A concise guide to the things to do in Cartagena

A concise guide to the things to do in Cartagena

Colombia is huge, and it would require several months of travelling to discover its many beauties. However, one of the places to visit in Colombia, for however long one may be staying, is Cartagena, which is considered – and rightly so – the most beautiful city in the country. It is a perfect Caribbean vacation spot, it can be easily reached through regular flights and long distance buses. It is ideal for romantic city breaks: picture cobbled alleys, balconies covered in bouganvillea, beautiful facades, street art, music and lovely restaurants. It is great for nature lovers and beach bums too: it is a good starting point to visit the beautiful Islas del Rosario, where I could escape to whenever I felt like relaxing on the beach or snorkeling on the coral reef. There are so many things to do in Cartagena, that it is no surprise Cartagena is one of the main tourist attractions in Colombia.

Cartagena is one of the main tourist attractions in Colombia

Cartagena is one of the main tourist attractions in Colombia

Having this in mind, Cartagena has always been on my list of places to visit in Colombia, and in fact, it was my first stop in South America after having spent three full months in Central America. Despite my original plan to reach Colombia in the most adventurous way (sailing San Blas, in Panama, to cross the border via sea), I ended up having to be a not so adventure traveler and catch a flight from Panama City through Bogotà – read here to find out what happened. As soon as I landed, I knew there would be so many things to do in Cartagena.

Things to do in Cartagena: have a cold cerveza

Things to do in Cartagena: have a cold cerveza

Things to do in Cartagena

I am all about first impressions, even when it comes to places I visit: the minute I stepped off the plane and walked into the city, I fell in love with Cartagena, and it will be a long lasting affair I think. I knew I would soon find out what to do in Cartagena.

Right on the Caribbean, it enjoys a hot climate – if anything, too hot! – year round (December to April are the driest months), but the breeze that starts blowing in the afternoon cools the city a bit, making it more pleasant to walk around. It was entirely built by the Spaniards in such a way that the wind coming from the sea could circulate more easily, to bring relief from the heat. And relief I had to seek – just to give you an idea, imagine that despite being used to it, I was so exhausted from the humid heat that I would spend my day walking in search of a cool spot, drinking freshly pressed juice, and do one of the must things to do in Cartagena: sit in a tiny alley and wait for the breeze to come.

Things to do in Cartagena: sit in a tiny alley in Getsemani to enjoy some cool breeze

Things to do in Cartagena: sit in a tiny alley in Getsemani to enjoy some cool breeze

The old town of Cartagena is one of the tourist attractions of Colombia, in particular the inner walled city with the historical districts of El Centro and San Diego, with many beautiful squares, churches, museums and other places of interest. Getsemaní, the outer walled town, may not be as well preserved as the rest of the historic centre, but it is full of character and it is undergoing constant renovation. This is also where I managed to experience a bit of action and meet the locals. Quieter during the hot day hours, it gets really lively when the breeze starts blowing. I didn’t have to work hard to find out what to do in Cartagena: just walk out of the door!

I then saw people pulling chairs right outside their doors and sitting there to enjoy the cool(ish) air. Children would start playing football in the squares and Plaza Trinidad, the heart of neighbourhood, would become a football field, while everybody sit on the benches to have a chat and a drink, and street food vendors magically started appearing. Chances are I would meet people who were glad to share their anedocts about Getsemaní. I met the former mayor just by chance, as I sat next to him in the square and said hello: he was up for a chat and eager to explain a lot about the history of the area. This is how I learned that Getsemaní used to be a brothels area in the past.

Places to visit in Colombia: Getsemani, Cartagena

Places to visit in Colombia: Getsemani, Cartagena

I am a strong believer of getting the feel of a city rather than visit each single museum, church, square in it, although I know that there are so many things to do in Cartagena. It is in any case impossible to visit them all, there are so many. So, my budget tips for savvy travellers is to pick a few among the many places of interest. If interested in churches, I would enter them for free during mass, but I had make sure to wear appropriate clothes. Since I had a tight budget, I found that walking around is a free and great way to explore the city. That’s my favourite activity for sure.

Outside Cartagena

Visiting the archipelago of Islas del Rosario is one of the things to do in Cartagena. Located about 35 km south of Cartagena and consisting of 27 small islands – some of them so small that they only fit one single tiny house – it can be visited on a one day cruise leaving from the Muelle Turistico. This would normally start between 8 and 9 am and stop in many islands as well as in Playa Blanca, a long white sandy beach, before returning to Cartagena in the late afternoon. I would not miss it: the Caribbean waters are so clear and clean, the visibility so good, the coral reef so lively that I had to at least take a peek. Besides, here are some of the best beaches in Colombia.

Tours can be arranged through the hostel, and it should cost no more than 20 dollars including lunch. Carrying snorkeling gear is a good idea, otherwise it can be rented for cheap on the spot. I was so lucky to be randomly invited on a private boat, so I also managed to skip the crowds and got a chance to enjoy the freshest and loveliest lobster and crab: local fishermen usually approach the boats with their catch of the day, and offer to cook it. Cheap and delicious!

Best beaches in Colombia! Islas del Rosario, Colombia

Best beaches in Colombia!

Islas del Rosario, Colombia

I had to jump in!

What to do in Cartagena: eat lobster, crab and patacones: 100% fresh, 100% delicious

What to do in Cartagena: eat lobster, crab and patacones: 100% fresh, 100% delicious

Where to sleep and eat in Cartagena:

As one of the main tourist attractions in Colombia, Cartagena is inevitably more expensive than other places in the country. But since it is big and varied, there is something for any budget. Couples on a romantic getaway will enjoy boutique hotels. Younger and penniless crowds won’t have problems finding a good backpackers hostel. Just make sure to read the reviews before dropping by or committing to a room or a bed. I made the mistake of not doing it (what do you know, I am considered an experienced backpacker!) and ended up in the seemingly quiet Mama Waldy in Getsemaní. Pity it gets wild after dark, with parties and loud music until well after midnight, right in the common area where all (cramped and somewhat dirty and suffocating) rooms face, making sleeping almost impossible.

Good food is easily available in the many local eateries and even from street stalls, with lots of options – from grilled meat and corn to arepas and amazing tropical fruit and fruit juices. By all means, no matter what the guide book may suggest, avoid pizzerias – they are sad businesses and the food taste like it comes straight out of a can or a box: no reason to spend a fortune to eat poorly when, for a few dollars, you can have much better and fresher food in the street.

Things to do in Cartagena: try all the fresh fruit!

Things to do in Cartagena: try all the fresh fruit!

For more things to do in Colombia, click here!

Sardinia dos and donts: what to do in Sardinia

Sardinia dos and donts: what to do in Sardinia

Best beaches in Sardinia: Crazy gorgeous fjords of Cala Domestica

Best beaches in Sardinia: Crazy gorgeous fjords of Cala Domestica

Things to do in Sardinia: watch the Sartiglia

Things to do in Sardinia: watch the Sartiglia in Oristano – photo courtesy of Marcello Treglia

Things to do in Sardinia

Things to do in Sardinia: watch the Sant’Efisio parade of traditional Sardinia costumes – photo courtesy of Marcello Treglia

Where to go in Sardinia: Roman ruins and lighthouse in Nora

Where to go in Sardinia: Roman ruins and lighthouse in Nora

Visit Sardinia: Barumini

Visit Sardinia: Su Nuraxi – Barumini

At the heart of the Mediterranean, Sardinia will make you feel like you are a world apart from the rest of the world. Here you can switch off from your daily routine, without having to cross an ocean; you can enjoy lush nature, incredible beaches, wild mountains, tasty food and a secular cultural traditions. The good news is that although it is almost mythologically described as a place for a few rich people, it can actually be visited on a budget and there are so many things to do in Sardinia that you could spend a year without ever getting bored.

Here are a few simple rules for your low budget holidays. For more ideas on things to do in Sardinia, check my post “A Local’s Guide To The Things To Do In Sardinia”.

Dos

Do book your flight in advance, making sure you catch one during the week (avoid weekends) and playing around with the dates (be flexible). This way you can even catch a round trip ticket for less than €50. There are three airports: Alghero, Cagliari and Olbia, all a great starting point for a tour of the island. Most budget airlines have fights to Sardinia from a number of cities in Italy and Europe.

Do use public transport: it links the main cities, villages and tourist destinations. While a bit slow, it is cheap enough, and once you get to your destination you can walk, rent a bike, or participate in organised tours that offer pick up services. For information on bus and train schedules visit the pages of ARST and Trenitalia.

Do consider a car rental. A splurge if travelling alone or as a couple, but if there is a few of you it may actually turn out cheap and you will have the opportunity to roam around independently. Most well known agencies have stands at the airport and are quite convenient. But book in advance to catch special deals.

Do book your accommodation early. Most cities have budget places and all tourist destinations provide camping sites. Rooms are easy to find in the low season, but during the summer, when Sardinia is at its peak season, it may be harder to get cheap accommodation. Camping sites are good options if you can carry your tent, and they often have bungalows for rent.

If travelling in a group, do consider holiday home rentals: prices are surprisingly cheap and estate agencies and apartments can be easily found online. Considering you will have your own kitchen, your budget will benefit in the end.

Do enjoy your days at some of the best beaches in Sardinia, which all have free access: carry your umbrella, towel and plenty of sunblock and relax for free.

Do go on a boat tour: some of Sardinia best beaches, especially in the Golfo di Orosei or La Maddalena, can only reached this way. Although not too cheap it is completely worth it. Do book a day or two in advance!

Best beaches in Sardinia: Cala Luna

Best beaches in Sardinia: Cala Luna

Do go on a free trekking: hiking is one of the best ways to visit Sardinia. There is a gorgeous path to Cala Goloritzé leaving from the Altipiano del Golgo; a well signaled hike to Cala Domestica; a roughly 2 hours walk from Cala Fuili to Cala Luna; or try any of the trails in Isola dell’Asinara.

Do enjoy free festivals and cultural events. If you are searching for what to do in Sardinia and feeling in the mood for some cultural activity, you will be glad to know that on first of May Cagliari hosts the spectacular “parata di Sant’Efisio”: people from villages all over Sardinia, wearing their traditional dresses, go on a march in honour of the Saint patron of the island (Sant’Efisio). In February, the beautiful Sartiglia takes place in Oristano: men (and women) wearing traditional carnival costumes gallop down a street mounded with sand as fast as they can and attempt skewering a hanging star using their foil – pure adrenaline.

If you are a jazz and nature lover, don’t miss Time in Jazz in Berchidda, patroned by trumpet player and native Paolo Fresu. Picture a whole week of jazz, across a number of villages in the area, with open air concerts (free to attend) and the possibility to stay in camping sites. This is only one of the many jazz festivals here: listening to live quality music is one of the things to do in Sardinia.

Do enjoy nightlife in Cagliari: locals go out no earlier than 10 pm. You can either walk around Largo Carlo Felice, or, for some fresh air, Libarium, in Castello, which has a great terrace and view of the city; or Caffè degli Spiriti or De Candia in the Bastione – the lattest occasionally have some live concerts: look for local bands such as Sikitikis for real fun. Cocktails cost between € 7 and 9, wine and beer are cheaper (around 3 or 4 euros).

Do enjoy a romantic dinner at Quintilio, right outside Alghero, and admire the great view of the city, the bay and Capo Caccia. Sunset is the best time to go. Do book in advance to seat outside.

Do try traditional Sardinian food: piglet on the spit, malloreddus (small gnocchi), mussles soup, fregola (a sort of cous cous made with seafood), pecorino cheese, seadas (sweet fried pastries filled with cheese and topped with honey)… There is a lot of variety.

Donts

Don’t miss Isola dell’Asinara, originally a fishing community, later on a criminal colony, a peasant colony and leprosy centre, and a maximum security jail; it was finally turned into a National Park in 1997. Should you not have much time to sleep on the only hostel in the island (highly recommended!), book a guided tour on a jeep. This will allow you to visit the sites of historical and natural importance, such as the historic jail of Cala d’Oliva and of Fornelli, and some of the best beaches in Sardinia, such as Cala Sabina, Cala Trabuccato and Cala d’Arena. You can also go on one of the many hikes (free and well signaled) or opt for a bike tour.

Where to go in Sardinia? Asinara, for sure!

Where to go in Sardinia? Asinara, for sure!

Asinara - Sardinia

Donkeys are the only inhabitants of Asinara, together with boars, cats, goats…

Don’t miss a sunset walk on the beautiful bastion overlooking the sea in Alghero. The same goes for Cagliari and its lovely bastion or the Poetto beach: they are gorgeous at sunset. You can’t visit Sardinia and miss a sunset here!

Don’t think Sardinia is only beautiful in the summer. It is just as nice in the winter, although weather in Sardinia can be brutal in the winter months. But of course summer is the best season to enjoy the beaches.

Don’t litter: all beaches have bins for garbage and if they don’t, carry your garbage back with your and throw where appropriate.

Don’t forget to try “gelato artigianale”: ice-cream made from scratch. Tip to know it is the real thing: it melts really fast!

Don’t miss a sip of mirto or fil’e ferru: the first one is a strong liquor made of myrtle berries. The second is more like a grappa. They are very much Sardinian!

Don’t miss the archeological sites such as the beautiful roman ruins of Nora, are easy to access from Cagliari, or the many “nuraghe” which are unique to Sardinia such as that of Barumini. Take lots of pictures!

Don’t miss some off the beaten path places, such as Is Aruttas beach, with its incredible white tiny pebbles; S’Archittu, with a rock formation in the shape of an arch, Masua Pan di Zucchero, Buggerru and Cala Domestica, and Porto Pino, famous for its sand dunes.

Sardinia best beaches: Masua Pan di Zucchero

Sardinia best beaches: Masua Pan di Zucchero

Don’t be afraid to communicate with Sardinians, as they are very friendly. They may not all speak English, but they will always help out.

Don’t forget to read my other posts on Sardinia for more information and to ask me if you have any more questions!