Colombia

Is Cartagena Worth Visiting? – All the Reasons You Should Go

Cartagena is one of Colombia’s most popular travel destinations. It’s a big vibrant city located on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast, and was the most important port city in Spain’s colonization of the Americas. Much of that centuries-old history has been preserved. But is Cartagena worth visiting? After all, Colombia does have a certain reputation that keeps some tourists away. We spent a month visiting Cartagena, so I feel that I’m qualified to answer that question. Here’s what I thought.

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A 500 Year Old Walled City

Is Cartagena worth visiting because of its Old Town?

Yes! This is probably the main reason tourists visit Cartagena. And with good reason.

Founded by Spain in the 1500s, Cartagena de Indias (its full official name) was once the most important city in the all of the Americas. From Cartagena’s naturally protected bay, the colonizing Spaniards exported much of South America’s ancient treasures to Europe. And from this same bay, Spain also imported thousands and thousands of African slaves to work as laborers throughout the region.

A view of the historic wall surrounding old town Cartagena Colombia with a church on the other side

Spain ultimately built a fortification around Cartagena to help protect the city from pirates and from other European powers trying take what they’d already taken.

The Old Town and these walls are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

And it is beautiful!

A colorful street in Old Town Cartagena Colombia

As you explore Old Town’s narrow streets, you’ll find yourself surrounded by colorful colonial-style buildings, many with overhanging two story balconies typical of the period.

Colorful two-story colonial buildings with balconies in old town Cartagena Colombia

You’ll discover bustling town squares, many of which sit next to century-old churches. The church below is one of Cartagena’s most important – the 16th century Church of San Pedro Claver.

The church of San Pedro Claver in Cartagena Colombia

You’ll find that many of the buildings in Old Town have been beautifully restored (many have been turned into boutique hotels and guest houses like the one below). And you’ll find yourself admiring all the huge doors and their elaborate door knockers.

One of the beautiful restored buildings in old town Cartagena Colombia

And you’ll definitely want to step inside Cartagena’s main Cathedral – the Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría – and admire its simple grandeur. I honestly loved this Cathedral’s decor much more than many of the Gothic & over-the-top Baroque Cathedrals in Europe we’ve visited.

Inside the Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría in Cartagena Colombia

Plus, you can walk along the circumference of the historic walls for views out across the Caribbean and into the town below. And unlike a lot of other popular tourist destinations where you are charged a fee to walk their town walls, in Cartagena it’s free. (It costs almost 40 dollars per person to walk the historic walls in Dubrovnik Croatia!!) In fact, one of Cartagena’s most popular bars sits atop the wall….more on that later.

Getsemani – the Coolest Neighborhood I’ve Ever Visited

Is Cartagena worth visiting because of Getsemani?

Yes! Getsemani is the neighborhood that sits adjacent to Old Town. In Spanish times, this district was built for the working classes that helped support the Spanish ruling class, and it too was surrounded by a wall.

By the 1980s, Getsemani had dilapidated considerably and was considered a slum.

But over the last several decades, Getsemani has experienced a resurgence and is now considered Cartagena’s hippest neighborhood.

And within just a few minutes of walking through Getsemani for the first time, I was awestruck! It’s one of the coolest places I’ve ever visited!

In Getsemani, you are surrounded by color everywhere. The brightly painted buildings. Banners and flags hanging over almost every street. Even the fruit vendors add to the color of Getsemani.

A fruit vendor in the colorful streets of Getsemani

And there is street art. Lots of street art. Getsemani is famous for its street art.

The Three Muses mural in Getsemani

A large street mural and a street vendor in Getsemani

And you won’t only see murals on the sides of buildings in Getsemani. You’ll also see several long walls, covered in paintings being sold by local artists. Getsemani really is a visual feast!

Artists display their paintings along one of the streets in Getsemani Cartagena Colombia

Getsemani is also famous for its street food. While street food is everywhere in Cartagena, Getsemani’s Plaza de la Trinidad is one of the most popular places to get it. This popular square really comes to life at night, packed with locals and tourists alike, eating from the many carts lining the square.

Street carts with billowing smoke in Trinidad Plaza in Getsemani

And while Getsemani can be chaotic at times, it is still very much possible to find peacefully beautiful streets too – if you wander away from its busy center.

A quiet and colorful street in Getsemani

And despite the gentrification that has taken over this now-popular neighborhood, you can still find locals living their normal lives. Like this streetside game of dominos we stumbled across.

A game of dominoes in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena Colombia

Bocagrande AKA Little Miami

Is Cartagena worth visiting because of its mix of old and new?

Yes! Cartagena is much more than just its Spanish-built neighborhoods. Outside of the UNESCO World Heritage zone, you’ll find a very different and very modern Cartagena.

A view of Bocagrande from the wall surrounding Old Town Cartagena Colombia

Bocagrande is the neighborhood immediately to the south of Old Town and Getsemani. It’s built upon one of the barrier peninsulas that protects the Bay of Cartagena, and is nicknamed Little Miami for its oceanside collection of high rises and upscale shopping. This is also where you will find Cartagena’s larger chain hotels and lots of vacation rentals too. In fact, the photo below was taken from the balcony of our Airbnb rental.

A dusk view of the Bocagrande neighborhood of Cartagena Colombia
Yes! That was our view for a month! Caribbean on the left, Cartagena Bay on the right.

One of my favorite things to do in Bocagrande was my regular walks out along the lengthy bayside promenade. Staying in this part of the city gave us an entirely different perspective on Cartagena, and yet our Airbnb was only a short Uber ride away from Old Town and Getsemani.

A view of Bocagrande from the Bay of Cartagena promenade

On the other side of the Bocagrande – the Carribean side – you’ll find Cartagena’s most popular beach. Which leads to my next question….

What About The Beach?

Is Cartagena worth visiting because of its beaches?

Well, I guess that depends on what you want in a beach experience. This is what Bocagrande beach looks like. It’s packed!!

Beach umbrellas lined up along Bocagrande beach in Cartagena Colombia

So, if you are OK hanging out in rows of beach chairs & umbrellas, while vendors come along regularly selling various trinkets (and food)…then you will enjoy most of the beaches in Bocagrande.

Rows of beach of white beach umbrellas in Cartagena Colombia

Also note that the sand is just OK. And the water is just OK too. If you are looking for a more typical white sand blue water Caribbean beach experience, then you will not find that in Cartagena.

You can find that type of Caribbean beach in the area though. But it will require a day trip out to the nearby Rosario Islands or a group of beaches further south of Cartagena in an area called Baru. We did not elect to do go to those places after I read that while nicer, those beaches can be packed too. Plus the day trips aren’t cheap either. Here’s an example of a few of those on Viator if you are interested.

But I did find a more pleasant beach on the most southern edge of the Bocagrande peninsula called Playa de Castillo Grande. The Castillogrande section of the peninsula is almost entirely residential – expensive residential too. And it’s away from the hotels of Bocagrande. So, it’s more a locals beach and much less crowded. Walks along here at sunset became part of my regular routine.

A dissolving sandcastle on Castillo Grande Beach in Cartagena Colombia

Caribbean Colombian Cuisine is Delicious

Is Cartagena worth visiting because of its food?

Yes! Especially if you are a seafood lover.

Fish and other seafood are an important feature of the Caribbean Colombian cuisine you’ll find in Cartagena. Pictured below is one of the most common menu items found in Cartagena restaurants. Mojarra Frita. It’s a whole deep-fried tilapia served with coconut rice and tostones (smashed deep-fried plantains).

A plate of Mojarra Frita with coconut rice and tostones

Coconut rice was one of our very favorite things to eat in Cartagena, and is the most common side dish when eating traditional cuisine. We actually learned how to make it when we took a cooking class in Cartagena. And it’s not simple. You first caramelize brown sugar, then mix in the rice, and then cook it in coconut milk instead of water. But the end result is sweet coconutty goodness.

Another common food in Cartagena is the Arepa. These are thick tortillas made from corn flour. And throughout the country of Colombia, there are over 70 different ways to use Arepas in the cuisine. Here’s a picture of my personal favorite version. An Arepa sandwich filled with braised beef, black beans, cheese, and sweet plantains.

An Arepa sandwich with beef, beans, cheese, and plantains

If you want to see many more examples of the food that you will find in Cartagena then check out my blog post Typical Food in Cartagena Colombia You Won’t Want To Miss.

You Must Go on a Palenque Tour

Is Cartagena worth visiting because of Palenque?

Yes! A day trip to Palenque from Cartagena is one of the best day trips we’ve ever taken in all our travels.

Performers playing drums and dancing in San Basilio de Palenque near Cartagena Colombia

San Basilio de Palenque is a small town of about 4000 people located 90 minutes by car from Cartagena. It was originally founded in the 1600s and was the first free town for escaped African slaves in all of the Americas. The town still holds on tightly to its African roots and traditions, has its own language, and is consequently a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.

I’ve written an entire blog post all about our Palenque Tour and why I consider it the best day trip from Cartagena. You can get the full scoop by going to that page. But know that if you go, the always-smiling and incredibly friendly residents of Palenque will teach you about their town, their customs, their music, and their language. Don’t miss it!

Boys riding a horse through the streets of San Basilio de Palenque in Colombia

And You Really Need to Experience Bazurto Market

Is Cartagena worth visiting because of its huge central market?

Yes! Bazurto Market is another can’t-miss Cartagena experience. But as with visiting Palanque, you really should go to Bazurto with a local guide.

That’s because Bazurto really isn’t a tourist market whatsoever. It’s a huge maze of indoor and outdoor stalls, alleyways, and eateries. It smells, it’s crowded, it’s easy to get lost, and English is not spoken. I visited Bazurto on this tour with Discover Cartagena. And loved every minute of it. It’s a great way to experience the “real” Cartagena.

Piles of plantains in the Bazurto Market in Cartagena Colombia
Piles of plantains – a dietary staple in Cartagena
Large pots of food in front of a small restaurant inside Cartagena's Bazurto Market
One of the many small restaurants inside the market. All the food is displayed out front. We ate lunch from one of these small places at the end of our tour
A woman selling deep-fried fish inside Cartagena's Bazurto Market
This woman is selling various kinds of deep-fried fish. We sampled a couple of these, which she chopped up for us and served with boiled yucca.
A man selling vegetables inside Cartagena's Bazurto Market
This is Enrique and he has been selling vegetables from this same corner of the market for 45 years!

Cartagena At Sunset

Is Cartagena worth visiting for its sunsets?

Yes! One of the very best things to do in Cartagena is find a great bar or restaurant in a great location and enjoy the sunset. And in Cartagena, you’ll find plenty of great rooftop, wall top, and oceanside bars with amazing views.

My favorite rooftop bar in Cartagena was on top of the Townhouse Boutique Hotel inside the walled city. On their website, they rightfully boast that they’ve been named one of the Top 10 Rooftop Bars in South America for the last few years. And it’s easy to understand why. It’s a fun and hip little bar in a great location, with views out across Old Town. And unlike the place I will show you next, it was not crawling with people at sunset when we visited. Plus they have great food too – prepared in their open rooftop kitchen.

The Townhouse Rooftop bar at sunset in Cartagena Colombia

A cocktail and a view across Cartagena Colombia at sunset from Townhouse Rooftop bar
The Mango-rita at Townhouse Rooftop

The most popular restaurant and bar for watching sunsets in Cartagena is Cafe Del Mar. It’s located directly on top of the historic wall in Old Town. In fact, some of the tables are actually adjacent to canons. And from here, you have westward views out across the Caribbean and over to Bocagrande in the distance. It is the perfect spot for sunset-viewing. But we did find that the wind was always howling at Cafe Del Mar during our time in Cartagena. And as you can see in the photo, it’s also very crowded. I would recommend a reservation if you want a table with the best views.

The crowded Cafe Del Mar in Cartagena Colombia at sunset with a view of Bocagrande

Another favorite of ours at sunset was Terraza Municipal. This is an outdoor bar and kitchen located on the Bay of Cartagena in the Getsemani neighborhood. Here, you’ll have views across the bay to Bocagrande and parts of Old Town. While it looks like it is surrounded by food trucks, each kiosk is actually a unique kitchen dedicated to a specific type of cuisine. Order a pizza from your server and the pizza kiosk will make it for you. Order tacos and the taco chef will get to work. We loved hanging out here, and the quality of the food consistently exceeded our expectations.

Terraza Municipal at sunset in Cartagena Colombia

Is Cartagena Safe to Visit?

It should be pretty clear now that Cartagena is definitely worth visiting. But is it safe? Colombia does have a reputation after all.

On the website Travel Safe Abroad, Cartagena is listed as a safe place to visit in Colombia. And while the US State Department has alerts in place about other locations in Colombia, it does not include specific warnings about Cartagena.

Police officers walking along a promenade in Cartagena Colombia

And we felt safe during our entire month in Cartagena. We walked around the three main tourist districts day and night, and never had a moment of concern. Nor did we ever witness any issues. There was a robust police presence on the streets. And our building had round-the-clock security guards.

As with any location around the world, your safety does depend significantly on you. So take appropriate measures to avoid pickpockets, and avoid drunkenly wandering the streets by yourself in the wee hours of the morning.

On a side note, I was regularly approached by vendors who would offer me whatever it was they were legitimately selling, but then quietly would make me aware that they could also get me “whatever I really wanted”….no matter what it was.

I found that more amusing than anything. A laughing No Gracias was always my response. Though I did think about asking for world peace.

Is it Easy to Get Around Cartagena?

Yes! It is very easy to get around Cartagena.

If you are staying in Old Town or Getsemani, you really should be able to walk just about everywhere.

But if you are staying in Bocagrande, you’ll likely want a ride into Old Town.

I recommend using Uber or a similar service called Cabify. The local taxi drivers do have a reputation of taking advantage of tourists (no meters are used and prices are negotiated), although the taxis are considered safe.

I’ve written an entire blog post all about Getting around Cartagena. It will show you all the nuances for using Cabify and Uber in Cartagena, plus my recommendation for airport transportation.

A taxi driving through the street art at night in Getsemani

Is Cartagena Expensive?

No! And that’s another reason that Cartagena is worth visiting. Compared to many other locations around the Caribbean, Cartagena is a bargain (though you are trading pristine beaches for Spanish history and skyscrapers).

Based on my own personal experience and style of travel, I found that our dining costs were about 30-40% lower than at home in the US. And even cheaper if you like street food. (Interestingly, grocery store food was about equal in cost to the US.)

Uber was very inexpensive – just a few dollars to get anywhere we needed to go.

Many museums are free (or don’t cost much if there is a charge).

And lodging costs are very reasonable.

Tours and activities cost about the same as everywhere we’ve traveled. These are becoming more and more expensive everywhere, but our tours in Cartagena were very much worth it.

Colorful nighttime buildings in Old Town Cartagena Colombia

Final Thoughts

So, I now think it should be quite clear. Yes! Cartagena is definitely worth visiting! Go check it out for yourself!

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