Cartagena is a romantic, fairly-tale like city along the Carribean coast which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its colonial walled city and fortress. It has the feel of a more up-market type of city and there are tourists everywhere but for good reason, it is a magical place. There is a mix of different cultures here due to its history of being a key port-town and slavery exchanges, which gives it an uniqueness we have not seen elsewhere.
Views of Cartagena after the sun has gone down
We stayed in Cartagena for 5 nights in Don Miguel hostel which is located in the old town. It was a really good location, a short walk to all the main sights and an Exito right beside it. Many backpackers stay in Getsemaní area which was once a no-go area due to crime but has now become more trendy with lots of graffiti, good nightlife and cafes.
Parroquia San Pedro Claver
What did we do in Cartagena?
Looking back we actually fit quiet a bit in while we were in Cartagena and even managed to enjoy a few sleep in’s / lazy mornings. We decided we had enough of beaches for a while so we focused on what we could see that was in walking distance.
In summary our top things to do in Cartagena are to walk around the Old City and along the historic city walls, and visit Simon Bolivar Plaza, Getsemaní Area and Parque del Centenario. Read on below for more information.
These sculptures are everywhere!
Free Walking Tour
On our first day we did the free walking tour, which was a great way to learn about Cartagena’s past, visit the main points of interest and get our bearings. We learnt that after a number of pirate attacks, a series of forts were build around the city for protection against further sieges. The original walls remain today and are a must visit. Uncharted fans will be even more engaged at the mention of Francis Drake, a pirate / explorer who ransacked the city looking for treasure in the 1500’s.
The outside of the city walls
Simon Bolivar Plaza
For some entertainment, go to Simon Bolivar Plaza during the evening to marvel at the dancers and singers who put on a show every day. I honestly don’t know how they can move their bodies so much and continuously song after song! They will look for tips afterwards but I think they deserve something. Watch out for the camera / space hoggers, we are in cruise ship territory after all!
Entertainment at Plaza Bolivar
Walk the Historic City Walls
We always seem to walk out in the open at mid-day but on a positive note its quieter! We walked the entire walled city and even enjoyed some ice cream as we strolled along. Make sure to visit Las Bóvedas which used to be dungeons but now sell colourful souvenirs. There are lots of places to take a break, maybe not so much in the shade but walking the historic walls its definitely a must do.
The views along the city walls are beautiful
Walk along the Waterfront
To catch a different glimpse of the city, we headed out to the water where you can see the skyscrapers of Bocagrande and also appreciate the size of the city walls. Its a good place to take in the city’s different landscapes.
Good views of Bocagrande
Visit Parque del Centenario
Alan mentioned there was some park in Cartagena with sloths and monkeys so I imagined a lush green park on the outskirts of the city, and didn’t think we would get a chance to visit it. We walked through a sparse covered park on our way to Getsemaní, and I was very surprised when we spotted some tamarin monkeys, and after walking around for a bit more, we saw at least 4 sloths and some iguanas. I don’t think there is enough coverage for the sloths in that park but if you want to see sloths, you can tick that off your list when visiting Cartagena. It was very surreal.
One of the entrances to Parque del Centenario
Yes, actual sloths!
And tamarin monkeys!
Sunset Time on the Wall
Like many tourist you can go to Cafe del Mar for a drink and watch the sunset, or just buy a can from one of the many street vendors, pick your favourite spot on the wall and watch the sunset. We did the latter and only spent 6,000 COP. Look out for a bride and groom getting their wedding pictures taken too!
The sunsets are pretty special!
San Felipe Castillo
Ok so we didn’t actually go into the castle because we ended up going on the last Sunday of the month when it is free for locals so it was really busy, and we didn’t feel like it was something we really needed to do. We just admired it from ground level and walked back into town.
San Felipe Castillo
This is a small enough area but it has some cool graffiti. We walked down the different streets leading to and from Plaza de La Trinidad and found lots of art work. We chilled out in the plaza in-front of the church while we waited for our pitaya smoothie to be made and watched a girl make her boyfriend take pictures of her for 15 minutes. I’m not messing she was standing there in different poses for 15 minutes!! Whatever makes you happy, I suppose.
This picture did not take 15 minutes
Some of the artwork around Getsemani
Walk around the Old City
Its hard to resist taking pictures all the time in this city. There is some kind of activity or vivid architecture at every corner. Look out for the ladies selling fruit dressed in beautiful bright clothing (they will expect a tip for a close up picture), sample some of the typical sweets on offer in Portal de Los Dulces located across from the Clock Tower and enjoy the ambiance of this wonderful city. Make sure you find the famous Botero statue in Plaza Santo Domingo. I honestly thought you had to rub it for good-luck, thanks Alan!
The famous women from Palenque
Statues by the famous clock tower
The Botero statue
Everywhere is so picturesque
Museum of the Inquisition
We went to the Museum of the Inquisition on the last Sunday of the month so it was free to enter. There wasn’t much English translated descriptions so we didn’t think it was great but at least it was free. They have some of the instruments used for execution on show but I was expecting a lot more. Overall I wouldn’t be too bothered if you can’t fit it into your schedule.
A sword transcribed with ‘Ciudad de Cartagena de Indias’ – Cartagena’s full title
We struggled to find dinner for less than 18,000 COP. Restaurants 1533 and Lenos, Carnes and Cava offer a set menu for about 16,000 COP. For lunch we found a very small pizzeria near the main Exito shop, slice of pizza and drink for 5,000 COP.
You should try the sweets near the clock tower though!
Other things to do in Cartagena
There are lots more things to do in Cartagena depending on your budget and time for example Rosario Islands, Punta Arena, El Totumo (mud volcano), Gold museum and lots more.
Cartagena to Santa Marta
We booked onto Marsol which took 4 hours to Santa Marta (including two 15 minute stops). It was 42,000 COP pp or 50,000 COP for collection (not sure if drop off at your hostel in Santa Marta is included). We were dropped off the Marsol office in Santa Marta. We got an Uber to the Marsol office in Cartagena and it was very cheap, worked out cheaper than collection service.