Cartagena de Indias, the Magic City, the Jewel of the Caribbean. There are many nicknames for it, and every traveler wants to visit it when traveling to Colombia.
While the old city center is undoubtedly a gorgeous colonial district to explore, visitors can be a bit disappointed during their stay in Cartagena.
Indeed, tourists and street sellers invade the city center every day, beaches aren’t pleasant, and there is not so much to do in the surroundings – except visiting the Rosario islands (which are also crowded).
That being said, there are some cool activities to do in the walled city. You just need to be smarter than ordinary tourists. It means don’t book a day trip to Isla Baru or Rosario islands, visit the old center at 7 am and avoid Cartagena during the high season (Mid-December to Mid-January) or a Colombian public holiday.
The Old City Center is the loveliest - and most expensive - part of Cartagena. Large balconies made of wood and decorated with gorgeous flowers overlook the colorful streets. There are many little squares where you can sit down when the heat is too oppressive, although the best is to find one of the many secret courtyards inside the large colonial houses.
Getsemani is the new hype district. Streets are less busy during the day and street vendors are fewer. Alleys are colorful because of the many graffitis on the walls. Backpackers love Getsemani as the cost of living is a lot cheaper than in the walled city, and the nightlife funkier. 5-10 min walking distance from the old city center. Safe.
Manga is a good option for people who want to stay away from other travelers. The district is safe, with a mix of modern buildings and colonial houses. It's a residential area, so there are not many restaurants. However, Getsemani is just on the other side of the bridge, a short 10 min walk. It's safe.
Isla Tierra Bomba is the closest island near Cartagena - 25 min boat ride. While it doesn't have crystal blue water and white sand beach, it is still a good option if you want to escape the city for 1 day or 2. Isla Baru/Playa Blanca is the most famous island in the area. The place is overcrowded on the weekend, and most of the accommodations are basics but expensive, with electricity and water restrictions. However, we recommend you to spend the night there if you want to get a better chance to enjoy this well-known piece of paradise.
While we don't recommend you to book a 1-day tour to Rosario Islands (it's just a waste of time), some of the hotels there will blow your mind - and your wallet. Most parts of the island are private and owned by hotels. Pick your accommodation carefully as you won't find much public space to hang out.
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Things to do in Cartagena
The main activity in Cartagena is to stroll early in the morning among the colorful alleys of the Walled City and Getsemani. Then, pick a delicious restaurant with a lovely and flourish courtyard. Museums aren't a thing in Cartagena, and most of them are quite disappointing, with very little information (almost inexistent in English). However, there are some cultural tours which are worth it! Cartagena isn't famous for its beaches neither. Plan a multi-day trip to the Rosario islands if you look for white sand beaches and crystal blue water.
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Articles we recommend
Some travel blogger friends wrote some terrific content about Cartagena. Don't hesitate to consult them!
For us, good restaurants and exciting nightlife are important while traveling. We gathered our favorite picks on an interactive Map. Look for "Colombia Insider - Eat and Party like a local in Colombia" on Mapstr!