Tips for Visiting Cartagena, Colombia

Head to Cartagena to explore pretty architecture and ancient history
Head to Cartagena to explore pretty architecture and ancient history | © Alex Segre / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Danielle Dorsey
6 October 2021

With year-round sunny skies, clear Caribbean waters, colorful colonial architecture and a wealth of Afro-Colombian culture to explore, it’s no wonder Cartagena attracts so many tourists. Whether you want to spend a vacation sunbathing by the beach or plan an itinerary jam-packed with activities, here are the things to know before visiting the Jewel of the Indies.

You can now wander the cobblestone streets of Cartagena with Culture Trip on our expertly curated eight-day tour of the Colombian Caribbean coast. Led by a Local Insider, you’ll also canoe through mangrove forests in La Boquilla; tour San Basilio de Palenque, the first free African town in the Americas; and spot wildlife on a hike through Tayrona National Park.

Where to stay in Cartagena

Cartagena may be the most touristic city in Colombia, but savvy travelers can easily avoid the more crowded areas by choosing carefully where they book their accommodation.

The Old City and San Diego

If you prefer to be in the center of the madness look for lodging in the Old City, a Unesco World Heritage Site that retains 16th-century charm with cobblestone streets and colonial buildings painted in eye-catching colors. This area is ideal if you 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 statue by celebrated Colombian artist Fernando Botero, and Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a crumbling fortress with tunnels to explore.

San Diego is a neighborhood in the northeast corner of the Old City, but you’ll find things move at a slightly slower pace here. It’s also home to Plaza de San Diego, La Bovedas craft market and numerous restaurants and bars.

The Old City is a great place to pick up hand-crafted souvenirs | © Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 3+ / Alamy

If you’re looking for an extra-special stay, check out our handpicked roundup of the best boutique hotels in the Old City.

Getsemani

This edgy neighborhood is ideal if you want street art and a more local experience, while still being within walking distance of the Old City. Plaza de la Trinidad is the heart of this barrio, attracting a mix of locals and tourists who flock to Getsemani in the evening to enjoy live music, dancing, food and drinks.

Looking for an ultra-chic hotel in Getsemani? Try the Anandá Hotel Boutique by Cosmos, which is housed in a romantic 16th-century colonial mansion, with an incredible rooftop swimming pool and hot tub.

For a stylish stay in Getsemani, book a room in Anandá Hotel Boutique by Cosmos | Courtesy of Anandá Hotel Boutique by Cosmos / Expedia

Bocagrande

Bocagrande is the primary beach neighborhood in Cartagena, which some compare to Miami because of the 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.

For a place to stay, we recommend the smart Oz Hotel, which overlooks Playa de Bocagrande.

Stay in Bocagrande if you’re looking to embrace the beach life | © Fotomaton / Alamy

Castillogrande

Connected to Bocagrande, Castillogrande is the smallest and most elite neighborhood in Cartagena, comprising just 16 blocks of mansions and high-rise buildings. Catering to the wealthiest residents, the beach at Castillogrande is less busy than Bocagrande, and visitors will see this exclusivity reflected in the room rates. 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.

Castillogrande is the most exclusive neighborhood in the city | © Roman Diachkin / Alamy

Manga

South of Getsemani is Manga, a tree-strewn, residential neighborhood where you will find delicious seafood restaurants with prices a fraction of what they would be in the Old City. Just a 10-minute walk to the center of town, Manga is ideal for families or travelers on extended stays. It’s home to a picturesque promenade that serves as a docking station for yachts and overlooks the bay, plus gorgeous architecture with Moorish influences. If you’re interested in staying here, you can’t go wrong with low-key Fénix Beach, which gives you the choice between superior doubles and huge bungalows, all with private balconies, terraces or courtyards.

For a low-key getaway, stay at Fénix Beach in Manga | Courtesy of Hotel Fenix Beach Cartagena / Expedia

If you’re less concerned about the neighborhood in which you stay, and more with the quality of your accommodation, check out our selection of the best hotels in Cartagena.

What to pack

Cartagena has a tropical Caribbean climate, with an average maximum temperature around 30C (86F) all year. 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 the bumpy cobblestone roads. Sunscreen and bug repellent are vital. If you’re visiting between May and November, a period that encompasses the rainy season, pack an umbrella and a poncho or a light waterproof jacket.

When to visit Cartagena

December through April is the 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 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 prepare for the possibility of rain and sweltering humidity.

Culture Trip’s exclusive eight-day trip along the Colombian Caribbean coast – which begins in Cartagena – departs in February, April and October.

Getting around

The main airport, Rafael Nunez (CTG), is about a 20-minute drive from the city center. It’s important to have cash to take a taxi. There are a few places to exchange currency, as well as ATMs, inside the airport. Just outside arrivals is an automatic price generator that provides a fixed fare based on the destination. You should carry small bills or break large bills before getting a taxi, as most drivers will not carry enough change.

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 Old City. Travelers can feel safe taking taxis at night. While haggling with drivers is not standard at the airport, it is recommended you try to negotiate a fair price when using taxis to navigate the city.

Traveling on foot is the best way to explore the Getsemani neighborhood

Other things to know before you go

Although traveling during the dry season will offer some relief from the high temperatures, you should book 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 Old 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 be adamant about declining offers.

Tours to popular destinations such as the mud volcano El Totumo, San Basilio de Palenque – the first free town of enslaved people in the Americas – and outlying beaches can be arranged at most tour companies and hotels 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.

San Basilio de Palenque – the first free African town in the Americas – is a popular day trip from Cartagena | © Jan Sochor / Alamy

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 around 4pm. To guarantee your visit to the Rosario Islands, and that you make the most of your time in Cartagena, pre-book your trip with Culture Trip and let our Local Insider guide you from start to finish.

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