This Best Cartagena Travel Guide and Video includes Cartagena Top 10 Things to Do, Cartagena Condo Rental, Best Cartagena Restaurants, Best Cartagena NightLife, Cartagena Money Saving Tips, Cartagena Safety and Health Risks, and Cartagena Cost of Living.
The extravagance of this walled city is apparent with cobblestone streets, flowers brimming from second story balconies, horse drawn carriages, and musicians playing in the middle of the irony of the many plazas with fallen ‘heroes’ that owned and tortured hundreds of innocent slaves during their life. For an over the top Colonial Colombian experience, Cartagena Old Town Centro is the jewel in the crown. The sense of colonial history is rich with facts that spring to life in stories that occurred hundreds of years ago, where you are now standing now. Cartagena is the historical heart of the Caribbean. The Castle Walls were built by 80,000 humans captured in Africa. You will hear about men like Saint Peter Claver who lived in Cartagena (died in 1650) and convinced many slave owners to treat their slaves like humans and set them free. You will hear stories about how Sir Francis Drake held the city of Cartagena ransom for gold, which is why Spain eventually constructed the castle walls.
Cartagena: Top 10 Things to Do and See
Cartagena Old Town (Inside the Castle Walls): Stay in Centro or San Diego, both of which are inside the castle walls of the Old City of Cartagena. If you are a backpacker or on a budget, you can stay in Getsemani or Bocagrande. But I wouldn’t recommend staying anywhere else. Make sure to rent a bike the first day and ride around the city so you get a feeling for where you want to spend the most time. The truth is, you don’t really need to read any further. These three parts of Cartagena are so beautiful, that you will be able to entertain yourself there without any guides or advice. But as usual, I will share my favorite things with you.
Centro Area of the Old Cartagena: The above Centro Area of Old Cartagena is simply spectacular. Just walk around, take pictures and read the plaques on buildings to get the sense of history and people. There is a real sense of the colonial Americas here beginning in the 1500s, not long after Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas. (How do you discover a place with millions of people living there?) Centro is where wealthy Colombians have lived in Cartagena for over 400 years. Here are a few you must see while in Centro: Saint Peter Claver’s Church (details at #5 below), Sir Francis Drake’s Home, Plaza Santo Domingo, and Saint Catherine Alexandre Cathedral. Your support will help us share information how to travel the world and how to make money online. If you purchase anything we suggest below, we will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. If you enjoy learning about history when you travel, here is a Guided Walking Tour of Cartagena.
San Diego Area of Old Cartagena: This was originally the “middle class” area of the Old City of Cartagena, but now is also some of the most expensive real estate in South America. It is slightly more quiet that Centro, and is home to some of my favorite restaurants listed below. The San Diego area of Old Cartagena is best discovered with reference to the “Best Cartagena Restaurants” (see below).
Getsemani Area of Old Cartagena: Make sure to visit Iglesia de la Trinidad square for great people watching. Getsemani was originally the lower class neighborhood for the Old City of Cartagena, but it has become very chic. The graffiti and attitude reminds me of the East Village in NYC a decade ago. Some people online are paranoid about the Getsemani area of Cartagena. But I didn’t really perceive Getsemani as that much higher of a threat. Take a taxi at night if you feel worried at all.
Saint Peter Claver’s Church: 60 million humans were kidnapped from Africa and taken to the Americas before slavery was made unlawful in the 1850s. 80,000 of those slaves were used to build the walls of Cartagena. Saint Peter Claver was a jesuit priest who lived in Cartagena (died in 1650) during the height of slave trade. Peter baptized (300,000) slaves and convinced many slave owners to free their slaves.
Playa Blanca: Colombians and some tourists head to Playa Blanca on the weekends to get a break from city life. This is a gorgeous beach that is only a 40 minute boat ride from Cartagena. You can catch a boat ride with the locals for about $10.00 each way, but that is not recommended. We learned by experience that it is better and safer to hang out with a guide in Playa Blanca, especially if your Spanish language skills are not strong. Here is a tour that includes just Playa Blanca and here is another that also includes Rosario Island. Stay away from street peddlers offering tours at incredibly low prices. See safety tips below. There are many stories online about how street peddlers use ‘cheap’ tours as a tourist isolation technique. See Safety Tips Below.
Rent Bicycle: You can rent a bike for less than $2 per hour. It is a lovely thing to do when you first arrive to get an idea of which parts of the Old City you want to focus upon. We rented bikes in San Diego at Sico Bike Rentals. They have the best bikes.
Santa Marta: This is a smaller more relaxed and cheaper version of Cartagena. It is a small colonial era town on the beach about 4 hours from Cartagena. Google “Vagabond Buddha Santa Marta Colombia” to read our blog about this place and how to get there. We really loved Cartagena, but if you have more than a week, you should spend a week or more in Santa Marta. While in Santa Marta, visit Tayrona National Park.
Best Sunset in Cartagena: Verify the sunset time in Cartagena and then head over to Cafe Del Mar about 30 minutes before sunset to get a decent seat. They have house music playing there and a beautiful sunset view from the top of the Castle Walls. If you prefer acoustic music while you watch the sunset, from Cafe Del Mar, as you face the ocean, walk to your left about 500 meters along the top of the castle wall.
Evening Walks: After dinner, wander around inside the Castle Walls of the Old City of Cartagena (Centro and San Diego). Wandering may be the most relaxing part of your stay. Along with beautiful people from all over the world, you will witness all sorts of street entertainers who are working for donations. Dancers, jugglers, musicians, mimes, rappers, horse drawn carriages, puppeteers, and peddlers galore (souvenirs and tours). I saw a Michael Jackson impersonator that was as good as the original. The significance of your evening walks will be rick in history after your walking tour highlighting the historical significance of Cartagena (Guided Walking Tour of Cartagena).
Currency Exchange Rates Table:
Best Cartagena Accommodations:
We spent one week in Cartagena during an 8 week visit to Colombia. I waited to book until the last minute. Bad idea in high season. I was unable to get a place inside the Castle Walls. But, here are affiliate links to the three places I recommend, depending upon your needs and budget: => Low Price <=, => Medium Price <=, => Luxury Condo <=. Feel free to change the dates and prices for your needs and budget, but try to stay inside the Castle walls if at all possible. The experience of staying inside the walls and not dealing with transportation in and out of the Castle Walls each day is so much better!
Best Cartagena Restaurants
If you have caught a bit of the foodie bug, the San Diego Area of the walled city of Cartagena, seems to be an overachiever when it comes to the number of delicious alternatives as compared to its celebrity big brother, the Centro area. The good news is that everything is less than a 10 minute walk away inside the castle walls.
La Cevicheria: This restaurant was so delicious we had to return twice in 7 days. The food and prices really provide serious competition as compared with places in Centro that could cost twice as much. There are delicious vegetarian options also that melt in your mouth.
Torre Luna: For a white tablecloth romantic interlude while in Cartagena, this restaurant near Plaza de San Diego has an entirely vegetarian menu with many vegan choices as well. For vegetarians struggling to find rich traditional regional dishes to provide historical context to your taste buds, they have a vegetarian paella that brings the flavors of Cartagena to life.
Girasoles Restaurant: This place has made an art of turning meaty vegetarian dishes into vegetarian and vegan options. They also have vitamins and other health foods if you need a nutritional bump during your walks around the walled city of Cartagena.
923 Tapas and Vinos: We just wandered into this restaurant on our first night in Cartagena. We were on a hunt for a delicious meal and our nose led us in the right direction. We later learned this is a top 3 restaurant in the Centro area of the walled city. They have traditional regional foods of all shapes and sizes including vegetarian choices.
Juan del Mar Restaurante: This place is popular. If you can get a seat, you will love the quality of the food and the atmosphere. Plus it is located in a Plaza de San Diego which is one of my favorite plaza’s in the walled city. The plaza has a gorgeous water fountain in the center, surrounded by beautiful flowered bushes and trees, and artists selling their recent creations. This plaza has an amazing concentration of delicious restaurant choices and there is a Cuban Jazz club next door with live music every night at 8pm.
Best Cartagena Nightlife
The entire area inside the castle is one walkable party. So just follow your ears while walking. But here are a few of our favorites.
Cafe Del Mar: Start your evening watching the sunset from the top of the castle walls at Cafe Del Mar. Then walk over to Plaza de San Diego and have a relaxing 2 hour dinner at La Cevicheria or Juan del Mar Restaurante. By then, the live music should be popping at Cuban 1940.
Cuban 1940: This place has live Cuban jazz music at 8pm 7 nights a week. After catching an hour or two of Cuban sounds, wander the cobblestone streets and take pictures of this heaven on earth. Enjoy the crazy human characters that inhabit this planet. Then if the mood strikes, head over to:
Plaza Santo Domingo: Check to see if any of the sounds wafting from the second story balconies tickle your ears or make your feet happy. If so, go in and dance the night away.
High Energy Dance Parties: Slim Shady must not have had a passport when he said, “Nobody listens to Techno anymore.” For a high energy dance party check out Eivissa, BARBAR, or Fragma. The popularity of these sorts of places changes with the wind, so make sure to read some Google reviews from ‘this week’ before paying any cover charges.
Cartagena Livability Factors
Walkability: Cartagena Old Town is a perfectly walkable city in the general sense. It is only when you exit Centro, San Diego, or Getsemani that you may need a taxi. You can try to use Uber. We were able to get an Uber about half of the time we were there. At night I wouldn’t walk anywhere outside this area unless you are in a well lighted area with many people around you. In general stay out of situations where you are isolated.
Internet: We stayed in a condo and the Internet was great. But I hear not all home systems are so reliable. For digital nomads, and people working online, check out one of the coworking spaces if you need guaranteed high speeds.
Exercise: We just ran around the neighborhood for exercise. But there are gyms in Cartagena. I also use resistance bands to stay toned, because they weigh almost nothing and fit easily into my luggage. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are my runs (and resistance band) days and Tuesday and Thursday are my Yoga days. I do yoga with Adriene or Fightmaster on Youtube.
Tourist Safety Tips: 1. Don’t Be an Obvious Target: No jewelry, no expensive watches, no conspicuous designer brands, and no $1200 smart phones should be visible during the day or night. Bring an older smartphone for navigation and internet access. 2. Don’t Get Isolated: There should always be normal human activity amongst the local people around you. Be aware of the people around you, are they going about their life nayurally or focusing on you? At night, I felt completely safe inside the castle walls. It felt a little sketchy just a few blocks outside the castle walls. It never hurts to visit the US State Department’s Travel Warnings, and check any country you are visiting.
Food Costs (Grocery): You can save money in Cartagena by cooking at home, no doubt. Food costs from the grocery store are about 25% cheaper than the USA. The budget grocery stores are even cheaper. Here are several grocery stores inside the castle walls. Exito is medium pricing and Carulla is high-end (foreign) groceries.
Weather: The weather in Cartagena is warm to hot (80F to 84F/26C to 28C), year round. It is at sea level at the equator, so the weather is fairly hot and constant year round. Always wear sunblock of 30+ even when it is overcast. Where sunblock and a hat even when you intend to only walk on the shady side of the street.
Health Risks: Yellow Fever shots are required to visit many parts of Colombia, and Zika is still listed as a risk in Colombia. See CDC web page. As a side note, you can get your Yellow Fever shot when you land at the Bogota airport. Just have the information desk point you to the Vaccinations clinic on the second floor of the airport. But if you need any of the other shots recommended by the CDC, or your layover in Bogota is not long enough, get shots before coming to Colombia.
Cartagena Money Saving Tricks
SIM Card: Unlock your smartphone before you leave home. Load Skype on your phone and answer calls to your home country phone on Skype when people call. Put your home country cell phone number on forward to your Skype telephone number before you board your flight. Pull your home country SIM card out of your phone before you board your flight. Get a local SIM card for about $25 for 4G speeds for a month (which includes Internet data) at the Airport, when you land. Internet data on your new SIM card is all you need to answer Skype, Whatsapp, or Google Phone calls on your smartphone while you are away from your home country. One friend of mine didn’t follow this advice and spend $300 on one phone call because he roamed on his home country SIM card when he was on foreign soil.
Taxi and Airport Transfers: In a word, Uber. Load Uber onto your smartphone before you arrive. I read that you should only get in a taxi that you have called first by telephone. Don’t ask a random taxi to stop. There is no record of you being with them, because you didn’t call and register, there is a very small chance you’ll get mugged or killed, but why take the chance? Pick a well known landmark and select that for your Uber pick-up and drop off locations. The drivers don’t seem to use addresses in this part of the world. We stayed next to a well known restaurant so we gave that as a pick up and drop off location and they found it every time.
Public Transportation: If you follow our suggestions you won’t end up riding any public transportation. But see out Santa Marta Colombia blog post for a great shuttle recommendation (with Wifi).
Onward Flights: We tried to board our flight from Mexico to Colombia using a one way ticket. Interjet wouldn’t let us board the flight because we had no onward flight or bus leaving Colombia. Onward Flight Tip: Book on Orbitz and they will let you cancel the ticket if you do it within 24 hours. Book right before jumping on your flight and cancel when you land.
Closing Thoughts on Cartagena
I had heard from digital nomad friends that Colombia was a beautiful spot to visit. I agree 100%. Colombia is the 63rd country I have visited since leaving the United States in 2007 and Colombia has been well worth the visit. Next, we head to Santa Marta Colombia, which is on the edge of the Tayrona National Park.
The world is your home. What time will you be home for dinner?
Below is the estimated cost of living one month in Cartagena as a temporary visitor. Have an amazing day!
Cartagena Cost of Living
|Cost of Living, Cartagena, Colombia ($USD)|
|Airbnb (1 Bedroom Apt)||$59.00||0||14||30|
|High End Restaurant||$20.00||1||4||8|
For information about how the above “Cost of Living Monthly Multiplier” works, please visit the bottom of this page at Vagabond Buddha. It does not include alcohol, excursions, or extras, and it is for one person.
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