Updated January 17th, 2019.
Cartagena de Indias was made for dreamers; a combination of sultry beaches, romantic colonial architecture, a spicy nightlife, and an alluring splash of sophistication. No wonder it’s the most popular place for tourists to visit in Colombia!
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 explosive coloured buildings encircled by a crumbling yellow wall which, abuts the turquoise waters of the Caribbean sea. Yes, Cartagena is the quintessential traveller’s 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.
Where to stay in Cartagena, Colombia?
Cartagena has a variety of hostels, budget apartments and hotels to suit all budgets, from the backpacker to the flashpacker. When you are 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 as 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.
For budget travellers, we recommend staying in Centro or the backpacker hub of Getsemaní. Read more about the different Cartagena neighbourhoods here…
Many swanky hotels and several budget hostels are located in the centre of Cartagena Old Quarter, known simply as ‘Centro’. This is the unarguably most colourful and beautiful part of the city with narrow cobbled streets, bright yellow and blue colonial buildings, old plazas and an intoxicating Caribbean atmosphere.
Of course, being the most attractive area, it’s also the busiest amongst tourists and the expensive price for hotels reflects 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, 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.
The edgy backpacker ghetto of Cartagena, once notoriously dangerous, has recently 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.
While still slightly on the seedy side (and still a little dangerous at night) it’s definitely the most fun neighbourhood for travellers to stay – just keep your wits about you when out at night, especially solo travellers.
While we admit that we much prefer the atmospheric old quarter of the city, 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.
An alternative to both the old and new quarters of Cartagena, the relaxed neighbourhood of Manga offers travellers something in-between. A residential area not far from Getsemaní, this area is home to some great seafood restaurants and a laid-back, local vibe that attracts well-heeled travellers.
Surrounded by water on all sides, it’s a great place to take a stroll by the sea, check out Cartagena’s boating and fishing scene and enjoy a completely different side to the city, away from the majority of the tourists.
Top 5 Cartagena Hostels for Backpackers
1. Media Luna Hostel (Getsemaní)
Looking for a party? With an expansive and hugely popular rooftop bar and a centrally located swimming pool, this is a great hostel to meet other backpackers in Colombia.
Located in Getsamaní, Cartagena’s thriving backpacker hub, just outside of the old city, this hostel holds weekly parties and everyone’s invited. A bed in a dorm costs $12 USD, which is cheaper than most hostels in Cartagena.
2. Hostel Mamallena (Getsemaní)
A fun, social hostel with spacious AC dorms, beds starting at $13 USD, this hostel is located in the heart of Getsemaní close to bars and restaurants.
There’s a colourful courtyard to relax and a bar where it’s very easy to get chatting to fellow travellers. If you prefer a double room it’s $39 USD. Read our full review of Hostel Mamallena here.
3. El Viajero Hostel Cartagena (Centro)
Located within the walls of the old city, this hostel is a favourite amongst backpackers. Rooms are comfortable and available in both single and dorm styles. In addition, the hostel boasts a fantastic social scene and an unbeatable location, all making it one of our top picks for the best hostels in Cartagena! Dorm beds from $20 USD.
4. República Hostel Cartagena (San Diego)
A beautifully-designed hostel with free breakfast, shared kitchen, terrace and outdoor swimming pool, this places gets great reviews. If you’re looking to meet fellow travellers, it’s a social place to be with lots of activities and tours planned for your time in Cartagena. Dorm beds from $20 USD.
5. 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 scener. Dorm beds start at $15 USD or $44 USD for a twin room. Free breakfast included.
8 Top Things to Do in Cartagena, Colombia!
1. Volcan de Lodo El Totumo
Floating around in this novel mud volcano is a highlight of any trip to 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 and 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!). A must-do experience in Colombia.
2. Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
In a city where the notorious Sir Francis Drake stirred up trouble, taking in a bit of history is a worthwhile endeavour. No better place than the centre of the action and also the largest fortress the Spaniards ever built in one of their colonies. The castle dates back to the year 1536 and as expanded greatly in 1657.
The fort is located on San Lázaro hill with great panoramic views of the city, as you’d expect from a building that’s primary function was looking out for enemies!
History buffs will love the audio guide that explains the fascinating history of the fort and costs only 25,000 COP ($8 USD). Well worth it to really bring the ancient monument alive, otherwise the bricks can be a bit dull.
The fort is located just 10 minutes from the neighbourhood of Getsemaní. Take sun cream, water and a hat as it’s all open-air and can get very hot while you’re exploring.
3. Puerta del Reloj
Take time to hang out around the old cities 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 the Merengue, listen to the beating of Afro-Caribbean drums, and sample the old-fashioned treats at the Portal de Los Dulces (sweets).
4. Watch the sunset from the Old City Walls
Soak up some history and the last sun rays as you watch the sunset over the sea while perched on Cartagena’s old city walls. For those on a budget, grab a can of Aguila Beer from one of the nearby street vendors, find yourself a spot overlooking the sea away from a kissing couple and simply enjoy the view.
For those of you wanting a more chic experience, head to Cafe Del Mar, a Cartagena institution which 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 is a magnet for street artists and you’ll find some amazing graffiti artwork on abandoned walls across the city. Wander the bohemian neighbourhoods of Getsemaní and San Diego and you’ll be sure to find some awesome shots for your Instagram feed! Many artists are in fact travellers, so if you’re feeling creative, get involved!
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, still offers the opportunity for some good snorkelling and diving. Isla del Sol is the most touristy of the islands and we’d recommend that you avoid it.
If you fancy a more relaxing experience than a tourist boat trip, why not charter a private boat and visit some of the smaller islets. (Tourist day trips get very mixed reviews on Trip Advisor, 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 info! Whether you want to dance salsa, sip a cocktail and look cool at 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 playing loud music packed to the seams most nights of the week and regular parties at Media Luna Hostel. For a night of wild dancing, head to the lively Café Havana in Getsamaní 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, at least watch as the impressively talented shake their rumps!
8. Stay at Casa en el Agua
Just three hours away from Cartagena, could this be the hostel with the best location in the world? Encircled by the tropical warm waters of the Caribbean – this is a place that has to be seen to be believed!
1. Playa Blanca, Baru
This is undoubtedly Cartagena’s best beach. Getting here can be slightly taxing, but the reward makes it well worth it! Make the most of your trip – wake up early and head down to the main wharf. Book a boat which will most likely include a short snorkel stop.
Once at the beach set up camp and rent either a hammock or a tent for the night. 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!
2. Playa de Punta Arena
Located on the nearby island of Tierra Bomba, this beach is less than a 10-minute ride by boat from the city neighbourhood of Castillo Grande and is another Caribbean gem, well worth the journey.
With white sands and turquoise waters, you’ll feel a million miles from the city, apart from the fact that you can see the high-rises in the distance! There are several beach clubs which are great for grabbing a drink and a bite to eat, and there are few local vendors to annoy you.
3. Playa de Bocagrande
This beach gains points for convenience but won’t necessarily turn many heads. Lined with high-rise buildings, the main complaint about this city beach is not the urban backdrop, but the sheer number of vendors trying to sell you things as you attempt to sunbathe.
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.
4. Manzanillo Del Mar Beaches
Around 40 minutes from the city, these off the beaten track beaches are little-visited by the tourist droves. Lined with simple wooden huts and rustic restaurants, you’ll find few high-rises here, although rumours have it that this is set to change as the private investors are moving in with a plan to turn this into the next Bocagrande
To get here, you can take the local bus, get a taxi (around $10 USD from Centro) or you can visit the beach as part of a day trip (which we did and highly recommend) which takes in the mud volcano also. The day tour can be booked from many backpacker hostels in the city.
How to get to Cartagena?
- Buses run daily from Medellin, the trip will take around 14 hours, and will cost approximately $50 USD.
- Flights are available from Colombia’s capital city, Bogota, making this Caribbean destination incredibly accessible. Taking a mere one hour and costing just a tad over 100 dollars, 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 9 hours and will cost around 50 dollars.
Where to go next?
Taganga: This quiet fishing town offers easily accessible beaches. It is also the launching point for trips into the stunning Parque Tayrona National park.
Medellin: Looking for city slicker sophistication? This city of eternal spring is not to be missed.
Mompox: This riverside town is also a UNESCO world heritage site, those looking for a quieter charm will undoubtedly find it here.
By Tyler Protano-Goodwin