The Top Things to See and Do in Cartagena, Colombia
There is plenty to discover in the Old Town of Cartagena, Colombia | © Anna Mueller / Alamy Stock Photo
Cartagena is a port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, boasting colorful buildings, a rich history and plenty of things to see and do. Here’s a list of the top sights and activities in the city.
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Located in the heart of Cartagena, this walled city, protected by a fortress, was once used to shelter the city from pirates and storms. Within this small sector, you will find an incredible array of bars, restaurants, shops and some beautiful (and rather expensive) hotels. Despite it being filled with tourists pretty much all year round, this historic corner of the city has not lost its charm.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
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You cannot visit Cartagena without making a trip up to this huge castle, which peers out over the city. This grand construction was started in 1639 but was not completed until 150 years later. However, since its completion, it has been the crowning landmark in the city, and visitors can now stroll through the battlements, weave their way through underground passages and admire the impressive architecture.
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Playa Blanca is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful beaches in Colombia. Located on Barú Island, it is 45 minutes by boat from the Port of Cartagena, or around a two-hour car journey from the main city. Crystal-clear waters lap the perfectly white sand, and visitors have the option to spend a day relaxing on this incredible beach or, should that not be enough, to also stay overnight. Come for the day, and make the most of some delicious fresh fish served alongside coconut rice. Stay the night, and you can appreciate the beach in complete stillness and silence once all the day-trippers leave. Either way, a visit to this beach is a must for anyone spending more than a day in Cartagena.
Museo del Oro Zenú
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Almost every large Colombian city has a gold museum, and Cartagena is no exception. Although it is small, the Museo del Oro Zenú hosts a fantastic collection of the gold and pottery of the Zenú (also known as Sinú) people, who inhabited the departments of Bolívar, Córdoba, Sucre and Northern Antioquia before the Spanish Conquest. Look out for special exhibitions and the guided tours, offered in both English and Spanish.
Mercado de Bazurto
Market, South American, $$$
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It’s loud, busy and pretty overwhelming, but for those travelers looking to experience the real Cartagena, a visit to Mercado de Bazurto is a must. This food market sells everything from fresh fruit to cooked turtle (which is discouraged by authorities but considered a traditional meal in many indigenous communities). You are sure to revel in the sheer array of produce and food on offer at Mercado de Bazurto, and you’ll be stunned by the prices, too: expect a two-course lunch to set you back no more than about $2 (£1.50). Remember to be mindful of your belongings as you wander through the market.
Eat some incredible ceviche at La Cevichería
Restaurant, South American, $$$
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Regarded as one of the best ceviche and fish restaurants in the whole city, head to La Cevichería for a break from all the fritos
(fried food) you’ve been eating and experience some incredible Peruvian-Colombian fusion food. Expect fresh fish, exciting flavors, lots of lime and some seriously good cocktails. The place is eternally busy, so you’ll probably have to wait for a table. Our epic eight-day Colombia trip
includes a street food tour in Cartagena, where you can taste Colombian classics like ceviche
Dance salsa at one of the best bars in the city
Bar, South American, $$$
© RosaIreneBetancourt 9 / Alamy Stock Photo
Cafe Havana is the place to be if you like listening or dancing to salsa music. Even if you’ve never danced it in your life, it’s still worth heading to the city’s cultural and party center, Getsemani, to try out this Cuban-style bar. Cafe Havana draws a mixed crowd of locals and immigrants and welcomes talented live salsa bands, who keep the crowd entertained until the early hours. Even if you’ve got two left feet, head on down for some perfectly mixed cocktails, enjoy the music and watch others take to the dance floor.
Hang out with the locals at the beach in La Boquilla
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La Boquilla is a fishing village on the outskirts of Cartagena. What it lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in character and authenticity, as this is the beach favored by locals. If you head down on a weekend, you’ll find it heaving with Cartageneros who have come to kick back, sip some beer and sunbathe. The food on offer is fantastic – you can feast on some freshly caught fish and try the local delicacy arroz con coco (rice with coconut).
Partying on a chiva bus is a typical Colombian thing to do | © Pierrick Lemaret / Alamy Stock Photo
A night spent on a chiva (party bus) is a very Colombian activity – expect live musicians playing Vallenato, an open bar with local liquor and a lot of dancing. While the party starts on the bus, you’ll, then, be dropped off at various bars around the city, ending up in a larger club, where your chiva will leave you to dance the night away. Most of the hostels in the city arrange chiva tours, and, for those traveling alone, this is a great way to meet new people. Just make sure you’re ready to have fun!