of displaying a person's social status or job on their front door through the design of its knocker.
In Cartagena, common door knocker motifs you can see in the Old City are...
FISH OR SEA CREATURE: meaning the resident worked in some form of the sea trade or sea merchant community
LION: meant the owner worked in the military, or protection service; this motif is the most popular thanks to Cartagena's long history with pirates and attacks
HANDS: the owner was in the clergy
LIZARD: this motif meant the residents were very wealthy and possibly part of the royal family
📣 You can learn more about the history of Cartagena with this 3-hour city tour with Get Your Guide.
And you can find even more Colombian travel tours here.
How Do You Say Cartagena
Cartagena or its full name, Cartagena de Indias, is pronounced as KAR-tə-JEE-nə (hay-na NOT hen-na). We made this mistake many, many times…
CARTAGENA NICKNAMES: The Magic City, The Cosmopolitan City, The Heroic and The Fantastic
\\ Where is Cartagena
Cartagena, Colombia is located along the tropical and hot Caribbean Coast of northern Colombia. It sits about halfway along the northern coast of the country - between Panama to the west and Venezuela to the east. Cartagena is the capital of the large Bolivar Department (the Colombian version of a state) and one of the major cities in the entire Caribbean Region.
The city is relatively close to many other popular Caribbean travel destinations; including, Santa Marta, Barranquilla (home to the second largest Carnival festival in the world), and the beach towns of Puerto Escondido and Palomino.
Distances from Cartagena
CARTAGENA TO SANTA MARTA: 4.5 hours
CARTAGENA TO BARRANQUILLA: 2.5 hours
CARTAGENA TO PUERTO ESCONDIDO: 5.5 hours
CARTAGENA TO PALOMINO: 6 hours
ELEVATION: 2 meters or 7 feet above the sea
POPULATION: 1,028,736 in the entire Metro area, Cartagena is ranked 5th in population in Colombia
Weather in Cartagena, Colombia
The weather in Cartagena, Colombia is pretty much the same year-round: hot and humid. In fact, the city falls under a tropical wet and dry climate - similar to areas in central Brazil and central Africa. This type of climate is characterized by high humidity (90%+) and hot temperatures. In Cartagena, the average daytime temperature is roughly 31 C/88 F year-round.
Though, that being said, there are some months where it tends to be slightly drier (January-March) and some that are a bit more wet (mostly October). But even if you choose to visit during the "rainy" season it is likely you will still only experience a few major rain showers (most of which occur at night) during your stay. Similarly, due to Cartagena's location close to the equator, the number of daylight hours also does not fluctuate that much.
💬 INSIDER TIP: because of the often oppressive heat and humidity, we recommend taking a siesta during the main heat of the day (12-4 PM). One of our favorite ways to while away this time was to relax in a coffee shop (see the best ones below).
The Best Time to Visit Cartagena, Colombia
In our opinion, the best times to visit Cartagena are during the months of February and March. During this time of the year you can expect slightly lower temperatures (just slightly) and far less travelers as you would find during the peak holiday season (December and January). Similarly, February and early March are also some of the driest months of the year - meaning the perfect time to explore all of the beautiful nearby beaches. Similarly, you still have the chance to experience a couple of popular festivals in the city.
Finally, during these two months you have the chance to experience a couple of popular festivals in Cartagena. This includes Fiestas de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria (Feasts of Our Lady of Candelaria) which is celebrated the first week of February and includes a religious parade through the city and Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena (International Film Festival of Cartagena), which is celebrated in March and also includes the Miss Colombia Pageant.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the Easter holidays are a big thing in Colombia, so if you are looking to avoid large number of crowds and higher prices, we recommend booking your stay ahead of time in a less-touristy city.