Cartagena de Indias, the magical city, the jewel of the Caribbean. It is given many nicknames and any traveler going to Colombia wants to visit it.
While the old city center is undoubtedly a beautiful colonial quarter to explore, visitors may be a little disappointed during their stay in Cartagena.
Indeed, every day, tourists and street vendors invade the city center, the beaches are not pleasant and there is not much to do in the surroundings – except visit the Rosario Islands (which are also very busy).
That said, there are some nice things to do in the walled city. All you have to do is be smarter than ordinary tourists. This means not booking a day trip to Isla Baru or the Rosario Islands (stay overnight instead), go visiting the old center at 7 am and avoiding Cartagena during the high season (mid-December to mid-January) or a Colombian holiday.
After Cartagena, you can catch a boat to spend a few days on the San Bernardo Islands or experience wonderful beach life in Rincon del Mar. Another option is to take a door-to-door shuttle to Santa Marta.
Articles about Cartagena you must read before coming:
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.
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 from 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 basic 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.
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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