Should I visit Cartagena de Indias Colombia
Cartagena - the "pearl" of the Caribbean in Colombia
Travel tips & sights for the most beautiful city in South America
The city of Cartagena de Indias is the capital of the Bolívar department and is often referred to as the “Pearl or Queen of the Caribbean”. Friends told me before my visit that Cartagena is by far the most touristic city in Colombia.
But with its historic walled old town one of the most beautiful colonial cities in South America. Also of great historical importance. So I planned to stay in Cartagena during my 4 week trip through Colombia.
Cartagena is definitely one of the highlights of Colombia!
When you talk about Cartagena you don't mean the newer center with its ugly skyscrapers. No, one speaks of "Centro Historico", the old town located behind a 13 km historical city wall ("Las Murallas").
Info: The walls were built in the 16th century after an attack by the famous pirate Sir Francis Drake. The city was completely unprotected from that. The construction then took 200 years, however, as the city was repeatedly the target of pirate attacks.
Cartagena's old town is a Unesco World Heritage Site and consists of a maze of cobblestone streets.
The neighborhoods "El Centro" and "San Diego" are located here. You will find everything your heart desires: immaculately restored colorful palaces, mansions with balconies and wonderful inner courtyards, imposing churches and monasteries, as well as many good restaurants, cafes and accommodation. Everything adorned and overloaded with colorful flowers.
Everyone who gets told that the old town has been completely renovated, I have to disagree a little bit. Not all houses are renovated. In a few corners Cartagena reminds me of the crumbling houses in Havana (Cuba).
In front of it is the “outer city”. The locals live here, the streets are clogged and there are often no houses that can save you from the mercilessly blazing sun and provide shade. If you go further you end up in Bocagrande. There are skyscrapers here like in Miami Beach or Panama City - and offer a stark contrast to the old town. We just left out this corner - the old town is much more exciting.
Off into the heat of the Caribbean!
After our bad weather period from Bogotá to Medellín, it was finally time for the Caribbean and the heat! This is exactly what I was hoping for in Cartagena and was not disappointed. I stayed in Cartagena for two full days. We booked ourselves for this in the old town in the hotelCasa de la Tabladawhich was really in a great location.
Cartagena felt like the most touristic destination of my Colombia trip. It was therefore not surprising that the hotel prices were correspondingly high. Since we had only booked our accommodation a few days in advance, special offers in the old town were sold out and no longer available.
Hence my tip: Look around in good time for cheap accommodation in the old town! It's cheaper to live in the hipster districtGethsemane. The houses are no less impressive, but less restored and spruced up. A bit more original, but if gentrification is in full swing here too. Backpackers have long since discovered this district for themselves. Clubs, discos and hip restaurants and cafes are springing up from the ground. To be honest, I liked the old town better as a starting point.
The inexpensive one is popular Hotel Plaza de la Trinidad in the Gethsemane district. We didn't test it because we wanted to live in the old town. But look at the reviews, can't be that bad.
Cartagena's highlights and sights?
In Cartagena you will find numerous historical buildings and colorful houses, all of which have been restored. I feel like I am in Havana's old town - only in "new".
There are really many highlights. But I have a tip for Cartagena:
Don't make a plan, just let yourself drift through the old town!
The highlight of Cartagena is without question the old town - the Centro Historico.
Don't come up with a plan. Cartagena is the best place to throw all plans overboard and stroll through the old town. During the day and especially after dark.
Then the crowds cavort on the plazas to marvel at dance groups and musicians, to eat street food at the numerous stands along the alleys or to dine in one of the many restaurants that put their tables on the streets closed to traffic.
The flair is indescribable and we enjoy with every step and every minute. I'm banned and even forget to unpack my camera.
I explored the alleys of the old town for two full days. I walked down an alley and only decided at the next intersection which direction to take next. Even when we walked through the same alley for the third time, we kept discovering new details, houses and views.
You will automatically pass all important buildings at some point. Most of the signs in front of historic buildings are even in English, which makes it easier for you to understand which building you are standing in front of. You will definitely pass the Plaza Santo Domingo, the most famous plaza in Cartagena. The church of the same name with a monastery is really worth seeing.
Colorful houses, colorful restaurants, colorful cafes and a happy Caribbean atmosphere
Cartagena is colorful and happy! The houses in the old town are mostly only two-story and have antique wooden balconies. This often conceals restaurants, cafés with a view or small boutique hotels. Sometimes also a patio - an inner courtyard in which a restaurant is located. Go inside and enjoy the cooling shade in the hot city!
The hotels also all have small courtyards. Sometimes with a pool, sometimes with sitting areas where you can also escape the sun and enjoy the Caribbean flair.
Tips for a restaurant with a courtyard: Patio Casa Leon.
We walked past the Patio Casa Leon twice. The third time we (or I) decided that I had to eat ceviche here. Like everywhere in Cartagena. Ceviche is just so delicious! The courtyard is beautifully quiet and a light breeze helps you escape from the hustle and bustle of the streets of Cartagena and take a break.
Street food with a difference in the evening
In Cartagena there are alleys everywhere in the evening that are closed to traffic (and horse-drawn carriages). Then restaurants clear their tables and chairs on the streets. The flair is indescribably beautiful.
I also encourage you to test the street stalls with vendors who sell arepas and skewers straight from the grill. Nowhere can you eat arepas, bunuelos, empanadas and dedos de queso cheaper. The arepas were really delicious!
Only the dealers and musicians who are constantly at the table while eating, want to sell you something or serenade you or rap (then of course want money) are annoying. Especially when you're eating and talking. Unfortunately, the people here have no respect and also like to reach over the table from time to time. A quick shake of the head and "No, gracias" often helps. Not always ;-)
Plaza de los Coches - El Portal de los Dulces
Directly behind the Puerta del Reloj - the gate to the old town - in the archway El Portal de los Dulces there is a Mecca for sweets fans: This is where local traders sell their regional sweets! The selection is huge, making a decision is really difficult!
The slave market used to be located here.
Plaza de Bolívar
As everywhere in Colombia, there is also a Plaza de Bolívar here. The city's prettiest colonial houses are located here. In the middle of the square there is of course a statue of Simón Bolívar. Trees offer you shade to protect you from the heat.
Plaza de la Aduana
The Plaza de la Aduana is the largest and oldest square in the old town. In the middle is a statue of Christopher Columbus. Women sell fresh fruit in the archways. In the past, the most important administrative buildings were located around the square. Today you can only find the town hall and a tourist information office here (the employees are not really motivated to give a useful answer. If so, then only in mumbled, incomprehensible Spanish, ...).
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
This fortress is the largest ever built by the Spaniards (in their colonies). It dominates outside the old town and cannot actually be overlooked when you leave the city walls towards Puertra del Reloj and Getsemani. You can reach the fortress on foot from the old town. Don't forget your sunscreen and water, because there are hardly any buildings or palm trees offering shade on the way. The sun is merciless.
Tip: Between February and November, admission is free on the last Sunday of the month.
Less noteworthy: Fuerte de San Sebastián del Pastelillo
We ended up here by accident. The fortress at the end of the island of Manga is very small and only offers the Club de Pesca its space. The refreshing Limonada de Coco was one of the most expensive of the trip. I wouldn't go here anymore. It's just not worth it.
Street Art in Gethsemane
You can take part in a street art tour in Getsemani. All you have to do is register on the Internet. What you think is paid for. We had registered but did not receive a confirmation. Since the tour should have taken place in the afternoon in the greatest heat, we strolled through Gethsemane on our own - 2-3 hours earlier.
My tips for good food in Cartagena
When you are in Cartagena you have to try two things in particular: Ceviche and Limonada de Coco! I don't know how often I ate ceviche and drank a lemonada de coco with it. I guess at least twice a day.
Everything is more expensive in Cartagena than in other places in Colombia. Nevertheless we ate delicious in the following restaurants:
La Mulata (Best Limonada de Coco. Great food and always full. Make a reservation or come early), La Cevicheria (Ceviche, Ceviche and again Ceviche, with Arroz de Coco and of course a Limonada de Coco), Patio Casa Leon (great inner courtyard in the shade, good ceviche and fish dishes). In addition, at all the stands that have sold Arepas con Queso. The arepas in the are okay and relatively cheap Quero arepa (Of course I also drank a Limonada de Coco here).
A great View of the Plaza de San Diego you have from the restaurant / café / bar El Balcon. We happened to get stuck here when we wanted to stop for coffee.
Book rats can be found in the bookstore Abaco Libros y Cafe a cozy place to browse through books while having a coffee.
Comfortable on the street we have in RPG sat. Unfortunately the food was mediocre.
Day tourists from cruise ships
Many cruise ships also dock in Cartagena. As soon as one is in the harbor, the flair is completely different. Suddenly disguised slaves are walking around in chains or women in typical Caribbean costumes who can be photographed with you for a fee. From late afternoon onwards, these large groups disappear and the old town becomes more cozy - if not empty.
Do’s and don't
If you want to send any postcards from Colombia, Cartagena is the best place to buy postcards. I didn't find any maps in Bogotá, Medellín or Palomino.
Stay in the old town!
Outside the old town, an overnight stay may be cheaper. But going back and forth in the sweltering heat will quickly get on your nerves.
Pay attention to details!
Pay attention to details on the houses. For example the door knockers. These are very beautiful and just special on almost all buildings.
Don't take the Chiva bus
I often read that you should definitely take the Chiva bus around. Why? Do you really want to get drunk while sitting on the bus with other tourists while you could explore the much more interesting old town? You don't have the real experiences in the Chiva Bus.
Don't give them papayas!
In Colombia we were told the following sentence over and over again "Don't give them papayas. If papaya is offered, someone has to take it. " Which means something like: Put away your valuables and do not show what you have. Don't leave your wallet open on the table, nor your smartphone or camera.
To be honest, nowhere in Colombia have I felt as safe as in Cartagena. I always carried my camera around openly. Nevertheless, you will always come across locals who will give you this sentence as advice on your way.
Keep your eyes open and look up!
Keep your eyes open and keep looking up. Not on your smartphone or through the camera. You can find the real beauties when you take a closer look and often when you look up!
Some will recommend that you go to the beach outside of town called Playa Blanca. Take a look at the TripAdvisor reviews (which luckily we did and heard from a colleague on the advice not to drive) and then consider whether there are perhaps even nicer beaches on the Caribbean coast (there are).
Bike tour through the old town? No thanks!
Other travelers have often told me about a bike tour through the old town. And that I shouldn't do this. Since my stay I've known why: The old town is teeming with people, horse-drawn carriages and hectic taxis. I don't want to ride my bike on the uneven cobblestone streets either. Plus, it's way too hot for that. You get a lot more of the city when you walk around it.
Tour to El Totumo mud volcano
Tours to the active mud volcano El Totumo near Santa Catalina are a popular destination. The mud bath is said to be healing. We didn't have time and preferred to explore Cartagena extensively.
Do you want to book tours? Popular in Cartagena:
Arrival to Cartagena
You can get to Cartagena by plane, bus, car or ship. The fastest and most popular option is by plane. We flew from Medellín to Cartagena.
This saved us a lot of hours (night) bus travel. If you book in time, you can get flights with Viva Colombia for as little as € 24. Since this airline is very often delayed, we booked the somewhat expensive and punctual variant of the Star Alliance airline Avianca (with us a flight with Viva Colombia would have cost € 70 and the one with Aviance would ultimately have cost € 80).
The airport is only 20 minutes outside the old town. The quickest way to get to the hotel is by taxi. We chose UBER. But UBER is not allowed at the airport, there are additional fees and the driver pretends to be "friends" so as not to run into problems. In addition, he did not know our new hotel, which brought us additional costs. After that we only used the official taxis or we walked anyway.
Getting further by bus
Many tourists travel around by bus. It's really easy in Colombia. The bus station is outside Cartagena's old town. It is best to ask at your accommodation about the next bus to the next destination. We continued from Cartagena to Santa Marta (40,000 COP). The bus goes via Baranquilla (2 hours) and then directly to Santa Marta (3 hours).
Trips to Tayrona National Park or Palomino are also possible. But we had these stops after our stay in Santa Marta.
→ Read the complete travel report of my Colombia trip.
Note: If you have more than 4 weeks to spend in Colombia, consider whether you can also do that Islas del Rosario want to visit. We were strongly recommended to stay longer, but unfortunately we didn't have time to stay longer. Many take a day trip to Isla Grande, but we were told that the other islands are much more worth seeing.
Best time to visit Cartagena
Cartagena is a destination that you can visit all year round. The temperatures are Caribbean hot and humid. Sometimes a pleasant breeze blows through the alleys of the old town.
The optimal travel time for Cartagena is around December, January, February, March and April. I was in Cartagena in January and really enjoyed landing in hot Cartagena after a long “winter” and a period of bad weather in southern Colombia.
The Christmas decorations that you can still find in Cartagena in December and January are particularly beautiful. The alleys are then decorated with fairy lights and an oversized Christmas tree stands between the old town and the Malecon (beach promenade).
In August, September and October it can often rain briefly but heavily.
More articles from my Colombia trip:
I hope you like my review about Cartagena? Do you have any further tips or questions? Leave me a comment!
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