What’s Cartagena (Colombia) like?
Most of my friends thought I was crazy when I told them that I was going to Colombia. I ended up loving Colombia so much on that first trip (in 2005) that I decided to go back a few years later with Lissette.
The highlight for me, Cartagena, is still the most impressive colonial city that I’ve seen anywhere. The old walled quarter, surrounded by fortress walls, is full of churches, plazas, and wonderful courtyards hidden behind old, wooden doors. There is great architecture everywhere. Lots of nice little cafes, shaded parks with fountains to sit in, and great restaurants hidden in impressive colonial buildings. It is a very romantic city. Outside the walled city is the fort of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and the Santa Cruz monastery on La Popa hill (the highest point in the city). There is a spit of land called Bocagrande which is lined by beaches and modern high-rises. This is where most tourists stay (I recommend against this – pay a bit more and stay in the colonial city). Out in the harbor are 2 fortresses protecting the mouth of the harbor from attack. There’s lots to see (I have some links to them at the bottom of this post).
Photos from inside the walled city
Accommodation. Stay in the Old City! (and not in Bocagrande where many tourists stay). It’s beautiful, romantic and full of character. Both times in Cartagena I’ve stayed at Casa India Catalina. Really nice, perfectly located, good value. Even nicer is the nearby Hotel Boutique Casa Córdoba Estrella.
Tour. Recommended is the 4 hour City Tour. A combination of driving and walking, you’ll see all the highlights of the city.
Flying in. Cartagena’s airport is Rafael Núñez International Airport (code: CTG) located 11.5 km from the city.
Related: The Most Beautiful City in the World? Our candidates…and winner
ATTRACTIONS OUTSIDE THE OLD CITY
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
One of the highlights of Cartagena, situated a 10 minute walk outside the Old City, is Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.
The fortress was built in 1536 and is known as the most formidable defensive complex of Spanish military architecture found anywhere. It has massive walls, turrets, cannons, and a network of tunnels connecting the different parts of the fortress. When I was here on my first trip two soldiers came up to me. They asked me where I came from and if it was my first time in Colombia. I thought they were going to shake me down for money. But they were very nice and before I knew it they offered me a tour of the tunnels. I said ok. You’ll see a photo of the two machine gun – toting soldiers that I took while in the tunnels. They were just friendly and bored. Their buddies showed up and I bought them all cokes. It was the first of many encounters I was to have with soldiers in Colombia.
Related: Castles and Fortresses that you may have never heard of
Santa Cruz monestary on La Popa hill
This is the best place to go for views of Cartagena. You’ll see Bocagrande, the old city, and the shanty towns of Cartagena on the opposite side of the hill.
It is also worth taking a boat tour of the harbour. Make sure it includes stops at Fuerte de San Fernando and Bateria de San Jose – these two forts protected the city from attack in the 1700’s.
Bocagrande, the spit of land going out into the harbor, has modern hotels and restaurants, beaches, as well as lots of nightlife. As I’ve stated above, many tourists stay here – but it doesn’t have the character of the Old City.
Useful Links to places nearby
Places to Visit near Cartagena (Colombia). And on what to See and Do in El Rodadero & Santa Marta
Safety. And why Taganga (Colombia) is worth a Visit
Parque Tayrona, Colombia. And a night at the Eco-Habs
What to see and do in San Andres, Colombia
Have you been to Cartagena? Please let me know what you thought of it!
Related: Travel Guide on beautiful Colombia..and what you should See and Do
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if i get to return to south america – hopefully 2021 or 2022 I really want to spent a bit of time in Colombia and you’ve put this town to the top of my list, as I am yet to do any research into Colombia! Looks great!
Frank and Lissette, great article about Cartagena, for me is a beautiful place, sometimes looking at some pictures of the walled city with the Dome i looks (to me) like Florence.
Yes, Cartagena is expensive, it always has been, we used to say (when I lived in Colombia) that it was cheaper to travel to NY than to Cartagena, it is not that so but is more expensive than the rest of the country but is far more beautiful than the rest (including Medellin) of the cities. Beautiful places to visit and the best restaurants in the country, it is a gourmet paradise. Plan a week or less days if you want and I agree, get a hotel in the Old Town, they have a large variety of beautiful places to stay, don’t need to go to Bocagrande, Old Cartagena has it all.
Thanks so much for the feedback Carlos. I think my return trip with Lissette was 2007 – so it’s been a while.
Loved Colombia. On that 1st trip when I went solo I saw Cartagena, Santa Marta, Parque Tayrona, Manizales, Cali, Bogota…people were wonderful. Would love to go back one day.
Cartagena is very beautiful and interesting!! I was there in 2000 and i enjoyed. I hope come back this year. but i know it is a litlle dangerous .
I like your blog! is very nice your adventures (sorry for my bad english)
Thank you for your comments Mile. Usted escribe muy bien 🙂
I agree about Cartagena, it is beautiful but there are places that can still be a bit dangerous. Like anywhere else, not a good idea too get drunk in a bad part of town..
It’s a nice article and nice pictures, however I spent a month in Cartagena and I have to say I genuinely hated it. And this is coming from someone who loves Colombia-I’m currently living in Medellin and I cant say enough good things about it. I think anyone who is thinking of going to Cartagena should do Medellin instead. The heat and humidity is unbearable, the streets and bocagrande beaches are crawling with touts that won’t let you go anywhere without bugging you every 20 seconds and won’t take no for an answer. I couldn’t go anywhere in the city without getting harrased. This isn’t people just selling stuff, this is people coming up to you and not leaving you alone even when you walk away. And the beaches are some of the ugliest I have ever seen. There is no beach sand, it is just brown mud, and the water is brown. I’m sorry to sound negative, I’m just giving my honest feedback. Medellin is an amazing city tho, and I highly recommend it instead.
Hi Aaron. You know what? I totally agree with you. I wouldn’t spend more than 4, 5 days there for all the reasons you’ve cited. But you have to admit it’s an amazing city for a short visit especially if you want to experience colonial Spanish architecture.
Over the least 6 months we’ve travelled slowly, exploring places in a much different way. And you realize how certain places that you loved as a ‘vacation’ visitor you can’t stomach for longer periods (Bangkok was a recent example for us). Others, which are maybe not as glitzy, may be boring for a short-time visitor but great bases for an expat or slower traveller.
Have heard great things about Medellin and I hope we come back and check it out one day.
Thanks for the good feedback!
I love the architecture! Colombia looks such a beautiful country, so colorful and welcoming. I probably should considering visiting it at some point, especially considering I have two Colombian friends there.
Yes, do Franca! More and more people going and prices going up and people getting used to tourists. Go before mass tourism hits it (already happening in Cartagena..)
Marina K. Villatoro
Columbia is sooo on my list. It looks gorgeous. Funny enough, from the first glance the first square you have photographed looked exactly like one in Havana, Cuba 🙂
I am happy you found Cartagena and Colombia so welcoming! I lived there for a year in 2011 and went back for a visit in 2013 — I am also a big fan of the place. It is by far my favorite place I have visited in Latin America (compared to Costa Rica, Peru, and Argentina). Thanks for sharing your stories and photos! (And yes, even with “gun-toting soldiers,” it is a very safe place to visit…)
Looks like a pretty city! I don’t know if I would have went in the tunnels with the gun-toting soldiers. I probably would have assumed the worst was going to happen!
Visually, Cartagena is stunning! Even after seeing tons of colonial towns, it stands out. No better place for simply wandering around.. It´s a shame though that it´s so expensive compared to the rest of Colombia. Prices are literally twice that of Medellin, for example.
Thanks for the feedback Adam – good to know, I didn’t realize there was that much of a difference with Medellin (which I hope to visit in the future).
great photos and great blog! i actually almost went here two months ago instead of central america. and truthfully, i wish i had gone here instead of c.america (not a fan). especially if i would have had the opportunity to see toucans in the streets!
Thanks for the comments Megan. Yes, we loved Cartagena and Colombia in general. Agree with you about Central America – we really didn’t like Costa Rica and I have a few rants on the blog about that. The people also very different, we found people in Costa Rica/Nicaragua reserved, not at all like the (generally) outgoing and friendly Colombians. I’m a big fan of Colombia.
Wow, I’m sooo excited to go see this all for myself! We will have an extra day or two to spend in Cartagena, so I’m really excited to see some of the beautiful sites in your pictures. I wonder if the soldiers are still bored? I’ll find out!
I’d love to see Colombia one day, I think it’s beautiful, not only Cartagena but all the nature around the cities. But I have to admit that I’m a bit scared of going on my own as a woman as well.
Found you by your post on the gem scam. Good one! Glad I found your blog – like your posts. I currently live in Seattle. I expatrioted to Quebec City for a year and a half. I absolutely adore travel, photography and writing. Columbia is high on a list of places I’d like to go.
Thanks for writing!
Thanks Amanda! Seattle to Quebec City – that must have been a culture shock!
Colombia looks beautiful!
Wow, looks beautiful! That is not at all how I would picture a city in Colombia to look. Top of my bucket list for South America is Chile and Argentina, but hopefully we’ll make it to Colombia someday.
Love the architecture and how colorful some of the buildings are.