Cartagena | How many days do you need to explore the city?
Cartagena is a port city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Located right by the sea is the old walled town founded in the 16th century still retains some of its original features today such as the churches and the cobbled streets and of course the large and dominating wall that surrounds it. We spent 3 days in Cartagena and I think that is probably enough unless you want to use it as a base to explore the offshore islands and beaches. There’s not a whole lot to do here so if you plan for 1 day in the old town visiting the museums, 1 day at the castle and a bit more of the old town and 1 day in some of the surrounding neighbourhoods then you’ve pretty much covered it. Here we’ll tell you what we got up to in our 3 day trip to Cartagena.
How did we get to Cartagena?
We were travelling to the city from the more Northern town of Santa Marta and used a collective shuttle bus service Marsol, which collected us from our hostel in Santa Marta and dropped us off at their offices in Cartagena. The journey was just under 5 hours and we had a stop in Barranquilla to let some passengers off. The time passed fairly quickly as the route is down the coast so much of the journey was right next to the coast. The cost of the trip was COP65000 each which is around £14.00 and the best option we found for getting us to Cartagena. We got a taxi from the Marsol offices in Cartagena to our hostel which cost around COP10000 (£2.00) which wasn’t too bad and since it was raining heavily when we arrived proved to be the right option.
Where did we stay in Cartagena?
We found that the hostels in Cartagena were a little bit more expensive than we’d been used to so far in Colombia but that is only to be expected as Cartagena is a tourist town. One of the areas we were recommended to stay was Getsemani and we found a lovely little hostel there called Casa Pedro Romeo which was somewhat within our budget and turned out to be in a fantastic location. We were right next to the Plaza Trinidad which throughout the day and night was alive with street vendors, street food and sometimes dancers and singers. We enjoyed the Gesemani area more than the highly touristic area of the Centro Historico so were really pleased with our choice. The hostel itself was pretty and the room was a good size. We had hot water which was the first in 4 weeks, since we’d been in Bogota and the room was clean.
What did we do in Cartagena?
Cartagena has the usual assortment of churches, plazas, museums and excursions available as well as a fantastic castle and plenty of restaurants and bars to rival any resort location so let me tell you what Chris and I got up to.
This is a fantastic area to wander around and we were lucky enough to be staying here so all this cultural goodness was right on our doorstep. It’s a popular area with both tourist and locals and has a great atmosphere.
Everything centres around Plaza Trinidad which was the main congregating area for locals and tourists. The plaza is in front of The Church of the Trinidad or La iglesia de la Trinidad and around the perimeter you’ll find street vendors selling street food such as empanadas, sausages, burgers and some chopped meat & arepas dish that they served on top of french fries and then smothered in some sort of sauce which was quite a plateful. There were also vendors with carts selling cocktails and beer. When we visited there was some sort of event happening in the plaza which was musicians, dancers and one night there was a church service that was outdoors instead of in the church. It really is the heart of the area and so very vibrant. All the streets leading off the plaza are lined with bars and restaurants and some have the umbrella or flags over them which you’ll see in most of the iconic Cartagena pictures.
Getsemani is well known for its art community and you’re never far from a street mural or an artist displaying his wares. This art is colourful, vibrant and catches the atmosphere of the area completely and represents the different struggles the Getsemani area has had to deal with through the ages. There are the usual souvenir shops selling the smaller artwork imprinted onto bags, t-shirts and other merchandise as a reminder of your time in this area.
The Havana Club
This famous club will be on most peoples list of the best bars in Cartagena as its the most authentic local place to find good music, good drinks and a good time. Its now quintessentially a tourist spot but back in the day it was the place well heeled people of Cartagena came to dance and have a good time. There is a substantial cover charge to enter but this goes directly to the musicians and it is said, they attract some pretty good musicians. The music doesn’t normally start until around 11pm with the doors opening at 9pm but if you’re intend on going and getting a seat then you’ll need to get in line before that. We sadly didn’t go to the club as it was too late for us but if you’re in the area then give it a go. I’m sure you’ll have a great time.
The Castle – Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
This was a great place to visit. We walked over the bridge from the Getsemani area to get to the castle and it looks incredibly dominant perched on the hill of San Lazaro. Built in 1536 is can be seen from whichever direction you approach the city which made it the strategic fortress that resulted in it still standing today after being attacked many times by pirates. These looters were looking for the wealth from shipping, slavery and gold, reputed to be held in the city. The castle has withstood many wars and parts have been added to it over the years to reflect the need for the city’s protection. The entrance to the castle costs COP24000 which is about £5.00 and was great value for money. Once inside you climb the walkway up to the top of the castle passing the large Colombian or Cartagena flag and explore the cannon sites and the underground tunnels. It really is an impressive building. Right at the top, there is a small shop selling souvenirs but more importantly icy cold limonada as with the hot weather and all that wandering around up and down ramparts, a refreshing drink is just the thing.
This is the main tourist area of Cartagena and attracts most of the visitors to the city as well as street vendors selling everything from cigars to castanets and anything you can think of in between. As soon as you approach the walls of the city, they are there, relentless in their pursuit of a sale. I’ve seen some pretty aggressive street vendors in my time but these guys are olympic standard. Just be firm and you’ll be ok. A simple No Gracias with a smile usually works. So what is there to do in this area:
The whole old town of Cargagena is surrounded by 11km of a tall and very wide wall and like the castle this was to protect the city and its wealth from those pesky pirates. There are parts of the wall you can walk and in one corner there is the famous cafe del Mar which is popular with tourists who want to watch the spectacular sunsets. Its been rumoured that in high season you need to book this cafe in advance as its so popular. Walking the wall in the allowed areas gives you some great views out to sea or back into the city. The most popular entrance into the Centro Historico is via the Monumento Torre del Reloj and is regarded as the main entrance to the city. It is at the centre of Plaza de los Cloches.
There are a few museums in Cartagena including the Gold Museum, The Naval Museum & The Palace of the inquisition, The emerald Museum and the Museum of modern art and the list goes on. We only visited the Palace of the Inquisition as we’d been to the gold museum in Bogota and Santa Marta and we didn’t have any time for the others. To be honest we were a bit disappointed with this museum. It told the tale of the inquisition and displays some of the torture equipment used on the victims during the inquisition. Apart from that there isn’t much else in this museum and a lot of the writing is in Spanish only and the exhibits are few and far between. We’ve previously been in museums which were free to enter or around COP4000 (£0.84p) and this museum was a whopping COP23000 (£4.87). I would personally give this one a miss and choose one of the others.
Plaza de los Cloches is the first plaza you’ll come across if you enter the city via the Monumento Torre del Reloj. This is where you’ll first come across an army of street vendors. Just navigate your way through them as best you can. Directly in front of the entrance there is a long portico where you’ll find many street food vendors selling their wares and these are mostly sweets, cakes, biscuits and candies. If you walk to the left as you enter you will come across the Plaza de la Aduana which was the main customs point of the city and where all trading transactions took place. Today, in the centre you’ll find a statue of Christopher Columbus. Further into the city you’ll find the Plaza de la Proclamation with the Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría on one side and a long street on the other shaded by a portico. This is a pretty plaza and there’s life sized bronze statue of the pope at one corner. Plaza de Santa Domingo is a pretty plaza and has statue by Botero which is a good reason to visit and finally if you are looking for some shade in this hot and humid city then the Plaza de Bolivar is the one for you with tall and leafy trees and benches to sit and people watch to your hearts content.
The Cento Historic district has an abundance of bars, restaurants, snack bars and sandwich shops to choose from. They also have a significant amount of souvenir shops and some of these have some really nice quality artisan products at reasonable prices so keep your eyes open. You can find people selling tours on almost every street corner and these guys can be quite assertive when you pass waving their leaflets about. There are also people offering carriage rides and if you’re really unlucky you’ll get a rapper with his beatbox sneak up behind you to very loudly do his set and then request a tip for his performance. It’s an eclectic city but one I’m sure you’ll enjoy.
Booking resources for your trip to Cartagena
Tours & Tickets
You can book your visits as you go at the entrance to your chosen attraction or site. Or you could use the following links to book in advance or just to find out what your choices are in the area. GetYourGuide and Tiqets are our go to choices you could try Viator to see how they compare.
For a full list check out our resources page. Don’t forget always shop around to find the best deal for you. What works for us should be good for you but it’s always reassuring to check.
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