Cartagena is a great place to explore, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Colombia, yet many things about it may leave you puzzled and chances are you wish you’d knew about them before going – that was certainly the case for me! Hence, I thought I’d share a list of things you should know before visiting Cartagena – from interesting facts to tips that will help you plan your trip.
Continue reading to discover everything you need to know before traveling to Cartagena.
Everything You Must Know Before Visiting Cartagena
One thing for sure, Cartagena is as beautiful as they say. Easily one of the prettiest cities in South America, it is the kind of place where you will be glad to spend your time roaming around without looking for anything in particular, but just to uncover its prettiest corners – you will have an abundance of those.
Except for the beaches
This is probably the most surprising thing to learn when visiting Cartagena! A city that sits right on the Caribbean Sea completely lacks a good beach. The main one, Bocagrande, is an almost complete disappointment. It’s dirty – picture trash and cigarette butts and the last thing you’ll want to do is putting your feet in the sand; crowded; and there are so many vendors that instead of relaxing in the sun, you’ll spend your time thanking them and saying you really don’t want to buy ceviche, or drugs, or whatever. El Laguito is only a bit better.
There’s more to see than you’d expect
There is really loads to see and do in Cartagena – in fact, much more than you’d imagine. Plan to spend three or four days there, so that you can discover all the main attractions and you have an extra one to get out of town to one of the nearby islands.
Most places that will be of interest are concentrated in the Walled City. That’s where you will find the Puerta del Reloj (Cartagena’s clocktower); San Pedro Claver church; Santo Domingo church; Parque Bolivar, the Palace of the Inquisition; the Cathedral and the Museo del Oro Zenu (the Gold Museum). Right outside you will be able to visit San Felipe Castle and to take a walk on the city walls.
The other part of town you should not miss is Getsemani, once riddled by petty crime, drug dealing and prostitution, then a backpacker hub and now one of the most up and coming areas of Cartagena, with lots of interesting street art, gorgeous narrow alleys and beautiful squares.
Another thing you shouldn’t miss when visiting Cartagena is a tour that follows in the footsteps of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Colombia’s most famous and celebrated writer lived in Cartagena most of his life and based his most popular novel – 100 Years of Solitude – right in the city. Though his books aren’t the easiest to read (I admit to putting down the book a few times before finally managing to finish it), a tour of Garcia Marquez’ Cartagena is a must! There are several good ones you can consider, such as this one.
If you decide to spend an extra day in the city, you can even push yourself beyond the limits of the old city and visit the Convento de la Popa for impressive views; and the Mercado de Bazurto, a beautifully local market.
For a more detailed list of things to do in Cartagena, head over to this post.
You must visit the islands
Don’t despair! If you are looking for fine, white sand and clear turquoise waters that are perfect for snorkeling, you can still find some – just a bit out of the city. Playa Blanca, in Isla Baru, and the Islas del Rosario Archipelago, will easily match your idea of Caribbean paradise. You can easily get there independently or on a guided day trip such as this one or this one.
TIP: For the perfect Caribbean respite, consider flying to San Andres, off the coast of Nicaragua. It’s Colombian territory and there are direct flights from Cartagena.
For more day trips from Cartagena, read this post.
Cartagena is crowded
Being so beautiful, Cartagena is an incredibly popular tourist destination. I found it to be crowded with tourists when I visited, a few years ago, and rumor has it that the city is now receiving even more visitors – thanks to cheap flight connections, cruise ships and social media promotion. Add to this that Colombia has finally managed to get rid of its reputation of being a dangerous country, and you get the idea: don’t expect to have the city to yourself, or you will be truly disappointed.
Book your room well in advance
THIS IS SO KEY! With the city being so crowded and so hot (more about that in a bit), having a good room where you can rest is essential for a good trip. Not only that – the best rooms at reasonable prices are the first to be booked out, so as soon as you have set your dates for your trip to Cartagena, start looking for a place to stay.
GOOD TO KNOW: Peak season in Cartagena goes from December to March, with the weeks around Christmas and those at the end of January and beginning of February, when Hay Festival Cartagena de Indias (a literary and cultural festival) takes place, being by far the busiest.
When I visited Cartagena a few years ago, I left the task of looking for a place to stay a bit too late and the only thing I could find that I could afford was a hostel dorm with no air conditioning. To say that the room was suffocating is an understatement! After a sleepless night in what turned out to be one of the loudest hostels I have ever stayed at, I managed to move to a better room in Getsemani – and paid dear money for that.
Not sure where to start looking? Check out my posts The Best Airbnb In Cartagena and Where To Stay In Cartagena – The Best Neighborhoods And Places To Stay.
It’s terribly hot
Cartagena heat is unprecedented – this is another important thing to know before visiting Cartagena!
Although in theory you can go year round, depending on when you go you may encounter larger crowds of tourists, get quite a bit of rain (though since it is in the Caribbean, it can rain year round) and find the city to be unbearably hot and humid – we are speaking 80% and even 90% humidity.
In order to escape the heat (and the crowds), you will need to have an early start every day, visiting museums when it gets too hot so that you can enjoy a bit of AC; opting for a drink in an air-conditioned café to give yourself a break; drinking lots of water or juice, while avoiding alcohol, to stay hydrated. You will also have to stretch your budget to get a room with air conditioning so that you can rest decently at night.
Arguably, the best time to visit Cartagena is between December and March, when the temperatures aren’t as hot and humidity is lower. I visited in February and it was way hotter than I had expected – though a nice breeze would blow in the late afternoon every day, giving everyone a break from the heat. It was so hot that heat exhaustion hit me and I cut my time in the city short and move south.
TIP: A hat, high SPF sunblock and light cotton or linen clothes and good walking sandals are all a must. Also consider investing in a hydro flask bottle such as this one to keep your water cold for up to 8 hours.
It’s not that cheap
With tourism becoming an important source of revenue in Cartagena, the price of services to tourists have been increasing, and even just looking around for a place to stay in town you will quickly realize that it’s not nearly as cheap as you’d have hoped. The good news is that this is probably the most expensive city in Colombia, so if you are visiting Cartagena first, and then the rest of the country, you will be relieved to find more convenient prices.
Cards are accepted, but for cash Peso is the (only) way to go
One important thing to know is that while Colombia’s neighbors (Panama and Ecuador) use US dollars as their main currency, the official currency in Colombia is the Colombian Peso (COP) and US dollars (as well as Euros and British Pounds) aren’t accepted. At the time of writing, the exchange rate is around COP 3500 to $1 USD, COP 4200 to €1 Euro, and COP 4800 to £1 GBP.
Most businesses now accept card payments, and in case you need cash you will find several ATMs in the old city where you can withdraw – but keep in mind that most will charge a fee any time you withdraw, to which you will have to add your bank withdrawal fee (I use N26 and they don’t charge!) and the currency exchange fee.
It’s photographers’ paradise
With narrow, cobbled alleys, breezy squares, colorful buildings and fruit carts, souvenir stands and lots and lots of street life, your photographer’s eyes will be popping out when visiting Cartagena!
If you are hoping to come back from your trip with lots of good photos, set your alarm clock nice and early and head out before everyone else does. This is your best chance to catch the city while it’s still empty – not to mention, to avoid the heat!
GOOD TO KNOW: If you want to take a photo of the Palenqueras (the colorful ladies selling fruit, as pictured above), you will either have to pay for the photo, or buy some fruit or a drink from them.
A guided tour of Colombia may be a good idea
If you would like to visit Cartagena, but have no time for planning or would rather leave this job to the experts, you should consider joining a guided tour of Colombia. G Adventures runs some excellent ones. I have selected the most interesting ones:
- Colombia multisport – an 11 day tour that is very active: you will be hiking and biking.
- Colombia multisport and Lost City Trek – similar to the previous tour but it lasts 17 days and includes a trek to the Lost City.
- Wellness Colombia – this 8 days tour only visits Cartagena and Tayrona National Park, and has a strong focus on nature.
- Colombia express – a 9 day tour that goes to the most famous destinations, including Cartagena.
- Colombian culture, Caribbean and Lost City – a 22 days tour that goes to the most popular destinations, for a perfect combination of relaxation and adventure.
It’s easy to reach
Getting to Cartagena is actually incredibly easy and you can travel there by plane, bus or even boat.
BY PLANE – The airport in Cartagena is called Rafael Nunez Airport (CTG) and serves both domestic and international flights. The good news is that it is really close to the city, and you can easily get there by taxi (they have fixed prices based on where you are going), colectivo (shared shuttle) or private transfer. If your flight is landing late, you may want to opt for that. You can book your private transfer here.
BY BUS – It’s interesting to note that while the airport is really close to the city, the main bus terminal is at 45 minutes drive from the historic center. Your best option to get from the bus station to the historic center is a taxi – again, prices are fixed. Just make sure to double check how much you are meant to pay before hopping on.
BY BOAT – There is no regular ferry service between Panama and Cartagena, but you can count on a number of sailing boats that connect the city to Panama via the San Blas islands. The trip lasts around 5 days and you should expect to pay no less than $500 USD. I don’t recommend sailing trips unless you are accustomed to sailing already and know that you won’t get sea sick!
It’s best explored on foot
Cartagena is a pleasant place to walk around, and that’s the best way to enjoy it.
Having said that, there is a fairly good and cheap public transportation system which includes the Transmilenio Bus – for which you will need a Transcaribe Card which you can get at one of the many stations and works on a top up basis; and the “buseta,” smaller, older, more colorful and significantly less comfortable buses.
A taxi may come in handy occasionally. Taxis in the city don’t work on a meter system, but rely on set of zone rates – so in theory you should know how much you will be charged before getting on. To avoid any surprise, make sure you agree on a final price before hopping on and try to carry small bills to pay at the end of your ride.
GOOD TO KNOW: The best taxi app in Colombia is EasyTaxi, so use that instead of Uber.
The city is safe
Cartagena is a safe enough city, but remember that where there are large tourist crowds there will be touts, scams and pickpockets. Always keep your eyes open and your valuables safe, and keep a low profile to avoid becoming a target. A polite but firm “no, gracias” will normally send touts away.
One thing I noticed when I visited Cartagena is that drugs run abundantly in certain parts of the city – especially where backpackers hangout, in Getsemani. If you are offered any, you have the simple, reasonable and responsible option of saying no and walk away, or – should you decide to say yes and take those drugs – accept any possible consequences if things go wrong.
Other useful things to know before your trip to Cartagena
Finally, here are a few other useful tips for traveling to Cartagena.
Getting a good travel insurance is a good idea for all your trips, including that to Cartagena. You can get yours here.
If you are visiting Cartagena as the first leg of a longer trip around Colombia, you may want to invest in SIM card so that you can count on data to navigate the web or use apps when needed. The best provider in the country is by far Claro, and you can opt for the basic “Prepago fácil” plan. You can get a SIM card at one of the kiosks at the airport or in town. Remember you will need a copy of your passport for that.
Water in Cartagena is safe to drink, which will come as a massive relief as this way you won’t have to worry about brushing your teeth with it, or eating a salad that has been washed in it. If you want to be extra safe, you can opt for a bottle with a water filter such as this one.
Finally, some suggest that it is possible to visit Tayrona National Park and / or Santa Marta on day trips from Cartagena. Don’t believe them! Keep in mind that it’s a 5 to 6 hours drive from Cartagena to Santa Marta, which would leave you very little time to explore the national park.
Make sure to read my posts about other Colombia destinations:
- 29 Beautiful Places To Visit In Colombia
- 17 Unmissable Things To Do In Bogota
- 7 Great Day Trips From Bogota
- A Complete Guide To Where To Stay In Bogota
- An Excellent Guide To San Gil, Colombia
- A Concise Guide To Salento, Colombia
- A Complete Guide To Hiking Valle De Cocora, Colombia
- A Concise Guide To Villa De Leyva, Colombia