How to Spend 36 Hours in Cartagena, Colombia

You can pack a lot into 36 hours by staying in the pretty Old Town of Cartagena
You can pack a lot into 36 hours by staying in the pretty Old Town of Cartagena | © dbimages / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Chris Bell
5 September 2021

Cartagena is the most popular tourist destination in Colombia, with thousands of visitors enchanted every year by the magic and romance of the Jewel of the Indies. Just 36 hours is a short time to spend here, but with a little planning, you can experience the best of the city.

If you’re spending just one night in Cartagena, book a hotel or hostel within the old walled city. That way, you’re in the heart of the most beautiful district and won’t need to waste time traveling. There are lovely places to stay throughout the neighborhood, catering to a variety of budgets, from high-end five-star hotels to simple backpacker hostels. You can also stay here with Culture Trip as part of our epic eight-day Colombian Caribbean adventure, which includes four nights at a charming hotel in Cartagena Walled City.

When you first arrive in the city, take a stroll around the picture-postcard streets of the Old Town, stopping along the way at the beautiful squares – Plaza de San Pedro Claver, Plaza de Bolívar and Plaza Santo Domingo are particularly lovely – to absorb the unique Caribbean atmosphere. After, get a table in one of the city’s many excellent restaurants – try La Mulata for delicious traditional seafood at reasonable prices.

Aim to stay in the Old Town to cut down on travel time | © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

In the afternoon, leave the Old Town to visit the imposing San Felipe de Barajas castle, an impressive 17th-century Spanish fort that offers panoramic views over the city and the Caribbean Sea. The castle offers a labyrinth of hidden tunnels to explore – visit with a guide to get much-needed historical background.

Visit San Felipe de Barajas for splendid views over the city and Caribbean Sea | © agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

Sunsets over the Caribbean from Cartagena’s walls are the stuff of legend, so this is one of the few genuine must-sees during your stay. Head to Café del Mar for a sundowner rum cocktail, then stroll back into the city for dinner at La Cevicheria, a laid-back spot offering some of the best ceviche in the city. If you feel like having a night out, head to the hip Getsemani neighborhood. Grab a beer or two at the bustling Plaza de la Trinidad before hitting up one of the legendary nightclubs in the student barrio: Café Havana for salsa, Bazurto Social Club for live champeta or Quiebra Canto to watch some of the best dancers in town.

La Cevichería is the best place for ceviche in Cartagena | © Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 2 / Alamy Stock Photo

The next morning (assuming you aren’t too hungover) book a tour to La Boquilla to explore the beautiful mangrove swamps just outside Cartagena – an activity which is included on our exclusive Colombian Caribbean coast trip, led by our local insider. It’s a great way to experience a different side of the region, and enjoy the nature for which Colombia is rightly famed. La Boquilla is a little seaside fishing village, and a tour of the mangroves takes you out on a wooden canoe to look for birds and animals in one of Cartagena’s most important ecosystems.

The Le Boquilla mangrove swamps are one of the most important ecosystems in Cartagena | © Arcaid Images / Alamy Stock Photo

There’s an excellent beach at La Boquilla, too, so grab an umbrella, order fresh fish for lunch and enjoy quality beach time before you return to the city. Return for one last chance to explore the Walled City on the free walking tour, which provides amazing insights into the storied history of Cartagena.

Visit La Boquilla beach for a chill before returning to the city | © chrispictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Grab one last fresh juice from a street vendor, pick up your bags from the hotel and head off to the airport. It’s a shame to have so little time in such a magical city, but with this itinerary, you will have made the most of your Cartagena trip.

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