How many days will it take you to visit Cartagena? The answer varies according to the type of traveler.
What do you like to do? What’s your budget? What’s your next destination?
The old town is beautiful and ideal for a romantic getaway or a bachelorette party. Rent a boat to explore the Rosario Islands and then dine by candlelight in the courtyard of one of Cartagena’s delicious restaurants.
There, you may also feel oppressed by the heat, the street vendors, and a large number of tourists. If that’s the case, plan to stay only 24 hours (or 0?), so you don’t accumulate too many grudges towards the sweaty travelers with sweaty foreheads who get in all your pictures.
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Visiting Cartagena: Quick tips
The coolest activities:
- Sleep 2 nights on Isla Marina. Carolina island or Islabela.
- Discover the Rosario Islands aboard a catamaran.
- Visit the market of Bazurto with a local
- Crab fishing in the mangroves of La Boquilla.
- Delicious Cartagena cooking classes with a chef
Our favorite accommodation:
- Hostel: Makako (Old center)
- Hotel: Casa Gloria ( Old center)
- Hotel boutique: Las Carretas (Old center)
- Luxury hotel: Casa San Agustin (Old center)
Why come to Cartagena:
- You like good restaurants, shopping, and sleeping in nice hotels.
- You wish to rest on the Rosario Islands.
- You’re planning more stops along the Colombian Caribbean coast.
Our best advice:
- Avoid Cartagena if you have a small travel budget.
- Visit the Rosario Islands during the week and sleep there.
- The majority of day trips to the Rosario Islands are not worth it.
- Getsemani is more affordable than the old center, and the two districts are only 10 minutes away from each other.
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Should you visit Cartagena?
That’s the first question to ask yourself. Should you add Cartagena to your itinerary to Colombia?
The question may seem trivial, but it is of great importance.
Everybody thinks of Cartagena when they talk about traveling to Colombia. This jewel of the Caribbean is mentioned in many newspapers and its colorful facades will surely be all over your Instagram feed.
It becomes a plain fact. If I go to Colombia, I have to visit Cartagena.
Then comes… disappointment.
Sure, Cartagena has some very good sides, but there are also a lot of downsides.
Better be aware of it now and be able to really enjoy it.
You’re just another tourist…
Although Colombia is popular with travelers, the country is not very visited either.
Colombians are warm by nature, and they are also very proud that people come to discover their country. They will do everything to make you feel comfortable. They like to exchange, and the encounters happen naturally.
In Cartagena, it’s different.
The city’s economy is mostly based on tourism, and there is nothing exotic about a blond head. The people who call you on the street are just salesmen. It’s normal; they have to earn a living. From that perspective, I find the atmosphere less pleasant.
There are thousands of them
Like you, everyone wants to visit Cartagena. There are direct flights from some major cities in the United States. Colombians also set their sights on this city as soon as they have a few days of vacation.
It is not pleasant to stroll through the alleys while slaloming between the cameras.
If you don’t like crowds, you shouldn’t go during the high season:
- Mid-December to mid-January. These are the summer holidays in Colombia.
- Holy Week. 1 week in March or April.
- July – August. Europeans and Americans are on vacation.
- The first 15 days of November. They celebrate Independence Day on 11/11. The city organizes many events.
You can have a wocnderful vacation in Cartagena, as long as you’re willing to pay for it.
For me, the main interest in the city is to be able to eat well, sip good cocktails, enjoy a splendid architectural setting, and stay on the Rosario Islands.
With this lifestyle, it is necessary to count a fair hundred euros per person and per day.
You can, of course, visit Cartagena for half as much. But you’ll get bored after 24 hours.
Beaches are not pleasant
The water is murky, the sand is unpleasant, and plastic chairs are everywhere.
We’re nowhere near the perfect beach.
To enjoy a postcard setting, you must go on an excursion to the islands of San Bernardo or Rosario or the town of Rincon del mar.
Take this into account when you create your itinerary.
Visiting Cartagena in 2 days
This can be sufficient in many situations:
- You’re careful with your travel budget.
- You’re planning cultural tours in other major cities in Colombia.
- There are other places where you want to enjoy the beach.
In two days, you have time to appreciate the old town and the Getsemani district fully.
A 2-day itinerary in Cartagena
Since you’re not staying long, it’s best to arrive in the morning. The airport is only 15 minutes from the city center. On the other hand, it takes 45 min from the bus terminal (it is outside the city).
The next day, it will be better to leave before noon if you want to go to Santa Marta, San Bernardo, or Rincon del Mar.
The night begins around 6 pm in Colombia and most of the small buses and motorcycle taxis stop circulating at this time.
Finally, by staying only two days in Cartagena, you will only enjoy it for 24 hours.
Choose accommodation in the old town center or in Getsemani to be close to the various highlights.
1# Visit of the city
I love to learn anecdotes about every place I visit. The city of Cartagena has been attacked many times by corsairs. Plus, Cartagena has two independence dates. In short, story lovers will be over the moon.
Depending on your budget, you can book a Free walking tour (Beyond Colombia, Free Cartagena) or choose to visit the different areas with a private tour. The local agency Sion Tour is doing a perfect job. You can book your tour online.
Use it for:
- Explore the old town center
- Photographing Getsemani’s beautiful graffiti
- Admire the plunging view of Cartagena from “la Popa.”
2# Sunset from the walls
Try to finish your tour around 5 pm and then settle down on the city walls. The sun is setting in the Caribbean Sea.
Many travelers go to Cafe del Mar. Their playlist is enjoyable, and the spot is ideal for drinking a bottle of fresh wine of rosé (or other).
There is an even better option. You can jump on a catamaran and watch the sunset from the ocean. Book this tour online.
3# A nice candlelight dinner
There are some very good restaurants in Cartagena. It’d be a shame not to have them!
It’s up to you whether you prefer the romantic atmosphere of the old town or the more relaxed and festive atmosphere of Getsemani.
A piece of advice, book at least a few hours in advance if it’s a gourmet restaurant.
Looking for something special? Book a 2-h dinner cruise!
4# Get up early to take pictures
Around 7:00 in the morning, only a few people are in Cartagena’s alleys. It is, however, the best time to go for a walk.
The air is not yet too overpowering because of the heat, and a soft light begins to illuminate the colorful facades and flowery balconies.
You then have the whole morning to revisit the small corners you enjoyed, take a break in some great cafes, and eat 1kg of homemade ice cream. You’ll need this to taste all the flavors!
Do you travel to Cartagena for a special occasion?
👉 Become a star in this fun Cartagena Photography Tour.
Visiting Cartagena in 3 days
Visiting Cartagena in 3 days allows you to be “tranquilo” as Colombians like to say.
In addition to the suggestions made in the previous section, it is possible to:
- Take a boat trip to the Rosario Islands
- Book a cultural tour specific to this region
- Enjoy the nightlife of Cartagena.
A 3-day itinerary in Cartagena
If you stay 3 days in Cartagena, I advise you to book the 2nd day to organize the most prolonged activity. This avoids being stressed by the departure time of your bus or plane.
Here is an idea of a practical itinerary:
- Day 1: City tour + sunset
- Day 2: Morning photos + Activity or cultural tour + Restaurant and/or Fiesta
- Day 3: lazy morning + walk
1# Stay overnight on Isla Baru
I know that everyone tells you about Playa Blanca and Isla Baru, which are located 1 hour from Cartagena. It’s a white sand beach, with wooden huts built all along.
It was fun.
There are now far too many people.
I do, however, have a secret to making the most of it. All you have to do is sleep on the spot. Well, the cabins are basic, expensive and mostly without electricity. But that’s the price you pay for having no one there in the morning.
There’s a bus that leaves four times a day from the Mamallena hostel. It’s the best way to get there.
2# Day trip on a catamaran
There are dozens of different tours to visit the Rosario Islands.
Most of them are disappointing.
The companies squeeze as many people as possible into a boat, and then they take you snorkeling. The only problem, EVERYONE goes to the same place! The tours never stop at one of the beaches. Basically, it’s no fun at all.
Luckily, you can find nicer trips.
In this tour, you take the time to move between the islands and the catamaran stops in beautiful places. The activity is a little more expensive than the tours sold on the sly, but the experience is much better and lasts all day long!
3# Or opt for a cultural tour!
If you’re not the type to chill out on a boat, there are other activities to occupy your day.
I give you my two preferences:
An atypical visit of the “Mercardo de Bazurto”: a local guide will show you the different facets of this large open-air market. Taste many flavors, learn to concoct a medicinal potion, chat with an artist who creates posters with spray paint cans… Many encounters would not be possible without the help of Cartagena Insider.
Reserve your place now.
Crab hunting in the mangroves: La Boquilla is a small fishing village about 20 minutes from the town center. Cartagena has grown so much that buildings have surrounded the village. From La Boquilla, a local guide will take you in a small wooden boat to travel between the mangroves. Each fisherman has his own technique for casting nets and setting crab traps. The place is so peaceful that you forget even Cartagena.
4# Cartagena’s nightlife
The beginning of the week is not very busy in Cartagena (except during the high season). It is not until Wednesday that clubs and other trendy bars start to open.
The nocturnal atmosphere in the old town is rather posh while the one in Getsemani is more relaxed.
Cartagena is a big city. Follow some simple safety rules to have a smooth trip.
Here is a shortlist of nice places to go out and/or drink:
- La plaza trinidad (Getsemani)
- Mister Babilla (Getsemani)
- Bazurto Social Club (Getsemani)
- Quiebra Canto (Getsemani)
- Alquimico (Old town)
- Bar tu Candela (Old town)
Visiting Cartagena in 4 days
It is not enough to visit Cartagena and stay on the Rosario Islands (unless you are willing to sleep in one of the cabins on Isla Baru).
In addition to the suggestions made in the previous section, you can book an extra cultural activity, decide to hike around Cartagena or go to Tierra Bomba for a night’s sleep. This island is 20 min away by boat. I recommend the Blue Apple Beach Hotel or the Fenix Beach hotel.
Visiting Cartagena in 5 days
You need 5 days to enjoy Cartagena and the Rosario Islands. Depending on the means of transport used, the chosen island, and the conditions at sea, it takes about 1h30 to reach your destination.
A 5-day itinerary in Cartagena
With only an hour and a half of travel time, you may be tempted to spend only one night on the Rosario Islands.
Don’t do it!
It’s hard to have peace of mind when you only stay in a place for one night. And the check-out is always in the late morning. The purpose of a stay on the Rosario Islands is to relax. Sleep there for two nights.
Here is an idea of a practical itinerary:
- Day 1: City tour + sunset.
- Day 2: Departure to the Rosario Islands.
- Day 3: Rest in paradise.
- Day 4: Return to Cartagena in the middle of the day.
- Day 5: Morning photos + departure to your next destination.
1# Which island to go to?
There are different options where you can stay in the Rosario Islands.
- Isla Grande is accessible by public transport. A boat leaves every day in the morning. There’s a lovely hostel.
- Isla Marina is next to Isla Grande. You’ll find the coolest eco-lodges there: Carolina island or Islabela.
- Isla Baru is accessible by boat or by land thanks to a bridge. The hotel Playas Manglares or Las Islas are two excellent lodgings.
2# What you need to know
- The Rosario Islands are very popular. Avoid going there on weekends or in high season!
- Many eco-lodges sell day passes and sometimes you find yourself sharing the beach with other tourists.
- On weekends, it’s party time on Isla Cholon, and music can be heard from the hotels on Isla Baru.
- The sea is rough from December to April.
- The quality/price ratio is not excellent. You pay more because of the setting and the popularity of the islands.
- You are on an island in the Caribbean. Smile, relax and everything will be fine 😉
3# San Bernardo islands are only 2 hours away!
So, have you decided how many days you want to stay in Cartagena? Don’t hesitate to tell us about your program!
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Thank you Tom! I can tell your recommendations come from the heart.
Thank you Brady!!