Cartagena is the major city of the Caribbean coast in Colombia. After Bogota and Medellin, it is one of the cities you will certainly visit during your stay in Colombia. Its geographical location has made it a landmark in the history of the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. The port of Cartagena was a highly strategic place on the route of the West Indies and maritime exploration.
But Cartagena is also interesting for its unique architecture in Latin America. Indeed, it has an imposing fortress classified as World Heritage by UNESCO, and ramparts around the city.
What to visit in Cartagena?
1. The historic city center of Cartagena
There is no need to visit museums, or other tourist attractions. The city center of Cartagena is a marvel. It’s not for nothing that all travelers stop there. The colors, the flowers, the seaside, the sweetness of life, the music, the colonial-style buildings, the welcoming inhabitants...
Everything is there. While visit Cartagena, you can spend days exploring the splendid center, discovering something new every time and without getting tired for a single second. However, be aware – you are not alone, Cartagena is visited by many many tourists !
2. La Plaza Santo Domingo
It’s the most famous place in Cartagena. It overlooks a very old church that you can visit, with its convent. There’s also, in the center of the square, a statue of Botero that everybody touches to make fortune and love. Finally, it’s a very good place to eat on the terrace of a restaurant, and enjoy the festive atmosphere that still reigns here.
3. Zenu Museum
This museum of gold is certainly less impressive than that of Bogota, but it’s still worth seeing. In addition, you will be delighted to learn that the entry is free. Here you will find gold jewelry, explanations of the Zenu people, as well as pre-Columbian artifacts found in the surroundings.
4. San Felipe Castle and the ramparts
The fortress was built in the mid-1500s, but many works continued for two centuries. It’s a spectacular building made by the Spaniards during the conquest of Latin America. Perched on a hill, the castle offers a breathtaking view of the city and the Caribbean Sea. At sunset, it’s absolutely amazing.
5. The Clock Tower
Iconic symbol of Cartagena, the Clock Tower is totally unavoidable. Its yellow arrow and its dials mark the historic entrance of the city through the surrounding wall. Formerly, around this monument there were slave markets. Today, there are only carriages for sightseeing tour and candy stands. The sweet beaks can discover all specialties based on panela and dulce de leche.
6. The Santa Catalina Cathedral of Alejandría
This huge religious building is located at the edge of the Bolivar Square, and dates from the late sixteenth century. It is one of the first cathedrals built in Latin America. The interior of wood, coral, and white stones is simply decorated, and the belfry is beautiful.
7. The Palace of the Inquisition
The building is pretty with its typical 17th century architecture. But what is inside, is rather scary ! Inside the palace of the Inquisition you will learn the story of this terrible movement that caused the loss of thousands of people. You will even be able to observe closely the torture devices used by the executioners to make their poor victims confess.
8. Getsemani District
This area is outside the old city, because, historically, it was there where the slaves lived. It is in the alleys around the Santisima Trinidad square that the independence and liberation movements have grown and then spread.
At the moment, travelers are coming here to get away from the constant stream of tourists arriving in the center, and to find a lighter and livelier atmosphere. The restaurants and bars are cheaper, and you can see street performances in this popular area.
9. Take a salsa class
Take advantage of your stop by the Caribbean Sea to practice salsa.
This dance, which has its origins in Cuba, is now essential in the whole Caribbean, especially in Colombia. Colombian salsa mixes different influences and has been enriched thanks to local rhythms such as cumbia or vallenato.
The Crazy Salsa dance school is located in the centre of Cartagena, a stone’s throw from the Clock Tower. You will meet your teacher Hanner who will teach you the 3 basic steps of salsa. After this hour of lessons, you will master this dance enough to be able to spend a pleasant evening in one of the many salsa bars in Cartagena.
Full day trips
As you are on the beautiful Caribbean coast of Colombia take the opportunity to do some excursions outside of Cartagena. You can start slowly by the beaches that border the city, but also try to go a little further to discover natural wonders.
1. Eco-responsible diving in Rosario Islands National Park
Why not sail a few miles by boat to reach a small paradise archipelago? The Rosario Natural Park is home to some thirty islands, each one more beautiful than the next.
Surrounded by one of the largest coral reefs in the world, and bathed in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, the archipelago is the ideal place for diving. You will see an impressive biodiversity of underwater fauna and flora, in a deliciously warm water.
2. Lodo el Totumo volcano
About an hour from Cartagena, you will discover a tiny volcano 15 m above sea level. You can even climb and discover the crater in which there is not molten lava, but… mud.
Indeed, by a curious circumstance that you should definitely ask the locals to tell you, the volcano El Totumo has become a place where visitors come to relax and enjoy a mud bath with a lot of virtues. Once completely covered, you will come out of the crater, and women from the community will wash the mud off. You will leave with a radiant complexion.
3. San Basilio de Palenque
If you prefer to return to the inland, and learn more about the history of Colombia, the unusual village of San Basilio de Palenque is for you. You will reach this masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity in about an hour and a half.
Here, former African slaves of the time of the conquistadors came to find refuge and dared to fight for their freedom. They got it in 1713, and since then the village has been inhabited by the descendants of these heroes.
They knew how to perpetuate their traditions and create a new culture by mixing African and Colombian elements. This village is very particular, and deserves a detour. Don’t hesitate to meet the inhabitants to explain in detail the history of their palenque.
Several trip ideas
A week-end in Cartagena
If you only spend two days in Cartagena, stay in the city and be fully immersed in the atmosphere. Don’t run around to visit as much as you can. Explore the city center up and down and eat on the shady squares. Just walk around the ramparts, greet the Clock Tower, and cool off at the Santa Catalina Cathedral in Alejandría.
Once you have visited the alleys of downtown and Getsemani, you can take a trip to the Caribbean Sea or inland, according to your preferences. This will also give you time to discover the small beaches around Cartagena, and visit the few museums in the city.
If you stay more than 5 days, we advise you to go to Santa Marta. This city is also very old and shares many similarities with Cartagena. However, there are fewer tourists, and you will be much quieter there.
Santa Marta is surrounded by splendid natural parks, including Tayrona, home to hundreds of bird species, monkeys and tiger cats. With these two cities, you will already have an excellent overview of the Colombian Caribbean coast.
Good places in Cartagena
Where to sleep in Cartagena?
- Sofitel Santa Clara Legend Cartagena (5-star): this luxury hotel has an incredible charm. It is nestled in a 17th century building, gracefully combining modernity and beauty of the colonial style. Located between the city center and the seaside, it offers spectacular views.
- San Pedro Hotel Spa (4-star): set in the historic district, this property offers beautiful decorated rooms in an old house that combines coral columns, wrought iron gates and wooden floors. The small luminous patios opening onto the pools and whirlpools blend in perfectly with the opulent ambience.
- Casa Pizarro Boutique Hotel (4 Star): Conveniently located near the Gold Museum and the Palace of the Inquisition, this boutique hotel offers an outdoor pool. Excellent breakfast and modern decoration, but warm.
- Apartamento Las Bovedas (4-star): there are few apartments for rent in the heart of Cartagena, but it combines a great location, and high-end services. You can dine in the fully equipped kitchen, or laze in the jacuzzi on the terrace overlooking the rooftops of the city.
- Posada La Fe Bed & Breakfast (3 stars): Located in the bohemian neighborhood of Getsemani, La Posada is 700 m from San Felipe Castle and 800 m from the Palace of the Inquisition. Enjoy the pool on your return from a busy day.
- Lago y mar apartamentos (3-star): this resort is a little out of the way, but if you are looking for a hotel with private pool, sea view and nice rooms for a very reasonable budget, this is the place to stay.
Where to eat in Cartagena?
- Interno: this atypical restaurant is run by women detained in Cartagena Prison. It participates in their reintegration and highlights their talent as outstanding cooks. The dishes are typically Colombian and really delicious.
- Mistura: this gourmet bistro in the heart of the old town combines fine cuisine and colonial-style décor for a warm and delicious meal.
- Palo Carbon: this is the best restaurant in the city for meat lovers. The carnivores will have the choice among many specialties, but everything is delicious.
- Cebiches & Seviches: it seems that this establishment serves the best ceviches of Cartagena. To find out, it will be necessary to go to taste them and to compare them with the others of the city.
- Vive: a small unpretentious and inexpensive restaurant offering hearty Caribbean fish and rice dishes in the Getsemani district.
How to get around Cartagena?
You have several options to get to Cartagena.
- You can take the bus from any city in Colombia, but it’s also easy to fly.
- Domestic flights are sometimes the same price as bus trips, so don’t hesitate to compare.
- Many cruise ships also pass through Cartagena, and you can even catch a ferry from Panama.
For travel within the city, the Metrocar will take you from the airport to the center. But taxis are also popular because they are faster. To visit the interesting areas of Cartagena, everything can be done on foot. If however you want to go from one neighborhood to another without walking too long, the taxi or private driver, is the simplest.
There is also a tourist bus that goes around the attractions of the city and drops you off at places you can’t miss. The ticket is valid for two days, and can be a good compromise if you have little time.