A concise guide to Cartagena

A concise guide to Cartagena

For a more complete guide about Cartagena, check out my post  25 Incredible Things To Do In Cartagena. 

If you are looking for accommodation in the city, read my post Where To Stay In Cartagena – The Best Neighborhoods And Places To Stay.

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!

Highlights of Argentina

Highlights of Argentina

My first stop in Argentina was its incredible capital Buenos Aires. I loved walking around, visiting its museums and galleries, its parks, the area of Puerto Madero with its Calatrava bridge, Recoleta, Caminito and San Telmo. I tasted the great food – in particular the asado – in the many good restaurants; and I enjoyed a day trip at Delta del Tigre. I then flew to Trelew, from which I reached Puerto Madryn, a good place to start visits of Peninsula Valdes and Punta Tombo – where I saw the incredible wildlife.

A long bus journey from Puerto Madryn took me to El Calafate. There, I froze while awing and the spectacular glaciar Perito Moreno, I hiked the Estancia Cristina from which I saw the Uppsala glacier, and from which I reached the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in Chile.

I then flew to Iguazu, from which I visited the magnificent Iguazu waterfalls, from both the Brasilian side and the Argentinian side. My next stop was Salta, from which I went to spend an incredible adventure day rafting and ziplining. I then rented a car and drove to the Quebrada de Humahuaca, stopping at Salinas Grandes, Humahuaca, Purmamarca and the lively Tilcara. This was my last stop before heading back to Buenos Aires and flying back to Italy.

For more posts about Argentina, click here.

Highlights of Peru

Highlights of Peru

My first stop in Peru was Trujillo, in the North. The city, which is surrounded by the desert, is very lively and interesting. I visited the nearby site of Chan Chan. A long bus journey across the desert took me to Lima, the incredible capital, where I visited the main attractions around Plaza de Armas and in Miraflores. Not far from Lima (although it is a long ride), I hiked Marcahuasi.

I then went south, to explored the Islas Ballestas, Paracas, sandboard in Huacachina and finally reach Nazca, where I took a bumpy place to fly over the lines and where I visited the many surrounding archeological sites. From Nazca, I made my way to Arequipa, the white city, from where I hiked the Canyon del Colca.

My next stop was Puno, which I used as the starting point to visit the islands of Lake Titicaca. A flight then took me to Cusco, the capital of the Inca empire, and an incredible city altogether: it offers so many attractions and even its surroundings are packed with archeological sites, such as Saksaywaman and Pucapucara. I further visited the Sacred Valley – the sites of Moray, Pisac and Ollantaytambo, which was my stop before embarking on the incredible experience of the Inca Trail. I got to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku, I explored all of the site and even hiked mountain Huayna Picchu.

Cusco was my last stop before having to fly back to Italy.

Read more about Peru!

Highlights of Ecuador

Highlights of Ecuador

Unfortunately, I could only spend 10 days in Ecuador and I was sick while I was there, so could not travel around too much. I think this is a country that deserves more than 10 days, as it has many attractions.

My first stop was Otavalo, where I eagerly shopped at its famous market and enjoyed seeing people dressed in traditional clothes, men wearing hats and trisas, and everybody proudly displayed his identity. I also went to the nearby city of Cotacachi, which is only a 30 minutes bus ride away.

My only other stop was Quito, the capital, whose hystorical centre I found really well preserved and where I visited the Plaza Grande, the Palacio del Gobierno, the Cathedral and the Monasterio de San Francisco and Museo Franciscano.

I then took a 10 hours bus ride to Guayaquil, where I stopped for one night en route to Peru. I was glad I was not spending more time in Guayaquil. It was terribly hot (and a shock, coming from the chilly and rainy Otavalo and Quito), and the entire city was infested with cockroaches – I am really afraid of them, as you can read on this post.

Here you can find more posts about Ecuador.

Highlights of Panama

Highlights of Panama

When I decided to leave on a 6 months trip, Panama was high on the list of must see places. I had great expectations from it, but unfortunately I was really disappointed with it. Despite being a top tourist destination in Central America, the services offered to backpackers are dim – I found it very expensive for what was actually offered.

My first stop in Panama, where I arrived from Costa Rica, was Bocas del Toro. I spent one night in Bocas Town, which I found really crowded and terribly dirty (picture garbage everywhere), then made my way to Isla Bastimentos (less crowded, but equally dirty). The weather was not great, and I caught some kind of bug so I was sick for most of my time there. Yet, I managed to go snorkeling and enjoyed seeing some star fish, and I went to Red Frog Beach. The problem with Bocas del Toro is that due to the constant heavy rain the visibility when snorkeling is not great, and the entire place is very muddy and it is not easy to move around unless wearing rain boots. I was so disappointed with all of this, that I looked forward to getting better so that I could move to another place.

When I was finally ok, I moved to Playa Las Lajas. It was so quiet, definitely off the beaten track. Here I relaxed and enjoyed some spectacular sunsets and downtime at the long, sandy beach. I then made my way to Panama City, which I totally enjoyed. I explored Casco Viejo, went to the fish market, and went to see the amazing Panama Canal. I then went to San Blas (another disappointment), before making my way back to Panama City to then fly to Colombia.

Care to know about my adventures in this country? Click here.