Getting to Cartagena
- Cartagena Airport – Rafael Núñez International Airport (CTG)
- Currency – Colombian Peso
- Language – Spanish
- Population – 900,000
- GDP (Colombia) – $253 billion (32nd Overall)
I visited Cartagena in June 2016 and had an incredible time. I went by myself and had no problem exploring the city and meeting fellow travelers. The city brings a rustic charm with its fairytale architecture and romantic floral balconies. On the other, Cartagena’s life bustles with the sound of traffic and the working class hustle. Cartagena offers the perfect combination of indigenous Colombian culture, Spanish influence and rich African heritage. While growing in popularity as a tourism destination, it’s far from your typical vacation. Make sure to get lost on the beautiful side streets, soak up the air, and listen to the sound of locals going about their day.
Is it Safe?
Understandably, one of your main concerns traveling to Colombia is probably whether it will be safe or not. Given Colombia’s history with the drug trade and rough violence in the 1980’s from the Pablo Escobar era, this is a valid concern. However, Colombia has come a LONG way since those times and I could not have felt safer during my time in Cartagena.
While protective organizations like the army and paramilitary troops are located in remote areas, it is widely accepted that Colombia has found peace, and tourism continues to boom. But of course, just as if you were traveling to any other city, be responsible for yourself and your belongings, and take the basic precautions as you would anywhere else – don’t walk alone late at night, keep valuables close at all times, don’t flash money around, etc.
A colorful side street in Cartagena
Even though South America may seem like forever away, the flight from the United States actually isn’t bad at all. From New York, the flight can be as short as 5 hours, and the time difference between Cartagena and EST is only 1 hour! You can book a flight to and from Cartagena through many major Colombian airlines, and transportation is easy through large airport hubs such as Panama City, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and New York.
Once you arrive at the Cartagena airport, you can take out Colombian Pesos at any of the four ATM machines. The exchange rate is fantastic and you will find your trip to Colombia extremely inexpensive!
Refreshing limonada hierbabuena
Getting to City from the Airport
Taking a taxi to the city from the airport is the most convenient option. Official taxis will line up outside the arrivals gate and only cost around 15,000 Colombian Pesos ($5 USD) for the 15-20 min cab ride to the city. You can go to the taxi ticket box once you exit and give them your address.
Explore the City and Get Lost!
One of the best things you can do while visiting this city is to leave your planner behind in your hotel room or Airbnb apartment and just get lost in the beautiful streets of Cartagena. Take in the rich history of the colorful buildings, smell the fresh food being cooked in the tiny shops, and befriend the locals.
Cartagena lit up at night
Check out La Torre del Reloj, the clock tower. This is Cartagena’s most famous landmark and was once the main gateway to the walled city. It used to be called Boca del Puente, which translates to “The Mouth of the Bridge,” because it had a drawbridge to link Getsemani to the Old City. (Note: Getsemani is a fantastic area where I stayed and I highly recommend staying there). The tower was partially destroyed by the baron of Pointis and then finally completed its restoration in 1888 by Luis Philip Jaspe Franco. On the inside, the tower has a weapons room and a chapel, while the outside has eight sides to show four faces of the clock.
Torre del Reloj: Cartagena’s Clock Tower
Another recommendation for a leisurely stroll is to take it to the beautiful plazas in Cartagena. Plaza Santo Domingo is a popular base for scribes and printers. Here you’ll also find the maroon-colored Iglesia de Santo Domingo, a beautiful stone baroque church that includes statues of St. Francis and St. Augustine. Another plaza to check out is Plaza de Bolivar. It’s a great place to spend the afternoon, either with loved ones or solo, and be enchanted by Colombian nature and culture. You’ll see a lot of others people-watching while sipping on a cup of coffee, freshly bought from a nearby vendor. And be sure not to miss out on the live music and dance performances!
Children playing soccer in the up-and-coming Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena
Walk the Walls
A stunning landmark of Cartagena, the Walled City of Cartagena is a must-see while you’re there, especially if you’re into architecture and history. Witnessing the old architecture and the efforts made by the city to preserve it is part of the charm. Keep an eye out for the metal sculptures inside the historic center as well as the street art of the surrounding neighborhoods. Undisturbed by noisy car traffic, the views of this Walled City are breathtaking. Needless to say – bring your camera. And this is a great place to see a beautiful sunset.
Visit the Fortress (Castillo San Felipe de Barajas)
The Castillo is arguably one of the greatest fortresses built by the Spaniards in any of their colonies, as it overshadows much of Cartagena’s cityscape. If you’re going to visit any fortresses during your visit, visit this one. A complex system of tunnels is connected to strategic points of the fortress. Back then, the purpose of these tunnels was to aid with provision distribution, evacuation, internal communication, and note the arrival of enemies. Today, visitors are allowed to walk through these tunnels, which makes for quite an eerie experience. You have the option of taking an audio tour if you wish to learn more of the history of the fortress, or you can admire it all on your own.
Visit the Mercado de Bazurto
Definitely not your typical tourist-sight-seeing kind of stuff, the Mercado de Bazurato is a large, dirty, open market where locals sell anything and everything. This is where you go when you’re craving the real Colombian experience and a glimpse into the lives of everyday Cartagenos. That being said, it’s best to go on a tour and not by yourself. Just be mindful of basic things like avoid wearing flashy jewelry and pay attention to your valuables. A few tips and things to keep in mind; there aren’t any public restrooms, wear close-toed shoes, and English isn’t widely spoken here. With all that being said, this place is a great way to experience Cartagena authentically. If your stomach starts to grumble while you’re there, try some pitaya (Dragon fruit) or uchava (Peruvian groundcherry), or look for Restaurant Cecilia for a traditional and differentiated tasting experience!
Cartagena Favorite Activity: This local experience was one of my favorite activities during my trip. It was even more meaningful because I was accompanied by my Airbnb hosts, a young Venezuelan couple who fled to Colombia for their safety. It made me very grateful for the freedom I have back home, and it was so amazing to see their strength in starting new lives in Colombia to give themselves and their two children better lives.
Fresh and delicious pitaya (dragon fruit) at Mercado Bazurto
Day Trip to Las Islas del Rosario
If you find yourself lusting for a more tropical vacation during your trip to Cartagena, definitely take a day trip to the Rosario Islands. With natural landscapes, crystal blue waters and stunning coral formations, the Rosario Islands are considered a marvel of nature. Prices for a day pass tend to be around 147,000 COP ($50 USD), which includes transportation and lunch. You would take a 45-minute boat ride from La Bodeguita pier to whichever island you choose. Because the islands are part of a national park, the marine life there is offered special protection by the government, which makes the Rosario Islands an ideal spot for snorkeling and scuba diving. End the day by treating yourself to an exceptionally fresh, seafood meal.
While Cartagena isn’t the capital of Colombia, many argue it outshines its larger Colombian peers with its culinary offerings. Due to its location, Cartagena has a particular advantage with freshly caught seafood and beautiful tropical fruits, which serve as the basis for many of the traditional dishes there, along with pork and beef. The local cuisine is a unique and equally delicious blend of South American and Caribbean influence. And if you find yourself sweating, refresh yourself with a limonada hierbabuena from the local vendor around the corner.
Ice cream pops at La Paletteria
Places to Try
A spectacular choice for delicious Peruvian food, Cuzco is one of the best restaurants in Cartagena. The setting is stunning, with a balcony dining area that overlooks a glowing pool. With an exceptionally large menu, choosing what to order can be a little tricky. Their ceviche gets top marks, but I opted for the risotto with steak which was really fantastic. Finish off with their passion fruit dessert, and if you’re thirsty, the lychee sangria is another winner.
Risotto de lomo (tenderloin)
La Cocina de Pepina
A cute, homey abiance paired with warm, flavorful South American food, you can’t go wrong at La Cocina de Pepina. Don’t worry if you have trouble reading the menu as the English-speaking staff is incredibly friendly and does a great job of explaining each dish. Get a couple of dishes to share amongst the table so you can try a variety, but be sure totry their delicious soup as well!
If you’re on the hunt for the perfect ceviche, look no further than Laguna Azul! Their ceviche will surely far exceed your expectations. A hidden gem in the Getsemani neighborhood in Cartagena, Laguna Azul is known for serving an exquisitely fresh and tasty ceviche. Each dish comes with avocado slices and a side of plantain chips to complete the savory experience. At this restaurant, you get much more than what you pay for.
Cartagena’s heat can sometimes be too much. Treat yourself to a delicious and refreshing ice cream popsicle from La Paleteria to help cool you down – a favorite amongst locals and tourists alike. This place is known for their fruit-based pops but there is a wide range of other flavors to choose from, too. Personally, I’d recommend the Guanábana with dulce de leche dipped in chocolate. Perfecto!
Delicious guanabana ice cream pop
Prisprí is a great place to start your day in Cartagena. As one of the few coffee shops that opens relatively early (7 a.m.), ease your way into your agenda-packed day of exploring by indulging in warm scrambled eggs and a café con leche frappe to wake you up. If you’re not a morning person, Prisprí is just as good in the early hours as it is any other time of the day. Stop by for a quick snack (would recommend their carrot cake) or sit down and enjoy a full-on Colombian meal.
For a relaxed evening with a tasty cocktail in hand, come to El Barón. It’s located on a corner in a busy and beautiful square in the Old Town. When you walk in, the first thing you’ll notice is probably the gorgeous tiling and the stunning display of liquor bottles behind the bar, which together create a lovely ambiance. The place is relatively small, so be open to sitting at the bar if necessary. Not only does El Barón have great drinks, they take care of your appetite, too. From their Quiche Lorraine to steak tartare, you’ll be in good hands.
Their Mojito Providencia, with Appleton Estate V/X Rum, lemongrass, spearmint, lime juice, Agostura bitters and soda
Questions about traveling to Cartagena or Colombia in general? Leave us a comment below!