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
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
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
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
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.
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!
I had to jump in!
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!
I arrived in Nicaragua after a long bus ride from Copan Ruinas (Honduras). It took me 18 hours on what probably was the least comfortable private transportation of Central America. Leon was my first stop in Nicaragua, and I took the chance to take it easy there. It is a very interesting city, with a rich history (it actively participated in the revolution), and it retains all of its original character. I relaxed in Poneloya beach, on the Pacific Coast; I hiked Volcano Cerro Negro – where I also tried volcano boarding; I browsed around the city many museums and churches; I explored its history and visited the ruins of Leon Vieja.
After a while, the heat in Leon took its toll and I went to Estelì (not before stopping in Managua for a few hours), where I enjoyed the lovely fresh air and chilled atmosphere. I then headed to Granada to enjoy its splendour, explore the lake and its Isletas, visit the Laguna de Apoyo and eat in its great restaurants. Granada is definitely the most touristic destination in Nicaragua, yet I managed to get a hostel bed for as little as 5 USD per night.
From Granada, I reached Rivas where I boarded a ferry to Isla de Ometepe and went to spend Christmas at Finca Magdalena, in Balgues. It was lovely, immersed in the forest and isolated, and reading while laying on the hammoks was a great pastime. I rode a motorbike around the island, explored the laguna and the volcanoes. A few days later I managed to find a Tica Bus from Rivas to San Josè (Costa Rica) and left Nicaragua – but not forever!
My baby, Minnie – the face I miss the most when I am away from home
What to do when you are on the road and miss your canine or feline companion
I know there are many animal lovers among backpackers. I recently saw a video about the story of a dog in Brazil who, every night, risks her life to carry food to her friends. That got me thinking… Hardly any human being would do that, and we have a lesson to learn from this amazing dog. I don’t have dogs at home in Italy – I have several cats, all adopted. I have volunteered at a cat shelter for years, and I keep helping local shelters with donations, or searching for a home for their guests. I always campaign in favour of sterilisation of pets and strays, to reduce the risk of spreading letal diseases (such as feline HIV or leukemia which are spread through bites and scratches during fights, to give just one example) and to minimize the chances that new puppies or kitties are born for which no family can be found. I am convinced that sterilisation is the best way to ensure cats and dogs don’t end up living in crowded shelters or, even worst, in the streets of city jungles, where they desperately search for food and shelter against the heat or rain or cold weather; with nobody to take care of them if they get sick.
Believe it or not, whenever I travel, the face I miss the most is that of my cat Minnie, closely followed by that of my other cats. It breaks my heart not seeing them every day, not listening to their soft purrs, not being there to play. Yet, I somehow end up meeting lovely cats and dogs. Many hostels have their own, so it happened a few times that I shared my bed with one of them (although this meant breaking the rules as I was not supposed to let them in, but shhhh don’t tell anybody!). While travelling in Argentina in 2012, a couple of dogs followed me around El Calafate. I eventually went to a pet shop to buy them food, and each night, after dinner, I would carry my leftovers (and at times the leftovers of the whole restaurant) to feed the strays. I know giving human food to animals is not great, but at least it was something. Through the hostel, I even made a donation to a local shelter.
Mono looks so much like my cat Arturo I could not help but let him on my bed!
A rather funny scene I saw in November 2013 was that of two dogs who, in Flores (Guatemala), jumped in the lake. At first I thought they wanted to just cool down a bit, but then I noticed that they started swimming towards the other side of the lake. The one in the front kept looking back to make sure his friend was following. It took them about 15 minutes to get to the other side. But then, we all know dogs are good swimmers.
He also enjoyed the view from the Volcano Pacaya
Last February, I was walking around aimlessly in Cartagena, Colombia, at night, enjoying the cool breeze after the daily heat. A dog started to follow me around. I thought she may be hungry so I stopped to buy her food. I fed her but she did not seem really interested. Eventually a lady who observed the scene told me: “no busca comida, busca familia!” “She is not looking for food, she is looking for a family”. I wish I could be her family! Eventually, she decided other travellers were more interesting to follow, so she abandoned me.
A Peruvian naked dog in Trujillo
However, the top of my experience with dogs on the road was in Peru. I went on a hike to Marcahuasi, the most remote place you can imagine. The main village in the area, San Pedro de Casta, is very small and there are many dogs around. One even walked me to the hospedaje municipal (the only accommodation for travellers in the area), right to my room. I guess he wanted to make sure it was clean and everything worked ok. When I started my hike, at 6:00 am the day after, a dog started following me. I thought he would leave eventually, as the trek was tiring. He actually joined me all the way up, and then down, for a full 8 hours of huffing and puffing. It was a lonely but enjoyable walk (I met 3 peasants on the way, a lady with a donkey, and a lonely donkey, and that was it), so Barbon (that’s how I named him) was my only company. Each time I stopped for breath, he stopped too, and if he thought I was taking too long a break, he’d yelp to encourage me to keep on walking. When I reached the top of Marcahuasi, I shared my snacks with him, and we posed for pictures together. He then guided me back down. I later learned from other friends who went on the same hike that he also followed them (I had asked them specifically to look for him!). I will always carry him in my heart.
Posing with Barbon in Marcahuasi
So, what can backpackers living on a budget do to help animals they meet during their wanders? The first and most logical thing would be feeding them. At some point or another, you will have leftovers, you won’t be able to finish your meal. So take them and make a dog happy – as I have already said, human food is not great for dogs, but strays end up having bad food in the street anyways, and they have to fight for it too. The other thing you can do is giving them fresh, clean water. Donations to local shelters and associations are an easy way to help: ask locally or search the web, make sure the association is a genuine one you can trust, and not working for profit – the cat shelter I volunteered for in Italy devoted 100% of the donations it received to the cure of its animals, whether it was for health care or food. Even if you can spare just a few dollars, it helps. Last but not least… Have you thought about voluntourism? This means, quite literally, taking volunteer vacations: the same association you can donate money to will most likely need a hand, either to take care of their animals or to raise more funds. One example? If you are a good photographer, take pictures of the cats and dogs living at the shelter, and put together a calendar with a very short story of them and of the association. In most countries, many calendars are sold over the Christmas period to be given as presents. If you find a tipography that prints them for a reasonable price and sponsors which in exchange for some publicity on the calendar give you some of the funds, you can be more than sure to make profits for the shelter. This is a great way to put together your love for animals and your passion for wandering the world. I will definitely do it on my next trip. What about you?
HELLO, NICE TO MEET YOU!
Hi, my name is Claudia. One day I packed my life and started traveling… except I packed too much. Follow me as I fill my life with dreams, drop the weight and inspire you to live your dreams. View and download my media kit here (updated July 2019). Learn more about me here…