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.
\\ The Top 10 Places to Explore and Things to Do in Cartagena
Below are the best 10 things to see and do in Cartagena, Colombia. This list includes a good mix of history, culture and of course, adventure.
1. Take in the Famous Cartagena Walled City
The original area of Cartagena is still surrounded by a big limestone and coral wall, an obvious reminder of the cities rougher, pirate-plagued past. Within the walls is where you will find the bright colored colonial buildings that make Cartagena so popular for tourists.
We recommend walking around the Old City (or Walled City) both early in the morning to get photos and really be able to see the beauty of the buildings (make sure to check out the artsy door knockers), and also at night so you get a feel for the liveliness of Cartagena. But be warned: the old city is full of hawkers, so be prepared to be goaded into buying yet another trinket (or sun hat).
Some of the best spots to explore in the Old City are:
| Monumento Torre Del Reloj: a pretty yellow clocktower that was once one of the few entrances to the Walled City. In a darker time, it was also where many slaves were eventually sold. Many tours of the Old City start here.
| Plaza San Diego: this is a small little plaza located in the middle of the Old City. The plaza is home to a famous statue of Jose Fernandez. Also, if you are lucky, you can sometimes see wild parrots here.
| Baluarte de Santa Catalina: is one of the more popular spots to watch the sunset over the ocean. Nearby is Las Bovedas, a one-time prison, and current souvenir shop.
| Plaza de Bolivar: this lush plaza was once the main meeting point for the elite of Cartagena. Just next to it is the (in)famous Palace of the Inquisition, where 767 people were punished for crimes such as blasphemy, heresy and witchcraft (only 5 people were put to death).
📣 If you want to head out and explore Cartagena with a guide, consider checking out this hop-on, hop-off bus tour.
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2. Walk Around the Hipster Barrio of Getsemani
The other historic area of the city, though one with a bit rougher history, is the Getsemani barrio (neighborhood). Once the home to prostitutes and drug deals, Getsemani is today Cartagena’s hippest and most artsy areas - and also one of the rising hipster hotspots in all of Colombia.
Some can’t-miss spots in Getsemani include Plaza de la Trinidad, one of the oldest squares in the city, Calle de San Juan, with its bright and colorful graffiti, the small alleyways with multi-colored umbrellas off of Carrera 10B and the fantastic restaurants and coffee shops that dot the small neighborhood (some of our favorites were Demente for tacos and Beiyu for coffee and healthy snacks).
3. Explore Other Exciting Cartagena Neighborhoods like Bocagrande, Manga & El Cabrero
While the Old City and Getsemani often top the list of the best places to explore in Cartagena, definitely don’t miss their neighbors Bocagrande, the glamorous, touristy area with lots of skyscrapers, Manga, a quiet, tree-filled neighborhood with some historic colonial-era homes, and El Cabrero, located just outside the Walled City, and home to popular beaches and small, locally-owned businesses (this is where we lived).
4. Cool Down at the Cartagena Beaches
Cartagena is not necessarily known for its beaches, mainly because the sand is volcanic so it always looks gray and kind of dirty (though it isn’t). While there are prettier beaches nearby the city, definitely don’t skimp out on spending at least a couple of hours chilling on the Cartagena city beaches. Our favorite beaches were the four in the El Cabrero neighborhood, mainly because they were either really quiet (empty) or full of local families enjoying the waves.
One important thing to know is that the beaches in Cartagena are very well taken care of, and though the water looks perpetually dirty (due to the color of the sand), we promise they are actually quite clean. In fact, we frequently saw people cleaning up trash on the beaches in the morning. Similarly, the water is very safe to swim in because the beaches were actually built to be little tidal pools (with rocks creating a sort of U-shape).
Other popular city beaches can be found in the Bocagrande neighborhood. But, while the beaches in El Cabrero are very chill, expect the beaches in Bocagrande to be much more touristy.
NOTE: if you are looking for more traditional white(ish) sand beaches, then consider heading to Boquillas and Manzanillo, both of which are located just outside of town to the north (past the airport). Otherwise, you will want to head to places like Baru for stunning tropical beach vibes.
5. Get a Great View at La Popa (& the Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa)
For one of the best views of Cartagena, consider heading up to the top of La Popa - the tallest point in the whole city. From the Convent (and even from the parking lot outside) you can see all of Cartagena, including the skyscrapers in Bocagrande, the Old City and of course the Caribbean Sea farther out.
This beautiful historic religious complex actually dates all the way back to 1607 when the original wooden chapel was erected. A year later, construction began on the present convent (it would take almost 7 years to complete). It was during this period that the original name of Santa Cruz, was changed to its current name: La Popa.
Throughout its history, the convent was a common target for attackers - including the (in)famous privateer, Sir Francis Drake. Similarly, during the early stages of the Republic, the Augustinian Recollects (the religious order that called the convent home) were forced to leave due to safety concerns and the place was actually abandoned for years until it was eventually turned into military barracks - which at one time even housed the famous Liberator, Simon Bolivar. It wouldn’t be until 1961 that the convent would actually be returned to the Augustinians.
| COST: 12000 COP ($3 USD // €2.70 Euros) per person to enter the convent grounds
| GETTING THERE: unfortunately, you cannot walk up to the top of La Popa because it is said to be quite dangerous, especially for tourists (read more about that here). Instead, take one of the waiting mototaxis or taxis to the top. It cost the two of us 50,000 COP ($12.62 USD // €11.17 Euros) to go up and down on a mototaxi (you can expect to pay between 35,000-50,000 COP).
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6. Learn More About the City’s Military History at Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Just outside the city sits Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, once one of the most impressive military structures in the entire Spanish Empire (and definitely one of the best preserved). Plan to spend a couple of hours exploring the batteries, the tunnels and taking in the views of the surrounding city.
If you are looking to learn more about the fort before visiting, check out this page. Similarly, there are QR codes scattered around the fort itself, allowing you to learn as you wander around.
| COST: 25000 COP ($6.60 USD // €5.60 Euros) per person as a traveler (costs 20,000 COP as a Colombian) to enter. There is also the option to get a tour guide (in Spanish or English), which costs around 20000 COP ($5 USD // €4.50 Euros).
| WHERE: just outside the Old City (you can see it from the wall), and definitely within walking distance. The exact location is here.
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7. Shop Like a Local at Bazurto Market
Located quite a distance from the Old City, Mercado de Bazurto (Bazurto Market), is an awesome spot to get an idea of how the locals of Cartagena often shop. This maze-like market is slightly chaotic - though in all the best ways. Expect tight tunnels, loud music, scooters zipping past and people selling all sorts of items.
We recommend coming here to do a bit of your own shopping - for the prices are tough to beat (especially the local produce), and they likely have everything you could need (spices, home goods, clothes, shoes, furniture). We even found a whole bag of chia seeds at a very decent price.
| GETTING THERE: the market is located off of Avenida Pedro de Heredia, just over 4 kilometers from the Old City. We recommend taking the public bus (Transcaribe) to reach the market instead of walking (the stop is called BAZURTO). The exact location of the market is here.
📣 TOUR: you don’t need to take a tour (we didn’t) but we understand how helpful it would be to have someone with in-depth knowledge of the market show you around. This tour looks great.
8. Drink Delicious Local Coffee (Lots of Coffee)
While Cartagena is not located near the coffee growing region, it does still have some darn good coffee - plus, some super hip cafes. Many of the best coffee shops are located in either the Walled City or the Getsemani barrio.
Plan to spend a bit of time exploring different spots to find which one fits your taste. Just know that many cafes do not open early (the earliest we saw was 7 AM and that is really only if the café owner feels like it). You can also get a small cup of coffee (like a shot size, known as tinto) from people selling them on the streets in colored thermoses. We never tried this so we couldn’t give you an accurate idea of the cost (but it is probably quite low).
Some of our favorite cafes in Cartagena were:
| Bozha, in the Old City by the Centro bus stop
| Folklore, in the Old City by the yellow clocktower
| Café San Alberto, in the Old City by Plaza Santo Domingo
| La Esquina de Pandebono, not really a café, but they do serve cheap (about $0.50 per cup) and good coffee in the morning, plus they have quite tasty baked goods