Cartagena (Colombia) Travel Guide

Ever since Rodrigo de Bastidas became the first European to set foot on Colombian soil in Santa Marta in 1525, there’s been a long history of foreigner fascination with the country’s Caribbean coastline, and hundreds of thousands – Colombian holidaymakers chief among them – follow in his footsteps annually. In addition to hot weather and cool breezes, Cartagena boasts splendours from the town’s past role as the main conduit for the Spanish crown’s imperial plundering. For its extensive fortifications and colonial legacy, the walled city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Is this Colombia's best city?

For me, there's no doubt: Cartagena is one of Latin America’s most beautiful cities. An enticing blend of photogenic architecture, gourmet dining, all-night partying and beach life.

Despite all the development and expansion of tourism, the city that inspired Love in the Time of Cholera has somehow retained its rich Colombian character. Some of the continent's most expensive boutique hotels share their street space with local beer shops. Alongside these upscale accommodations, you'll find carts selling coconuts and ceviche. 

The area is renowned for its gorgeous mansions, which boast tangerine-tinged Spanish balconies made of carved wood. These balconies are often festooned with pink bougainvillea, adding to the locale's charm. As you walk the always scorching-hot streets, the sound of salsa music is omnipresent. Peddlers are a common sight, trying to sell all manner of trinkets. Meanwhile, black vultures can be spotted lurking on rooftops, overseeing the bustling activity below. 

It’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by the sheer magic of the place.

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I fell in love with this city the moment I stepped into the old quarter ©Shutterstock

Best things to do in Cartagena

From wandering the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, decorated with colorful houses and historic fortifications, to swimming in the tropical paradise of the Rosario Islands, every corner of Cartagena promises an unforgettable adventure. Below we explore the best things to do in Cartagena, where history and culture combine with natural beauty.

#1 Visit the forts and walls

Cartagena stands as one of the most historic colonial cities in Latin America, marked by its defensive structures and forts that scatter across the city.

The cities historic centre is almost fully encircled by the thick 18th-century Spanish walls (La Murallas), creating a delightful path for enjoying the views and the ocean's fresh breezes.

These walls, some of the longest in Latin America, underscore Cartagena's vibrant history as a former Spanish stronghold frequently targeted by pirates. Notable forts like Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and those near Bocachica provide a fascinating glimpse into an era when English ships might have loomed on the horizon, intent on plundering the city.

The walls are easily accessible and free of charge.

Public clock and wall surrounding the Centro Historico.  Cartagena, Colombia

Public clock and wall surrounding the Centro Historico  ©Shutterstock

#2 Wander through the Old Town

Cartagena's old town, founded as a Spanish colony, is rich with churches amidst a blend of architectural styles, street art, and historic sites. Highlights include the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Cartagena's oldest and most charming church, located in a vibrant plaza ideal for coffee breaks. Nearby, the large, yellow-painted cathedral with its light pink tower stands out, alongside the impressive Santuario de San Pedro Claver. These churches contrast many in Latin America with their minimalist interior design.

The city’s key churches are close to each other, allowing for easy exploration in one day.  For a unique experience, the Convento de la Popa offers stunning city views from its hilltop location outside the old town.

Rough Guides tip: Iglesia de Santo Domingo and the Pedro Claver sanctuary are free, though donations are welcome.

#3 Experience the world of Cartagena's seafood delicacies

Cartagena's signature is undoubtedly seafood, presenting a dizzying array from soups and stews like cazuela de mariscos and sancocho de pescado - both outstanding - to an abundance of clams.

Fried fish is another highlight, as is the opportunity to savour ceviche, a classic Peruvian dish where raw fish is marinated in citrus juices until it's essentially 'cooked'. Though often sold at street stalls, remember that ceviche remains a raw dish, so ensure it's exceptionally fresh before indulging.

To experience Cartagena's top seafood offerings without the wait, booking in advance is wise, given their well-earned popularity. While seafood might come at a premium, particularly on the main avenues, venturing a few streets away reveals more budget-friendly, yet equally fresh, options.

For those seeking an unconventional adventure, the Mercado Bazurto fish market offers unique marine delicacies. It's not for everyone, but it promises an unforgettable experience.

#4 Explore the depths of history at Museo Naval del Caribe

The Museo Naval del Caribe, located in the historical site of the Americas' oldest Jesuit college, stands out as the city's premier history museum.

One of the most captivating exhibits highlights the dramatic life of José Padilla, a national hero of a tragic fate. He fought for Spain at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, suffered captivity by the British for three years, later established the Colombian navy, and achieved a remarkable victory against Spain in 1823. Despite his contributions, he was unjustly executed in 1828, accused of conspiring against Simón Bolívar.

On the upper floor, you can explore the evolution of Colombia's navy from 1810 onwards, including its overlooked role in the Korean War and the cholera epidemic that contributed to the city's decline in the mid-19th century.

Discounts are available for students and senior citizens. Also note that most descriptions are in Spanish, so hiring a guide is recommended for a fuller understanding.

#5 Take a journey through time at La Murallas in Cartagena

The historic heart of Cartagena is almost entirely encased by the formidable La Murallas, massive walls constructed by the Spanish in the 18th century.

Embarking on a stroll atop these iconic ramparts offers a splendid way to experience Cartagena. The journey typically spans 90 minutes, varying with your starting point and the pace of your explorations.

Initiate your adventure at the Baluarte San Francisco Javier, meandering through the circuit to La India Catalina, and beyond the lagoons to the Puente Román. Though the path discontinues briefly, it resumes along the Calle del Arsenal, concluding at Playa Barahona by the bay.

The enchanting hues of sunrise and sunset offer the ideal backdrop for a visit to La Murallas. It's advisable to avoid late-night walks on the walls.

It's free to walk around the walls, and as you'll most likely be staying nearby, you shouldn't have to pay for any transport to get there.

View of the marina and tall apartment buildings in the modern section of Cartagena, Colombia

View of the marina and tall apartment buildings in the modern section of Cartagena, Colombia  © Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

#6 Discover Getsemani: The heartbeat of Cartagena

Getsemaní stands out as the most vibrant area in Cartagena, once known for its raw edge but now celebrated for its bustling narrow lanes.

At the heart of the district lies the serene Plaza de la Trinidad, one of the city's ancient squares, adjacent to the seldom-open Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad. Come evening, the plaza bursts into life with an array of food stands and street entertainers.

Begin your exploration at this lively square, then delve into the neighborhood's rich tapestry of street art, particularly along C San Juan. Stroll down the picturesque Calle del Poz, where locals gather to play dominoes on Sundays and holidays, leading you to the quaint Plazuela del Pozo and its historic well.

While Getsemaní's gritty charm persists, caution is advised during nighttime strolls.

The experience is free, yet the enticing local cafés and street food may well catch your attention.

#7 Discover the treasures at Museo de Oro Zenú

The Museo de Oro Zenú showcases extraordinary pre-Hispanic gold artifacts, particularly from the Zenú culture. Although smaller than Bogotá's famous museum, it specializes in the rich goldsmithing of various groups, notably the Zenú. These people thrived on the 'Las Llanuras' below Cartagena from 1500 BC to 1100 AD, with their descendants still in the area today.

Highlights include the intricate 'woven' gold earrings, pendants, and animalistic motifs, alongside notable Tamalameque funerary urns, distinguished by geometric designs and eerie faces.

For a less crowded visit, opt for weekdays over weekends. Admission is complimentary, and free English tours are offered between Tuesday and Saturday at 11am and 3pm.

Rough Guides tip: The Museo de Oro Zenú is open from 9am to 5pm, Tuesday to Saturday, and 9am to 2pm on Sunday. It's closed on Mondays.

#8 Explore the legacy at Casa Museo Rafael Núñez

The Casa Museo Rafael Núñez pays homage to the Cartagena-born figure who thrice led Colombia in the 19th century. This splendid Antillean-style residence from 1877 features extensive verandas and exquisite woodwork, displaying rooms adorned in authentic period decor and original flooring.

Exhibits delve into Núñez's life and achievements through vintage photographs, artworks, and personal items, including a dedicated area for Soledad Román, his significant other, often controversially referred to as "la concubine", yet profoundly influential in his life and politics (the residence was her family's).

Please note, explanations are solely in Spanish. The best way to arrive is by taxi from the old city center, a journey of under five minutes, or alternatively, a 15-minute walk.

There's no admission fee, but investing in a guide could enrich your visit with English insights into the museum's narrative.

Rough Guides tip: Casa Museo Rafael Núñez is open Tuesday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, and Saturday to Sunday, 10am to 4pm; it's closed on Mondays.

Lookout along the sea front wall.  Cartagena, Colombia

Lookout along the sea front wall.  Cartagena, Colombia

#9 Explore lively Playa Blanca

Playa Blanca, located on Isla Barú's northwestern coast, is among the most sought-after beach locales near Cartagena. The beach epitomizes the ideal tropical retreat with its clear turquoise waters, pristine white sands, and lush palm trees. However, it's far from hidden, bustling with vendors, watersports, and commercial activity akin to many Colombian shores.

Wooden huts dot the landscape, offering fried fish, snacks, and the renowned coco loco cocktails. Access is feasible via boat, shuttle, or the most economical option, a public bus to Pasacaballos followed by a moto taxi or shared taxi. For a quieter experience, consider an overnight stay after the tours leave.

Be wary of the crowds during peak season and weekends, as the beach becomes exceedingly crowded. Beach vendors may be insistent, and initial prices for refreshments and meals might be high. Don't hesitate to bargain or compare prices elsewhere.

#10 Discover the heritage of Santuario de San Pedro Claver

The Santuario de San Pedro Claver, an ensemble of a convent and church with a distinctive giant dome, was established by the Jesuits in 1603 and is a prominent feature in the old city's skyline.

This site honors Pedro Claver, known as the 'slave of the slaves', who dedicated his life to aiding Cartagena's enslaved population, appalled by their living conditions. Canonized in 1888, he is commemorated within this grand whitewashed building, which encompasses a museum and a verdant courtyard filled with majestic trees.

Visitors can explore an upstairs gallery featuring paintings of significant moments in the saint's life, his modest living quarters, the infirmary where he passed in 1654, and the former slave dormitory.

Although guided tours are highly sought after, booking in advance is advised for the best experience. Entry to the church (excluding the convent) is free during Mass times. For a detailed service schedule, it's wise to contact them directly or visit their website.

Rough Guides tip: The museum welcomes visitors daily from 10am to 5pm.

#11 Experience the enchanting Islas del Rosario

Situated about 35km southwest of Cartagena, the Islas del Rosario are a captivating archipelago set in crystal-clear turquoise waters, offering a serene escape from the mainland.

Many visitors embark on day trips from Cartagena, often combined with Playa Blanca, providing a brief but enjoyable snapshot of island life. However, these excursions can feel hurried. To truly savour the islands, consider an overnight stay on Isla Grande, the largest island with the principal village, Orika.

Accommodations are primarily located along pristine bays or beaches, ideal for those keen on sunbathing, swimming, or snorkelling. The area is partially encompassed by the Parque Nacional Natural Corales del Rosario y San Bernardo, protecting the marine ecosystem around Isla Tesoro and Isla Rosario.

Note that the islands become bustling retreats during Colombian holidays. For a more tranquil visit, plan outside these peak times.

Waters of Cartagena, Colombia

Waters of Cartagena, Colombia

#12 Discover the grandeur of the Catedral Santa Catalina de Alejandría 

Dominating the northeast of Plaza de Bolívar, the formidable Catedral Santa Catalina de Alejandría began its rise in 1575, standing as a historic sentinel over the city.

Within, its vast expanse offers a refreshing simplicity, offset by the ornate baroque altarpiece adorned in gold leaf. The recent extensive renovation has left the black and white marble flooring, stone columns, intricately carved pulpit, and wooden ceilings in pristine condition.

Opposite the cathedral, the lengthy, white façade of the Palacio de la Proclamación marks a site pivotal to the city's history, formerly housing a governor and named for the declaration of independence.

Situated in the old town's core, access to the cathedral is straightforward. However, note that it closes to visitors during worship times. Entrance to the cathedral is free of charge, but donations are welcomed to assist in its maintenance.

#13 Step back in time in Museo Histórico de Cartagena de Indias

Located on Plaza de Bolívar's western side, the Palacio de la Inquisición epitomizes late colonial architecture's grandeur, now housing the Museo Histórico.

The Palacio, primarily from the 1770s, unveils the Inquisition's dark chapters on its lower floors. A chilling array of torture tools, a witchcraft-themed room, and an external space with a guillotine bear witness to the era when over eight hundred individuals were condemned for undermining the Christian faith.

Conversely, the upper galleries offer a more genteel journey through Cartagena's timeline, from the early "Kalamari" Carib settlements to the 19th century, enhanced by various artefacts, detailed scale models, and informative panels.

While the museum's extensive resources are primarily in Spanish, its website provides valuable insights to maximize your visit's value.

#14 Explore creativity at Museo de Arte Moderno

The Museo de Arte Moderno showcases a distinguished collection of Colombian and Latin American art from the 1950s onward, providing a delightful cultural diversion.

Key attractions include exhibits of Cartagena native Enrique Grau (1920–2004), whose voluptuous, radiant works echo those of Botero and feature the notable surrealist Tríptico de Cartagena de Indias. Also featured is the evocative artwork of local artist Cecilia Porras (1920–71), connected with Gabriel García Márquez and the Barranquilla Group, alongside pieces by the renowned Alejandro Obregón, a city resident from 1960 until his death in 1992, known for his mysterious piece, Dédalo.

Book a guided tour well ahead of your visit as they are in high demand. Admission to the museum is free every Tuesday, which can lead to larger crowds, so it's advisable to arrive early.

Beach near Cartagena, Colombia

Beach near Cartagena, Colombia

#15 Discover the historic charm of Iglesia de Santo Domingo

Nestled in the bustling Plaza de Santo Domingo stands the striking, tangerine-painted Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the oldest church in Cartagena.

Its entrance is marked by the iconic 'La Gorda Gertrudis' sculpture by Fernando Botero, contrasting with the vibrant yellow-orange of the church's walls and the intricately carved, subdued-hued stone doorway. Inside, the church maintains an appealing simplicity.

A notable feature is the niche to the right of the Baroque altar, home to the revered 16th-century Cristo de la Expiración calvary.

Plan your visit to avoid church services, as tourists are not permitted during these times; service schedules are available at the tourist information center. Entry is complimentary, but consider leaving a small donation to support the church's preservation.

#16 Unlock the secrets of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas stands as the preeminent fortification in Cartagena, its immense stone structure casting a formidable presence just east of the walled city.

Initiated in 1657 and significantly fortified in the 1760s, this architectural marvel offers breathtaking panoramic views from its apex, showcasing the entire city. While the multi-leveled gun batteries are visible, the real adventure lies in navigating the shadowy network of underground passages — a journey enhanced with the guidance of a hired guide or an audioguide.

A 20-minute walk from the old town leads to the Castillo, though a taxi can cut this down to under ten minutes. Admission offers a discounted rate for children and students; students should remember to carry a valid ID to qualify.

#17 Embrace the unique Volcán de Lodo El Totumo

Experience the unique phenomenon of Volcán de Lodo El Totumo, a small volcano that intriguingly emits thick, hot, grey therapeutic mud instead of lava, from its modest 15m-high cone.

Upon stowing your attire in a locker, immerse yourself in the crater's mud bath, where buoyancy is akin to the Dead Sea's, acclaimed for its healing qualities. Locals, adept in capturing your mud-covered moments, may offer a lively albeit amateur mud massage. Post-mud immersion, a short descent leads to a nearby lagoon where local women assist in your cleansing.

Tours are commonly organized by local accommodations, though the site can become congested with simultaneous tour arrivals. To avoid long waits, aim for off-peak visiting hours.

While tipping (about 4000–5000 pesos) for massages or washes isn't compulsory, it's strongly encouraged to support the local community, noting that refusal may be met with disapproval.

#18 Glimpse into Cartagena's past and present in the Bocachica

For an insightful journey into Cartagena's extensive fortifications and a real sense of the city's community life, head by boat to Bocachica.

The historic Batería del Ángel San Rafael, perched on Cerro del Horno, is a notable artillery platform constructed between 1769 and 1778, featuring ancient cannons and providing panoramic views. Not far along the coast, the formidable Fuerte de San Fernando, erected in stages from 1753 to 1779, stands with its characteristic star shape, housing shadowy vaults inhabited by bats.

Signage from the village to these fortresses is non-existent, so consider employing a local guide upon arrival. While their knowledge enhances the visit, be prepared for their assertive nature regarding tips. Proposing a lesser amount or declining their services may lead to emphatic protests.

Man pushing cart through Gethesmane neighborhood.  Cartagena, Colombia

Man pushing cart through Gethesmane neighborhood.  Cartagena, Colombia

Best time to visit Cartagena

Between December and April, Cartagena experiences its driest time of the year. Temperatures are in the high 20s or low 30s, which is pleasant but not sweltering, and the chance of tropical rainfall is very low, especially in January, February and March. This is the most popular time of year for tourists to visit Cartagena – including domestic travellers, particularly around Christmas and Easter – and you’ll find that accommodation prices rise noticeably.

If you like rain, come to Cartagena between August and November. In particular, October and September are an extremely wet months, and it’s still very hot – the temperature remains much the same as in the dry season. However, even during the height of the rainy season, you’ll still get sunshine – it’s just punctuated by frequent downpours. At this time of year, you’ll also see fewer travellers.

Temperatures rise slightly between May and July, making Cartagena a little hotter and stickier, and there’s also an increase in rainfall at this time. June, especially, experiences a ‘mini rainy season’, and can be very damp. If you’re willing to risk an occasional drenching, you’ll find that this period can be a rewarding time of year to visit: it’s the sunniest season, and accommodation is reasonably priced.

How to get to Cartagena

Cartagena’s Aeropuerto Internacional Rafael Núñez receives flights from a number of destinations, including a wide variety of domestic cities – Bogotá in particular is very well served. You can also directly fly from:

From Europe, there are flights to Madrid and Amsterdam

If you’re coming from within the country, Cartagena is served by buses from the vast majority of Colombian cities, including Bogotá and Medellín, though these are pretty lengthy journeys. For those with plenty of time on their hands, sailboats run between Cartagena and Panama via the remote islands of the San Blas archipelago, taking five or six days. Between mid-November and mid-April the seas can be rough.

Airport to city centre

Taxis may be the quickest way to and from the airport, but they're not the cheapest: buses can be as little as a tenth of the taxi fare, depending on where you're heading. Cartagena's bus station is inconveniently located 12km west of the centre: getting there involves several bus rides, and you'll probably consider a taxi to be quicker and less stress.

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Ties Lagraauw

written by
Ties Lagraauw

updated 24.04.2024

Ties is a true world explorer - whether it be for work or leisure! As Content Manager at RoughGuides, and the owner of Dutch travel platform, Ties is constantly on the move, always looking for new destinations to discover.

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