top of page

The Ultimate Guide to Cartagena, Colombia & The Surrounding Islands

Do you love compact coastal cities that are rich in history, culture, and pack a vibrant energy? Hopefully, the answer to that is yes, or you will absolutely hate Cartagena. This colorful colonial paradise is located on Colombia's northern coast along the Caribbean Sea.


Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Spanish conquistadors and it became a major port for trade and commerce. Due to its strategic location, it was a target for pirates and foreign powers which led to the construction of the iconic Castillo San Felipe de Barajas fortress. The city's historic center is known as the Walled City since it is surrounded by almost 7 miles of defensive walls to protect it from invasions, and it is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


The cultural diversity here is unlike the rest of Colombia with a population influenced by African, Indigenous and European cultures that are reflected in the music, cuisine, art, and architecture. It's part of what makes it one of the most charming places I have ever been to.




Is Cartagena Safe?

When I was getting ready to travel, the U.S. Department of State changed the travel advisory levels for Colombia from a level 2 to a 3which means reconsider travel. Level 4 is the highestdo not travel. Once I arrived there, I didn't have any issues, was met with some of the best hospitality, and felt very safe the entire time, but part of that has to do with being prepared.


Since Cartagena is a tourist destination, it has higher security measures in place and is considered one of the safer places in Colombia. As a general rule, I never wear expensive jewelry, watches, or brand names when I travel and try to draw as little attention to myself as possible. The streets are perfectly safe to roam around during the day, but I personally would not walk at night. We would pick our destinations and get dropped off and picked up in front of each location we wanted to visit at night.



The most aggressive part of my Cartagena experience was the rappers who came up to our faces and started following us, or surrounding our table if we sat outside. The best tip is to not engage because if you do, they will ask you questions to make a personalized rap about you and expect to be paid. I get this is how they make their money, but it can be super invasive if you're not expecting it.


At night, you will see some women standing around and that's because Colombia is one of the few countries where prostitution is legal. However, sex tourism is not and many hotels and establishments have signs prohibiting it. That being said, men who travel to Colombia need to be careful around all the beautiful women (both on and off dating apps) because sometimes they work in organized rings and will lure men, spike their drinks, and take their money.


TL;DR stay in your lane and Cartagena can be good, wholesome fun.


Getting Around

Before you even get to the Rafael Núñez International Airport, I highly suggest planning in advance to have someone pick you up so you don't get scammed. I used Alondra Express which is the preferred vendor at the Hyatt Regency in Bocagrande.


The majority of the time I used Uber at a rate of roughly $2 USD a ride. Keep in mind I stayed in the Bocagrande neighborhood which was about 10 minutes outside of the Walled City. Although Uber is legal, traditional taxi services and transit police are not happy about their presence.


I've heard that traditional taxis are also safe, but I preferred the convenience of Uber and I also didn't want to negotiate my rates due to my limited Spanish. Most people don't speak English. Another popular option that's an international ride-hailing service that allows you negotiate fair prices is inDrive.


Where to Stay

There are three main areas you want to be when staying in Cartagena: Bocagrande, Walled City, and Getsemaní. To avoid analysis paralysis, I'll give you one hotel recommendation in each neighborhood.

Bocagrande

Bocagrande can best be described as "little Miami" and is the complete opposite of the Walled City. It's filled with high-rise buildings, luxury hotels & condos, and lots of commercial centers. The Bocagrande strip is also packed with beaches, but the sand is not ideal for lounging and there are too many vendors that don't make this a relaxing experience. Instead, I recommend going on a day trip to the neighboring islands (more on that below).


If I'm traveling internationally, I value safety above everything and tend to stay away from unrecognizable brands or private rentals. The Hyatt has always been a safe bet for me, and this was not only one of my favorite Hyatt's—it was one of my favorite hotels that I've stayed at. This hotel had levels of infinity pools overlooking the ocean and the views from every angle were breathtaking to the point where I wish I spent more time in the hotel (I never say that).


If you upgrade to one of their suites, you get access to the Regency Club which includes complimentary continental breakfast as well as snacks and drinks in the afternoon (with an ocean view, of course). To top it off, this hotel is extremely reasonable in comparison to some of the other hotels I looked at in terms of pricing. I spent 7 nights here and that wasn't enough.



Walled City

As mentioned in my introduction, this is the main attraction and where most people stay when visiting Cartagena. If you want to be walking distance to many of the most visited shops, restaurants and historical attractions, this is your spot. Expect to see colorful buildings with well-preserved colonial architecture, balconies adorned with flowers, and narrow streets paved with cobblestones.


This boutique hotel is a 5-minute walk from the Walled City and Plaza Santo Domingo. It's close to everything without being in the center of the chaos. It has a rooftop pool with stunning views of the Bocagrande strip and the Walled City; where new meets old. This hotel is also pet friendly, has meeting facilities, on-site dining, a spa, and 24-hour services for your convenience.


Getsemaní

Getsemaní is a hipster dream with open-air art galleries along Calle de la Sierpe (Street of the Snake), and giant art murals that cover every building you walk past. Located just beyond the historic walls, this culturally rich neighborhood feels more authentic and has a local flair to it. This former slum had a reputation of being dangerous, but has since been gentrified into the lively and colorful place that it is today without completely losing sight of its roots. This area is a bit cheaper than the rest of Cartagena and attracts backpackers, has a host of hostels, and a youthful presence with a solid nightlife.


With its blend of Spanish colonial architecture and French interior design, coupled with an open-air pool and jacuzzi with rooftop views, you can't go wrong with Hotel Capellan. It's located steps away from the Walled City, Clock Tower, Pegasus Pier, and the Convention Center while still being in the heart of Getsemaní.


What to See & Do

The perfect tour actually exists. Do yourself a favor and book this full tour on your first day. It will give you such a good lay of the land and then you can go back and explore whatever parts stood out to you during the rest of your trip. Silfrido, our guide, and his driver picked us up at our hotel and we had a private tour that was very informative. Sure, you can visit the sites on your own, but this saved the time and hassle of having to organize everything (time = money). Plus, Silfrido was so passionate about taking our photos so we got our own personal photographer.


What's Included:

  • Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas admission

  • La Popa Convent admission (highest point in Cartagena)

  • Walking Tour through the Walled City + Getsemaní

  • Stop for water & delicious Colombian arepas

  • Transportation & tour guide



Caffe Lunático is a restaurant that also offers a cooking workshop, rum tasting, and Colombian craft beer tasting. It's the perfect place for foodies and thirsty humans to unite since there's something here for everyone. The cooking studio is stunning with an amazing view of the San Felipe Castle. Thankfully, no fingers were accidentally chopped off due to the views.


Depending on the day of the week you attend, you can be cooking anything from ceviche to seafood stew. We learned how to cook three types of carimañola, red snapper with coconut rice and patacones, and enyucado for dessert. I successfully cracked my first coconut here like a pro. After we finished the food, we all sat down at the table and enjoyed the food we helped create. If you want to meet new people while learning about the local cuisine, I can't think of a better place to do it.







You can't go to a place with a body of water and not go on a mini cruise. During this 2-hour sunset cruise on a spacious catamaran you will pass through the Bay of Cartagena de Indias and see the Manga, Bocagrande, Castillo Grande, and El Laguito neighborhoods; later you will be passing by the Manzanillo and Tierrabomba Islands. You get two drink tickets, passed appetizers, and a DJ to set the mood...just in case you were not already in the mood for a lovely sunset on a yacht.





Other Places to See


Centenario Park

If you book the full tour from Viator above, you will pass through this small, but charming park that was built to commemorate the declaration of independence of Cartagena de Indias. It's not just any regular park; it's inhabited by iguanas, monkeys, squirrels, and my favorite...sloths. Located in the Getsemaní neighborhood, I was not expecting to see my favorite creatures in the middle of a bustling city.


Never thought I would refer to a mall as sexy, but here we are. This isn't just a mall, it's a work of art. Prior to being restored as a modern shopping and entertainment complex, it used to be a theater and bullring that would host bullfights with thousands of spectators. Today, you can find upscale stores, a selection of bars and restaurants, and outdoor areas with city views.


Where to Eat in Cartagena

This place made an impression on me before I even stepped foot in it. It was my birthday and I didn't know where to eat dinner with no reservations. I knew I wanted it to be Carmen, but I figured I had no chance of that happening last minute. I was pleasantly surprised they were able to fit us in. Normally when restaurants are this aesthetically beautiful, I can't expect much from the food. Not here. The food, service, and ambiance all checked out. It's a splurge, but if you only have the budget for one gourmet dining experience, let it be Carmen.


Tip: The original Carmen is located in Medellín, Colombia if you're traveling throughout Colombia and don't have time to visit this one.



I will never look at ceviche the same way again. I always thought of ceviche as an appetizer, but the giant portions here easily make each dish an entrée. Anthony Bourdain featured this restaurant in his show No Reservations. It's continuously recognized as one of the best spots to dine in Cartagena, and for good reasons. The food was so fresh and the taste was unique and unlike anything I've ever had. It might have ruined ceviche for me because I'll always think back to La Cevichería as the gold standard.


Tip: Sit inside. We sat outside and so many people came up to our table begging for money and street rappers surrounded our table every few minutes. Eating is an intimate experience for me and I want to let out little moans in peace. If this applies to you, then take your food inside.



If you love seafood just come here. Don't question it. I'm not sure what happens in the kitchen, but every bite I took was so packed with flavor that I didn't know what to do with myself. I looked across the table at my boyfriend and he was also having an out-of-body experience. There are three levels to this place and the top level leads into the rooftop bar, which is also lovely for when you want to catch your breath from the dining experience you just had. There was live music inside the restaurant and on the rooftop. Just a warning in case you don't like music or a good time.


More Restaurants:

  • La Taperia - Quaint Spanish tapas bar with paella, sangria, and live music in a wine cellar setting

  • La Mulata - If you want an authentic local experience that's more low-key, this is it. Fish is caught fresh daily.

  • Quero Arepa - Casual place to get arepas. Vegetarian options are offered.

  • 7 Cielos Rooftop - Rooftop dining in the Bocagrande neighborhood




Where to Drink in Cartagena

The best cocktails I had during my stay was here. This place was intimate, dimly lit, cozy, and had one of the most creative menus I have ever seen. If you're hungry, the food is also great. I'm not sure if it was just when I went, but the place was calm (the way I like my bars), so if you're looking for something more upbeat this isn't it.



This bar was voted The World's 50 Best Bars in 2023. There's 3 levels and they have an emphasis on sustainable food and working with the community to highlight local farmers and their fresh ingredients that are incorporated into their menu. Each of the floors takes you on a different journey. This place gets insanely packed due to its popularity so if humans are what you're after, they're definitely all here.


The person in charge of the website copy is brilliant because that's the main reason I came here. Pay your copywriters more because they converted me into a customer! Okay, besides that, this place is dare I say...a vibe. The rooftop views are nice, the witty copy continues in real life, you're going to want to take a picture here, and I got to dip my feet in a pool situation thing that's not quite a pool while sipping on my drink. Tales of the Cocktail 'Spirited Awards' named this as one of the Top 10 Bars in Latin America for 3 consecutive years.


More Bars:

  • Cafe del Mar - Come here for the sunsets and live music, but the menu is nothing to write about. Also, expect a line and know that everyone and their mother is here.

  • 51 Sky Bar - If you're staying at the Hyatt Regency, this place is about 20 steps away if you can handle it. This is the highest point in all of Cartagena with 360-views and it is located in the Bocagrande neighborhood. Also, I know it's a bar, but the snacks are snacking.

  • Hotel Movich Rooftop - We came here twice and both times the rooftop was closed. It wasn't meant to be, but the pictures sold me. Some consider this to be one of the best rooftop bars.

  • Mirador Gastro Bar - 4-level club with rooftop views in the center of the city

  • Members Only Piano Bar - The first piano bar in Cartagena. Every night has something different, but you can expect jazz, burlesque, and booze to be frequently featured. Located in the Townhouse Hotel.


Cafes in Cartagena

Café San Alberto

This is Colombia's most awarded coffee and it's located in Plaza Santo Domingo. Come here if you want a coffee experience and a show at your table. We came here on our last day and the coffee was incredible.


This is an all day cafe that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. We came for breakfast, and although they're known for their artisanal coffee, the food was just as great.


More Cafes:



Island Day Trips From Cartagena

Tierra Bomba Island

Tierra Bomba is the nearest island to Cartagena; it takes roughly 15-minutes to get there by boat, slightly longer depending on what side of the island you're going to. Many of the islands here have inclusive day passes that give you access to their beach clubs and amenities.


Condé Nast Traveler describes Blue Apple Beach as "the funk of Formentera, a dash of Bahia's glamour and a hefty dose of Caribbean soul." We had way too much fun here, so much so that when it was time for the first boat to leave, I extended our stay and waited for the later boat to arrive. The property was so well taken care of, the staff was insanely pleasant and adorable, the food and drinks were delicious, and the DJ played primarily deep house music. There were moments where one of the staff members was teaching people how to dance to the local music and it looked like a precious music video was happening by the pool. This place just radiates good times.


Tierra Bomba is not known for its pristine water and sand that you typically expect in the Caribbean, most people go to Isla Barú for that, but I found the beachfront here to be lovely. There are different packages you can purchase for the day. Ours included a lounger, a 60 minute massage, a welcome drink, lunch, access to all facilities including the pool, and boat transfers to and from Blue Apple Beach.



Other Day Clubs in Tierra Bomba:

  • Fenix Beach Club - This reminds me of a mini Burning Man on an island. Fenix offers rituals around the fire, paddle board/kayak trips, massages, dance classes, and other events.

  • Eteka Tierra Bomba - Bohemian style hotel in an organic environment that plays downtempo music and has skyline views of Cartagena.


Isla Grande

Isla Grande is about an hour out by boat from Cartagena and is part of the Rosario Islands. After reading about all of the neighboring islands, this one sounded like it had the least amount of obnoxious tourists and vendors running around. I wanted a day of relaxation surrounded by nature, and Isla Grande delivered.


Islabela's day pass included transportation, a welcome drink, lunch, kayaks, yoga, and a transfer to the Oceanarium. The Oceanarium is one of the main reasons I booked my day trip with Islabela. It's a marine aquarium on the Rosario Islands featuring dolphin shows. You can also see different types of sharks, turtles, birds, and many other species move freely in their natural habitat. Be aware that the shows are in Spanish. There's something about an open air aquarium in the middle of nowhere that won't make me look at aquariums the same way again. Back at Islabela, the service, food, and accommodations made this the perfect day trip.


Isla Barú

Isla Barú is actually a peninsula and not a true island, so you can get here by driving over a bridge. This is the most popular island because of Playa Blanca which has bright turquoise water and dreamy white sand. However, because this beach has such appeal, many people complain about how overcrowded it gets. Since the vendors know all the tourists flock here, the natural beauty is overshadowed by a swarm of people.


The southern part of the island gets wilder with mangroves, raccoons, and the largest aviary of the Americas with over 138 bird species including flamingos. This area is also close to luxurious hotels that offer day passes like Isla del Encanto and Las Islas if Playa Blanca is too rowdy for you. Speaking of rowdy, if that's your style, the island of Cholón is right around the corner. This was a hard pass for me so I can't contribute much here.



1 Comment


A comprehensive guide to some of Cartagena's best! Highly recommended the Lunático cooking experience and Blue Apple Beach

Like
bottom of page