Cartagena’s Caribbean sunsets are the stuff of legend, and it’s absolutely free to enjoy them. Many people choose to enjoy a sunset with a sundowner at the fancy Café del Mar bar, but you can sit right alongside there on the old city walls and enjoy the same sunset for absolutely nothing. If you want to spend a little, there are vendors selling cold beers at a fraction of the price.
The shady Plaza Bolivar is the best square in Cartagena to sit on a bench and watch the world go by, but it also hosts regular performances from dance groups, particularly dancers from the nearby Afro-Colombian village of San Basilio de Palenque, who perform traditional, African-influenced dances to enthusiastic crowds. It’s only 100% free if you don’t tip – and you really should – but for the cost of a couple of thousand pesos, you can enjoy an amazing performance from talented local dancers.
Fernando Botero’s famous statue of a reclining nude woman, named La Gorda Gertrudis – or ‘Fat Gertrude’ – sits in the middle of the lovely Plaza Santo Domingo in the heart of the Old City of Cartagena. Posing with Gertrude has become a classic Cartagena tourist activity, and touching her (by now very worn) left breast is meant to bring good luck. It’s free, so you may as well.
Baseball, although not a hugely popular sport in Colombia in general, is pretty popular in Caribbean coastal cities and there are games most Sundays between March and November. Many of the games are free to attend and attract a really local crowd, who enjoy the spectacle, have some drinks and eat local food. It’s a great way to enjoy a truly authentic and local Cartagena experience.
Bogota’s Gold Museum is more well known, but Cartagena also has a Gold Museum, principally focussing on the gold work of the Zenu Indigenous people, located just off Plaza Bolivar. There’s no entrance fee and you can easily spend an hour or two learning about the fascinating ancient history of the Cartagena region.
Whenever you wander through a square in Cartagena you will see groups of people, usually older men, engaging in spirited games of chess, droughts, and more. They will sit for hours and take on all comers! There’s no cost to play, unless you’re a gambler, and it’s another great way to get outside the tourist bubble and meet some real local Cartageneros.
Bazurto Market is the place to visit to see the other side of Cartagena: it’s loud, intense, local and doesn’t care about tourists at all, which is part of its charm. It’s a seafood market, and Bazurto comes alive first thing in the morning when fishermen arrive with their catches, and wandering its narrow alleyways is a great way to see another side of Cartagena life, beyond the touristy walls of the Old Town.
The small Centenario Park, just in front of the beautiful Torre del Reloj (the entrance to the Old Town), is home to a small population of wild monkeys, iguanas and, most excitingly of all, sloths. They were rescued and released in the park years ago and are especially active in the low trees at dusk and dawn. It doesn’t cost a dime and you get to see a sloth. Now that’s a bargain!
Getsemani is the cool, bohemian district of Cartagena, and is a favourite among backpackers due to its laid-back vibe, nice bars and hostels and, of course, its buzzing street art scene. The walls of Getsemani are like an outdoor art gallery (so it’s free, naturally), and you can spend hours walking the streets, enjoying the beautiful depictions of local peoples, birds and history, painted by the most talented international and Colombian artists around.