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Cartagena, Colombia Travel Guide

Cartagena Summary

Pros

  • Vibrant Caribbean city with an incredibly well-preserved historical center
  • Tons of lodging options, from handsome boutique hotels to budget-friendly hostels 
  • Burgeoning foodie scene, from can’t miss street stalls to celebrity-chef restaurants
  • World-renowned nightlife in the happening Bocagrande and Getsemaní districts 
  • Affordable city — great exchange rates between USD and Colombian Peso 
  • Generally safe destination, despite Colombia’s previously unfavorable reputation 
  • Known as “the place where South America vacations” — tons of multicultural visitors
  • Hot weather year-round, though some travelers may find it too hot at times 
  • Friendly locals who are eager to welcome visitors 
  • Tap water is safe to drink 

Cons

  • Beaches are crowded and not the prettiest
  • Poor drainage system means frequent flooding 
  • Some neighborhoods feel a bit seedy 
  • English isn’t widely spoken (except in most upscale hotels) 

What It's Like:

Vibrant, colorful, and full of life — it’s hard to describe Cartagena without imparting a sense of vitality. There’s an upbeat energy that pulses through the streets of this sultry city, despite year-round temperatures that hover in the 90s. Colorfully dressed palenqueras sell fruit on city streets, families fly kites near the fortress walls, lovers watch the sunset from rooftop decks, and traffic swirls in dizzying patterns along the waterfront. At night, you’ll hear the clip-clop of horse drawn carriages in the old city, and the unmistakable sound of chiva buses in Bocagrande. Cartagena is chaotic, but its vivacious spirit is endearing. 

Founded in 1533, Cartagena — officially Cartagena de Indias — is one of the oldest cities in the Americas, and its incredibly preserved colonial city is its top tourist attraction. The walled zone was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. In fact, Cartagena is so beautiful, it’s said that when contemporaries of Gabriel Garcia Marquez — one of Colombia’s most lauded writers — first saw it, they discredited his brilliance. They felt that the city’s vibrant atmosphere and colorful locals, which make cameos throughout his work, were almost magical, meaning that Marquez’s magical realism was mere reportage. Today, the walled city is home to palaces-turned-museums, like the Palacio de la Inquisicion, as well as forts, former convents, and lots of cafes and boutiques.

Though its walled city is a can’t-miss attraction, Cartagena isn’t all historical sights and colonial architecture. The Bocagrande neighborhood, which can be seen from the old city’s fortress walls, looks like Miami, with modern high-rise buildings, large shopping malls, beachfront restaurants, and tons of nightclubs. Bocagrande is a contemporary beachfront playground that offers travelers an antidote to the walled’s city’s colonial charm. La Boquilla is another popular tourist-oriented neighborhood with lots of beachfront hotels. It has larger beaches than Bocagrande, and is known for excellent kite-surfing conditions. It’s a nice option for travelers looking for a quiet beachfront stay, as opposed to the rowdy atmosphere in Bocagrande. It should be noted that all of Cartagena’s beaches aren't the prettiest to be found — the sand has a dark hue and there's no electric-blue stretches of Caribbean Sea. Travelers in search of something more stereotypically tropical should take a day trip the Islas del Rosario, a small archipelago about 65 miles from Cartagena. 

Just outside the walled city is the trendy Getsemani neighborhood. Once a crime-ridden barrio known for prostitution and drugs, Getsemani is now home to the city’s young, artsy, bohemian residents who have completely transformed its vibe. Getsemani is so unlike the rest of Cartagena, it’s worth a visit just to feel its eclectic spirit. You'd be excused for having a serious “Am I in Brooklyn?” moment while munching on lobster rolls and petting the resident bulldog at a roof-less, gravel-floor restaurant near the neighborhood’s main square. 

Safety is often a major concern for travelers headed to Colombia, considering the country was embroiled in horrifying civil military conflicts and the international drug trade since the 1980s. In 2000, drug cartels and guerrilla groups were responsible for giving Colombia the unfortunate statistic of “country with the highest number of kidnappings.” But today, Colombia is revamping its image, thanks in part to President Juan Manuel Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for his efforts to obtain peace between the government and the leftist rebel groups. Of course, there are still dodgy pockets in remote areas of the country, but travelers who visit major cities and top tourist destinations shouldn’t have any issues. Cartagena feels incredibly safe, even at night (and alone). The city is well patrolled by law enforcement, and even has a division of tourist police. Like any big city, petty crime exists, so keep your wits about you and always be aware of your surroundings. And one last thing — say no to drugs. While cocaine and marijuana are fairly cheap and easy to obtain in Colombia, tourists can be slammed with felony charges if suspected of possessing illegal substances. Additionally, many locals find drug use offensive, since many consider cocaine the root of the country’s messy political and economic woes.  

Where to Stay:

It would almost be criminal to visit Cartagena and not stay in one of the walled city’s incredibly restored mansions. With grand courtyards, Juliet balconies, and charming colonial architecture, most of the mansions have been converted into boutique hotels. Travelers can find boutique accommodations at many price points, like the the high-end Hotel Casa San Agustin, the mid-range Alfiz Hotel, or the budget-friendly Hotel 3 Banderas. In Getsamaní, we love Allure Chocolat Hotel By Karisma Hotels & Resorts for its trendy decor and awesome rooftop pool, while our favorite spot in Bocagrande is the Hotel Dann Cartagena, for its prime real estate at the end of the beach. Keep in mind that Bocagrande will be a better choice for those looking to party, while the walled city might be a better choice for those looking to savor their tourist time amid the neighborhood's charming atmosphere.

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