- Located on the northern coast of Colombia, with a population of about 900,000.
- The most visited city in Colombia, it hosts the world-famous Carnival festival every February.
- Strongly associated with pirates (more than any other city), it is an important regional port.
- Nicknames: Capital of the Caribbean, The Door of the Americas, The Walled City, The Mother City, Colombia’s Crown Jewel
- Currency: Colombian Peso (COP)
- Spoken languages: Spanish
- Best time to visit: from December to March, and in July and August when it’s dry and breezy. Keep in mind that these are also peak tourist times and all arrangements (flights, hotels, etc.) should be made well in advance. There are always tourists in Cartagena!
- Arriving via airport: Rafael Nuñez International Airport is centrally located in the Crespo neighborhood in northern Cartagena. To get to the Old Town or Centro, pick up a taxi voucher from the official stand in the baggage area before getting into a cab. lt will have the price printed on it depending on the address you give to the booth teller, but will roughly cost you around 10.000 COP or less. Local buses or colectivos can take you there too for about 3.000 COP.
WHERE TO STAY
The Ciudad Amurallada, or the Walled City, is where you’ll be spending most of your time. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is what makes Cartagena one of the most beautiful cities in the world, brimming with colonial character and old world charm. This is where you’ll find all the best hostels, most of which are housed in leafy haciendas, or colonial estates. Popular, upscale hotels can be found here too, as well as in the Bocagrande district, which has the second highest concentration of accommodation options in the city (after the Walled City).
- The Old Town is best explored on foot, and is generally flat and expansive.
- Buses will take you everywhere else: the beach, specific restaurants, the bus terminal, etc.
- Taxis in Cartagena don’t have meters, so negotiate a price before getting in. Otherwise, they’re generally a safe and reliable way of getting around outside the Walled City.
- Drinking age is 18, last call is generally around 3 AM (varies).
- Cartagena is famous for its vibrant nightlife. The Walled City has something for everyone: cheap bars, waterfront clubs and romantic establishments housed in ancient dwellings. Most of the action takes place Wednesdays through Saturdays, starting at midnight.
- Calle Del Arsenal (in the Gethsemaní neighborhood) is where some of the best nightlife is centered.
UNIQUE LANDMARKS TO VISIT
- The Walled City is a must. Despite being an architecturally interesting attraction, it really inhabits a city of its own while maintaining authentic Colombian flare. It may be touristy, but locals resume normal lives there, selling fruits all over the street and blaring salsa music in the morning.
- You’ll definitely want to hit the beach in Cartagena, as its stretch of the Caribbean Sea is exceptionally arresting (the actual city beaches in town are not much to rave about). Like most city beaches, they tend to be overcrowded and dirty, and for this reason, you can visit one of several pristine islands just a skip away from the city. Popular getaways include La Playa Blanca and Islas del Rosario.
- The Iglesia de San Pedro Claver has to be Cartagena’s most visually stunning church – and that’s saying something. It’s ancient, yellowed facade dominates its very own square.
- With the Caribbean to your right, walk west along the city’s 400 year-old wall that stretches on for over two miles.
- Take a walk around Las Bóvedas, the site of a military dungeon complex used in the 1700’s. Today, the area is an outdoor market, where colorful, handmade crafts can be found.
- The walk along Calle de la Inquisición is packed with historic churches, museums and haciendas saturated in deep hues lining little cobblestone streets. Don’t feel pressured to see any sights in particular – Cartagena is a city suited for wandering.
- Cartagena has to be one of the sexiest cities in the world. The area where the old town faces the Caribbean Sea is a spot made for romance. In fact, proposals and weddings happen so often here that you’re likely to walk right into one!
- Cartagena hosts the craziest Carnaval in the world every late February. The capital of Carnaval in Colombia is the city of Baranquilla and takes place in November, but much of the action spills over to Cartagena during this time.
- Where to find good cheap eats: street vendors sell anything and everything from shots of coffee from heated thermoses, to tripe soup out of big barrels wheeled on tricycles, and slices of mango with spicy sauce. All of these are cheap, delicious and sold no matter what street or district you’re in. The Historic Center is like a food market in the daytime, and the fruit juice stands on Muelle de los Pegasos whip up exotic drinks all day – perfect for rehydrating.
- Dangerous areas: exercise caution outside the center’s walls at night, especially when walking alone. It’s easy to link up with other solo travellers at hostels or hotels, and most locals venture out in groups, too. Though the Walled City is generally safe, you will most likely be approached by unlicensed guides, drug dealers, prostitutes and money exchange con-men if you’re alone in quiet pockets of town.
RECOMMENDED CARTAGENA GUIDE BOOKS
- Moon Spotlight Cartagena & Colombia’s Caribbean Coast
- Chrome Traveler – Guide to Cartagena
- VIVA Colombia! Adventure Guide
Recommended trip duration: 3-4 days