On my recent trip to Colombia, I spent time between Cartagena and Medellin.
Both cities couldn’t be more different, and both are incredible bucket list items to check off.
I learned a lot of important travel things I wish I knew before arriving, so I wanted to create a Cartagena travel guide to help you make the most out of your time in Cartagena.
Cartagena Colombia Travel Guide
I hope to answer most of the questions you will have when you plan your trip to Cartagena.
Where to stay in Cartagena
There are three main places to stay in Cartagena.
I would stay in one of these 3 areas only on a trip to Cartagena.
- In the Old City
- Getsemani area
Bocagrande is the area with all the high rises. It’s the new part of Cartagena. A lot of people stay here because it’s modern, it’s beautiful, and you can find luxury accommodations for cheaper than a place with a similar vibe (like Miami).
The Old City is inside the walls of Cartagena. This is where I stayed and I loved it. It’s central Cartagena. You’re right where all the action is. The Old City is not very big, so you can stay anywhere within the walls and be located excellently. I’d say it’s the safest area to stay in Cartagena as well.
Getsemani is an area just outside of the Old City. It’s a little less touristy here. You’ll find small cute hostels and hotels scattered around. Great place to stay. It’s a very popular area for nightlife as well. Overall, it’s got a great vibe to it. More relaxed with a more authentic yet grungy feel.
Getsemani, Bocagrande, and the Old City are all within a 10 minute cab ride. So it’s all densely together.
Basically…. if you’re really unsure where to stay, pick the Old City. The Old City is where you will spend most of your time. If you like high rise buildings and more modern accommodations, choose Bocagrande. If you want a slightly more alternative and less touristic place, stay in Getsemani.
What’s fun to do in Cartagena
There are a few MAIN things you must do in Cartagena.
Then the rest are also great things but may or may not be your type of thing.
I wrote a really good blog post highlighting the top 50 things to do in Cartagena.
It’s the best guide on what to do in Cartagena on the internet (I checked!)
Overall, Cartagena is one of the most wonderful places to just walk around. It’s such a colorful and beautiful place.
Always take your camera with you and just wander around in the Old City. Grab a quick bite or drink when you get tired or too hot. Go about it slowly and take in the city – it’s just absolutely stunning.
The people of Cartagena
I didn’t know what to expect from the people here. Cartagena was my first trip to South America.
The people of Cartagena are really really nice. Not once did I feel threatened or scared.
Cartagena is a port city. Cruise ships come in during the day and many visitors come from all over North American and South America (and of course around the world). They are used to tourists. They understand tourism drives their economy and I really got the sense they were very respectful of that.
In a sentence, you shouldn’t have a problem at all here!
Where to eat in Cartagena
There are restaurants everywhere inside the Old City. You can just walk around and find one.
Many of them are fairly pricy though. Expect to pay slightly cheaper prices than what you pay back home.
I personally would avoid the big fancy restaurants, especially the ones in the higher end hotels within the Old City. I ate at a couple of them and the food quality is the same as the random restaurants I wandered into on the street.
The food variety isn’t very great in Colombia in general though.
Where Cartagena excels is in seafood and fruits. If you like both you’ll have a lot of food options. Also, if you like deep fried smashed bananas, you’ll like Cartagena because you get this food in every meal for whatever reason.
As far as where to eat in Cartagena, honestly I like choosing places that look like there are a lot of Spanish people eating there. I tend to avoid places with a lot of Gringo’s. I’ve learned on my travels that if locals eat here, it’s probably pretty good (and cheaper too).
I honestly didn’t really pay attention to where I ate. Literally walked into random food joints and sat down. But here’s a guide on good places to eat in Cartagena.
You can get a nice seafood plate of something for about 25 dollars. I would try the deep fried fish once, since it’s a traditional dish and you can get it anywhere. But it’s pricy for what it is. The seafood stew is roughly 20 dollars and it’s also a traditional dish. It’s to die for. I had it in several places and it was great no matter where I went.
There’s food outside of the Old City as well of course like in the Getsemani or Bocagrande areas.
How to get to Cartagena
Flying into Bogota will likely be cheaper than flying into Cartagena. If you want to visit Bogota (which you should if you have time), I would fly into Bogota first (can save you hundreds of dollars) and then take a local flight to Cartagena after.
I took a local flight with VivaColombia from Cartagena to Medellin and it costed $30 only (if you have checked luggage it will be like double the price). Flights within Colombia can be very cheap. I recommend this over taking a bus which costs more than $30 when I searched.
10 Cartagena Colombia travel tips: things I wish I knew before going to Cartagena
Lastly, I want to leave my top 10 tips for travel to Cartagena. These are some things I learned during my visit to Cartagena and things I feel you’ll find helpful.
1. Negotiate everything: Don’t be scared to bargain. It’s 100% part of their culture. It’s expected. So sunglasses from a street vendor, cab rides, and even tours from operators on the street. Anything with a clearly marked price typically isn’t negotiable. Like food in a supermarket.
Go low! I bought sunglasses and the guy started at 20 dollars. I offered 5. We ended up at 11. Cab rides I ask locals what it should cost first so I don’t come across as ridiculous. Cab drivers will always quote you more. Just be firm with what is reasonable and you’re good. They’re dying to drive you.
But then again, if you’re just not the type to really haggle things, then it’s okay. You don’t have to. I’m also a guy who’s happy to give someone a little more money because a few extra dollars to them can go a long way.
2. People will rip you off because you’re a tourist: 100% any street vendor, cab driver, tour operator, etc will try and make as much money off you as possible. It’s just how it is. Just be smart about it. Figure out what things should cost first and be firm as I said earlier. They will know you’re not a dummy and will accept your offer as long as it’s reasonable.
There are a lot of drink vendors on the street and I often overpaid for them. I didn’t know what it normally costed. But I paid $1.5 or so, so maybe I paid 50 cents or a dollar more, I dunno. But it’s obviously not a lot of money so I was more okay with this.
A key thing is to watch what the locals do. If you see them hand this much money for a drink, well, that’s what it probably actually costs.
3. There is literally no vegetables to eat: I dunno how Colombians get their nutrients, but they don’t seem to eat any vegetables. None of their meals have any veggies in them. Like barely any. There’s no real veggie dishes either. I would go a full week in Colombia and the only vegetable I had was a few slices of cucumber.
I met a vegetarian and she struggled with the food here. She said she’s been eating mostly fruit (the fruit here are absolutely delicious by the way!)
At the end of the day, there are some tasty Colombian foods, but nobody comes to Colombia for the food.
4. Knowledge of Spanish will help you tremendously: This might be an obvious one, but I still wanted to mention it. Cartagena, being the big touristy place it is, is still a difficult place to be when you don’t know any Spanish.
A lot of street vendors and restaurant workers speak little to no English. It definitely makes simple things like wanting your eggs scrambled harder than it needs to be. Or ordering juice! So many flavors but what are they all called??!!
Download an English to Spanish app or translator. It will save you in many situations.
Or learn Spanish before going with my favorite language learning tool, Rosetta Stone.
5. They don’t bring you the bill unless you ask for it: In Colombia, after you finish your meal, they won’t come by for a quality check and ask if you want anything else like they do in North America. They will come and take your plates away (sometimes). But if you want to leave you need to ask for the bill. Otherwise they will just let you sit there.
6. It’s really really really humid: I knew Cartagena was a hot place, but it’s incredibly humid there. I would take a cold shower, walk outside, and begin sweating immediately. I’m not a sweaty guy either. Let’s just say that you get sticky really really fast. So pack extra clothes and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
It’s better at night. It’s actually fairly windy at night. But with the hot weather it’s kinda nice. But you’ll still likely feel a little bit of stickyness even at night time. A week or whatever is nice here, but I personally couldn’t stand the weather long term.
7. Cartagena won’t be as cheap as you may think: It’s a touristic place first of all, so it’s never going to be that inexpensive no matter what. I was expecting it to be a bit cheaper than it was. Some places to eat were more expensive than in Canada. Hotels and hostels ranged a lot in prices, but overall, Cartagena is more expensive to stay in then other parts of Colombia.
Water at a supermarket was about a dollar thirty / dollar fifty. That’s not exactly cheap.
But certain things are definitely cheaper than back home. Alcoholic drinks, juices, fruits on the street, and some foods are some examples. There are also some really fancy places to dine that would cost at least double/triple more if you were to dine in a similar place in North America. Have a wander around and check the menu’s outside the door.
8. Colombian isn’t as scary as you’ve heard: I like Colombia a lot. It’s not the violent scary place the rest of the world made it out to be. It has had some grueling history with a corrupt government, but their fixing that slowly. It’s a lovely place that you shouldn’t be scared to visit.
I remember visiting my doctor before departing for Colombia. I told him I was going there and he said “why would you go there, it’s dangerous”. I don’t blame him for his ignorance, I mean, I thought it was a bit of a dodgy place too.
I never once felt unsafe or threatened. It was just as safe as any “safe” country I’ve ever been to. Obviously you still need to use your head and travel with caution. You should do just great here if you do. I hope you have a fantastic time.
9. Your Tinder will be LIT: Checking out Tinder in another country is always fun to do. You should try it, even if you don’t use Tinder. Just for funzies. Anyway, I simply swiped right for everyone. I did this maybe 7 or 8 times until I ran out of free likes. Over a period of about 3 days I got about 100 matches. Most of my matches were women flaunting it big time. It’s a tourist trap!
10. Many South Americans visit Cartagena: I was incredibly blown away by how many people from other parts of South America visited Colombia.
I stayed in a very popular hostel called El Viajero, and I have to say, about half the people there were fully fluent in Spanish and many didn’t speak much English. They were visiting from all parts of South America.
To contrast, if you went somewhere like Thailand, you will hardly find other types of Asians visiting Thailand. It’s just Aussies everywhere… LOL jokes. But for real, Asians don’t travel throughout Asia like South Americans do in their own continent.
And that’s it!
I think I covered most of what I wanted to say.
I hope you found this Cartagena travel guide helpful. If it helps you plan your trip to Cartagena better let me know!
Also, if you have a great Cartagena travel tip please let me know in the comments. I’ll include it in this guide.