Cartagena is definitely worth a visit if you are coming to Colombia. Tourists seem to stay near the old town and beaches, but there is also a bustling city right outside the colonial stone walls around old town. I can’t say much about the city though since we didn’t have the energy to explore it in the unbearable humidity and heat that was Cartagena.
The atmosphere in the old town is very relaxed; the people are friendly; and there are flowered balconies around every corner. The colonial stone wall around the old town has been well preserved, and you can climb up to watch the sunset over the water. There is an open-air bar, Café del Mar, on one of the walls that has an excellent view of the sunset as well as the skyscrapers in the city across the water. If you don’t want to spend any money though, you can also see the sunset just as well from any part of the wall near Café del Mar. I will say that the bar was so crowded when we got there that they didn’t notice when we didn’t buy anything. Unfortunately, there isn’t also a free bathroom that you can sneak into as the closest one to the bar is downstairs, and you need to pay to use it.
I mentioned the heat, but let me go into a little more detail. Don’t let this deter you, but just be prepared that it is HOT, and it is HUMID. I was dripping sweat (serious humidititties) the entire 3 days that we were there. We stayed at an Airbnb that did not have air conditioning, so it was hard to sleep at night with just a fan. It was worth it to stay there because our hosts were great, and they had the cutest cat that liked to play with my feet or jump on the bathroom sink in the morning to say hi. I would suggest finding a place to stay with air conditioning though so that you get some relief from the heat. Colin even developed some sort of heat rash the last day we were there, so good thing we didn’t stay longer!
On our first day in Cartagena, we went on a free walking tour. There are 2 companies that do free walking tours of Cartagena: Free Walking Tour Cartagena and Free Tour Cartagena (I know… not confusing at all). I believe each is about 2 hours long, and they both do separate tours for Spanish and English. Free Tour Cartagena offers their English tour at 10:00 AM, and Free Walking Tour Cartagena does their English tour at 4:30 PM. You have to (or at least should) book online in advance for either one. We went with Free Tour Cartagena because the reviews online of each company seemed about equal, and I prefer to do tours in the mornings.
I’d say that it wasn’t too bad, but it’s definitely not the best I’ve been on. My favorite types of tours are those that 1) show me parts of the city that I wouldn’t normally see myself or find in a Lonely Planet guidebook (no offense), and 2) teach me some history. I’d say that I learned some about Colombia on this tour, but a lot of the places we went to I could have gone myself and read the description online. The guide was very knowledgeable not only about his own country of Colombia, but also everyone else’s home countries. He had us go around and introduce ourselves in the beginning, and he named the capital of the country (or even the capital of the state if you were from the USA). He got them all correct. While this was super impressive, it was a bit of a waste of everyone’s time. Additionally, towards the end of the tour, he asked us what we thought of when we thought about Colombia. I thought this was a great question because I didn’t know what Colombia is known for before we talked about this. However, before we got to Colombia, the guide named something that each person’s home country was famous for. Again, while I was super impressed with his knowledge about the world (way beyond mine), I really would have liked to spend the time on learning about Colombia and Cartagena.
Later in the day, we randomly met a local guy, Henry Castrillon, who is also a tour guide in Cartagena. He charges for his tours (I believe he said somewhere around $20), but I enjoyed talking with him and learned a lot from him in the short time we spoke. I’m a huge fan of free walking tours, but this may be one of the few times where I’d suggest paying for a tour of a city. If you’d like to contact Henry directly to set up a tour with him, his phone number is (57) 311-654-8655 and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the rest of the day, we just wandered around aimlessly looking at the cute shops and peering over the walls at the ocean. If you can stand the heat, then it’s a nice place just to take a stroll around.
On our second day in Cartagena, we went to Playa Blanca and the Rosario Islands. The tour we took was awful. See my separate post about it here.
On our third day, we intended to go up to a convent (Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa) on top of a hill overlooking the city as well as explore the local market (Mercado de Bazurto), but it was so hot that instead we found a coffee shop with A/C and did some planning for the rest of South America.
A couple of the nights we were there, we found a “party” hostel to go to (Hostel Mamallena). We like doing this sometimes if we are staying at an Airbnb or a quieter hostel because then you get to meet more people. It’s nice to do it this way sometimes so that you can go back to your own place with your own space, but you still get to party at the fun hostel. Hostel Mamallena has a small bar, and there are also some picnic tables in a courtyard that everyone hangs out at. We would buy a few beers and introduce ourselves to people sitting in the courtyard, and then we’d tag along to wherever they were planning to go out that night. Hostel Mamallena is very close to the area where most people go out at night. It worked well, and we made some new friends!
I would also suggest having breakfast / brunch at Café de la Mañana (find it on Trip Advisor here). Our Airbnb hosts own it, so we went to check it out. At first, I was a little wary to pay the prices (around 20,000 – 30,000 Colombian pesos which is $7 - $10 US… it doesn’t seem that expensive, but compared to the local food, it’s a little pricey). However, after I tried the food, I could not stop talking about how delicious it all was. You get a ton of food for the price. Colin and I split a vegetarian breakfast and the brunch special, so our total bill was less than 60,000 Colombian pesos. With that, we got: 2 fruit salads, 2 plates of breakfast, 2 coffees with milk, 2 juices, a slice of quiche, and a cheese plate. The fruit salads were so fresh and juicy, and so were the juices. I recommend trying the soursop and the lulo juices as they are local favorites and delicious. Everything was perfect, so it was well worth the price.
See our Colombia photos here.
Hi, I'm Sara Monica Patton. I love animals, traveling, and eating. Read more about me in my first blog post here.