There’s no getting away from it: Cartagena is an expensive city to visit. For some backpackers, it can be prohibitively expensive – taking tours to the surrounding islands isn’t cheap, food costs can add up and accommodation can set you back a pretty penny, as well. Luckily, though, there are lots of great activities to enjoy that don’t cost a thing. Here are the top 10 things to do for free in this stunning Caribbean seaside town.
Watch the Sunset From the City Walls
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.
Watch the Dancers in Plaza Bolivar
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.
Touch Botero’s Gertrudis for Luck
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.
Watch a Baseball Game
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.
Visit the Zenu Gold Museum
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.
Take on the Locals in a Board Game
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.
Check out the San Pedro Claver Cathedral
Cartagena’s cathedral is one of the most beautiful churches in Colombia and is well worth spending some time exploring. It is named after Saint Peter Claver, known as the Patron Saint of Slaves, and it still houses his bones, which are on display for all visitors to see. Of all the churches in Cartagena, and there are many, this is the most interesting one to visit.
Explore Bazurto Market
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.
Spot Sloths and Monkeys
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!
Discover the Street Art of Getsemani
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.