Explore Cartagena, Colombia
“En Picadilly Circus, Londres, me siento como en el Portal de los Dulces de Cartagena, Colombia.”
In Piccadilly Circus, London, I feel like I’m at Portal de los Dulces in Cartagena, Colombia.
These were the famous words from Colombian writer and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez back in 1975.
While Cartagena, Colombia is quite different from London, it is still a top-rated tourist attraction.
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Colombia?
Colombia is much more than that, however, and it’s full of fascinating destinations to explore.
Ready to learn more?
Where Exactly Is Cartagena?
Cartagena, founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, is the fifth largest and most popular city in the country. Its full name is Distrito Turístico y Cultural de Cartagena de Indias.
The map below shows the department of Bolivar, in Colombia where Cartagena is highlighted in red. As you’ll see, it has the Caribbean Sea to the north, where some of the most beautiful beaches of the world are.
What To Do in Cartagena
Why is Cartagena such an interesting tourist destination?
To put it simply, Cartagena has beautiful beaches, wonderfully tropical weather, and friendly people.
In colonial times, the city was a harbor—giving it a lifetime nickname of el puerto de Cartagena—and the wall once built for pirate-protection still surrounds it.
Cartagena has the biggest and most complete colonial and historic complex in South America which explains why tourism is strong in this Colombian town.
Cartagena is also home to dozens of amazing landmarks which will thrill you when you see them.
Here are the top activities to enjoy in Cartagena, Colombia when you get there!
Explore the Castle of San Felipe de Barajas
The Castle of San Felipe de Barajas is a fortress built by the Spaniards. Possibly the biggest and greatest fortress that the Spanish empire built in the Americas. It’s so well-made that nobody could ever conquer it. It has been part of UNESCO’s World Heritage since 1984 and it earned a place in the list of the Seven Wonders of Colombia.
You can enter and explore the castle and its tunnels for 8 USD, according to Mexican Youtuber Alan X El Mundo.
Go Shopping By the Clock Tower
La Torre del Reloj is the most famous landmark in Cartagena. Besides having a clock on top of it, it’s the entry gateway to the city. Cartageneros (people from Cartagena) call it la boca del puente (the mouth of the bridge). Close to the tower you will find el portal de los dulces, García Márquez’s spot from the quote above, where you can find a wide variety of typical Colombian sweets, handcrafts to buy, and souvenirs to take home.
Visit the Historic Plaza de la Aduana
Just a few steps away from La Torre del Reloj lies the historical Plaza de la Aduana (“Customs Square”). This is another must-see spot during your trip to Cartagena. In colonial times, they built these buildings as government offices. Now you can find the mansion where Pedro de Heredia, the founder of Cartagena, lived. You can also find a statue of Cristopher Colombus.
See the Márquez House With Your Own Eyes
Gabriel García Márquez is the Colombian Nobel Prize Literature Laureate who wrote several novels, including One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad), Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Crónica de una muerte anunciada), and Love in the Time of Cholera (Amor en los tiempos del cólera).
While he wasn’t born in Cartagena, the town is famous for being one of his favorites—and you can visit the house he purchased there after he earned fame as a writer.
Márquez arrived in Cartagena in 1948 after El Bogotazo, without any money in his pocket. He finished studying law (although he ended up being a journalist and writer) at La Universidad de Cartagena and, eventually, he bought a big house after succeeding as a writer.
If you’re a fan of Latin American literature, visiting Márquez’s house is a must. Sadly, you cannot go inside since it’s private property, but you can see the place where the celebrated writer lived.
Drink and Eat in Getsemani Neighborhood
El barrio (neighborhood) Getsemani is a famous place within Cartagena. It’s a friendly, bohemian neighborhood with colorful murals everywhere, drawn by local artists. In essence, Barrio Getsemaní is an outdoor, free-to-visit, museum.
In Barrio Getsemaní you can find cafés, restaurants, and fair-priced hostels to stay in if you’re travelling on a budget. According to the Youtube Channel Planeta Rodi, you can find hostels for as low as 22 USD in Barrio Getsemaní.
See the Cartagena Wall Up Close
Cartagena receives the name la ciudad amurallada (“walled city”) due to a surrounding wall the Spaniards built in colonial times to protect it. Such a construction took them almost two centuries to construct.
The wall is 6.83 miles (11 km) long and is also part of UNESCO’s World Heritage. The wall is only 15 minutes away from Rafael Núñez International Airport in Cartagena, so if you’re arriving in any of the many flights to Cartagena, you’ll probably see it.
If you’re into hikes, you can try following it and watching a beautiful sunset in the Colombian Caribbean Sea.
Visit El Museo Rafael Núñez
If you’re interested in Colombian political history, el museo Rafael Núñez is the place for you to visit in Cartagena. Rafael Núñez, a four-time Colombian president, lived and died in this house, which was later converted into a museum.
Inside the building, the ideas to write the 1886 Colombian Constitution were born, founding the statutes set in the current Colombian Constitution of 1991.
The museum is open from Tuesday to Friday from 9am to 5pm and on weekends from 10 am to 4 pm according to Museos Colombianos.gov
Climb Up El Cerro de la Popa
El Cerro de la popa is the highest place in Cartagena, at 492 ft. above sea level (150 asl).
You can find the Santa Cruz de la Popa convent above it. Access to the convent is around 4 USD, from which point you can see a panoramic view of Cartagena and the islands near it. This is the perfect place to watch the sunset and finish off your day in Cartagena!
Let Inmates Cook for You at San Diego Jail for Women
Am I truly suggesting that you visit a jail?
Yes, I am!
Surprisingly, a section of the building converts into a restaurant at night where inmates cook and serve you food.
The Colombian Government started a program for inmates in 2016 to reintroduce them into society once they serve their penance. Most of the inmates are in jail for non-violent crimes, so there’s not too much to worry about—it’s a safe experience, generally speaking.
According to one YouTuber, the food is great, but a little bit expensive. He paid around 22 USD for the meal.
Take a Boat Ride to Las Islas del Rosario
Las islas del Rosario include 28 islands that are one hour away from Cartagena by boat.
You’ll find white sand and turquoise colored waters away from the noise of the city. You’ll be able to rent a snorkel and try your luck looking out for marine wildlife in the Caribbean Sea.
Enjoy the Sun at Playa Blanca
Playa Blanca (“white beach”) is another beautiful beach in Cartagena. This one is a little bit closer to Cartagena, only 40 minutes away by boat. Just as beautiful as Islas del Rosario with white sand and clear waters surrounding it.
The Best Time to Travel to Cartagena
Cartagena is generally a place with great weather all year round. But the best time to travel to that part of Colombia is between December and April. In those months it doesn’t rain that much and the average temperature is 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 Celcius).
Wear sunglasses, a hat, and sunblock though, because the sun is strong in this area of the world!
Must-try Dishes: Cartagena Cuisine
Cartagena offers a wide variety of gastronomic experiences that you don’t want to miss. Here are some dishes or snacks you can find in Cartagena:
Patacón is a traditional cartagenero dish. African Natives from Ivory Coast brought it to Colombia. It’s now prepared with green plantain and cheese on top. It’s well-priced and sold by street vendors.
Alegrías are a Colombian sweet snack meaning “happiness.” Colombians prepare them with millet, panela, coconut, anise, lemon, and yuca. Quite a culinary experience! You can find these in el portal de los dulces.
Carimañolas are a type of Colombian yuca (cassava) cake filled with cheese, ground beef, and chicken. Colombians eat them for breakfast, but you can find them with street vendors as well and eat them as snacks. Something you don’t want to miss for sure!
4. Egg Arepas
Egg arepas—or as locals call it, arepehuevo—are a Colombian corn-flour dish. Most arepas are filled with cheese, meat, or deviled ham. However, in Cartagena they fry the corn flour, fill it up with an egg, and then fry it again.
5. Posta Cartagenera
Posta Cartagenera is a traditional Cartagena dish prepared with marinated beef. You can marinate the beef with different things, such as cola, panela or dark things which gives it its signature black color. It has onion, garlic, and butter on it as well. Rice, avocado, and plantains usually accompany the beef.
Top Hotels in Cartagena
1. Casa Agustín
Casa Agustín is the best hotel in Cartagena. It’s a four-star hotel right in the center of the city and offers luxurious bedrooms inside an old casona (Colonial big house). Television, A/C, a pool and more. The hotel is half a mile away from the beach. Although the price depends on the time of the year, you can usually rent a room for 350 USD.
2. Hotel Las Américas
Hotel Las Américas is a five-star hotel in front of the Caribbean Sea. You can stay in a modern building or Caribbean style facilities. It has pools, restaurants, ball rooms, gardens, business centers, gym, spa, and a tennis court.
3. Mi Llave Hostel
If you’re travelling on a budget, you should visit Mi Llave Hostel. The place charges 21 USD per night. It is 11 minutes away from La Torre del Reloj and the hostel offers a shuttle to the airport at extra cost. The place offers wi-fi as well.
What are Cartageneros Like?
Cartageneros are nice, kind, and respectful people. In Cartagena you will also see las palenqueras, who are ladies that wear typical native dresses, sometimes in the colors of the Colombian flag.
COVID-19 in Cartagena
According to Colombia Travel, COVID restrictions to enter the country don’t require that you present a PCR or antigen test, nor be vaccinated, but simply check in at the link migracioncolombia.gov.co 24 hours prior to your flight.
Polish Your Spanish Before Your Trip to Cartagena
Does Cartagena sound like a magical place? If you’re planning a visit to this beautiful Colombian city, it’s time to polish your Spanish skills to help you get around more easily and avoid relying too heavily on tour guides or other intermediaries who might not speak English. Learning Spanish will definitely give you a more authentic and flexible experience in Cartagena!
Sign up for a free Spanish class with one of our friendly Guatemalan teachers and learn some Spanish before your trip to Cartagena de Indias.
If you already know some Spanish, check out this amazing Colombian Slang post so you can communicate and understand the locals like a Colombian native!
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