Cartagena is a city on the coast of Colombia, not too far from the border of Panama. The Caribbean Sea borders the city to the north, lending a super fun Caribbean influence and flare that can be seen in both the buildings and the food. The city is partially surrounding by an old fortress wall constructed by the Spanish in the 1500s to keep out pirates and other enemies. Nowadays, the “Walled City” houses bright colored houses, hotels, restaurants, and other buildings.
Cartagena holds a special place in our heart because it was the very first stop on our Round the World trip. And it definitely is a city deserving of that special place. We had so much fun there! It’s a really easy place to have a good time on a budget (we spent less than $48/day for everything for the two of us). We ate great food, did fun stuff everyday, and met a lot of nice people (you’ll definitely want to brush up on a few common Spanish phrases!). The climate is super tropical, so be prepared for the weather to be hot and humid! And don’t let anyone try to scare you off from visiting by telling you how unsafe it is. We had 0 problems while we were there regarding safety.
We’ve compiled some details of our trip and helpful information below, so you too can get the most out of your trip to Cartagena.
Cartagena is somewhat of an underrated foodie scene. We really had no idea how many delicious dishes we would encounter in this Caribbean influenced destination. While you are there, definitely don’t miss out on trying these:
Menú – This is considered the ‘plate of the day’ at tons of restaurants. This usually consists of a starter soup, a main entrée with your choice of meat with a salad, rice, plantain, and a juice. This was an almost daily staple for us while in Cartagena because you get a whole lot of delicious food for really cheap! And you can frequently see the locals ordering menú, so you know it must be good.
Arepas – They may look plain at first glance, but this little snack packs a punch of flavor. An arepa is a flat, round cornmeal cake that you will see being sold all over Cartagena. Sometimes they are stuffed with things like egg or beef, but our personal favorites are the arepas con queso. The arepa con queso, true to its name, comes with cheese on top and if you want, you can drizzle sweetened condensed milk on the top which completely changes the game. And getting one hot and fresh from a street vendor, is the definition of foodgasm. For real, you’re gonna want to eat at least one a day. I know we did.
Fried fish with coconut rice – Being right on the coast, Cartagena naturally has a great selection of seafood. You’ll see cevicherias all over, but don’t forget to give this dish a try too. You’ll receive a whole fried fish (face, eyes, tail, fins, everything fried) with a side of rice with a slight sweet taste, due of course to the small amount of coconut in it. It’s super light and tasty, even for those of us that aren’t particularly partial to fish (like me).
Fresh fruit juice – An absolute staple in Cartagena and much of South America! Every restaurant will have a section of the menu with ‘jugos’ or juice on it. Usually consisting of pineapple (Ashly’s favorite!), strawberry (Carlos’s favorite!), mango, etc. They can be mixed with water for a super refreshing drink or milk for a thicker, milkshake-like consistency. Once you try a fresh juice once, you’ll be craving them every hot, humid afternoon you spend in the city.
Paletas – If you know us, you know we can’t pass up ice cream. Like ever. And the most prominent form of ice cream you’ll find here, is a paleta. A paleta is basically an ice cream popsicle. They come in a ridiculous amount of flavors and shapes and come served on a stick, making them perfect for walking around Old Town at night.
While in Cartagena, we stayed outside of the main touristy areas (The Walled City, Bocagrande, etc.) in a neighborhood called Bosque. It was not a terribly far walk from the more mainstream areas of town, but it was also a cheap, easy bus ride to get to those areas. We opted for an Airbnb here seeing as though the hotels were a bit pricy being in such a hotspot destination near a beach. We really loved the place we stayed and our hosts! We felt like we got a really authentic Cartagena experience by staying with locals, and would 100% do it again!
With that said, if you’d prefer to stay closer to all the action, our recommendation would be to stay within the Walled City. You will be closest to the nicest restaurants, liveliest bars, and maybe even have a view of the Caribbean Sea if you’re lucky. But be warned, the hotels in this area, will set you back a pretty penny.
To ensure yourself the most comfortable stay, you’ll probably want to book a place with air conditioning. It gets very hot and humid and it can be hard to sleep in this climate at night. When you book, double check that air conditioning isn’t just a fan inside your room (because that is sometimes the case). We would advise not to sleep with the window of your room open unless you have a mosquito net, or you will wake up with bites galore. We travel with this mosquito net just in case, and we used it in our Airbnb while in Cartagena after being a mosquito feast the first two nights.
One of Cartagena’s greatest assets, is its proximity to the Caribbean Sea and the many islands off the coast. Lots of tour operators sell day trips to the islands or even overnight stays. If you want to stay on mainland Cartagena, you can do a beach day at the Bocagrande beach, although the sand and water isn’t quite as nice as they are on the islands.
Learn about Cartagena’s history by checking out the Walled City and the old neighborhood Getsemani. In these two areas, you can see brightly painted buildings lining the streets and amazing street art (there are free street art walking tours!). Checking out Getsemani, you’ll feel more like a local grabbing a beer and pizza. Walking through the Walled City, you’ll see more fancy restaurants and hotels. If you want to see the more modern side of Cartagena, visit Bocagrande. The skyline against the Caribbean Sea is of beautiful skyscraper hotels, shops, and business buildings.
⇒For more things to do in Cartagena and the rest of Colombia, check out 15 Things NOT to Miss in Colombia (& What They Cost)
Cartagena is a pretty easy place to get around. There’s a lot of places within walking distance of each other, especially between Bocagrande and Old Town. If you have plans to visit an island, you’ll have to get on a boat at the port across from Old Town.
If you need to get somewhere a little further, taxis are super prevalent in the touristy areas of town. And at the time when we went in April 2017, Uber was operating in Colombia, however it was doing so somewhat illegally. Don’t be surprised if you request an Uber and the driver asks you to sit in the front seat so it looks like you are being picked up by a friend. They are sort of trying to operate under the radar. It’s definitely cheaper than a taxi, so if you don’t mind playing the part of “friend who’s getting picked up by another friend,” then use Uber at your own discretion.
If you’re really adventurous, try your hand at the local buses. You definitely can’t miss them. They are usually speeding down the streets playing loud music, with bright blinking red, green, blue lights and super crazy décor over the windows. If you see a bus with the area of town you’re looking to go to written on the front of the bus, flag down the driver by a wave of the hand or by simply making eye contact. The bus fare on most of the buses we rode in was COP 2100 (about $0.75 USD) per person. When you’re ready to get off the bus, just yell “PARE” (STOP), and the driver will literally stop the bus right there, no need for a bus stop.
You can save money on your trip to Cartagena by staying outside of the touristy areas of town (i.e. the Walled City, Bocagrande, etc) like we did, and take the local buses into those areas when you want to go. Not only will this save you an immense amount of money on your accommodations, but you’ll likely spend less on food and drinks if you aren’t eating in the touristy areas for every meal also.
If you stay at an accommodation with a kitchen, you can easily make a few meals here and there to save money. On many streets, vendors sell raw fruits and vegetables for really cheap and there are grocery stores scattered around in certain areas.
⇒For more information on saving money in Cartagena, be sure to check out our Colombia Financial Review!
Round the World in 60 Seconds: Cartagena, Colombia
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