Cartagena de Indias; a city like none other in Colombia. It’s a unique place where the past and present intertwine to bring out the best of both, all in the context of a tropical Caribbean back set. This list is by no means an exhaustive list of what to do in the city but rather a compilation of the 6 things you should do for your first visit, especially if time is limited.
(1) Climb The San Felipe Castle (UNESCO)
Did you even go to Cartagena if you didn’t visit its most iconic landmark, the San Felipe Castle? Otherwise known as the “guardian of Cartagena”. Not just iconic, this fort was an integral part of the city’s defence against pirates and other adversaries of the Spanish Crown.
With construction starting in 1639, the old city of Cartagena owes a lot to this magnificent fortress and it may just be the most precious of its kind built by the Spanish colonies.
Step back in time and explore the different elements of the castle, including the ramparts, tunnels and artillery. Just make sure to watch your head as the ceilings were built for shorter Spaniards back in the day.
The San Felipe Castle is truly an imposing structure that looks out to both the sea and city. It may not be a lookout for pirates anymore but is still one of the best vantage points in Cartagena. Also a great place to watch the sunset.
We highly recommend the “Grand Batalla” tour. It costs approximately $30,000 COP ($6.50), lasts an hour and will bring the history of the fortress to life with an interactive breakdown of all its features. The tour will illustrate the different architectural feats of the fortress and educate you on how they were imperative in protecting the city back in the day.
(2) Wander Around The Walled City (UNESCO)
Enter the Walled City of Cartagena and discover just what the San Felipe fortress was protecting… Although small in size, this sector is steeped in over 500 years of history – and it’s evident. Every crook and cranny of the Walled City magically integrates the present into its past; there’s nowhere else in Colombia quite like it and few places in the world. It’s one of nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country.
Salient Facts About the History of the Walled City:
- Founded in 1533 by Spanish commander, Pedro de Heredia, after he entered with three ships, 150 compatriots & 22 horses
- The local indigenous towns and lands were quickly pillaged of gold
- The conquered land was named after the Spanish port city of Cartagena
- By 1574, Cartagena was given the title of an official city.
- It quickly became a significant port whereby Bolivian silver was exported to Spain and African slaves were imported for the colonies of the Spanish Americas.
- Cartagena declared its independence from Spanish rule on November 11, 1811, becoming the first Colombian city to do so. In the war that followed, it played an important role as a revolutionary army post.
- The Liberator Simón Bolívar published the “Manifiesto de Cartagena” in this city on December 15, 1812. In this Bolivar analyzed the political situation of the colonies and designed the plan to continue the struggle for the independence of five nations.
The Old City of Cartagena is where the majority of tourists stay. It includes the neighbours of San Diego, Centro and Getsemani.
Thanks to its preserved architecture, abundance of color and flamboyant vendors, the Old City of Cartagena is one of the most ‘instagrammable’ places in Colombia.
We recommend That You Check Out The Following:
- Torre del Reloj – built in 1631, this is the main entrance to the Historic Centre. The clocktower is emblematic and measures 30m in height.
- Plaza Aduana – the biggest plaza in Cartagena, built in 1849.
- Plaza Santo Domingo – one of the most visited squares in the Historic City with tourists passing through in abundance. In and around the plaza are no shortage of fancy restaurants. Dine on one of the many tables in the plaza and soak in the buzzing atmosphere. Here you’ll find a statue of Antioquia’s most iconic artist, Fernando Botero.
(3) Escape To The Islas Del Rosario
For me, the best thing about Cartagena is its proximity to the picturesque Rosario Islands. Located roughly 1 hour from Cartagena by boat are a chain of islands that you’ll swear you’ve seen on a calendar. Swaying palm trees, golden sand, turquoise water and beautiful sunsets.
These islands lived up to my expectations of a Caribbean getaway – remote enough to feel like a personal slice of paradise yet close enough to mainland to be accessible, even for a day trip.
Among the chain are many smaller islands and all are part of a national park. The biggest of the islands, Isla Grande, is where you’ll find the greatest variety of eco-resorts, lodges and activities. There is adequate infrastructure to accommodate your needs while not feeling overdeveloped. These may not be virgin islands but they feel preserved.
Most hotels and resorts offer guests a list of activities such as snorkelling, island hopping, in-land tours etc, kayaking etc.
The Rosario Islands are known for their extensive corrals and mangrove systems. The Isla Grande is replete with biodiversity including wild iguanas, coconut trees and many species of exotic birds.
If you are going in a group of 5-10, the best way to experience the islands is via a private boat tour. The average price is $350,000 COP per person ($75 USD). Although more expensive than going on a public boat ($60,000 COP approx), it is worth it if you want to access remote beaches, snorkelling spots etc.
The main dock where you’ll depart from Cartagena is called the Muelle de la Bodeguita. Make sure to arrive early as boats depart from 8am – 9am.
Although Cartagena has its beaches, they are not nearly as pleasant, turquoise, nor peaceful as the many you’ll find on these amazing islands. If you’re looking for a pretty Caribbean experience, you’ll have to look further than Bocagrande.
(4) Experience Miami Vibes In Bocagrande
If you can, peel away from the charm of the Old City and dip your toes into the upper echelon of Cartagena living. Bocagrande, unlike the Old City, is where the city showcases its most modern architecture and for this reason is a stark contrast to the anguity of the Walled City. You won’t find colonial homes but rather imposing buildings which all race to dominate the skyline.
Bocagrande is where the well-to-do stay. It’s always been this way since the 50s when American oil money was used to help contribute to the booming horizon. Did you know that the word Bocagrande means “big mouth”? This is because it is home to Cartagena’s longest and most accessible beach.
Adjacent to this beach is an avenue brimming with fancy hotel chains, casinos, restaurants and bars. With the abundance of palm trees that shape the area, this place is often compared to Miami. A word of advice though is that Bocagrande, especially its beaches, are heavily frequented by vendors. A simple “no gracias” is all you need to say, but be prepared to say it regularly. In my opinion, the beach is worth visiting but do not expect white sand or clear water.
Given that this is Cartagena’s most affluent district, you’ll find the best shopping malls here, too. Plaza Bocagrande is the second ‘best’ or most expensive mall in the whole nation.
There’s a reason this restaurant is one the most popular restaurants in Cartagena. A bar located on a historic fort overseeing both the Historic City and Caribbean Sea. Does it get better than that?
Of course not, and that is why you should visit. DO try to beat the crowds racing against the sunset. If you want to come here and watch the skies turn all shades of orange, make sure you give yourself an hour to circumvent the hassle.
It is a bit pricey here as you would expect with this kind of real estate, but the menu is accommodating with prices ranging COP 70,000 – COP 233,000.
In the Cafe del Mar, although the view is rather mind-shattering, you won’t forget where you are as it is home to a massive Colombian flag. It might just be might the biggest you’ve seen.
(6) Experience The Gastronomy
Last but certainly not least, the food. In my opinion (and that of my friends), Cartagena is home to the best culinary scene in the country, even edging out Medellin! To experience the best of the food in Cartagena, you’ll want to stay within the Walled City.
Call it serendipity, but my friends and I stumbled across what would be one of our favourite restaurants in Colombia. I must recommend Niku Cartagena – a Japanese/Peruvian fusion. We almost walked past the place before deciding to pacify our empty stomachs. This place is beautiful. We were settled into a tree-shaded courtyard which was visited by parrots and red squirrels. An incredible ambience.
The food was also excellent. Here are some photos below.
La Cevicheria is another Peruvian style restaurant with great reviews. It is purportedly one of the best places to try ceviche. It must be good because it is always packed. It is actually where celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain ate in his TV series ‘No Reservations’.
We recommend searching on TripAdvisor for the top rated restaurants. However, there is something wonderful about strolling around the Walled City and being spontaneous.
This is not an exhaustive list of what you can do in this incredible city. Cartagena has embraced tourism far longer than any other Colombian city and so of course there are more things to do.
This list is for those who will either be visiting for the first time, or visiting with limited time.
Although there are other activities such as salsa clubs, bars etc., which have not been mentioned, this guide will ensure that you experience the best of its offering as a city. Everything from the charm of its Spanish past to the paradise of its nearby tropical islands.
In fact, this is the itinerary that my friends executed during their 1-week trip in Cartagena and it ended up being their favourite city in Colombia.
As always, if you need assistance or advice, do not hesitate to contact us.