Cartagena de Indias, Colombia was made for dreamers. With a combination of sultry beaches, romantic colonial architecture, spicy nightlife and an alluring splash of sophistication – it’s one of THE most popular places to visit in the country!
In 1984, the city’s walled-in Old Quarter (the wall originally served as protection from frequent pirate attacks) was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s easy to see why.
A concentration of vibrant buildings encircled by a crumbling wall which abuts the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. Yes, Cartagena is the quintessential traveller location, where city and nature come together to dance the perfect salsa.
However, if fairytale cities leave you feeling lost in the clouds, you don’t have to travel far to find Cartagena’s grounding commercial and residential districts. Bustling centres of working-class grit or swanky beachfront high-rise apartments lie just outside where the fairy dust settles, two incredibly distinct yet authentic parts of this diverse city.
Cartagena, Colombia – Travel Guide
Cartagena Map & Resources
Best Time to Visit Cartagena
There is no bad time to visit Cartagena. The busiest period is during the dry season of January through March. Temperatures are high but not punishingly so. It’s dry with little humidity and the wind coming off the sea every afternoon/evening helps cool things down.
The downside of visiting at this time is that it’s peak season. Prices are higher and there are a lot of tourists escaping winter in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s also a popular time of year for domestic travel so expect to see lots of Colombians too!
April can be a cheaper time to travel to Cartagena but it depends when holy week falls. In general, April sees little rain and the temperatures are still bearable.
May and June make up the first real rainy season of the year in Cartagena. It’s oppressively hot and humid. Despite it raining every day, the downpours fall mainly in the afternoons. Plan morning activities if you visit at this time of year.
July and August see another dry season in Cartagena and September through November sees a lot of rain again. October is the rainiest month of the year – avoid if you’re craving beach days!
December sees the rains start to dissipate and prices tend to remain low throughout the city. They start to rise again around Christmas.
Where to Stay in Cartagena
Cartagena has a variety of hostels, budget apartments and hotels to suit all budgets. However, the city is signficantly more expensive than other locations in Colombia, both because of its coastal location and its appeal as a leading South American honeymoon destination. Expect to pay nearly twice as much for your accomodation than in Medellín or Bogotá.
When searching online, the city is known by its colonial name ‘Cartagena de Indias’ so as not to be confused with Cartagena in Spain.
Before booking a place to stay, it’s important to know the names of the different parts of the city. Cartagena Old Quarter and the new modern part of the city are worlds apart and choosing one over the other can drastically alter your visit!
Old Quarter (Centro)
With narrow cobbled streets, bright colonial buildings, old plazas and an intoxicating Caribbean vibe, Cartagena’s old quarter is the most beautiful part of the city. Swanky hotels and ‘budget’ hostels can be found in the centre of Cartagena Old Quarter, known simply as ‘Centro’.
Of course, being the most attractive area, it’s also the busiest among tourists. Accommodation and food prices reflect this.
Located at the far end of the western city wall, you’ll find the chilled-out neighbourhood of San Diego, with a more subtle charm than the nearby Centro.
Home to the Bellas Artes College, as well as the bustling Plaza de San Diego, it’s a great place to grab a tinto (coffee) by day, or a beer, by night, watch street performers or partake in a spot of people-watching. All in all, a great neighbourhood to base yourself.
This edgy suburb of Cartagena, once notoriously dangerous, has reinvented itself as the city’s hipster hub, complete with cool graffiti and cafés that serve drinks in jars. A short walk from Centro, you’ll find the majority of the backpacker hostels located here, as well as a vibrant nightlife with lots of lively bars and trendy eateries.
As the popularity of Centro and Getsemaní begin to price out those travelling on strict budgets, Manga has picked up the slack. This relaxed neighbourhood is just a 25-minute walk from the old town and is home to plenty of budget accommodation and food options.
It has a beautiful waterfront that makes for an excellent morning stroll. Solo travellers should be wary at night when walking around Manga as it’s not quite as safe as the more popular areas of Cartagena! Don’t worry too much though – Cartagena is still one of the safest cities in Colombia!
While we admit we prefer the atmospheric old quarter, if you’re looking for more modern hotels and apartments for long-term stays, you might want to venture out to the beachfront strip at Bocagrande, located in the new part of the city.
Much more popular with rich Colombians than backpacking foreigners, the high-rise hotels and apartments that line Cartagena’s main beach attract a glamorous crowd. If you want to see a distinct, and arguably more authentic side to modern-day Cartagena, stay in Bocagrande.
Best Hostels in Cartagena
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1. Viajero Hostel Cartagena (San Diego)
Located within the walls of the old city, this hostel is a favourite among backpackers. Rooms are comfortable and dorms and privates are available. In addition, the hostel boasts a fantastic social scene and an unbeatable location, making it one of our top picks for the best hostels in Cartagena!
2. República Hostel Cartagena (Centro)
A beautifully-designed hostel with free breakfast, shared kitchen, terrace and outdoor swimming pool, this place gets great reviews. If you’re looking to meet fellow travellers, it’s a social place with lots of activities and tours to fill your time in Cartagena. Dorm beds and private rooms are available.
3. Maloka Boutique Hostel (San Diego)
A clean, modern and lovely hostel in a great location in the neighbourhood of San Diego. The sunny rooftop is a great place to relax with a drink after exploring the city and the hostel is a tranquil haven suitable for couples or solo travellers who don’t want a party. Private rooms only. Free breakfast included.
4. Casa del Puerto Hostel and Suites (Manga)
Located in the Manga neighbourhood, Casa del Puerto Hostel and Suites offer dorm beds and a range of private rooms. The central pool and shaded seating areas offer respite from Cartagena’s roasting days. There is a lively scene most evenings, with regular salsa classes. Ask for a room away from reception – it’ll be quieter.
5. Santuario Getsemaní Hostel (Getsemaní)
Offering dorm rooms with a difference, Santuario Getsemaní is a spacious hostel with everything you need for a relaxing stay. The pod-style dorms are made up of a series of tiny bedrooms which can be sealed off using a blind. Couples will welcome the option for a double bed in the dorm which adds up to significant savings – just keep your hands to yourself, it’s still a shared dorm room!
Things to Do in Cartagena, Colombia
1. Take A Dip in Volcan de Lodo El Totumo
Floating around in this novel mud volcano is one of the best things to do in Cartagena! You may be hesitant at first, but the giggling faces already submerged in the viscous goo should help ease your hesitation. Dip your toes in or simply jump, the sensation upon submerging is simply indescribable.
Lose all sense of gravity, get rubbed up and down by a random Colombian man (optional) and achieve noticeably softer skin (apparently!). Visiting Volcan de Lodo El Totumo is must in Cartagena.
2. Visit Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Cartagena spent much of its early life being raided and attacked by pirates, privateers and Spain’s colonial rivals. There’s no better place to learn about Cartagena’s violent past than the centre of the action – the largest Spanish fortress in South America. The castle dates back to the year 1536 and was expanded greatly in 1657.
Located on San Lázaro hill with great panoramic views of the city, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas offers the perfect defensive position.
Guides and audiotours are available for an extra cost – around 20,000COP (approx. $5USD). Not all the guides can speak English, so an audioguide may be better if you’re Spanish isn’t up to scratch!
The fort is located just 10 minutes from the neighbourhood of Getsemaní and 20 minutes from the old city. It’s easy to find and walking there during the day is perfectly safe.
Take sun cream, water and a hat as it’s all open-air and can get very hot while you’re exploring. If you forget any of the above, you’ll find a bunch of over-enthusiastic salesmen to buy supplies from at the entrance of the castle.
3. Hang Out at Puerta del Reloj
Take time to hang out around the old city’s iconic main entrance and you’re bound to walk away with a better understanding of Northern Colombian culture. Watch as young girls shake their hips to Merengue, listen to the beating of Afro-Caribbean drums, and sample old-fashioned treats at the Portal de Los Dulces (open-air sweet shop).
4. Watch the Sunset From the Old City Walls
Soak up some history and the last rays of the sun as you watch it set over the sea while perched on Cartagena’s old city walls. For singletons on a budget, grab a can of Aguila Beer from one of the nearby street vendors and make sure to position yourself away from the token kissing couple!
For those of you wanting a more chic experience, head to Café Del Mar, a Cartagena institution that offers the most atmospheric place in town to watch the sunset, though drinks and food are overpriced (naturally).
5. Check Out the Local Street Art
Cartagena hosts a graffiti festival every few years. Artists travel from across the continent to add their signature to the city’s diverse art scene. Wander the boho streets of Getsemaní and San Diego and you’re sure to find some awesome shots for your Instagram!
While you might be tempted to add your own mark to the city’s walls, beware that the major graffiti works are protected by law and you need government permission to paint over them!
6. Take a Trip to Islas del Rosario
This chain of idyllic islands just 35 kilometres southwest of Cartagena is a protected marine national park that can be visited on a day trip from Cartagena.
The 27 islands are surrounded by colourful coral reefs and, although erosion has occurred, offer some good snorkelling and diving. Isla del Sol is the most touristy of the islands so we recommend avoiding that one!
If you fancy a more relaxing experience than a tourist boat trip, why not charter a private boat and visit some smaller islets? (Tourist day trips get very mixed reviews, so make sure you shop around for the best deal and ask a lot of questions before you book!)
7. Dance! Cartagena Nightlife
Cartagena’s nightlife is renowned as being a wild old time whatever you’re into! Whether you want to dance salsa, sip a cocktail in one of the city’s chic bars, or shake your ass to a bit of Reggaeton in a sweaty nightclub, Cartagena has it all!
Getsemaní is the main party spot for travellers with bars packed to the rafters most nights. For a night of wild dancing, head to the lively Café Havana for Cuban-style salsa and delicious mojitos.
El Centro has a more sophisticated scene. Head to La Movida or La Jugada at weekends to party with the city’s glamorous crowd… Tu Candela in the Old City also has a great atmosphere and plenty of salsa music. If you can’t dance, sit back and enjoy watching those that can!
8. Stay at Casa en el Agua
Could this be the hostel with the best location in the world? Just three hours away from Cartagena and encircled by the tropical warm waters of the Caribbean – this is a place that has to be seen to be believed!
9. Go to the Beach
Being a city on the Caribbean coast, you’d be forgiven for thinking Cartagena is a city of beaches. While it’s true and there are some beaches within easy access from the city, these aren’t the nicest, cleanest or most relaxing beaches you’ve ever visited. Travel a little further afield though and you’ll being to uncover some real Caribbean paradise!
Playa Blanca, Baru
This is undoubtedly Cartagena’s best beach. Getting here can be slightly taxing and the beach gets crowded during the day, but stay overnight and you’ll be well rewarded!
Once at the beautiful beach, ask around the various accommodation options to see who has room and how much they charge. The options range from rustic tents or hammocks to slightly less rustic rooms in wooden huts. Some even have electricity that runs all night! There are a few more comfortable options but you’ll pay much more for them! Alternatively, if rocking up without a plan isn’t your scene, book your Baru accommodation in advance.
Crowds leave around 4 pm every day, which means that if you’ve chosen to stay in one of the basic huts on the beach, it will feel like you own your very own private island for the night!
👉 Also read: Best Beaches in Colombia. 👈
Playa de Punta Arena
Located on the nearby island of Tierra Bomba, the closest island to Cartagena, Playa de Punta Arena offers beautiful views back to the city. There are some great clubs and restaurants along the beach but the island’s proximity to the city means it gets crowded, especially at the weekends!
Manzanillo del Mar
Around 40 minutes from the city, this area is less visited by hoards of tourists. Lined with wooden huts, small restaurants and fewer high-rise hotels than the more central beaches, Manzanillo del Mar offers a more relaxing beach day while still being easily accessible from Cartagena.
To get here, you can take the local bus, get a taxi (around $10USD from Centro) or visit as part of a day trip (which we did and highly recommend). This option also includes a visit to the mud volcano. The day tour can be booked from many backpacker hostels in the city.
Playa de Bocagrande
This beach gains points for convenience but won’t necessarily turn many heads. Lined with high-rise buildings and full of plastic sun loungers, the main complaint isn’t the cosmopolitan backdrop but the sheer number of pushy vendors trying to flog their wares.
From massages to sunbed rental to sarongs and crabs, be prepared to say a strong ‘no, gracias’ many times, or end up with a load of stuff you don’t want! On the plus side, this beach is the closest to the city and great for those looking to spend part of their day soaking up the sun, having a swim or going for a beach walk.
Food and Drink in Cartagena
That said, you can still find some well-priced, delicious food dotted around the city!
Atrium Pizza and Burger
With all the interior charm of a Pizza Hut, the quality of both food and service in this burger and pizza joint is surprising. The mouth-watering burgers, delicious pizzas and a wide range of pasta and meat dishes are all well-priced. Atrium can be found in Manga, around a 25-minute walk from the old city.
Plaza de Trinidad
While not a restaurant itself, Plaza de Trinidad in Getsemaní comes alive with street vendors every evening. Whether you want empanadas, cheesy arepas, BBQ meat or something a little sweeter, there’s a street food stall for you in the plaza! Grab a snack, sit on the stairs and watch the world go by. Locals and tourists alike fill the square every evening.
Just a two-minute walk from Plaza de Trinidad, ConoPizza offers well-priced, you guessed it, pizza cones. Delicious, filling and perfect if you’ve had a few too many Aguilas, PizzaCono is a great way to eat on a budget!
One of the best budget-friendly eats in Cartagena, Donde Magola can be found in San Diego, just a few minutes from the old city. The eatery serves up Colombian classics at a great price. Expect the place to be full of locals and tourists, no matter when you visit!
Getting Around Cartagena
Getting around Cartagena depends on where you are and where you want to go. Most of the backpacker accommodation options are within easy walking distance of the Old City and walking around these areas during the day is perfectly safe. However, if you’re alone at night, we recommend getting a taxi.
Taxis are plentiful all over Cartagena – if you don’t see them, they’ll see you and the incessant use of their horn will tell you as much! If you want a ride, you won’t need to wait long for one. It’s worth having a rough idea of prices for taxis in Cartagena.
These are set by the government but you know as well as I do, taxi drivers charge what they want, when they want. Having a good idea of what a ride should cost gives you the chance to negotiate when they inevitably try to overcharge you.
Uber is also available in Cartagena but as in the rest of Colombia, it operates in a grey area. When using Uber in Colombia, remember to sit in the front and learn your driver’s name. If you’re stopped by the police, claim to be friends with your driver. It may seem dodgy but in our experience, Uber is still safer than taking a taxi.
Shared taxis are common in Cartagena, especially if you’re travelling between neighbourhoods. These are best learned about by asking at your accommodation or with a local, especially if your Spanish is limited.
Moto taxis are also common. We don’t advise jumping on one of these unless you’re confident being on the back of a motorcycle. The drivers can be erratic when navigating through busy streets!
There are also different bus systems in Cartagena. The modern Transcaribe system acts like a metro, taking a set route and only stopping at designated stations. It requires you to have a payment card which can be purchased from the stations. The buses are modern and assuming it’s not rush hour, very comfortable.
The other system feels a little more anarchistic. Old buses pick up and drop off passengers anywhere along a set route. There are no official stops and you just need to flag a bus down and jump on. If you’re not sure about the route the bus is taking, just ask. The driver and conductor are usually happy to help!
How to Get to Cartagena
- Buses run daily from Medellín, the trip will take around 14 hours, and cost approximately $50USD.
- Flights are available from Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá, making this Caribbean destination incredibly accessible. Taking a mere one hour and costing just a tad over $100USD, flying in Colombia is alarmingly affordable. In fact, before booking a bus, always check flight prices as they may be comparable.
- Buses from Santa Marta connect to Cartagena via Barranquilla. The trip takes about five hours and costs $10-$20USD.
Where to Go Next?
Minca: If you’ve had your fill of the coast, head to Minca. Located just 45 minutes from Santa Marta and the old backpacker hub of Taganga, this laidback mountain town provides everything a backpacker could want – just try not to get stuck there for too long!
Medellín: One of the hippest cities in Latin America, the city of eternal spring is not to be missed!
Panama: Travellers looking to head out on an adventure of a lifetime can book a boat trip to Panama via the San Blas Islands. Now that is sure to be an experience you won’t forget!
Mompox: This riverside town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, those looking for a quieter charm will undoubtedly find it here.