With year-round sunny skies, clear Caribbean waters, colorful colonial architecture and a wealth of Afro-Colombian culture to explore, it’s no wonder that Cartagena is neck and neck with the much larger Bogotá when it comes to attracting tourists to Colombia. Whether you want to spend a vacation sunbathing by the beach or plan an itinerary full of natural and historical sites, here are the things to know before setting out to discover the Jewel of the Indies.
Cartagena may be Colombia’s most touristic city, but savvy travelers can easily avoid the more crowded areas by choosing carefully where they book their accommodations.
Those who prefer to be in the center of the madness should look for lodging in the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that retains its 16th-century charm with cobblestone streets and colonial buildings painted in eye-catching colors. This area is ideal for those who want to explore the city on foot, as there are plenty of hotels, restaurants and bars nearby. There are also historical sites such as Plaza Santo Domingo, home to a famous statue by celebrated Colombian artist Fernando Botero, and Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a crumbling fortress around this part of the town with tunnels that can be explored. San Diego is within the Walled City, but visitors will find that things move at a slightly slower pace in this northeastern corner of the neighborhood that is home to Plaza de San Diego, La Bovedas craft market and numerous restaurants and bars.
This edgy, recently revamped neighborhood is ideal for those who want to discover Cartagena’s street art and a more local experience, while still being within walking distance of the Walled City. Plaza Trinidad is the heart of this barrio, attracting a mix of locals and tourists who flock to Getsemani in the evening hours to enjoy live music, dancing, food and drinks.
Bocagrande is Cartagena’s primary beach neighborhood, which some compare to Miami because of its high-rise hotels and crowded shores. This is where most Colombian tourists stay and is the best option for those who prefer a recognizable hotel chain with modern amenities. Because Bocagrande is on the other side of town to the Old City, a taxi will be required for exploring sites in and around that area, which means contending with the Cartagena traffic. Those who opt for Bocagrande will be within walking distance of the beach and in a prime location for retail shopping, but you won’t find tranquility on this congested coast, and beachside sunbathing will be frequently interrupted by beach vendors, who peddle everything from fresh oysters to massages and cheap beer.
Connected to Bocagrande, Castillogrande is Cartagena’s smallest and most elite neighborhood, comprising just 16 blocks of mansions and high-rise buildings. Catering to the city’s wealthiest residents, the beach at Castillogrande is less busy than Bocagrande, and visitors will see this exclusivity reflected in the price tags of their accommodations. While there are fewer big-name hotels in this area, fancy apartments and condominiums are available on vacation rental platforms. Removed from the crowds and a 15- to 20-minute drive to most tourist sites, Castillogrande is best suited for travelers who want an undisturbed vacation.
South of Getsemani is Manga, a tree-strewn, residential neighborhood where tourists will find delicious seafood restaurants with prices a fraction of what they would be in the Old City. Just a ten-minute walk to the center of town, Manga is ideal for families or travelers on extended stays. Home to a picturesque promenade that serves as a docking station for yachts and overlooks the bay, Manga also boasts gorgeous architecture thanks to its Moorish influences.
Cartagena has a tropical Caribbean climate, with temperatures that average in the mid-80s all year long. Travelers should pack light, airy clothing, including linen fabrics, shorts, tank tops and short-sleeved shirts and dresses. Swimsuits and sandals will be needed for the beach, and sneakers are best for Cartagena’s bumpy cobblestone roads. Sunscreen and bug repellant are vital. Travelers visiting between May and November, a period that encompasses the region’s rainy season, should pack an umbrella and a poncho or a light waterproof jacket.
December through April is Cartagena’s dry season, when rainy days are scarce. The city is known for having one of the most extravagant New Year celebrations in the country, and many tourists head here to celebrate the holidays and escape frigid winters at home. The perks of traveling during these months include manageable humidity and clear blue skies, but restaurant and hotel prices will reflect the increased demand. Traveling between May and November means more competitive prices and less crowded streets, but travelers should prepare for the possibility of rain and sweltering humidity.
The main airport, Raphael Nunez (CTG), is about a 20-minute drive from the city center. Uber is no longer available in Colombia, so it’s important to have cash in hand to take a taxi. There are a few places to exchange currency, as well as ATMs, inside the airport. Just outside of arrivals is an automatic price generator that provides a fixed fare based on the destination. You are advised to carry small bills or to break large bills before getting a taxi, as most drivers will not be able to make change. A typical fare from the airport to the Old City and Gestamani is about 13,000–14,000 COP ($3.20–$3.50 USD). It will cost about 20,000 COP ($5 USD) to get from the airport to the Bocagrande and Castillogrande neighborhoods.
It’s easy to get around on foot when exploring the Old City and Getsemani. Depending on the time of day, Manga is a fairly easy 10- to 15-minute walk from the Walled City. Travelers can feel safe taking taxis at night. While haggling with drivers is not standard at the airport, it is recommended that you try to negotiate a fair price when using taxis to navigate the city.
Although traveling during the dry season will offer some relief from the high temperatures, tourists would be wise to book their sightseeing and tours before noon regardless of the season, to avoid the high sun and humidity.
Many locals take advantage of Cartagena’s popularity by performing on the streets and selling handmade crafts. It’s common to be interrupted by street vendors when dining in or walking around the Walled City. Beach vendors also set up shop along Bocagrande and the popular shores within the Rosario Islands. Sellers will often offer a free sample and then request payment, so beachgoers should be adamant about declining offers.
Tours to popular destinations such as the mud volcano El Totumo, San Basilio de Palenque – the first free slave town in the Americas – and outlying beaches can be easily arranged at most hotels and tour companies throughout the city. It’s common to find locals offering tours near the clock tower in the Old City, and while they’re no less reputable than those sold at hotels, these tours are most popular with Colombian tourists and the guides often don’t speak English.
Visits to the neighboring Rosario Islands are best scheduled during the week to avoid the crowds. If the weekend is the only option, consider staying overnight so that you can guarantee some waterfront relaxation after the day tours leave at around 4pm. Most tours to the islands should always be booked one to two days in advance, as they fill up quickly and usually leave quite early in the morning.