Your Complete Guide to Exploring Cartagena, Colombia from Someone Who Lived There for Over a Decade

Are you planning a trip to Cartagena, Colombia, also known as Cartagena de Indias, Colombia?

Then, you’ve come to the right place!

I’ve put together all of my top tips for planning a trip to Cartagena here.

I spent over a decade living in Cartagena, and even made this entire website dedicated to this wonderful destination on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

It’s loaded with historical colonial charm, a vibrant culture, fun nightlife, great food, and there are some wonderful islands and beaches nearby that can be enjoyed any time due to the year round warm weather.

What more could you ask for?

So, whether you arrived to this page via internet search or arrived on another page on the site and want a general one stop shop for planning your trip, you’ll learn everything you need to know for planning a trip to Cartagena, Colombia here!

A couple posing on a rooftop in Cartagena with the bay and a church in the background.
I lived in Cartagena for over a decade and not only fell in love with the city but also a Cartagenera. Here, I’ll share all of my top tips to help you plan your own trip to fall in love with Cartagena.

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What You’ll Find in this Complete Travel Guide to Cartagena

Here’s what I’ll cover in this comprehensive guide to Cartagena, Colombia based on my 11 years living there:

  • Quick Tips
  • Why Visit Cartagena?
  • Things to See and Do in Cartagena
  • Where to Stay in Cartagena (for all Budgets)
  • How Long to Stay in Cartagena?
  • When to Visit Cartagena
  • What to Pack for Cartagena
  • What and Where to Eat in Cartagena
  • Where to Enjoy Cartagena Nightlife
  • Safety in Cartagena
  • How to Avoid Common Issues and Scams
  • Getting Around Cartagena
  • Arriving and Departing Cartagena’s Airport
  • Some Practical Tips and FAQs
  • Other Places to Consider Adding on to Your Trip

As you can see, I’ll cover just about everything you need to know to plan a wonderful trip to Cartagena de Indias!

This post is meant to be an all inclusive guide to learn all of the most important information you need to plan a trip to Cartagena that can be both a starting and ending point to planning your trip. However, I have tons of more detailed posts covering just about anything else you might want to know about Cartagena on the site too.

So, please feel free to use it as a as starting point only!

Where relevant, I’ve linked to those more detailed posts if you’re looking for additional tips. Do also feel free to click around the different sections of the site or use the search function too if you’re looking for more specific information.

Everything here is based on my personal, first hand experience living in Cartagena from 2011 to 2022 and regular return trips since.

I’m confident you won’t find a better guide to visiting Colombia’s crown gem destination anywhere else on the net!

Photo of a replica historic ship with the wall and Cathedrals of Cartagena, Colombia in the background.
Learn everything you need to know about how to enjoy Cartagena’s historic charm here!

Quick Tips for Visiting Cartagena, Colombia

Both the inner history major combined with the person that made a whole website devoted to the city tend to make it hard for me to not be pretty long winded, detailed, and generally gushing about Cartagena. So I’d love for you to scroll down and read everything in this comprehensive guide to visiting Cartagena de Indias.

However, if you just want some quick tips, here they are:

Can’t Misses in Cartagena:

Where to Stay in Cartagena:

You can also compare more places to stay in Cartagena on, Expedia, and, or see apartment rentals on VRBO.

Read on for lots more details below for all your heart desires to know about planning a trip to Cartagena!

A couple taking a selfie on the streets of the Old Town in Cartagena, Colombia.
Strolling Cartagena’s lovely streets is a joy.

Why Visit Cartagena de Indias, Colombia?

Anthony Boudain said the following when he visited Cartagena in 2008:

“It’s ludicrous that this place exists and everybody doesn’t want to live here.”

There’s another famous quote from a Colombia national tourism marketing campaign that stated, “Colombia: the only risk is wanting to stay.”

It’s hard for me not to echo those sentiments!

I came to Colombia’s Caribbean coast in 2011 just after graduating and spent a year as a volunteer teacher in a small town on the Island of Barú, about an hour south of Cartagena, near the famous stretch of white sand beach known as Playa Blanca.

Photo of a man with some students at a school near Cartagena.
My first year teaching at a tiny school in the town of Santa Ana on the Island of Barú back in 2011.

I spent many of the weekends that year with my fellow volunteers in the nearby city, crashing in hostels and the occasional splurge on a hotel room (especially after I got a girlfriend), enjoying the nightlife but also the historic charm and sites and just general fun vibes of Cartagena.

I fell in love with those vibes and the city, and decided I wanted to stick around (the girlfriend may have had something to do with that too).

I got a job in the city, got dumped by the girlfriend, got a better job, met a new girlfriend, got a better job where I got a few promotions, and got married here.

I even started a side hustle sharing my love for the city that has grown into my main income source!

In short, I spent a good portion of my formative experiences took place in Cartagena. There were times, when I had to stop while walking the narrow streets of the old city along the historic stone walls and remind myself not to take it for granted just how pretty it was.

While we made the decision to move back to my hometown of Columbia, South Carolina (yes, the Columbia with a U; check out, by the way!), for better opportunities for my wife in 2022, I look forward to frequent return visits and feel privileged I get to share my love for the city and the rest of Colombia with others here on this site.

Photo of Adam and Susana with the clocktower of Cartagena in the background.
I found it hard not to fall in love with Cartagena in my 11 years living there!

Ok, well, I think I’ve thoroughly covered why I should visit Cartagena.

But, why should you?

Umm, let’s see, it’s charming.

It’s got a vibrant culture, complete with nice, welcoming people, great food, and fun nightlife.

There’s year round beach weather, and some great places nearby to enjoy it.

It can also be a great gateway to some other amazing places in Colombia (do check out some suggestions at the end or click that Other Destinations section by the way).

In short, it’s Colombia’s top tourist destination with good reason!

Exchange rates in recent years have also made it a relatively affordable tropical destination for those coming from the US or Europe, a nice added bonus.

So, maybe the better question is why shouldn’t you visit Cartagena?

Photo of a Colombia flag to the left and Cartagena flag to the right hanging over a narrow alleyway with colorful umbrellas overhead.
The flags of Colombia and Cartagena on the Callejón Angosto in Getsemaní.

Things to Do and See in Cartagena

There’s quite a bit to do and see in Cartagena.

In fact, there’s more to do here than it often gets credit for.

I’ve got a detailed post with more than 75 things to do in Cartagena, but in this post, I’m going to touch on the main highlights to see on a visit to Cartagena along with a few hidden gems.

Explore the Historic Walled City

One of the most iconic images of Cartagena is its almost complete still standing colonial era walls. It’s one of the few examples of such walls remaining anywhere on earth today.

The area encased by the walls is officially called the Centro Histórico in Spanish (Historic Center in English) and is often also referred to as Cartagena’s Walled City, or Ciudad Amurallada, and also sometimes Cartagena’s Old Town or simply Centro.

Doing a shared walking tour or booking a private city tour that includes Centro and other sites can be a great introduction to the city and chance to learn a bit about it’s history and culture.

My partners BnB Colombia also offer a discount on their more exclusive private city tour with the discount code ExploreColombia10.

You can also explore on your own, and Cartagena’s historic downtown is both easily walkable and very safe (see the section on safety below tips on staying safe in Cartagena).

Whether on a tour or on your own, as you explore, you’ll find narrow streets flanked by colorfully painted colonial era mansions with huge wooden doors.

Be on the lookout for the elaborate door knockers, which were often used as a symbol of status or profession in the colonial era. For example, a lizard marked the home of a member of the aristocracy and a lion that of a military official.

As you wander the streets, be sure to look up to see the many overhanging colorful flowers growing off balconies.

Photo of a street in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.
Exploring the colorful and historic streets of Cartagena’s Walled City is a must.

One of the things I always found interesting about the historic center of Cartagena, was that it is still, for the most part the downtown area of the city.

There are several streets, such as the Calle de la Moneda where you’ll find quite the hustle and bustle of with shops ranging from pricey fashion boutiques to discount stores, not to mention the countless street vendors selling everything from fresh fruits and street food to knock off sunglasses and phone chargers that you’ll likely have to dodge on the narrow sidewalks as taxis honk to clear a path in the road.

Around a corner or two, you’ll find quiet, empty streets where you can almost imagine you’re back in the 17th century (don’t worry the heat will keep you from to taking potable water and A/C for granted!).

You’ll want to take some time to walk up along the wall itself as nearly all of it is open to the public.

Photo of a couple walking along the wall in Cartagena.
Walking the wall is among the neatest things to do in Cartagena.

The walls, which were built as a series of free standing battlements that were later connected stand as evidence of Cartagena’s colonial era glory and wealth. The city was one of the original 4 designated ports of call for the early Spanish treasure fleets along with Havana, San Juan, and Veracruz.

That meant it was at risk of attack from foreign adversaries and pirates.

In fact, it was attacked on 4 occasions during the colonial era, and the walls helped solidify it as a major port in the network of Caribbean trade until independence.

The views of the Caribbean to one side and the charm of the old city on the other and the modern highrises of Bocagrande in the distance are well worth bearing some time in the sun.

Photo of cannons on the edge of Cartagena's walls with tall buildings and the sea in the background.
Cartagena’s city walls are among the best examples left in the world.

Sites of interest inside the Walled City include the majestic San Pedro Claver Cathedral, where Pope Francis gave a mass on his visit in 2017, and the Museo Naval del Caribe Naval Museum, located around the backside of the church. It’s my favorite history museum in the city and has some great depictions of the fortifications and attacks on the city, including Francis Drake’s and Edward Vernon’s.

For more on the city’s history, head to the Palacio de la Inquisición, which was the seat of the Spanish Inquisition for a short time. There are exhibits here on the city’s history as well as the Inquisition, including some torture devices.

Outside the museum, you can enjoy some shade while hanging out with the pigeons in the Plaza Bolívar. Sitting on the benches here and enjoying a cheap tinto (coffee) and loosie cigarette was one of my favorite ways to kill time between classes when I taught nearby.

On the opposite side of the plaza from the Inquisition Museum, you can see some neat examples of indigenous precolonial gold work at the Museo del Oro Gold Museum, which is free to enter.

You’ll also want to wander through the Las Bovedas, the last section of the wall to be built where the barracks that were used as prisons during the independence wars now house tourist shops selling souvenirs.

The Plaza Santo Domingo has a number of tourist trap restaurants with outdoor seating, and the Plaza San Diego is surrounded by a number of good restaurants and cafes.

Finally, the Plaza San Fernandez de Madrid makes for another respite from the sun, and the adjacent Ron y Tabaco is my favorite place to enjoy a cigar in Cartagena if you’re so inclined.

Photo of a man walking on a narrow street in Cartagena de Indias.
It’s wandering down little streets like this that make Cartagena’s Walled City so much fun to explore. I used to live overlooking this street and sure do miss it!

Wander the Eclectic Streets of Getsemaní

If you head outside Cartagena’s walls passing through the iconic Clocktower, you can walk along the promenade displaying statues of Cartagena’s 9 Martyrs, executed just a short distance away during the Spanish reconquest of Cartagena. The city was taken after brutal siege that left much of its population starved.

As you walk close your eyes and picture it being a wooden bridge over mangroves and creeks at the edge of the bay.

You can also walk through the Parque del Centenario, renovated a few years ago, where you can often see iguanas and sloths hanging out.

Either way, you’ll be entering the neighborhood of Getsemaní, which was home to the city’s colonial era artisans, many of them former slaves.

Their support for Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence in 1811 was crucial and was led by the mixed race Pedro Romero, who you can find a statue of in the Plaza de la Trinidad in the heart of Getsemaní.

Photo of a statue with a hand raised and two smaller ones on either side in the Trinidad Plaza in Getsemaní in Cartagena.
Pedro Romero was a mulatto who had become very respected and wealthy, even by the city’s colonial elite. His support for independence helped galvanize the support of the artisan working class, who played a key role in the events of Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence.

The neighborhood’s working class heritage lasted into the 21st century.

That little plaza where you can find Romero raising his hand in defiance has a special place in my heart, and I think represents how Cartagena and Getsemaní changed over the 11 years I lived there.

I remember feeling like much of Getsemaní could still be a tad sketchy back in 2011. There were a handful of hostels and some growing nightlife on the Calle de la Media Luna.

By a few years later, the Plaza de la Trinidad had become sort of a melting pot of locals and tourists. You could see kids playing soccer, men playing chess or dominoes, and groups passing around a bottle or enjoying ice cold cheap beers from the corner store.

I spent many a weekend night here in the 20-teens.

Flash forward a few years later, and you’ll find a smattering of more upscale cafes, restaurants, and bars and fancier boutique hotels dominating the neighborhood.

While this is, probably rightly, criticized by some as gentrification, the neighborhood has maintained much of its character. You’ll still find locals slamming dominoes down on worn down plastic chairs down some streets, you’ll still find a few grungier backpacker hostels, and you’ll still find an eclectic mix around the plaza.

The crowd is bigger and the beers aren’t quite as cheap though!

Nonetheless, hanging out here in the evening is a great way to start a night out on the town, perhaps at the popular dance clubs on Calle el Arsenal or Calle de la Media Luna nearby. The brick oven style pizzas at the beer garden at Demente next to the plaza are also some of our favorites in town.

Be sure to wander over here during the day too, where you’ll find some terrific street art down the many narrow streets near the plaza.

Photo of a narrow alley in Cartagena with street art and colorful umbrellas hanging overhead.
The narrow Callejón Angosto was the first place to mount colorful umbrellas, although you’ll find quite a few other streets in Getsemaní that have followed their lead today.

You’ll find most of these up and down the streets to the left when facing the church.

However, you’ll also find some neat art for sale and some of the best examples outside the Cafe del Mural wandering off to the right too.

Some particular highlights to make sure you see are the colorful umbrellas that cover the narrow Callejón Angosto, the pretty and colorful pendant flags overhanging the Calle San Andres, more umbrellas over the Calle de la Magdelena and the flags from around the world that hang over the Calle de la Serpiente.

Like Centro, Getsemaní can be explored on your own or you can do the two areas together as part of this shared walking tour or this private city tour.

You can also do a private walking tour of only Getsemaní or this private tour of Getsemaní and Bazurto Market, a great way to get quite literally a complete taste of Cartagenero culture (use code ExploreColombia10 for a discount on either of those one!).

Finally, you could opt to do a shared Getsemaní graffiti tour that takes you to some of the neater photo ops while giving you a chance to learn more about this neighborhood’s history.

Photo of people walking and standing on the street with art on a building that says I love Getsemaní in Cartagena.
Exploring the streets of Getsemaní is another must do in Cartagena!

Visit the Castillo San Felipe Fort

A visit to the Castillo San Felipe is a near obligatory stop just a short way from Cartagena’s Walled City.

This massive stone fortress began as a small fort atop a hill to prevent enemies from using the hill to lay siege to the city. It was meant to be a last line of defense if an invasion force managed to blast its way past the defenses in the bay. It proved to be just that when a heavily outnumbered force made a valiant last stand against Vernon’s invasion in 1741.

Later, the fort was expanded to essentially encase the entire hill in stone.

Photo of a stone fortress in Cartagena behind some trees on the bay.
The impressive Castillo San Felipe seen from Getsemaní.

Its construction following the slopes of the hill actually gives it a unique asymmetrical design compared to the square and rectangular designs commons for a late 18th century forts.

It is also the largest fort built on mainland South America by the Spanish. It along with the walls remain lasting testaments to the importance of Cartagena to the Spanish colonial trade.

You can wander through the eery tunnel passageways connecting the different sections and get some amazing views of the city from the top of the fort.

I’ve always especially loved seeing the contrasts of the fort, the Walled City, and then the modern highrises of Bocagrande across the bay.

A photo with the huge Colombian flag is one of the best photo ops in the city.

Photo of a woman and 2 children below a Colombian flag at the Cartagena fort.
Be sure to snap a photo with the Colombian flag!

I recommend visiting the fort early in the morning to beat the heat and crowds.

As you exit the fort, be sure to walk around the block to the bronze statues of old shoes, an ode to a famous poem about the city.

You can visit the fort on your own (I recommend going in taxi) or as part of this shared city tour, this private city tour, or the more exclusive city tour with our partners BnB Colombia using that discount code ExploreColombia10.

For true military history buffs, a visit to the lesser known fortifications of Bocachica, located on the far end of the island of Tierra Bomba, is also a worthwhile excursion. Little visited and practically forgotten by time, much less the majority of jet setting tourists, these forts, while a bit difficult to reach, are some of the city’s best hidden gems and stand virtually unmodified from their reconstruction after Vernon’s demolition of them in 1741.

Escape to the Picturesque Rosario Islands

I still remember my first visit to the gorgeous Rosario Islands, about an hour’s boat ride off the coast of Cartagena. It was in 2011, my first year in Cartagena, and my mom and sister were visiting.

A fellow volunteer who worked in the city and her host family had a boat for the day.

At that time, the islands were much less visited than today, and I remember feeling like the tiny rocky islands and crystal clear waters were like something out of a movie.

Photo of a couple standing on a stairway in front of the water in the Rosario Islands near Cartagena.
Escaping to the picturesque Rosario Islands for a day trip or overnight stay is an absolute must in Cartagena!

Today, the Rosario Islands are a common excursion from Cartagena, and I would characterize them as all but obligatory during a visit.

They can be done as a day trip or an overnight stay.

I recommend a day trip for those with fewer than 5 nights total in Cartagena.

An excellent way to do a day trip is with a private boat rental, perhaps stopping to snorkel before having a dance party at the raucous Cholón Island and then enjoying some time on a beach.

We’ve done boat rentals at least a dozen times, and some of my best memories are getting a group together for a fun day on the water.

Photo of a group of people on a boat.
A private boat rental is loads of fun if you’re traveling as a group!

It can be tough to do the boat without a group or a higher budget though.

A day trip on the Catamaran Bona Vida, a day pass at one of the resorts or hotels such as my favorite IslaBela or the more upscale Pedro de Majuaga, or a shared boat tour to various islands are all more affordable ways to do a day trip to the islands.

A quick word to the wise: I generally don’t recommend the cheapest Rosario Islands shared tours sold by vendors on the street.

They are often on overcrowded boats, have limited beach time, and have lots of upsells along the way such as an additional entrance fee for the oceanarium or renting beach chairs. Be sure to book something with good reviews online and/or to make sure you’re clear on the itinerary of the tour and what is and isn’t included.

You can see more options for day trips to the islands from Cartagena in my picks for the best day trips to the Rosario Islands here.

Photo of a dock by a beach with a boat approaching.
There are plenty of options for Rosario Islands day trips, the best choice for stays of less than 5 nights total in Cartagena.

If you’ll be in Cartagena for more than 5 nights, I do think doing an overnight stay in the Rosario Islands can be well worth it.

Uur favorite place, and I think the best overall value, for an overnight stay is at IslaBela. The bungalows are great for a romantic escape or just some time to rest and relax. There’s also a good beach area here that isn’t too rocky. You can read more about it in my review of IslaBela.

For those looking for luxury stays more akin to traditional hotels, the beautiful luxury bungalows at Las Islas offer the finest beach resort experience near Cartagena.

The Isla del Encanto (read about our stay here) and especially the Sofitel Calablanca also offer luxury stays in the islands that also have pools and activities that would make them my picks for the most family and kid friendly places to stay in the islands..

If you’re looking for a cheaper option in the islands, consider Secreto Hostel, which offers a nice property at a nice value.

You can see even more options in my picks for the best Rosario Islands hotels here.

You can also learn more about the islands and the merits of spending the night or not in my complete guide to the Rosario Islands.

Photo of two beach chairs under an umbrella overlooking the water and a tiny house on an island in the distance.
This is at IslaBela, our favorite place to stay in the Rosario Islands. Not too shabby a view!

Other Cartagena Activities to Consider

The sections above pretty much cover the highlights for what to do in Cartagena de Indias.

If you’ve explored the Castillo, Centro, and Getsemaní, and made it out to the islands for at least a day, plus have thrown in some good eating and perhaps a night out on the town, you’ve more or less hit the must sees.

By the way, I will cover my personal recommendations for how long to spend in Cartagena and also where to eat and enjoy the nightlife in sections below.

However, as I mentioned previously I have a post on over 75 things to do in Cartagena, so there’s much more to do than just those highlights already mentioned. Click over there to see lots more details, but I do want to touch on a handful of things in this post that are worthy options to consider adding to your activities in Cartagena.

First off, let’s talk about Cartagena’s oddest attraction, and one that is definitely a love it or hate it. It’s the Mud Volcano or Volcán del Totumo. It’s, well, a mud volcano. You can take a dip, get a funny photo, and reportedly get some good exfoliation for your skin.

I did the mud volcano my first year in Cartagena, and it was, well, an interesting experience, but not one I’d repeat to be honest.

If it sounds fun to you, do it.

If it sounds horrible, skip it.

If you do want to do it, it’s easiest and most cost effective to do with a tour, but you can also hire a taxi. You can also read more about it in my guide to the Cartagena mud volcano here.

The mud volcano combines well with the Pink Sea of Galerazamba since both are located north of Cartagena, and there are tour options that include both.

The Pink Sea is really neat, although not as neat as the Insta photos you might have seen of it make it look. We took our niece once and definitely enjoyed it though. However, I wouldn’t characterize it as a must see.

It is usually only in season for parts of the year though and can be a bit hit or miss depending on if the salt has been mined and if it has rained. Read more about it in this guide to Colombia’s pink sea.

Photo of a girl in an hat overlooking the pink sea in Cartagena.
The pink sea is pretty neat and a popular half day trip from Cartagena that combines well with the mud volcano.

Something I haven’t had a chance to do myself yet but is on my list when we visit again, is a tour in the mangroves of La Boquilla, a small fishing town on the northern outskirts of Cartagena.

It’s a bit of a hidden gem chance to see some nature and a way of life that may not last much longer as well as get some exposure to traditional Afro-Colombian culture.

Tours usually include a boat tour in the mangroves, some fishing, and most include cooking, dancing, or music. This exclusive private tour of the mangroves includes a traditional Afro-Colombian drum performance and workshop, and you can also book a private tour of just the mangroves with our partners BnB Colombia (once again, get a discount on any of their tours with the code ExploreColombia10).

Another neat way to see a bit of the other side of Colombia and learn a lot about Afro-Colombian culture is doing a trip to the town of San Basilio de Palenque, often just called Palenque.

Often hailed as the first free town in the Americas (it was the first to receive royal recognition as such but not the first to be established), residents have preserved many of their ancestor’s traditions.

It is best visited as part of a tour like this shared one due to the distance and the fact that it takes the better part of a day to see. You can also do a private tour with that ExploreColombia10 discount code!

You can learn more about it in my guide to visiting Palenque or learn more about its history in this deep dive on myth and history in Palenque.

Another even better way to see wildlife is with the very unique Howling Trail tour offered by Taroa Adventures, the only tour I know of near Cartagena where you can do a good hike and see monkeys in the wild. I hope to possibly do this on our next trip too.

Increasingly popular in recent years are tours to the Bazurto Market.

It is a somewhat interesting place and worth it for those that are very interested in experiencing it, but I would not call it a must see. Most tours include some fruit tastings, some exploring of the market, and lunch.

The market is a bit dodgy and definitely an assault on your senses, so it’s best not to do on your own. You could do a shared tour or a private tour of the market and Getsemaní (use ExploreColombia10 to get a discount on that one).

Foodies might also be interested in doing a cooking class like this one at Café Lunatico.

Oh, and of course, I’d be remiss not to mention doing a coffee tasting or at least enjoying a cup or three from cafes in town (see the below section on where to eat for some suggestions).

Finally, those that feel they really need some more beach time than what they go in the islands (something I totally support, by the way!), should consider checking out the beaches on the island of Tierra Bomba just across the bay from Cartagena.

Palmarito is our favorite over there and we’ve spent several nights and done a number of day trips there (read my review here), but Fenix Beach is also really nice and a bit higher end. So is Blue Apple Beach House (read my review of it here), on the far side of the island near the forts of Bocachica.

Photo of a girl standing on a swinging bench with the bay of Cartagena and tall buildings in the background.
The beaches of Tierra Bomba across the bay from Cartagena, like Palmarito, would be my top pick for doing additional beach time after the Rosarios.

Playa Blanca on Barú is also another option for more beach time, with a few caveats.

Playa Blanca (and the area known as Playa Tranquila at its far end), is a gorgeous stretch of beach, and you’ll likely see it recommended in a lot of places. My volunteer year in 2011 was spent very close to it, and I have many fond memories from that year and later years there, crashing in hammocks or ramshackle shacks.

Back in those days, it was a bit of an intrepid backpacker paradise that required an adventure to reach and was largely an undeveloped and unspoiled paradise. That’s why you’ll see it recommended on lots of blogs written in the early 2000s and 2000-teens.

Unfortunately, those days are gone.

A bridge and paved road led to a burst of haphazard development without the proper infrastructure to support it. The ecosystem is suffering and the beach has acquired a reputation for pushy vendors, overcharging, and being too crowded.

If you can go on a tour like this one and avoid weekends and holidays, it still is a very pretty beach though. Just be sure to have prices clear.

The Aviary nearby is well done and offers a bit of a unique way to see wildlife near Cartagena too. I’d suggest either going with a tour or hiring a taxi for the day and going early in the morning when the birds are the most active (and it’s not too hot yet!).

Read more about in my guide to the Colombian National Aviary.

If I’m choosing between the Rosarios and Playa Blanca, I’m choosing the Rosarios every time though, unless the Aviary is an absolute must see for you and you don’t have the time to do a day at both.

Photo of a girl looking closely at a small parrot at the Colombian Aviary near Cartagena.
The Aviary is pretty well done if you’re interested in it.

I personally got to where I tried to avoid most of the beaches in town like the plague.

The nicer beaches of Bocagrande just have way too many vendors, not to mention they pale in comparison to the islands. They are the best beaches if you just want a couple hours without dealing with the hassle of a boat ride though. Just be ready for the hassle of the vendors and massage ladies.

I recommend the area around the Kiosco Bony near the Hotel Caribe (sometimes called Playa Hollywood) for the widest beach. Although, to be honest, I prefer the beach in Castillogrande, which is usually less crowded. While the beach and water are underwhelming, the beaches of El Cabrero and Marbella are also usually less crowded and draw more of a local crowd too.

You can learn more about the different beaches in my full guide to the beaches of Cartagena.

Photo of people on the crowded beaches of Bocagrande in Cartagena.
I personally tried to avoid the popular and crowded beaches of Bocagrande, but they are the best beaches in Cartagena proper.

Where to Stay in Cartagena

I’m going to make this easy for you.

Do yourself a favor and stay in the Centro Histórico (which includes the San Diego neighborhood) or Getsemaní, especially if this is your first time visiting Cartagena.

These are the most charming and historic areas, and they are also where many of the best restaurants, cafes, and nightlife is located. You’ll find most of the best boutique hotels in Cartagena and many of the best Cartagena luxury hotels in these areas.

It’s also all very walkable and where you’ll probably want to spend much of your days exploring the city anyways.

I lived for about a year in the Walled City, and I absolutely loved living there, especially for how easy it was to walk to so many places. If I could have afforded to live there my entire time in Cartagena, I would have absolutely done it (Definitely eyeing that for retirement!).

If you absolutely just must have a beach view or a more chain style hotel experience, Bocagrande is also a good option, but as I mentioned above, I’m just not crazy about the beaches in Bocagrande.

If you’re going to get your beach time in the islands, I’d suggest enjoying being in the historic center for your time in the city and really immersing yourself in that historic charm. Then if you have the time, you can complement it with a night or two at one of the places mentioned above in the islands.

A girl in the corner of a pool on a rooftop in Cartagena, Colombia with the cathedral in the background.
I recommend staying in the Walled City or Getsemaní to get the most out of your visit to Cartagena. Bonus points for a hotel with a great rooftop pool and view (this is at Casona del Colegio).

I’ve got a whole, long more detailed post comparing the pros and cons of different areas to stay in Cartagena, so check that out if you want a longer discussion of where to stay in Cartagena as well as more hotel suggestions at different budget levels.

Here, I’ll just give you some quick suggestions for good options in Centro and Getsemaní, along with a few for Bocagrande too.

For those with the budget for it the gorgeous Casa San Agustín is absolutely the best high end option. The Sofitel Santa Clara and Charleston Santa Teresa are also great luxury options.

We also thought Casona del Colegio was gorgeous when we stayed there for a staycation and I’d say it’s a pretty good value for a luxury boutique hotel in Cartagena’s Walled City (read my review of it here).

For those looking for more moderately priced options, the Bovedas de Santa Clara lets you access the Sofitel’s gorgeous courtyard pool at a more comfortable price. The Hotel Capellán in Getsemaní is also highly regarded and in a great location.

The Casa Claver, offers standard rooms but also unique loft style apartments with multiple bedrooms and kitchenettes that would be a great option for families.

For those looking for a good bang for their buck, the Hotel Casa Tere is a great value. So is the long running Hotel Tres Banderas, the Hotel Santa Catalina, the Hotel Don Pedro de Heredia, and the Casa Gloria.

If you’re looking for hostels because you are on a budget or just want to meet travelers, I’d recommend checking out Casa Movida, the Clock Hostel, or Santuario for nicer digs. For more budget friendly backpacker hostels, check out El Viajero and Media Luna Hostel, two of the longest running hostels in Cartagena.

If you do decide you’d rather be in Bocagrande, then I’d recommend the Hyatt Regency, the Estelar Cartagena de Indias, the Intercontinental, the Hotel Caribe, or Oz Hotel, in that order from high end to value.

To see more options and compare prices, check out all available Cartagena hotels at Booking, Expedia, or

And, of course see the above section on the islands for some hotel recommendations there if you do have the time, budget, and desire to spend some time at a beachfront hotel to complement your time in town. You can also see my picks for the best Cartagena beach hotels both in the islands, in the city, and at other beaches nearby.

Finally, there is the option of AirBnBs, and there are plenty of options in Centro, Getsemaní, and Bocagrande. See my Cartagena AirBnB tips here. You can also look for apartments and even full vacation homes on VRBO.

A girl walking on the street in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.
Staying in Centro or Getsemaní lets you get the most out of walking around the best areas of Cartagena.

How Many Days in Cartagena?

I hear the question, “How many days do you need in Cartagena?” get asked a lot.

I think you need at least 4 days, 3 nights to really enjoy the city.

Maybe if you have a really early arrival and late departure, 3 days, 2 nights can work, but really even the 4 days feels fairly whistle stop, bare minimum to me.

You’ll want at least a full day or perhaps two half days to explore the historic districts and the Castillo, then at least a day in the islands.

Throw in a day trip to a place like Palenque or an overnight stay in the islands, and you’re looking at a 5 day trip.

Photo of a girl lounging in a big chair with a Cartagena Cathedral in the background.
I recommend at least 3 nights in Cartagena, but if you want some extra lounge time, an extra night or two fits the bill!

I do think 5-7 days hits the sweet spot for most people where you can see the highlights, spend some time on the beach, and perhaps do a day trip outside the city or one or more of the hidden gems mentioned above.

By the way, do check out my picks for the best day trips from Cartagena here.

Or, maybe you want 2-3 nights out in the islands.

Or maybe you just want to spend the better part of a day relaxing by the hotel pool.

Or maybe, you want to really get the most out of the nightlife, and you need a day or two to relax by the hotel pool hungover.

Giving yourself 5 or more days lets you have some flexibility to do those things.

Of course, I lived in Cartagena for 11 years, so I’m all for even longer trips too!

However, I do think that if you’ve got, say 7+ days, you can get a lot if you head up the coast or into the interior of the country to see some other places rather than stay in Cartagena the whole time (some tips on places at the end of this guide).

Why It’s a Mistake to Just Spend a Day in (or Skip) Cartagena

I sometimes see people say to just spend a day, maybe 2 in Cartagena, or to skip it all together.

This is especially the case in Facebook groups. This advice usually comes from either backpackers or expats who live in other parts of the country and have a sort of trendier, hippier than thou attitude and see it as a badge of honor to avoid places popular with tourists.

Look, I get it.

There’s no doubt Cartagena is very touristy.

There’s no doubt this means there are plenty of tourist trap places and tours.

There’s no doubt vendors can be pushy and frustrating to deal with and that there are scams and overcharging (some tips on how to handle all this below, by the way).

There’s no doubt that there are lots of other amazing places in Colombia, many of them cheaper and with far less other tourists around (although I’d add anywhere you’re going to visit is by its very nature “touristy”).

However, Cartagena is so touristy for a reason.

I think it’s a mistake and incredibly close minded to decide to shortchange it or skip it just because it’s popular. And, unlike a place like Cancún, which was built as a resort town in the modern era, there is actual history in Cartagena and plenty of chances to have authentic experiences.

If you follow the advice here and elsewhere on the site, you’ll be able to avoid the worst of the frustrating parts of Cartagena being touristy and get the most out of a visit.

I’m very confident that you’ll be glad you planned for more than just a day or two too!

Photo of a girl walking the streets of Cartagena at night.
I recommend spending more than just a day or two in Cartagena so you can fully enjoy the city and get some time out on the town.

Best Time to Visit Cartagena?

So, to be honest, I think just about anytime is the best time to visit Cartagena.

Cartagena’s climate is hot all year, and there isn’t a ton of change in temperatures or weather in Cartagena throughout the year.

However, if you’re asking me to give you a straight answer to when should I Cartagena, I’d say between February and May is the absolute best time of year to visit Cartagena.

This time of year is usually pretty breezy and, with the exception of Easter Week, usually crowds aren’t bad during these months.

There really isn’t a time of year I’d say to completely avoid Cartagena.

While there can be quick showers in March, April, and May, there usually isn’t a ton of rain either.

This is also the case, but to a lesser extent in late June and early July.

June-August will also see some storms, but these are usually quick as well, so I actually would say June to September would be the second best time to visit.

October is the rainiest month and sometimes the rainy season runs into November. I’ll be honest though, the rainy season can vary widely. I’ve seen years where there were frequent, long, almost all day rains throughout October, but also years where it hardly rained at all. Usually, there are some days where it rains a lot mixed in some sunny days.

So, if this is the absolute only time you can travel, I wouldn’t shy away from traveling then, just be aware it’s likely you’ll get at least one rainy day.

Finally, November sees the city celebrate its annual independence festivities. Similar to Carnival, there are parades, outdoor concerts, and a big beauty pageant. They are held the week of November 11.

I loved these fiestas and some of my best memories of living in Cartagena are during this festival, but they can get rowdy and are not for everyone.

Check out my post on what to expect during the Cartagena November festival to help you decide if the fiestas are something you might enjoy or if it’s best to travel another time (I always publish a schedule as well once its released, so check for a link in that article or search the site if the dates are close).

The one time I’d say to avoid if you can is during the holidays in December and January. It’s a destination city, after all, so it will be crowded that time of year.

Of course, it’s also a period where it’s easier to get time off, kids are off of school, and the like.

So, if this is the best time to travel to Cartagena for you, don’t avoid it, just try to make your reservations for where to stay and any activities, especially beach clubs, early.

Photo of a corner of the wall with a guard post in Cartagena with the Caribbean Sea in the background.
Anytime of year is good to visit Cartagena, but expect larger crowds around major holidays like Easter, Christmas, and New Years.

What to Pack for Cartagena

I’ve got a much more detailed Cartagena packing list post, that you’re welcome to check out, but here I’ll briefly summarize my top recommendations for what to bring to Cartagena along with a few suggestions.

In terms of useful general travel gear, a good rollerboard suitcase is fine if you’ll be taking taxis to and from the airport and doing minimal or no travel between cities or only flying.

If you are going to be doing some buses to elsewhere or just want to pack lighter, we are big fans of our Osprey Porter 46 backpacks that can also be carried like duffles and that we used traveling around Colombia. I enjoy having a packable backpack for the beach and day trips too.

If you’re coming from many places in Europe, you might need a power adapter (Colombia uses the two and three pronged sockets with 110 V used in the US).

A small surge protector isn’t a terrible idea if you’ll be bringing expensive electronics like a laptop, especially if you’re staying in an AirBnB or cheaper hotel, many of which have old circuitry.

Having a Pacsafe travel safe can be useful if you’ll be carrying valuables or staying in hostels. Having a money pouch, a bra pouch, or a neck pouch can also help minimize the risk of theft of cash or other valuables.

If you take my advice above and hit the islands, a good dry bag and waterproof phone pouch is good to have along.

If you’re looking for a good book when on the beach or bumming around the hotel, 100 Years of Solitude is a great choice as is Love in the Time of Cholera, whose setting is loosely based on Cartagena. No Limits to their Sway about Cartagena’s Independence era privateers is my favorite history book about Cartagena and is a great read for the history buffs like me.

As far as clothing goes, my best recommendation is clothes that are comfortable for the Caribbean heat, your beach gear, and a couple nicer outfits for going out to nice restaurants and bars or clubs.

For the ladies, bright colors, pastels, and whites, especially linens work well for the Caribbean vibes of Cartagena.

Sundresses like these or a romper like this one work well for daily wear and are nice enough to wear out. So could a cute top like this and a skirt like this one.

Comfy t-shirts, a sleeveless top, or a cute blouse along with a pair of capris, some cotton shorts, a pair of jean shorts, or linen pants make for comfortable casual wear when walking around town too.

Floral print and bright colored bikinis or one pieces work great for the beaches of Cartagena and a good beach coverup is also good to have along and can even double as casual wear.

For the man, white and beige linens work great too, but so does just about any other clothes comfortable in the heat.

Guayaberas are popular for semi-formal wear among locals and short sleeve ones are comfortable enough to wear walking around town too. Do note that no, one, or two pocket designs are more common in Cartagena than the Cuban 4 pocket design.

They can be paired with jeans or casual linen pants as well as nicer linen pants for going out.

I’m also big fan of these lightweight Wrangler pants that are perfect for travel and would be fine at most less fancy restaurants and bars. For walking around town I think shorts and T-shrits are also are fine, even if they might identify you as a tourist (it is a tourist town and you are on vacation afterall!).

The guys should note that generally t-shirts, shorts, and sneakers or sandals are not permitted in most nightclubs and nicer restaurants, so be sure to bring along some nicer shoes. If you’re packing light, something like these Rockports work really well for daily and going out wear.

Finally, be sure to have plenty of sunscreen! Also, if you do stay in the islands, bug spray is useful to have along.

Photo of a yellow building with art depicting the walls of Cartagena and the words Getsemaní.
Bring clothes comfortable for walking around and exploring the historic districts in Cartagena’s heat and don’t forget your beach gear!

What and Where to Eat in Cartagena

I think this was one of the nicest things about seeing Cartagena grow as a destination in the time I lived there.

More and more great restaurants opened up!

But before I get to some restaurants in Cartagena recommendations, let’s talk about the best foods to try in Cartagena.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s great seafood.

Ceviche makes for a great appetizer or snack. Ordering a traditional fried fish plate along with coconut rice and the mashed fried plantain patties known as patacones in Colombia (called tostones in some other countries) is all but obligatory at the beach.

Anything in the garlic sauce known as al ajillo is also terrific. So are seafood rices or pastas.

Finally, a local favorite, which happens to be one of my favorite dishes, is the cazuela de mariscos stew that combines shellfish in a creamy tomato and coconut broth.

Photo of a plate with fried fish, rice, patacones, and a salad on a beach in Cartagena, Colombia.
You’ll find lots of great seafood in Cartagena, and the fried fish plate with coconut rice and patacones is a must try at the beach!

Also, you absolutely have to try an arepa de huevo during your time in Cartagena!

This popular street food is more like an empanada than your standard arepa. It has a corn meal shell and is filled with a fried egg and ground beef (you can get it with only an egg too). It makes for a good, greasy breakfast, afternoon or late night snack, or even an easy grab and go dinner.

Some of the best in the city can be found at Donde Magola, near the Exitó San Diego supermarket. They have some unique takes with different meats too such as shrimp, chorizo, and, my personal favorite, chicharrón. You can find them at street food stalls around the Walled City and Getsemaní too.

A good way to sample some arepas de huevo and other street foods like the yucca fritters called carimañolas plus some of the delicious fresh fruits is with a street food tour.

Ok, now let’s talk about where to eat in Cartagena. I’ve tried to include a variety of different price points for Cartagena restaurants here for al budgets and tastes.

Some of the best fine dining restaurants in Cartagena include Carmen, Restaurante Fuerte del Pastellillo, Alma, La Vitrola and the Jardín Santa Clara. We’ve been to all of these and greatly enjoyed them, and they are among the city’s better high end options. They also generally require advanced reservations.

Photo of a couple at a table overlooking the bay in Cartagena.
Pro Tip: The tables on old cannon openings at the Restaurante Fuerte el Pastelillo are perfect for a date night in Cartagena.

For nice that won’t break the bank, Candé, Buena Vida Marisquería, and La Cevichería, made famous after being featured during one of Anthony Bourdain’s visits, are great options.

For cheaper eats, La Mulata serves up a fresh rotating menu of local favorites at very reasonably prices. The local favorite and long running Espiritú Santo serves a daily menu at even more reasonable prices. Both make terrific options for lunch.

For those on really tight budgets or just looking to save, many restaurants also do lunch specials, called either menu ejecutivo or corrientes that include a soup, meat, rice, often another starch and salad or vegetables for affordable prices.

La Laguna Azul is a hidden gem for ceviches at cheapish prices.

Terraza Municipal has a number of food truck options with great views of the bay, and the street food stalls around the Plaza de la Trinidad make for a good option for a pre or post party meal.

I mentioned above I’d give you some options for coffee. Juan Valdez is pretty solid for a variety of choices and is sort of a Colombian Starbucks. Café Quindio in the Serrezuela shopping mall is also very good.

Café del Mural is a great choice in Getsemaní and has some of the neatest street art just across the street in front.

For a sit down coffee and breakfast or brunch, my favorite is Epoca, which has a couple locations in Centro. Ely is great in Bocagrande. La Brioche in Centro is also terrific with good food and solid mimosas. In a bit of a surprise for a French style pastry and coffee shop, they also have some of the best burgers in Cartagena. So, if you’re looking for a gourmet burger, it’d be my pick.

For a good steak, Quebracho would be my choice, although Alma has a good steak too if you’re looking for a finer dinning place or something with more choices. Finally, for a large and crowd pleasing menu, Cuzco is a great choice and was my family’s favorite place when they came for our wedding.

You can see lots more ideas for places to eat in Cartagena in my post on 50 restaurants worth trying in Cartagena.

Photo of a group at a table at La Vitrola in Cartagena.
There’s lots of great restaurants in Cartagena like La Vitrola.

Where to Enjoy Cartagena’s Nightlife

No visit to Cartagena, Colombia, or anywhere in Latin America is complete without a night out on the town!

There’s a pretty good nightlife scene in Cartagena, but there are some tourist traps, not to mention hooker bars, along with some good bars and clubs locals enjoy alongside tourists.

You’ll want to stick mostly around the Walled City and Getsemaní when going out in Cartagena.

Some of the more popular clubs include La Jugada and the relatively new Seven 7 Times. Café Havana has long been a favorite for those looking to get their salsa on, and the nearby Queibra Canto attracts a more local crowd for salsa too.

Long running favorite Mr. Babilla has been closed for a while with no clear word on if it will eventually reopen or not. It was a favorite of ours and every now and then you’d spot a Colombian celebrity there.

Photo of a group of girls at a table in a club in Cartagena.
Unfortunately, the long running favorite for Cartagena nightlife Mr. Babilla may have closed permanently, but there are plenty of other places to enjoy the Cartagena nightlife.

For more relaxed digs to enjoy a drink, the aforementioned Café del Mar and Hotel Movich Rooftop bars are great spots for sunset and early evening drinks.

Townhouse’s rooftop bar also has tasty cocktails and tasty tapa style food to share, and they do a great all you can eat and drink brunch on weekends if you can afford to risk a day you might not get much else done.

Al Quimico and El Barón are known for well crafted cocktails. El Mirador has a great view of the Clocktower, and 51 Sky Bar, located atop the Estelar in Bocagrande offers a unique view of the city and bay from the 51st floor.

Finally, don’t miss having a beer or three and people watching by the clocktower at the tables outside Donde Fidel and also from the corner store by the Plaza de la Trinidad. Both make good spots to start the evening.

Photo of two drinks on a table overlooking a cathedral in Cartagena, Colombia.
Don’t miss out on drinks at Hotel Movich’s rooftop bar. It’s one of the best views in Cartagena!

Safety in Cartagena

Let’s talk for a minute about safety in Cartagena.

While the country has come a long way, and perception seems to be changing as Colombia gets more positive press and featured in big magazines and newspapers as a destination, the country still carries a bit of a reputation.

So, you might be asking yourself, or maybe friends or family might ask you, “Is Cartagena safe?”

The answer is a pretty strong yes!

Cartagena was never really a hotspot for Colombia’s internal conflict. There’s a fairly heavy police presence in the tourist areas, and violent crime directed against tourists is extremely rare.

That being said, it’s still a city with a lot of poverty that is a popular tourist destination, and there is certainly some of the kind of petty crime and issues that you’d expect to come along with that.

In the 11 years I was in Cartagena, I was robbed once, and had one other uncomfortable run in with a guy on the street.

I’ve got a whole longer post on safety tips in Cartagena, but the truth is if you stick to common sense precautions like trying not to be out alone late at night, being aware of your surroundings, not flashing cash or valuables, and trying to minimize the amount of cash and valuables you carry, you will most likely have no issues.

That last point is important, because if you are the victim of a robbery, it’s best to not fight back. Someone waving a knife or gun in your face almost assuredly has a lot less to lose than you do.

Once again having a money pouch, a bra pouch, or a neck pouch can be handy to minimize the loss to any thieves or pickpockets.

Also, drugs of any sort are best avoided while in Cartagena. Buying drugs on the street not only puts you at increased risk of being a victim of crime but also at increased risk of being scammed by police. Not to mention, it also feeds into and perpetuates all the negative stereotypes about Colombia.

Finally, a couple quick notes about safety around dating and hooking up, if you plan to try your luck in either while in Cartagena.

First, prostitution exists in sort of a legal gray area where it’s not prohibited and tolerated, so be aware of that and aware of the fact that there are often working ladies out in clubs and on apps like Tinder.

Second, and more importantly, be careful with your drinks around strangers.

While it’s more common in Medellín, where there has been a spate of incidents involving foreigners that have even garnered international press from publications like the New York Times, the drug known as Scopolamine is not unheard of in Cartagena. This drug basically causes a victim to black out, and scammers, usually women targeting men, will use it to rob their victims’ rooms or apartments.

Again, it’s not super common, and I wouldn’t advise not going out or avoiding talking to strangers or that attractive guy or gal you met at the club, just try to be aware, use the buddy system, and ideally, you should stay at a hotel or AirBnB that has a front desk that checks and registers guests’ IDs. And be sure to use caution with apps like Tinder. It’s preferable to meet for the first time somewhere public.

Photo of a Cartagena flag atop a building seen through a narrow street with balconies on either side.
While Cartagena is quite safe as one of Colombia’s flagship destinations, you’ll want to follow basic precautions while here.

Other Common Scams and Issues in Cartagena

While not safety issues exactly, there are a handful of other things to be aware of when visiting Cartagena.

First, street vendors can be pushy and sometimes a pain in the you know where.

Honestly, my best advice is to ignore them entirely and give a finger wag and “No, gracias” if you’re not interested in what they are selling.

I say that as someone that even after more than a decade living in Cartagena had trouble doing that. It’s just in my nature to be polite.

However, it’s really the best way of handling them.

If you give them an in, they can be hard to get rid of. I’m pretty sure for some of them their sales technique is pester you until they’ve guilted you into buying something or you just buy something to make them go away.

Now, if you are interested in what they are selling, like, for example, a good sunhat or some knockoff Ray Bans, be aware you can and should negotiate on the price and be extra sure you are in fact on the same page on the price before taking whatever you’re buying in hand.

Similar advice goes for street performers, especially the rappers, which have become more ubiquitous and frankly more of a nuisance in recent years. If you aren’t interested in giving them a tip, you’re best off ignoring them and giving them a finger wag. If you do stop and listen or nod your head or laugh (some of them are not half bad and drop some funny little lines), you will definitely be expected to give them some money.

Photo of two rappers on a beach in Cartagena.
Watch out for vendors and rappers on the beaches and streets of Cartagena. If you’re not interested in what they’re selling or giving them a tip, my best advice is to not engage with them at all.

Now let’s talk about vendors on the beach. Vendors selling knick knacks like bracelets can be dealt with the same as street vendors, ignore if you’re not interested.

Vendors selling oysters or other finger food type things often try to offer a free sample. This is a common scam, where they give you several in quick succession that you might think are part of the “free” sample, and then expect you to pay.

It’s common to see massage ladies do this too. I’ve legitimately had to get straight up rude with massage ladies before who have insisted on putting their hands on me for the “free” sample.

If you don’t want to pay for oysters or a massage, just be insistent with your “No, gracias” and be sure not to accept the so called “free” sample.

For renting chairs, umbrellas or shade tents, drinks or food, always be sure to be clear on the price. Ask if there is a service charge. While there are meant to be standardized prices, they are often not adhered to.

Overcharging and a surprise super high bill, especially on the beach, are other common scams. Try your best to keep a running tally and know that prices of these things are often negotiable, especially if you’re in a group.

Finally, always be sure to agree on price with taxis before entering the vehicle too!

Getting Around Cartagena

Speaking of taxis, let’s talk about getting around Cartagena.

The easiest way for most travelers is to just take taxis. They are plentiful, easy to flag down, and relatively cheap. While this isn’t always the case in other parts of Colombia, particularly Bogotá, they are also quite safe to flag down on the street in Cartagena.

However, yes, because Cartagena’s taxis do not use meters, they have earned a reputation for overcharging tourists and even locals. So, always, always agree on price before entering and if they number is wildly exaggerated, don’t be afraid to close the door and flag down another.

Speaking of fair prices, generally you’re going to be spending between $10,000 and $15,000 Colombian pesos to get around the main touristy areas.

There is a surcharge to the airport and back, so expect to pay a bit more coming from and going there.

Photo of a couple taking a selfie in front of a colorful street in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.
While much of Cartagena’s historic areas can be explored on foot, taxis are the best way to get around outside the Walled City and Getsemaní.

Technically, the minimum taxi fare is $8,800 pesos during the day and $9,600 after 9 pm, but this translates to $9,000 and $10,000 in practice, although every now and then you’ll run across a taxi driver that will give you the change. Try to keep some small bills since taxis often don’t want to make change, especially for $50,000 or $100,000 peso bills.

Do note those are the established minimum prices for 2023.

The new prices for 2024 should come out by March as the taxi union and city negotiate it. I’d expect it to rise to over $9,000, which means in practice you’ll probably be paying $10,000 as a minimum.

Uber exists in sort of a gray area legally in Colombia, but has grown into a popular and reliable option, so if you prefer to know the price ahead of time, you can use it. It’s best to pay in cash rather than card.

I always liked the application InDriver much better, and it is more common in Cartagena and Colombia more generally. Most of the drivers are also licensed taxi drivers, which avoids the weird legal issues with Uber. EasyTaxi (Cabify in the US) is another option, although it’s taken a back seat to InDriver in recent years.

Also, the Hop on Hop Off Bus, while maybe a bit cheesy, is not a horrible way to get around. Especially if you’re solo and will use it for 4+ trips, it can work out to be cheaper than what you would spend on taxis.

There is an ok, not great, public bus system in Cartagena called the TransCaribe, which is meant to function a bit like an above ground metro.

If you’re staying in Centro or Getsemaní, it’s really not worth bothering to use it. Even if you’re staying in Bocagrande, Cabrero, or Marbella, it doesn’t save as much time as it does traveling into the residential areas since the buses don’t have their own dedicated lanes.

They can also get crowded and you have to purchase a card at one of the main stations to use them. The various routes and which stations they do and don’t stop at can also get confusing.

If you’re staying in Bocagrande and will be going back and forth into Centro frequently during the day and will be in town longer than just 3 or 4 days, you can save some money by buying a card and using it though.

There are still some older buses running from before the implementation of Transcaribe that serve parts of the city the newer system doesn’t reach effectively. They are not really worth using for tourists.

Learn more about options for getting around this guide to transportation in Cartagena.

Photo of street art showing a parrot and the walls and churches of Cartagena.
The neat street art outside of Café del Mural in Getsemaní.

Flying In and Out of Cartagena’s Airport

I’ve got a longer complete guide to the Cartagena airport, that you can check out to find out more about food options and the like, so here I’ll just cover the basics.

Cartagena’s airport is quite small and is located just a short ride away from the Walled City, which is nice and convenient.

When arriving, the time to pass through immigration can vary wildly from a quick few minutes to over an hour wait. I strongly suggest not planning anything like paid tours or must dos within a few hours of your planned arrival time.

Do note that when arriving internationally, you can get a ticket with the correct taxi price from a little kiosk just to the right when coming out of baggage claim. If you arrive on the domestic side, there is a window to the left when you go outside where you can get the ticket.

I recommend avoiding the guys standing around when you exit. You’ll have to walk a block to their car and you rarely will pay any less.

If you prefer, you can also prebook airport pickup.

Photo of the airport in Cartagena.
Cartagena’s airport is small and fairly easy to navigate, and just a short distance from the Walled City.

When departing, Cartagena is usually pretty quick.

It helps you don’t have to take your shoes off for security too!

I still recommend getting there 2.5 to 3 hours before international flights and 2 before domestic flights to be on the safe side, but you can push those a little shorter if it’s not peak travel seasons and you aren’t checking bags.

By the way, you do need to fill out a digital immigration form known as the Check Mig before arrival and departure, so be sure to do it to avoid any issues with not being able to board. I have a complete step by step guide to the Colombian Check Mig Form here.

And, if you still need to buy your flights, you can compare prices at Expedia at CheapOair, and at Kiwi.

You can also often find the best deals looking directly on airlines’ direct sites.

Speaking of that, Avianca and LATAM also frequently run flash sales for non peak season and holiday travel dates. While international flights can be limited in those sales, domestic flights to and from most cities in Colombia are usually included.

Some Further Practical Tips and FAQs

To finish out this extensive travel guide to Cartagena de Indias, I’m going to address some common questions I often see asked and throw in some more practical tips that aren’t addressed above.

Do I need to speak Spanish to travel to Cartagena?

In a word, no.

But, you would definitely benefit from at least having some basics.

In higher end hotels, staff will likely speak at least some English, but most waiters at restaurants, people in shops, and taxi drivers do not.

Not to mention, you will of course get more out of the experience if you can, you know, communicate with the locals.

If you speak very little or no Spanish, don’t let that deter you though!

If you put in some effort to learn at least the basics, including how to order food, say where you want to go, and ask about prices, you can get by just fine. A Spanish phrase book might be helpful to have along too.

I would like to plug our partner travel agency BnB Colombia Tours again here too though!

They offer 24/7 support and work with English speaking guides, generally on private tours with your transportation prearranged, so they can help you get the most out of your experience. Fill out the form here if you’d like to have them help you plan your trip.

Where should I exchange money?/Can I use US dollars in Cartagena?

There are a small handful of places that might take dollars, as might taxis that cater to the cruise terminal, but generally US dollars are not accepted in most places.

Honestly, where they are accepted, you will overpay using dollars and are much better off having Colombian pesos.

So, that begs the question, where should you exchange money in Cartagena?

Should you exchange with your bank before coming?

Exchange at the airport?

Find an exchange house in Cartagena?

In my opinion, the best answer is none of the above.

Bring along a debit card with low or no international fees and withdraw pesos as you go. The banks and ATMs will give you the best exchange rates, and you don’t have to worry about the hassle or risks associated with carrying large amounts of cash.

ATMs are plentiful and easy to find in Cartagena. The greens ones named Servibanca tend to have the highest limits for a single withdrawal.

If you do have to bring cash, I’d recommend exchanging a small amount at the airport to have for the taxi ride, then finding a place in town. There are several around the Clocktower and other areas of Centro. If you want to take the time to shop around for a nominally better rate, you can, but generally you won’t find drastic differences at different exchange houses.

Photo of different denominations of Colombian pesos.
Trying to keep small bills ($20,000 and below) is a good idea.

Colombian Currency

Colombia uses the Colombian Peso.

Bills come in denominations of $2,000, $5,000, $10,000, $20,000, $50,000, and $100,000. You still might see $1,000 bill too, although they are being phased out in favor of a coin. Keep in mind the Spanish word for thousand is mil.

50s and especially 100s can be hard to break, so try to take advantage of opportunities to do so at the supermarket or if you’re paying with cash for pricier meals. If you’re getting into a taxi and only have a $50, ask when getting in if they can make change. With a $100, good luck!

Coins come in denominations of $50 (also being phased out), $100, $200, $500, and $1,000.

Can I use credit cards in Cartagena?


Most restaurants, especially those catering to tourists, hotels, and supermarkets take credit cards nowadays.

Smaller, hole in the wall places and taxis do not, so you will need some cash on you at all times, but you can generally use a card to pay for lots of things. For places out in the islands, double check before going and definitely take some cash for thinks like drinks and food on boat tours.

One quick note if you do use a card: If you’re given the option, pay in pesos and/or decline the conversion. You’re better off letting the bank settle the conversion for you.

By the way, I love my Capital One SavorOne card. It’s got no international transaction fees, and gets cash back at restaurants and supermarkets, considerable regular expenses, not only on vacation, so you can bet more use out of it than some travel cards.

Can you drink the tap water in Cartagena?


The tap water in Cartagena is treated and safe to drink. I drank it for over a decade and am perfectly fine!

However, although it’s treated and won’t give you parasites or anything, I have heard of some people getting an upset stomach from it. I guess, it just has different minerals/trace things than other tap water?

So, this really comes down to personal preference.

If you are only going to be in Cartagena for a few days, or you tend to have sensitive stomach, bottled water is very cheap. You can also buy big jugs, or even big bags and refill as you go. Spending a few extra dollars might be worth it and is actually what I generally recommend to friends and family, to be honest.

It’s never a bad idea to have some Pepto and Immodium with you, just in case. Even if drinking bottled water and avoiding street fruits and food, traveler’s diarrhea is a thing.

Oh, and do keep in mend outside of Cartagena, for example, the Rosario Islands, Barú, La Boquilla, up the coast, or really in any small town, the water is usually not safe to drink.

Some Places to Go After Cartagena

One of the things that’s great about Cartagena, is it makes for a great gateway and staring point to explore some more of Colombia. I feel very lucky I was able to spend so much time and get to see so many places in such an interesting and incredibly diverse country.

So, I’d like to close this guide to Cartagena, by sharing a handful of places that you might consider adding on to you trip if you have more time than 4-7 days suggested above.

Or, maybe you might consider them for trip number 2, or number 3, or number 17!

If you have just a few extra days, the easiest destinations to include will be north up the Caribbean coast. They can be reached overland easily and don’t require an additional flight.

Most of these places are close to the city of Santa Marta, which you’ll need to reach first from Cartagena. See how to get from Cartagena to Santa Marta here.

Good places north of Cartagena that can be reached within a half day include the famous Tayrona Park, one of Colombia’s most famous natural areas, Minca, a small town in the mountains that is a nice break from the beach destinations elsewhere on the coast and one of our favorite places near Cartagena, and Palomino, a small beach town that has a hippy, backpacker vibe.

Adam and Susana sitting on a giant hammock overlooking the Marinka Waterfall in Minca near Cartagena.
The waterfalls and forest covered mountains of Minca are one of our favorite places near Cartagena.

For the adventurous, trekking up to the desert peninsula of La Guajira is really neat. You’ll need to reach the tiny town of Cabo de la Vela and then you can head to the most northern point of South America across the desert at Punta Gallinas.

With just a few extra days, the other easiest addition to a trip to Cartagena is flying to see Medellín, the so called city of eternal spring, or Bogotá, Colombia’s sprawling capital city. Both have plentiful flights from Cartagena as well as internationally, so they can be easy to tack on.

See how to get from Cartagena to Medellín here and see how to get from Cartagena to Bogotá here as well as some ideas for things to do in Bogotá and where to stay in Bogotá.

For the real beach lovers, the island of San Andrés is another good addition for a few days.

Photo of a guy sitting on a tree on a beach overlooking the sea with a small island in the distance.
San Andrés has some lovely beaches if you’re trying to truly beach bum it.

Now, if you have a longer period of time to travel Colombia (say 10 days or more) or you are planning a return trip, there are tons of places to consider including in addition to those mentioned above.

The coffee region is gorgeous, and Salento is one of my favorite places I’ve been in Colombia. Villa de Leyva and Barichara are two other small towns that are absolutely worth visits as well.

Nature, hiking, and adventure lovers should also consider the lesser traveled Guaviare, in my opinion, Colombia’s best kept secret. The gorgeous “liquid rainbow” of Caño Cristales, which inspired the magical river in the film Encanto, is also a special experience.

While we saw more wildlife in those two places, the Amazon outpost of Leticia is a great way to explore the Amazon River. The best wildlife spotting is on the plains of Los Llanos where you can do wildlife safaris though.

Finally, one of my most memorable travel and nature experiences was seeing the humpback whales on Colombia’s Pacific coast near the tiny town of Nuquí.

I’ve got tons more content on all the places we were lucky enough to get to see in Colombia in the Other Destinations section by the way, but I hope these places give you something to consider adding on once you’ve thoroughly enjoyed Cartagena!

Photo of a couple atop a rock overlooking a river surrounded by jungle in Colombia.
There’s a wealth of neat places to explore in Colombia so Cartagena may only be the beginning of your adventure!

Ready to plan your trip to Cartagena?

I sure hope this post covered everything you need to plan a wonderful trip to Cartagena de Indias!

Do keep in mind that there is tons of other content on the site, so be sure to browse around or search for anything else you want to know.

If you do want some expert help crafting a customized trip, do keep in mind the services of my partner agency. Click here to start planning a trip with them.

And if you read this entire guide, I sure hope it was helpful!

More importantly, I hope you have a wonderful time in Cartagena and anywhere else you go in Colombia. I am so happy to have the chance to share my love for this place with others!

Cheers and Happy Exploring!