Colombia

The Ultimate Guide to Colourful Cartagena

Cartagena is one of the most beautiful and colourful cities I’ve ever visited.

Situated on the Caribbean coast, it’s got a decidedly different vibe to other places in Colombia.

Pronounced Car-tuh-hen-uh, there’s truly something for everyone in the city, whether you’re visiting to roam the pastel streets, shopping or sailing the Caribbean coast. 

What to Do

Wander the Historic Old City: The Walled City, also known as La Ciudad Amurallada, is a World Heritage site and the heart of Old Cartagena. Its buildings date back to the 16th century, and nowadays, many of them operate as shops, restaurants and boutique hotels.

Strolling the historic Old City is like stepping back in time and losing yourself in the shaded, historic plazas and vibrant, cobblestone streets. 

A few streets, in particular, we loved:

  • Calle de Don Sancho
  • Calle de la Iglesia
  • Calle 38 (look for the pink house), also Carrera 8 between Calle 38 and 39
  • Carrera 9
  • Calle de Don Sancho
  • Plaza Trinidad
  • Callejon Angosto (covered in bright umbrellas)
  • Calle de la Magdalena (umbrellas and swaying flags)

Walk Along the Top of the Fortress: Located along Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, Cartagena de Indias was once an important port of Colonial Spain.

In effort to protect the city from pirates, Spaniards built a massive 11-km-long wall,  turning the city into a fortress. Today, you can walk along the top of El Castillo de San Felipe fortress. 

Snap a Photo With Cartagena’s Fruit Sellers: You’ve likely seen them splashed across Cartagena travel guides. If you wander the old town, you’ll most definitely spot the palenqueras- the Afro-Caribbean fruit sellers are one of the most photographed icons of Cartagena.

Direct descendants of the world’s first free African slaves, the Palenqueras represent an incredible feat of human resistance.

Today, these make women make their money posing for photos, but this wasn’t always the case.

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Back in 1961, San Basillo de Palenque, a small village southeast of Cartagena, was ruled entirely by runaway African slaves. The town, independent from Spanish colonial powers, was the first free town of the Americas, and the men and women who lived there were known as Palenqueros and Palenqueras.

Although Palenque had achieved what no other town around it could, it was cut off from the rest of society, and thus- extremely poor.

The women of Palenque decided to sell what they had in abundance around them- tropical fruit. They’d pack their baskets full with fruit, put on their traditional African dresses, and head to Cartagena by foot.

In the city, they’d sell fruit until their baskets were empty. Over time, the practice became a steady income source, and as more and more Palenquera traveled into Cartagena, they became one of the city’s biggest icons.

Today, the Palenqueras sell less fruit- instead, making money by posing for photos with travelers.

Not many visitors actually know what these women represent- they’re respected figures, seen as courageous, hard-working mothers, and reminders of a thriving Afro-Caribbean heritage.

If you decide to take a photo with them, or of them, be sure to tip them appropriately. Remember- this is a job for them.

h/t to The Culture Trip for the background info on the Palenqueras- so many blogs I read about Cartagena mentioned taking photos with them, but provided no context on the significance of who they are.

Watch the Sunset Over the City: We dug the Movich hotel’s views of the city and sea beyond. While we certainly weren’t the only ones there, it also wasn’t as crowded as other well known bars.

We’d head a lot about Cafe del Mar, a bar build into the historic wall that’s famed for its sunset views. But, we’d also heard it gets insanely crowded and cocktails are lackluster, so we skipped checking it out.

Take a Day Trip to Islas Rosario: Cartagena’s proximity to the equator means it’s hot and humid throughout the year. Humidity levels average around 80%, with the temperature hovering between 25°C and 30°C. 

Even during the cooler months, from January to March, sunshine reins supreme, and the days are warm enough to warrant a dip in the ocean.

When planning our visit, we knew we wanted to spend time seaside, but weren’t sure what’d be the best way to do so.

The beaches adjacent to historic old town will suit if you’re just after a quick dip, but aren’t exactly the stuff lounging in the sand dreams are made of.

We’d read Playa Blanca on Isla Baru was one of the most popular beaches to visit. With colorful beach shacks, pina colada stands and beautiful turquoise water, Baru makes for a pretty great day trip. What’s more, it’s easy to reach- friends told us they’d coordinated a day trip return taxi for $50-60 USD. But, with its popularity comes vendors selling things up and down the sand.

Another thing we considered was a day at Blue Apple Beach. Thirty minutes from Cartagena by boat, on the southern shore of Tierra Bomba Island, Blue Apple is a private beach club. Space is limited, so you’ll need to book in advance and specify if you want space by the pool, beach or a cabana.

In the end, we decided we really wanted to visit the Rosario Islands on a boat trip.

If we had another day, we would have likely gone to Baru or checked out Blue Apple Beach. But, with only one day to spend seaside, we decided a sailing trip would be best since it didn’t require much planning from us, and meant we could just lounge on a boat all day with food and drinks taken care of.

When looking into tour providers, we saw some recommendations to charter our own boat. But, with only two of us, that’d be quite a costly option.

Thankfully, we found Bona Vida Catamarans.

Bona Vida offers a beautiful day at sea, without being crammed onto a boat with a bunch of strangers.

The catamaran sails to the Islas Rosario, an archipelago of 27 coral rich islands, part of Colombia’s most important national park. Each of the islands are beautiful and diverse in their own way, and have something to offer for everyone.

If you’re visiting Cartagena for a week or so, you may want to consider spending a night or two actually on one of the islands- the resorts and beach huts we sailed past look like the epitome of relaxation.

On your day at sea, you’ll make two stops- one to snorkel and swim, and another on a private beach, where you can swim up to the coast. A morning snack, lunch, fresh fruit juice and water are provided as part of your booking.

All up, it was a beautiful day. Our sailing tour was seamless and simple, allowing us to truly unwind and enjoy the beautiful national park we were in.

// A Day in the Sun, Sailing Cartagena’s Rosario Island //

Salsa the Night Away at Cafe Havana

No explanation needed, really. If you come to Colombia and don’t dance, you’re doing it wrong. 

Where to Eat

We were only in Cartagena for three days, and each one of those days, only at in restaurants for one meal- sometimes two, if we did a quick/cheap early morning breakfast. Otherwise, we took to the streets for arepas, because, when in Colombia.

That said, I don’t have a bunch of restaurant recos, but you know, quality over quantity.

  • Maria Bonita: Creative cocktails and great tacos
  • Pasteleria Mila: Best for banana bread and fresh juices
  • Beiyu: Don’t miss the acai bowls
  • Cafe de la Manana: Ace for breakfast, more on why we loved it below

We didn’t have a chance to check Bohemia out, but it came highly recommended as a foodie destination. Same for Alma at Hotel San Agustin.

Also, Alquimico was recommended to us for drinks, but we decided to stay in and chill the night we’d thought about going. However, it was described to us as a bar with a different cocktail experience on every floor, which sounds pretty cool.

Where to Drink Coffee

Even though Cartagena isn’t anywhere near Colombia’s coffee-growing region, you will find a few spots that rival spots in coffee-central spots, like Medellin and Bogota.

From small espresso bars to speciality shops with a slew of awards to show for their brews, any coffee lover will find something to enjoy in Cartagena.

With only three days in Cartagena, we didn’t work and thus, can’t vouch for any of these spots being good for nomads.

However, we were able to connect to WiFi at most of them, and found them perfect for cooling off with a cup of coffee, or refreshing fruit drink.

Cafe de la Mañana: Ace for breakfast in the old city. We loved this spot so much, we came twice. 

It’s small, but spacious. Expect to wait a bit for a table during peak meal times. There’s WiFi for those without cell service, and overhead fans to help cool the air.

We thought the vegetarian breakfast, which came out to ~$7 USD per person was priced well for how touristy Cartagena is. It included scrambled eggs, arepas or hummus toast, fresh fruit and vegetables, plus fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee, which you can asked for iced.

Here, we tended to linger for a bit after breakfast, reading and relaxing. Usually, we ordered another round of fresh fruit juices to try.

Already familiar with guanábana (soursop) from my time in Asia, as well as lulo and granadilla from my time in Medellin, I was delighted to find another tropical fruit here to try on their menu- corozo, which has a berry taste, similar to strawberry.

Abacao Libros y Cafe: Bookstore meets cafe, always a favourite combination of mine.

Here, you’ll find great iced coffee, tall glasses of limonada de coco, and cold brew cocktails.

The air-con is strong, WiFi is available, and there are plenty of seats at the bar, as well as a selection of small tables.

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Cafe San Alberto: Operating off the belief that coffee is a science, brews here come from a family farm in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region.

The staff knows their coffee stuff and is eager to help explain their brews to ensure you select the best drink.

Of course, I had the cold brew. Super good, definitely among one of the better cups I’ve tried over the years.

Cafe del Mural: The definition of a hidden gem in Cartagena’s up and coming, hip Getsemani ‘hood.

Tucked down a side street, the cafe’s decor is vintagey and beautiful. If you prefer to have your coffee alfresco, there’s ample outdoor seating amidst a garden area with loads of cool street graffiti.

A few other spots we enjoyed:

  • Libertario Coffee Co. & Roasters: Third-wave coffee and great croissants, good spot for brekkie on the go if you’re staying in the Getsemani ‘hood
  • Folklore Colombian Coffee: Good brews and breakfast
  • Boundless Coffee: Cafe meets mezcal bar
  • Juan Valdez: The Starbucks of Colombia, good for those times when you need a caffeine fix early or late, or just need WiFi while on the go

// A Guide to Cartagena’s Best Cafes, Perfect for Cooling Off //

Where to Stay

A few years ago, it wasn’t considered safe to roam the Getsemani neighborhood. Now, it’s one of Cartagena’s trendiest areas, packed with cool cafes, restaurants and street stalls.

We stayed in an Airbnb (private room, en-suite bathroom) along Parque Del Centenario, which meant we were next to both Getsemani, and only a 5 minute walk from Old Town.

This location felt utterly perfect- the best of both worlds. And, because we were near one of the main roads outside of Old Town, there were always taxis milling about. Grabbing one to go to the airport for our flights was a cinch.

Extra Colombia Travel Tips

Language: Transactional English is spoken at upmarket stores and restaurants in the Old Town area. 

Throughout Colombia, and South America and Latin America, you won’t find many people who are fluent in English. With Spanish as the national language, it’s best to pick up a few key phrases, or have Google Translate at the ready.

Currency: Colombian Peso

I withdrew from bank ATMs. Look for Visa and Mastercard images on an ATM- that means it’s global, and only withdraw from a bank one (there’s less of a chance your card will be skimmed). I’d advise carrying cash on you- some purchases are so small, you won’t meet the card minimum if the place you’re at even takes cards.

Budget: We found Cartagena to be a lot more expensive than other parts of Colombia. Compared to Medellin, things were at least 2-3x the cost, and usually not as great of quality. That said, I’d still class it a budget destination if you’re visiting from the US or UK. 

In Medellin, we had no issue living very nicely on $12-15 USD a day to cover coffees, juices, fresh fruit, brunch and dinner. In Cartagena, we upped our daily food/coffee budget to $20-25 USD per day, which usually covered brunch, street food for dinner, ~2 coffees/juices, and fresh fruit from a street vendor.

Getting There: Unless you’re flying direct from Orlando, Miami or Fort Lauderdale, you’ll likely layover in Florida or Panama en-route from the northern hemisphere. 

Heading to Cartagena, we flew from Medellin, and on my way back to the US, I flew Spirit to NYC, stopping in Fort Lauderdale for a few hours.

Once at the airport, you can grab a taxi to wherever you’re staying in town. If you’re flying international, there’ll be automatic reservation machines in the airport. If you’re coming in on a domestic flight, there’s an agent and ticket booth outside of the terminal, and to the left. Both ways, if you’re headed to Getsemani, it shouldn’t be more than 14-16 COP ($3-4 USD).

Getting Around: The historic centre and its surroundings are walkable, so if you stay in that area, you can plan on getting around by foot. 

If you’re covering a larger distance, taxis are plentiful on the street. Be sure to agree on cost before getting in- Cartagena taxis don’t have metres.

When to Visit: We visited in early February, when temps are cooler and there’s usually a nice sea breeze to cool visitors off. 

Before going, friends had warned us it would be unbearably humid, but we actually felt cool at times- especially in the evenings. Mosquitos also weren’t an issue as it was the midst of Cartagena’s dry season. 

Tipping: Tipping is common practice in Colombia. Be prepared to add ‘con diez’ or ‘con quince’ to your bill. 

Wifi Access: Most cafes had free WiFi, although we had Tigo SIMs and weren’t too worried about being connected. 

SIM Card Options: We we entered Colombia earlier in the month in Medellin, we bought sims from a convenience store in the Medellin airport.

We went with Tigo, which cost $6 USD for 2.5 GB of data. Not super cheap, but also not too expensive, and much less hassle, buying at the airport, than trying to find a seller in the city.

In Cartagena, we needed to top up our SIMs, and found an arcade, full of Tigo and Claro shops just outside the old town. We walked around, saying, ‘Recarga?’, and eventually had one vendor offer to help load us back up. To find this arcade, just Google search, ‘Tigo store, Cartagena’ – there’s only one map location near the old town.

Have you ever visited Cartagena? Is it a destination on your list of places to visit one day?Would you add anything to this guide to Cartagena?

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2 comments

  1. I LOVED Cartagena when I went last year. Stunning, gorgeous, colorful…everywhere you turn, and it’s impossible not to want to take a photo of everything you see. The assortment of Popsicles looks lovely, and I’d love to return some day for a revisit. Thanks for bringing back the memories!

    1. Glad you had a great time in Cartagena as well! Such a gorgeous coastal city, that’s for sure. And, I totally get what you’re saying with the desire to take photos of everything, it was for sure a place where I walked away with thousands of photos to sort though.

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