Cartagena – Colombia’s tropical city on the Caribbean coast is filled with cobblestone streets surrounding beautiful squares with breathtaking Spanish architecture. It’s one of the most beautiful places with some of the most fantastic food and drinks I’ve ever had. We’re hoping to go back as soon as possible to spend more time there and in the Rosario Islands. Below is my guide to getting the most out of a quick trip to this fantastic city.
Tips and Must-Sees in Cartagena, Colombia
Take Out Cash – Many establishments are still cash only (and all street vendors are). Don’t expect to use a card everywhere.
The Water / Sustainability Tips – To avoid buying and wasting tons of plastic water bottles, take your own reusable bottle along with a straw that filters, or a portable filter. Alternatively, you can buy your own Life Straw filtering water bottle.
Straws / Sustainability Tips – Colombian cities use a LOT of straws, and we can confirm they’re scattered all over the beaches and throughout the sea. To avoid adding to the problem, you can ask for your drinks with no straw: ‘ sin pitillo’ is how Colombias say ‘without a straw.’ You also can take your own reusable straw and say ‘Tengo pitillo’ and show them your straw so they don’t give you others.
Take Advantage of Cheap Prices – In general, your dollar goes really, really far in Colombia. For example, our flights from Bogota to Cartagena and Cartagena to San Andres only cost $30 each… Take advantage of this and the fact that you can get fantastic food, drinks, and lodging for very little money.
Learn Some Spanish and Colombian Dialect – Most people don’t speak English in Colombia. Some do, but don’t expect to find many. I’m a bit under intermediate level in Spanish, and I struggled to get us through at times. I think this was somewhat due to the fact that Colombians have a different dialect and use some different words than Mexicans (I know Mexican dialect), but largely because I’m far from fluent. Be sure to brush up / learn before you go, and expect to frequently use Google Translate to show people what you’re saying.
Spend a Few Days in the Rosario, Islands – The Rosario Islands are an archipelago of coral reef islands located about one hour by boat from Cartagena. It’s a national park that was created to protect one of the most important coral reefs off the coast of Colombia. We did a day trip, which I don’t really recommend (see below), and were completely astounded by the beauty of the small bit of the Rosarios we saw. Waters are crystal clear and bath-water warm, the land is lush, and there is a lot to see underwater. It is really difficult to see much in a day trip (I didn’t even have time to take photos), but I’d love to stay on the islands for a few days. Our goal is to return to Cartagena in the near future and spend 3-4 days camping or eco-hosteling on the Rosarios.
Take a Day Trip to the Rosario Islands with Caution – As I said, we took a day trip to the Rosarios. It was a bit of a mess, which I somewhat assumed would be the case. We were told we booked a trip with return to Isla Grande, however we ended up going to Playa Blanca and the Aquarium instead. The boat tried to drop us off at Isla Grande, but told us we didn’t book a return trip, so we would have been stuck (and our flight left the next day). Also, almost no one on the tour understood English at all, and my Spanish is only intermediate, so it was a struggle to figure out what was going on. It seems most day trips go like this, so be forewarned before embarking on one. The trip was worth it (for me) because everything we saw was awesome, and I really wanted another snorkeling day, but it was a bit of a cluster. As a side note, we heard a lot of trash talking about the Aquarium. We didn’t go to the Oceanario; we opted to snorkel on the tiny island beside it instead. There’s a massive reef there and lots of fish, all of which you can access directly off the island. The reef is dead, but it is enormous, and the water is some of the clearest and warmest I’ve ever been in. I wouldn’t choose to go here over other Rosario Islands, but it turned out to be much better than I expected.
Camp on Playa Blanca – We didn’t get to do this, but are hoping to next time. Playa Blanca, although crowded, was a nice beach during the week. Next time, our goal is to rent a hammock or a room at the hostels on the beach and stay overnight. It would be an amazing place to spend a night or two. While there, get pizza from El Refugio de Karol (on the beach). We got amazing homemade pizza and 4 beers there for $10. I believe it’s a beach hostel as well.
Easy Taxi – We used Easy Taxi here too, but – unlike in Bogota – I believe taxis are safe in Cartagena. Still, it’s a great app for getting reliable transportation around the city.
Take a Walking Tour – We booked a free walking tour our first day in Cartagena. Although our guide was comically terrible, it was a great way to learn about the city’s history and current offerings.
Must-Sees in Cartagena
Beiyu – This is possibly our favorite breakfast place we’ve ever been. Located in Getsemani, the trendy neighborhood just outside Walled City, it’s both affordable and fantastic. The cafe is know for its acai bowls / smoothies, but has fantastic omelettes, pastries, juices, and coffees as well. If you order an omelette, you get (1) juice, (2) your choice of hot chocolate, coffee, or cappuccino, and (3) bread. Our breakfast below only cost $12-$13.
Porton de San Sebastian – This is a fantastic restaurant. Although a bit on the pricier side, we got two entrees (which were some of the best pasta dishes we’ve ever had; see below), an appetizer, and a massive pitcher of Sangria that we struggled to finish for $50.
Cafe Del Mural – This was one of our absolute favorite places in the city. It’s known for its fantastic coffees and specialty coffee drinks. Our go-tos were an ice cream coffee liqueur drink, and a stout + espresso drink that you prepared like an Irish car bomb (see photos below).
Candy Ladies in Clock Tower Square – You can’t miss these women in the Clock Tower Square. There are 15-20 of them lined up selling homemade candies all day and throughout much of the night every day of the week. I loved a few of their candies, and they’re all less than $1 each.
Getsemani & Walled City Neighborhoods – These are the two main neighborhoods everyone talks about in Cartagena, and for good reason – because they’re awesome. Walled City, although a bit more touristy and overrun by street vendors, is beautiful, historical, and has a lot going on. Getsemani is the more up-and-coming trendy / backpacker area. There are tons of hostels there and people partying in squares well into the night.
Squares in Getsemani – There is one main square in Getsemani where dancers perform each night surrounded by food vendors peddling their traditional treats. I highly recommend hanging in the square with a beer for a bit and watching the free entertainment.