Have you thought about visiting Cartagena and don’t know how to start your vacation planning? Get the inside scoop from a half-Colombian on what to do in Cartagena and enjoy it like a local!
Even though I am half-Colombian (mom’s side), I didn’t go there until 2016, when my dad (who is Venezuelan) moved there for work. Let me tell you… it’s nothing like what you would expect or what the news tells you. Cartagena is ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE! It’s a popular cruise port for companies like Royal Caribbean and Disney cruises so that tells you how popular (and safe!) it is.
Since that first time, we have tried visiting every year, and each time we love it even more. The people, the food, the beaches, and the history behind the city are truly gems. It’s a shame that Colombia gets such a bad rap, so that’s why I am doing my little part to change that perception. Cartagena is a super safe place to visit and I encourage anyone with an adventurer’s heart to go. It’s crazily affordable – dollars go a very long way there, and you will feel like you’re rolling in dough!
Keep reading and learn all my tips and tricks for exploring Cartagena like a local!
We’ve been so fortunate that my dad has lived in Cartagena since 2015, and we always have stayed with him at his Bocagrande apartment (with the exception of when we went to the coffee triangle area in Armenia). However, since we were such a big group this time, we volunteered to stay at a hotel. We split our time between a hotel located a block from my dad, another at the Walled City, and the last one right across the Bocagrande beach. I think these two areas in Cartagena are ideal for first-time visitors. Bocagrande area has everything you can hope for: restaurants, beaches, shopping malls, and some of the most beautiful views. I repeat: it’s extremely safe (we even walk the streets late at night) and it’s easy to move from this area to the walled city via taxi.
There are many hotels in the area, including a Hilton, an Intercontinental, and a Hyatt. One of the most popular hotels is Hotel El Almirante (we stayed there one night in 2017 just to experience it, and it was pretty good – the spa there is amazing!), but for this time we wanted the “boutique hotel” experience – a very popular option in Cartagena (not to be confused with AirB&B options), and we chose Hotel Barlovento.
This hotel was really nice and based on the price we paid, you can’t beat what you get! We stayed here for 3 nights total, we booked two double rooms that included a hot breakfast, and we paid $63 per room, per night. Even though this hotel is not beachfront, the Bocagrande beach is only 3 blocks away – less than an 5-minute walk. Near this hotel, there are 24/7 supermarkets (with a liquor store inside), a shopping mall within a 5-minute walk, a flea market where you can get all of your souvenirs very cheap, money exchange, clothing stores, restaurants and more (I give more details on all of this below).
One of my favorite places in Bocagrande is the bike path that faces the port side, and where locals and tourist go daily to exercise. This path was only 2 blocks from our hotel so we tried to get there before the sunrise to see the sun rising from the ocean. It’s spectacular. It’s a 2.5-mile path and it’s perfect to burn off those empanadas and plantains calories you’ll be ingesting.
During the following two nights of our vacation, we stayed in the Walled City. I have always wanted to stay there because the hustle and bustle of the night is a sight to see. The city really comes alive. Horse and carriage rides, live folk bands, street vendors, little shops one after the other (they have a “shoe district” which is entire blocks of shoe stores!), and the liveliness of the locals is an experience in and on itself. There are tons of hotels in the walled city, from hostels that cost $5 a night to 5-star hotels that cost $500 a night. But you don’t have to break the bank to have a great experience. We stayed at “Hotel Don Pedro de Heredia“, right in the middle of the action, for $62 a night per room. This 3-star boutique hotel was perfect for our short stay. Yes, there’s a rustic element in this type of hotel, and by being in the center of the city you are going to hear street noise and music, but it’s Cartagena! Just enjoy it. You can splurge a little more and stay at a higher-end boutique hotel for $120-$150 a night, which it’s still pretty reasonable. Some of them have courtyard pools (our hotel had one but we never used it) where you can retrieve to when the heat of the city gets to be too much.
There’s one great advantage to staying in the walled city: getting up early in the morning and walking the gorgeous streets while the city (and the tourists) are still asleep! Both days Josh and I were out the door by 7 am, and wandered the city, taking in all the sounds, the sights, sitting at our favorite coffee shop around the corner sipping a delicious brew, and feeling the warm ocean breeze which we had all to ourselves.
For the last leg of our trip, we stayed at the beachfront hotel “Regatta”. This hotel was a total surprise. I booked it on a whim and we all agreed it was our favorite of all. We paid about $108 a night per room for an ocean-view suite with breakfast. Our room was huge! It had a little dining table for two, a couch, a king-size bed, and a huge closet. This hotel is a stone’s throw from the beach, and it has two rooftop pools. Right across the hotel you can rent a beach umbrella for the day (a must have if you’re spending the hours between 10am and 3pm when the sun burns you to a crisp if you’re not careful), and come in and out of the hotel as you please (but never leave your belongings unattended). If we have to recommend one hotel to stay, this is it. Yes, you have higher-end options like the Hilton and Hyatt (which we visited) but their beaches are not as nice (not even close!) as the one across the Regatta.
It’s really easy to hail a taxi in Colombia. They don’t use meters so always negotiate the price before getting INSIDE the cab. From Bocagrande to the Walled City, you never pay more than 10,000 pesos (less than $4) no matter what time of the day. Ok, maybe after midnight they charge a little more but it shouldn’t be more than 15,000 pesos. The minimum taxi fare is 8,000 pesos, even if you go a block down the street. To give them the direction to your hotel, use the street/avenue name (like 5ta Carrera con 6ta Avenida) or something like that if they don’t know the hotel (Bocagrande was well planned and it’s a perfect grid), and if possible give them a point of reference (in front of such and such restaurant, for example). Taxis are safe for the most part, but if you feel uncomfortable hailing it yourself, you can ask your hotel or the restaurant you dined at to get you one. Some taxi drivers can even make arrangements with you to pick you up at a set time and a set location, to make things even easier for you.
In Bocagrande there’s a market called “Maicaito”, right across from the Nao shopping center (right behind the Regatta hotel). Tons of little stalls with all kinds of souvenirs. You can also buy from vendors at the beach, they work really hard and that’s their livelihood. Don’t forget to practice your Spanish and do some bartering (Cuanto menos? = any less?)
Shopping for your souvenirs outside of the walled city is always cheaper, but if you are planning on buying silver jewelry and emeralds, always go to a jewelry shop instead of buying from a street vendor. Jewelry shops will give you a certificate of authenticity so you know that what you are buying is legit.
If the souvenirs you’re shopping for are coffee, chocolate, or other treats, get them from the grocery store. Carulla or Olympica supermarkets which were about a block o two from us carry all kinds of delicious brands of coffee including the famous Juan Valdez.
If you’re staying in Bocagrande, there are two malls you can visit. Nao Shopping Center is across from the beach, and although is a small shopping mall, it has a little bit of everything. A bigger, more exciting mall is the Plaza Bocagrande and you can walk there or you can take a taxi (the heat is real, so it’s totally worth the $3 taxi ride). This is also a small but beautiful mall. The food court area has a panoramic view of the ocean, and you can bring your food to the balcony and enjoy this incredible sight! The food court is not what you imagine… yes, there are burger joints and even a Subway, but what you must try is the “local” fast food. Plates of steak, plantain, rice, salad, and soup for $10. Yes, $10. “Parrilladas” (Colombian barbecue) have a mix of steak, chicken, pork, and sausages, for less than $15. It’s one of my family’s favorite and I consider those options very healthy (if I skip the french fries, of course). End your meal with a coffee from Juan Valdez – the Starbucks of Colombia, and order the Arequipe Latte (a hot latte with milk caramel, an absolute treat!)
At this mall, you can get Colombian brand-name clothing and accessories at stores like GEF (for clothing) and Velez (for authentic leather products). Obviously is not worth getting American brand-name items since you will have to pay top dollar for items you can get here much cheaper. I’ve gotten clothes from GEF and they are of excellent quality!
This time around we particularly loved shopping at the Walled City. They have tons of clothing boutiques full of style and great deals. The bathing suit shops are also really inexpensive and the quality of Colombian-made bathing suits and underwear is top-notch.
NOTE: the exchange rate when we went (Dec 2021) was between 3,700 and 4,000 pesos per dollar. Our credit card gave us the best rate (4,005 pesos per dollar) without a foreign fee so we tried using our credit card wherever it was accepted. Make sure you tell the person cashing out to charge you IN PESOS, because with American credit cards, they have the option to charge in either currency. If they charge you in dollars, the exchange rate will be less.
Josh and I agree that Bocagrande beaches are the nicest in Cartagena, but be ready – super ready, for the street vendors. We usually go to the area right in front of Hotel El Almirante and Hotel Regatta. You can bring a little cooler with your beer and drinks, or you can order the beer from the beach guys ($1.5 for a light beer and $5-$6 for cocktails). Ask for Yasid, and tell him Gloria sent you 🙂 He’s been our beach server since 2016!
We usually have at least one lunch there. You order from them about an hour before you think you’ll eat, and they bring little tables for you to each at the beach. Their lunches are simple but oh so good: an entire fried fish, plus plantains, coconut rice, salad, and fish soup (amazing soup!!!!) for about $12. Beach umbrella and lounge chairs about 40,000 pesos for the day ($10), this is cash only, same with the food.
Most hotels include hot breakfast with the rate, but if you are feeling a more Colombian flare, you can buy empanadas at the “cafeterias” inside the grocery stores, or at little breakfast joints like Mr. Bono. The grocery store “Carulla” also has a fast-food area on the second floor where you can get a full breakfast and coffee for about $3.
This time we discovered the 4-in-1 restaurant, including “M Cocina Arabe” which serves the most amazing Mediterranean food (their falafels are to die for). When you come here, you can order from any of the 4 restaurants right next to each other, including a steakhouse and an Italian restaurant. We visited this place twice because we loved it so much.
We also had dinner at Leña y Carbon, because we were walking by it and we heard the sweet sound of a string band. They specialize in meats, and they did not disappoint. They serve the regular Colombian dinner: steak, plantain, and salad; which is the perfect dinner for me!
One day we had take-out lunch from La Chicharrona, which is literally a fried pork belly restaurant! The yummiest I’ve ever had! The portion of “chicharron” with yuca (cassava) and sour cream costs less than $5. We even bought some to go to eat on the plane! 🙂
You’ll also have your regular American fast-food restaurants like KFC, Domino’s pizza, Mc Donald’s, and Subway. Yeah… my kids chose dominos one time (*facepalm*) but they said it tasted better than in the US. Maybe?
For an amazing 5-star restaurant experience outside of Bocagrande, you have to go to “Restaurante Fuerte San Sebastian del Pastelito“. It’s probably one of the most expensive restaurants in Cartagena, but you won’t spend near as much as you think! In Cartagena, what jacks up the tab is the cocktails, which can cost as much as an entree ($15-20). We visited this restaurant in 2017 and we ordered 5 steak entrees (including 2 of their most expensive dishes), 3 alcoholic drinks, 3 juices, 4 beers, and the best Maracuya (passion fruit) Cheesecake and my bill was $152.00 with tax and tip included! On top of that, they offer a complimentary cab to take you back to your hotel! The views from the table, overlooking the bay with a Spanish fort behind you it’s really, really incredible. This time we tried to go but we could not find a reservation, so book at least a month in advance! The photo below is from that time, but I really wanted to show you the view!
There’s a lot to do in Cartagena! Tours are very inexpensive and even if you splurge, you will probably never blow up your budget.
According to my entire group of 12, the Blue Apple Beach day pass was by far the most memorable day of our vacation! None of us had ever been there, and I happened to stumble upon it during my research. This beach resort is located on the island of Boca Chica, which can only be accessed by boat. For $25 a person you get a round-trip water taxi from the main port near the Walled City and lounge chairs or day beds by the pool. The day pass was an amazing way for us to spend Christmas day as a family! During the weekends it truly is a party with DJ and everything, and their food menu is top-notch! All their meats and fish are from sustainable farms with humane practices. This beach club is also a boutique hotel so you can definitely spend a couple of nights here starting at around $160 a night. Again, we all decided that we are staying a few nights next time we come (the villas come with a private plunge pool!). The service was amazing and they have the best drink menu and appetizers I have ever tasted (fish cakes were my favorite!) The cherry on top? If you choose the 5:30 pm return water taxi, you’ll enjoy the sunset from the boat which is absolutely breathtaking!
Just like Blue Apple, there are many other little resorts that offer this kind of day pass (Isla del Pirata and Bora Bora, to name a few), and they can cost between $30 and $60 per person per day with lunch. We have not done any of these except for Blue Apple, and honestly, after being there, I don’t think I want to try anything else, but I figured I’d mention it. Check out this reel that shows all the beauty of Blue Apple Beach. Contact a reputable travel agency like Arengil for all of your tours to make sure you don’t get scammed! I highly, highly recommend them for all of your tours and private rental needs!
Make sure you do the City Tour! This tour is about 4 hours long, and it takes you to the highlights of the city. If you only speak English ask the provider to put you on a bilingual tour. You will learn a lot about slavery, colony times, pirates, Spanish Inquisition, and more. It’s fascinating. This tour cost about $10-$15 a person and the bus is an actual “Chiva”, which was the main mean of transportation for Colombians since the early 1900s, and they are now considered cultural heritage. Word of caution: it is HOT during the tour! Wear comfortable clothes and bring a lot of water and/or cash to buy cold water.
Since we started coming here in 2016 there is one thing we always splurge on: a private boat tour! The last two times we have used Arnegil to book the private boat. They are super responsive, kind and they have a great float! Check this out: we rented a 16-person boat with a crew for a full-day private tour for less than $600! This tour takes you around the Rosario Islands, to the Oceanario (where you can play with a dolphin for a few minutes and have your photo taken with them for about $25), and then to a private beach in the beautiful Baru island to spend the rest of the day sunbathing, sipping cocktails and eating freshly caught fish and seafood. Word of caution: restaurants at Baru are much more expensive than at the mainland. Prices are about double ($30 for a fish entree, $15 for a cocktail) but it’s all fresh and well made – you get to pick the fish you want to eat! You also have to pay for the umbrellas and chairs (about $30 for the day). This is probably the most expensive excursion, but it’s so worth it to see the beauty of Rosario Island (check out this reel!)
There is a bridge between Baru and Cartagena, so you can also get there by car (although I don’t think it’s worth it when taking a boat tour is so much better!) However, if you decide that you want to go multiple times during your visit and forego the boat, you can always rent a taxi cab for the day to bring you to and from, for about $75 a day. There are also lots of boutique hotels on the island that offer day passes for about $60 a person, and they are usually all inclusive (transportation, food, and a couple of cocktails.)
The Walled City is an impressive touristic destination. It’s like stepping back in history. The entire city is a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site, and the city ensures that it stays as authentic as it was when it was built. At 6 pm every night no cars are allowed to drive through or in the city. The streets open up for the horse and carriage rides (who only operate at night because of the heat, to protect the horses’ health) and to pedestrians exploring every corner. The horse and carriage ride is about $35 for up to 4 people for half an hour and the driver gives you a history lesson.
The plazas (squares or quads) are filled with street performers, artists selling their crafts, and food vendors. You can eat al fresco at any of the squares, where all the restaurants surrounding the area cater to patrons sitting there, and they kind of compete for your business. You’ll experience an authentic “Colombia serenade” as musicians and singers approach your table offering their talent in exchange for a tip. Do it. It’s worth the $5 or $10 tip you can give them.
Waking up with the sounds of the city was a highlight for us! As our first time staying in the heart of the walled city, it was a great opportunity to explore it without the influx of tourists coming from the cruise ships for their 3-hour port stop. We obviously took advantage and did an impromptu photoshoot in the rain!
Below are some of my favorite things to do in the Walled City of Cartagena:
That’s it! Whew! That was long, but I hope all my suggestions encourage you to travel outside the (US) box and enjoy this beautiful city and all of its charm. It’s only a 5.5 hr direct flight from New York. We left the car at the Crowne Plaza, took a shuttle, and it was the most painless airport experience ever 🙂
If you have any questions, I’m happy to help! Just contact me!
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