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!

Costa Rica attractions: Puerto Viejo, the extreme laidback side of the country

Costa Rica attractions: Puerto Viejo, the extreme laidback side of the country

Puerto Viejo is the perfect place to be a beach bum or to practice one’s surfing abilities in the pristine Caribbean waters of Costa Rica. It has some of the best beaches in Costa Rica. The lush nature around town, its dusty streets, artesania shops, good bars and seafood restaurants and its relaxed rastafarian community (be prepared to listen to reggae music all day long, see the typical colours of rastafarians all around town and being served by a waitress who will laughingly admit to having smoked marjiuana) make this place charming and therefore one of Costa Rica attractions. The good news is that there are plenty of cheap accommodation, eating options and activities not to blow anyone’s travel budget.

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Waves and wildlife are among Costa Rica attractions

Things to do in Costa Rica:

Surf and snorkel

Salsa Brava is thought to have the best waves of the country and is among the best beaches of Costa Rica for surfing. The coral reef almost emerges from the waters, so make sure to catch that wave unless willing to crash on the reef: in other words, it is only good for experts. Playa Cocles, about 2 km east of Puerto Viejo, has great but less dangerous waves, usually in the first hours of day. To catch the best ones, go between December and March. Not a surfer but willing to give it a try? Enroll in one of the surf camps.

Playa Negra is a great beach for swimming and body board. Snorkelling is best enjoyed in the areas between Cahuita and Manzanillo – for better visibility go when there are no waves. For scuba diving, there are over 20 good sites in the area where it is possible admire various species of fish. For information, the best option is Reef Runner Divers – it is even possible dive with a temporary permission for those who do not have a patent.

Puerto Viejo

Sand, coral reef and forest in one of the best beaches in Costa Rica

Hike and bike

Puerto Viejo is a great starting point for other things to do in Costa Rica, such as a hike in the rain forest, kayaking, walking. And then go back to town to enjoy a delicious rondon soup (a traditional fish soup with vegetables and spices typical of the area). There are organised tours of the parks, but it is easy to hike around (and for free) independently in the Parque Nacional Cahuita and in the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo where toucans and sloths can be spotted. South-east of town the jungle meets the sea, contoured by palm trees and inhabited by toucans, sloths and monkeys: it all gives this a special aura. Carry lunch and plenty of water.

Be lazy

For those who want to be extra lazy, the best option is to just walk around, browse the artesania shops, enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and mingle with the local artists.

Puerto Viejo biking

Biking around? One of the many things to do in Costa Rica

Where to stay and eat:

Backpackers looking for cheap accommodation in Puerto Viejo will find Hostel Pagalù a great quality option: comfortable beds (dorms are 12 US dollars), rooms and bathrooms are spotless, there is a cozy common area with books, wifi and computers, a well equipped kitchen to prepare meals. No reservations are accepted but those lucky enough to find a bed, will never be kicked out unless they decide to leave!

There are good supermarkets to buy and prepare meals. Those too lazy to cook who would rather eat out shoudl go to Soda Mirna, in the main street, as it is the best budget option with its set meals and large portions. Bread and Chocolate is perfect for a very filling breakfast, and everything is organic and prepared from scratch, not to mention delicious.

Various bars have live music at night.

Getting to Puerto Viejo and away:

It is possible to get here by catching a bus from the Gran Terminal de Caribe in San Jose. From Tortuguero, catch a bus from Cariari to Guapiles and then hop on another bus to Puerto Viejo.

To reach Panama get a direct bus to Sixaola (they leave several times a day) and then cross the border in Guabito.

For more things to do in Costa Rica click here.