How to Spend 36 Hours in Cartagena, Colombia

Palenqueras in Cartagena | © Luz Adriana Villa/Flickr
Palenqueras in Cartagena | © Luz Adriana Villa/Flickr
Photo of Chris Bell
6 September 2017

Cartagena is Colombia’s most popular tourist destination, 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 in that time.

If you’re spending just one night in the city, it is worth booking a hotel or hostel within the Old Walled City. That way, you are right in the heart of Cartagena’s most beautiful district and won’t need to waste precious time on taxis or buses. There are lovely places to stay throughout the neighborhood, catering for a variety of budgets, from high-end five-star hotels to simple backpacker hostels.

A palenquera walks through the streets of Cartagena | © ShonEjai / Pixabay

When you first arrive in the city, just drop off your bags and take a stroll around the picture-postcard streets of the Old Town, stopping along the way at the most beautiful squares in the Old Town – Plaza San Pedro Claver, Plaza de Bolívar, and Plaza Santo Domingo are particularly lovely – to absorb the unique Caribbean atmosphere. Spend the morning enjoying the amazing atmosphere before grabbing something to eat in one of the city’s many excellent restaurants. La Mulata is particularly recommended for delicious traditional seafood at reasonable prices.

In the afternoon you should head out of the Old Town to visit the imposing San Felipe de Barajas Castle, an impressive 17th-century Spanish fort that offers remarkable panoramic views over the city and the Caribbean Sea. The castle offers a labyrinth of hidden tunnels to explore, and you can visit it with or without a guide, although visiting with a guide offers some extra details about the history of this amazing castle, and is recommended.

San Felipe de Barajas Castle | © samlopes_br/Pixabay

Make sure to be on the Old Town walls at sunset. 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 36 hours. Grab a table at the famous Café del Mar for a sundowner rum cocktail, then stroll back into the city for dinner at La Cevicheria, a laid-back ceviche spot offering some of the best food in the city. If you feel like having a night out after such a long day, head out of the Old Town again to the hip Getsemani neighborhood. Grab a beer or two at the bustling Plaza Trinidad before hitting up one of the legendary three 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.

The next morning (assuming you aren’t too hungover from the previous night’s exploits) book a tour to La Boquilla to explore the beautiful mangrove swamps just outside Cartagena. It’s a great way to experience a different side of the region, and also to 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 looks for birds and animals in one of Cartagena’s most important ecosystems.

Exploring the mangroves of La Boquilla | © Chris Bell

There’s an excellent beach at La Boquilla as well, so once your tour is done, grab yourself an umbrella, order some fresh fish for lunch, and enjoy some quality beach time before you return to the city. But make sure you get back in time for one last chance to explore the magical and history of the Walled City on the Free Walking Tour that operates daily between 4 and 6 p.m. The tour gives some amazing insights into the storied history of the Jewel of the Indies, so try not to miss it.

By this point, your 36 hours is almost at an end, so 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 at least made the absolute most of your trip to Cartagena.

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