Spicy, sizzling Cartagena. Where do I even begin? This colorful and vibrant city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast is one of my favorites in the world. Despite the tourist crowds and inflated prices, it is an essential stop on any Latin American backpacking trip. Cartagena was the first stop on my first ever solo backpacking trip, and no matter how many times I revisit this city, it never gets old.
The walled city and art-filled neighborhood of Getsemani are wanderer’s paradises. Cartagena is oozing with culture and history. There are countless day trips to stunning islands and beaches. And of course, the nightlife in Cartagena is among the best you’ll find in Latin America. It’s hard to ask for much more from a travel destination, expect maybe cheaper drinks and cooler weather. Pack your sunblock and salsa shoes, and let’s head to Cartagena.
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What To Know Before Going to Cartagena
Cartagena is sexy on the outside, but there are quite a few things one should be wary of before visiting. As a local once told me, Cartagena is 99% safe, but if you’re not careful, that 1% can bite you hard. Staying in the Walled City and Getsemani is safe for the most part. This is where you’ll find the brunt of tourism. Likewise, that’s where you’ll find the brunt of tourist traps and shady characters. Cartagena is admittedly rife with drug dealers and prostitution, because admittedly, a lot of tourists come to Cartagena for just that. People will try to sell you drugs and everything else under the sun, but just ignore them and they’ll eventually leave you alone.
Keep your wits about you and you won’t have any problems in Cartagena. No dar papaya, as the locals would tell you. Basically, keep an eye on your belongings, ignore any shady figures, and don’t roam around sketchy neighborhoods alone at night, and you’ll be a-okay. Before you go, make sure to have good travel insurance handy. I use SafetyWing, which specializes in health and travel insurance for digital nomads, to keep me covered throughout my travels for $40 a month.
The currency of Colombia is the peso, and the exchange rate hovers around 3,800-4,000 pesos per USD. There are plenty of ATMs in Cartagena, but they typically charge fees and offer lower exchange rates. Money exchanges are good if you have USD or Euros, but they also offer lower exchange rates than the official exchange rate.
Your money will disappear in Cartagena, but it is possible to visit Cartagena on a backpacker’s budget. Stay at hostels, get your liquor from Exito or Carrulla, and pregame hard before a night out. Follow those tips, and you shouldn’t be spending much more than anywhere else in Colombia. Speaking of hostels, there are quite a few incredible ones to choose from.
Where To Stay in Cartagena
Most visitors to Cartagena will be staying in the Walled City or Getsemani. I’ve stayed in a number of different hostels in each neighborhood, and to be honest, they were all pretty good. Here are a few of the ones I’d recommend.
Walled City of Cartagena
I first stayed at Viajero Hostel in Cartagena before it was a chain, and was called El Viajero. I stayed again in 2022 out of sentimental value, and it was pretty much the same hostel. It’s a great place to meet other travelers and it has a great social atmosphere. However, the facilities are a little outdated, especially compared to the other similarly-priced hostels on this list. The location is great, and there are social events almost every night, including free salsa classes and karaoke nights. If you don’t mind sleeping on a janky bunk bed, I’d recommend Viajero for extroverted solo travelers.
Casa Movida hostel is just a block away from the Clock Tower Plaza, so you couldn’t ask for a better location. It puts you within a 10-minute walk of any points of interest in the Walled City and Getsemani. The hostel itself is amazing. The beds have curtains, a nice rooftop bar, and a swimming pool. They also have social events, but my impressions of Casa Movida were that it wasn’t all too social. It’s more of a boutique hostel, although the terrace does get lively at night as a place to drink and dance. I’d reckon Casa Movida is the best hostel in the Walled City.
Casa Zahri hostel is absurdly beautiful and perfectly located in the neighborhood of Getsemani. I didn’t stay here myself, but my friend had a private room here and every time I visited him, I got a tiny bit envious. It’s a gorgeous boutique hostel with a pool, which is a necessity for that Cartagena midday heat.
I tend to avoid staying at Selinas, but with the huge influx of travelers coming in for Barranquilla’s Carnival, I had no choice but to spend a couple of nights at Selina Cartagena. It was very… love/hate. The property itself is beautiful, and I appreciated the dark, air-conditioned dungeon-y rooms to escape Cartagena’s heat from. There’s a rooftop pool, bar, and restaurant! But it was closed half the time I was there. For how rapidly Selina’s gentrified the hostel industry, you’d expect them to be more smoothly run. Be prepared to spend an hour checking in as you have to download their ultra glitchy app to do so.
It’s not a bad last resort, but it should probably be your last resort if the other hostels on here are fully booked. For a full list of hostels in Cartagena, you can check on Hostelworld.
The Best Things To Do in Cartagena
I’m not the type of traveler who’s always going on excursions or doing something every day, which made Cartagena perfect for me. I was more than content to enjoy the vibes of this colorful city. Roaming the narrow streets in search of street art, enjoying the music with margarita in hand, and then having dinner before dancing the night away is a perfect day in my eyes. However, there are a lot of day trips one can take from Cartagena as well. You’ll be able to find a number of island getaways from any of the tour agencies in town. Here are some of the best things to do in Cartagena, as well as a few day trips that I’d recommend.
Isla Rosario and Snorkeling
The most popular day trip to take from Cartagena is a visit to the Rosario Islands. Most trips will involve sailing on a catamaran and snorkeling. It’s a long day trip, but if you only plan to do one thing in Cartagena, this should probably be it.
Playa Blanca and Isla Baru
This is the most popular beach to visit on a day trip from Cartagena. Located on Isla Baru, Playa Blanca is one of the most beautiful in Colombia. You can get there either by boat or by car, although taking a boat from the Port of Cartagena will take less than half the time. Otherwise, it’s a two-hour journey by car. If you want to experience tranquility, one can also spend the night here and avoid the crowds of day-trippers that flock to this stunning beach.
Roam Within Cartagena’s Walled City (Ciudad Amurallada)
Cartagena’s historic walled city is one of the most beautiful colonial city centers you’ll find anywhere in the world. Within the city walls, you’ll find lively plazas, gorgeous churches, and the majority of the hotels, restaurants, and bars. Although you’ll find loads of tourists in the main plazas and walking streets, it’s still possible to find quaint and quiet streets. Go for a meander through the narrow streets or city walls. Cartagena is pure eye-candy.
Visit Getsemani Neighborhood
The vibrant Getsemani neighborhood is my favorite part of Cartagena. It’s filled with stunning murals and has an electric energy to it. It’s much more local than within the Walled City, although growing quite rapidly in popularity. Going for an aimless wander in Getsemani is a great way to spend the day. It also becomes quite lively at night. The Plaza de la Trinidad right outside the yellow church is great for street food and people watching. Going for a walk along the walls at sunset also offers beautiful views of Cartagena.
Hike Up Cerro de la Popa Viewpoint
For a beautiful view of Cartagena, both new and old, one can climb (or taxi) up to Cerro de la Popa. I’d recommend taxi-ing as the hiking trail has a reputation for being unsafe. Once you’re up here, there’s a little church, and a few viewpoints that you can stop at for different views of Cartagena and the Caribbean.
Take a Mud Bath in Totumo Volcano
A popular day trip from Cartagena is to visit the Totumo mud volcano. I found it to be quite underwhelming, but if you want to spice up your skincare routine, jumping into the crater of mud can be a fun adventure. It’s quite a small “volcano”, but I haven’t really encountered anything like it in the world. If you have a few hours to spare, it’s an affordable day trip and a cool novelty to add to your travel belt.
Visit Bora Bora, Pau Pau or Other Day Clubs
If you feel like going to a beautiful beach without the adventure of snorkeling or swimming, a popular thing to do is hit up one of the beachside day clubs. It’s quite pricy, with most “tours” starting at around $100 and only lasting until mid-afternoon. Drinks and food at the clubs are expensive, meaning a day at the beach club can quickly make your money disappear. However, if you feel like relaxing and treating yourself for a day, this is a good option.
Castillo de San Felipe
This fortress is one of the most imposing structures in Cartagena. It’s a doable walk from the Old Town, although our guide suggested taking a taxi just to avoid any potentially sketchy areas. This nearly 400-year old fortress is a top attraction in Cartagena. Roaming alongs its walls and through its underground passages makes for a good adventure outside of the Walled City.
Nightlife in Cartagena
I honestly can’t remember the name of half the bars and clubs I visited in Cartagena. Going out in Cartagena can be very expensive, so my usual move was buying a $10 bottle of Aguardiente from Exito and then drinking it at the hostel. By the time I made it out to the clubs, I’d likely have no idea where I was. There are a few that I remember visiting, so I’ll drop a couple of recommendations below.
Alquimico is a fancy little bar with surprisingly affordable drinks. Right across from it, you’ll find La Jugada, which is another popular nightlife spot. Eivissa is a rooftop bar with two dance floors, usually house and reggaeton. It’s right on the clock tower plaza, so it’s a nice place to dance in an open space with a nice view and ocean breeze. There are a few other rooftop bars around the Clock Tower Plaza, but Eivissa was the only one I didn’t mind paying for overpriced drinks at. Atlanta was a hip-hop bar that I don’t remember loving, but if you want to dance to hip-hop and rap, that’s one of the few spots that you’ll find it.
Over at Getsemani neighborhood, you’ll find that most bars only play salsa, cumbia, champeta, and other music that backpackers will typically not know how to dance to. I hung out at Caponera a few times. Cafe Havana is a big, famous salsa bar that I never had the pleasure of seeing in all its late-night glory. The neighborhoods of Getsemani and the Walled City are just a short 5-10 minute walk from each other, so it’s easy to bounce around between the two on a night out.
A good way to pregame is to also hop on a party bus, known here as a Chiva. I found them to be more fun in Medellin and Bogota, but if you gather a good crew together, it can be a really fun time. They last for about two hours, and you bring your own drinks. It takes you through the city, so it also doubles as a city tour, but most people aren’t here to see the city. Or at least, we never were. It costs 50,000 ($13 USD) for the two-hour ride and it drops you off at a bar in Getsemani to keep the party going.
Cartagena can be hit-or-miss for many backpackers, but if you approach it with the right attitude, it is a sizzling good time. There’s a reason this Caribbean gem attracts travelers from all over the world. Cartagena is beautiful and vibrant city with great weather, fun nightlife, and a rich, uniquely Colombian culture. Don’t miss it.
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