Need help planning your trip? Check out our tips for visiting Cartagena — you’ll find the best restaurants, where to stay, how to get around and more!
#1 Join a free walking tour
Hands down one of the best ways to get to know a city is to join a walking tour.
We love a free walking tour as you get to tip the tour guide what you believe the tour was worth.
Cartagena is the perfect city to take a walking tour in. It’s brimming with history, stories and a multitude of cultures. It’s one thing to admire the pretty streets of Cartagena, but it’s another to know the story behind the smaller details of the city.
We recommend Free Tour Cartagena. They offer both a free walking tour of the Old City and of the street art-filled neighbourhood of Getsemani.
If you’re an art lover, or just interested in learning more about Colombia’s history through creative representation, then you should join the Getsemani Tour.
You’ll wander through the narrow streets of the Getsemani neighbourhood, admiring the works of art and understanding the transformation that the area has and is still going through.
#2 Take a boat trip to the Rosario Islands
Cartagena sits on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. You know what that means, right? Incredible Caribbean islands not far from its shores!
One of the most popular things to do in Cartagena is to join a boat trip. There’s also no shortage of people trying to sell you these boat trips by the harbour.
Explore the Rosario Islands
Most of the boat trips will take you to the Rosario Islands. They’re an archipelago of islands about an hour’s boat ride from Cartagena and they’re pure paradise.
Those crystal clear waters and white sand that you’ve been imagining can be found on the Rosario islands.
As part of the Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park, the waters around the islands have been largely preserved, offering magnificent marine life — perfect for snorkelling.
This full-day catamaran sailing trip is the ideal way to explore the Rosario islands. You’ll be able to think about nothing else but enjoying yourself as lunch, soft drinks and snorkel equipment are all included for $80.
If you fancy sticking around in paradise for a couple of nights, check out our guide to staying on Isla Grande.
Construction first began on San Felipe Castle in 1536, making it almost 500 years old. It’s Cartagena’s most famous monument and a must-see attraction.
The fortress was built to protect the city of Cartagena. Something it did extremely well! In 1794, Cartagena was successfully defended from 23,000 British troops and 186 ships with only 3,000 men and six ships. It’s fair to say it’s a pretty impressive building.
Aside from its incredible history, the castle walls offer great views of Cartagena, the tunnels — an adventure, and the large Colombian flag — a perfect photo opportunity.
The only downside of San Felipe Castle is that not a lot of investment has gone into adding information about the castle. There aren’t many information boards, so you’ll have to get creative or read about its history beforehand.
Entrance to San Felipe Castle costs 25,000 COP ($5).
Join a tour of San Felipe Castle
To solve the problem of the lack of information about San Felipe Castle, you could join a tour. This city tour takes you around the castle as well as to La Popa Convent and other important sites around Cartagena. This informative tour lasts 4 hours and costs $37.
According to Forbes Magazine, Getsemani is one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world. It’s up to you to decide whether you agree.
History of Getsemani
The Getsemani neighbourhood used to be very different. Go back a few years and it was known for drugs, prostitution and crime. It’s not somewhere most tourists would have visited.
Nowadays Getsemani is thriving with its vibrant houses, street art and performers. It’s a place that tourists are now eager to visit.
The street art really makes this place special. Without words, the walls of Getsemani illustrate the struggles that the people of Getsemani have gone through and still are. The murals and art depict issues such as racial segregation, political problems and even the effects that tourism is having on the neighbourhood.
Getsemani is a place that’s guaranteed to leave you feeling revitalised and reflective.
The free walking tour mentioned in #1 is a great way to hear these stories, but wandering around by yourself can be just as powerful.
#5 Take a mud bath in El Totumo
If you’re looking for an escape from the city or a destination for a road trip, then a visit to El Totumo is ideal. As you’ll quickly realise, it’s one of the more unique things to do around Cartagena.
El Totumo is an active mud volcano that can be found to the north of Cartagena. Don’t worry, it’s unlikely to erupt whilst you’re taking your relaxing mud bath.
It’s also probably one of the smallest volcanoes that you’ll ever see, standing at just 15m tall, but that’s not why people visit.
What’s at the top of El Totumo?
Once you climb the steps to the top of the volcano, you’ll see people floating around and getting massages in the mud. It’s a rather peculiar sight to begin with, but once you join in the fun, it quickly becomes normal.
There are workers waiting in the mud to give you a lovely massage with the mud that’s said to have healing properties. Overall, it’s an interesting and surprisingly relaxing experience.
How to visit El Totumo
If you have a car, then the drive from Cartagena to El Totumo takes a little over an hour.
The entrance fee is 4,000 COP ($0.85), but the workers are very persistent with tips. If you get a massage, let someone take photos for you or are washed by one of the women, they will expect a tip.
For those without a car, you can still visit by joining a tour. This El Totumo tour includes your entrance to the volcano as well as transportation for $26.
#6 Spend the day at the beach
The beaches within Cartagena city aren’t anything to write home about. They’re city beaches after all.
Bocagrande is Cartagena’s most famous and popular city beach.
With the skyscrapers on the Bocagrande peninsula as the backdrop, the stark contrast between nature and man-made is pretty cool. Bocagrande beach is a nice place to relax on the sand and go for a swim.
Not too far from Bocagrande Beach, still on the Bocagrande peninsula, is Castillogrande Beach. This may be a better option if you’re looking to avoid the crowds as not as many people visit this beach.
Venture out of Cartagena and this is when you start to find the paradise beaches that you’d imagined. As the name suggests Playa Blanca is a white sand beach with crystal clear waters.
The only downside is that there are a lot of vendors trying to sell you things!
As Playa Blanca is 40 minutes out of the city, your easiest option if you don’t have a car may be to join a tour. This 8-hour tour to Playa Blanca organises all of your transportation, lunch and gives you plenty of time to spend relaxing on Playa Blanca.
A day trip to the Rosario Islands, mentioned in #2, is always the perfect way to enjoy some spectacular beaches.
You’ll find cuisines and dishes from all around the world. Being close to the sea, Cartagena has some incredible seafood too.
A lot of the restaurants are up-scale establishments costing more than what you’d pay elsewhere in Colombia. However, the high quality and delicious food justify the higher prices in our opinion. Trying different dishes and cuisines is one of the best things to do in Cartagena.
Don’t worry if you are on a budget, though, there’s still plenty of street food to be found in Cartagena. Find out where you can taste the best arepas in Colombia in our Cartagena guide.
#8 Learn to dance in Cartagena
If you want to keep up with the locals in Cartagena’s clubs, or simply learn a new skill, why not take some dance lessons?
Music and dance are closely interwoven in Colombian culture. No more evident than in Cartagena, where Colombian and Caribbean cultures have combined.
There are a number of popular dance styles in Cartagena — bachata, salsa, merengue and champeta.
Where can you take dance lessons in Cartagena?
Crazy Salsa is one of the best dance schools in Cartagena, offering pretty much any Latin style of dance that you want to learn.
They have group lessons running all day, from 8am-10pm. These cost 30,000 COP ($6) for 60 minutes.
Private classes are great if you want to accelerate your learning — a 60-minute class costs 80,000 COP ($17).
You can find Crazy Salsa’s timetable and prices on their website.
#9 Enjoy Cartagena’s unforgettable nightlife
Cartagena boasts a lively blend of both Colombian and Caribbean cultures. Can you get a better combination for a night out?
Most people here love to dance, and don’t hold back when it comes to their dance moves.
Champeta is a popular dance style in Cartagena. It’s a dance strongly influenced by the African rhythms originating from the Caribbean coast, and incredible to watch in the clubs and streets of Cartagena.
Best nightlife in Cartagena
Mirador Gastro Bar offers some incredible views of the city from its rooftop bar, as the name suggests. Whilst Alquimico is one of the quirkiest and most popular places to drink in the city.
Looking to get your salsa fix? Crazy Salsa is a great option, especially on a Thursday. For those looking to completely let loose, Eivissa should be crazy enough for you.
#10 Stay at Casa en el Agua
Looking for a unique place to spend a few nights? How about a hostel in the middle of the ocean?
Casa en el Agua is a colourful wooden house, built on a concrete foundation, surrounded by nothing but turquoise waters.
This eco hostel is truly an experience that you will never forget. It forces you to relax as there’s nothing else but the hostel and the sea.
You’ll never get bored, though, as the hostel attracts incredible people, has great cocktails and offers some tours. You can go swimming with the bioluminescent plankton or visit the most densely populated island in the world.
All three meals are included in the price, offering both vegetarian and seafood options. The food is prepared using what was caught that day, even lobster!
Top Tip:Casa en el Agua is a very popular place to stay, but space is limited. We recommend booking in advance to make sure that you can stay there.
#11 Learn about the Zenu Indigenous community
The Zenu Indigenous community is a group of around 250,000 people.
They have lived in the North of Colombia for hundreds of years, planting, cultivating and braiding cane fibre.
Their story has been filled with struggles after being exploited by the Spanish following their invasion and forced to flee their lands by paramilitary groups in the 1990s.
Whilst they’re still heavily reliant on agriculture to support their economy, tourism now also plays a role.
Join an ethical tour
The Zenu Museo del Oro will give you an insight into the community, but if you’d like to learn more about their cultures you can join a Zenu Indigenous Heritage Tour.
We recommend this tour in particular as they focus on environmentally sustainable and culturally ethical travel. With this tour, you don’t feel like you’re intruding on or disturbing the community.
For this reason, the tour is slightly pricey. The 4-hour tour costs $129 per person.
What does the tour involve?
You’ll start your day by visiting the Zenu Museo del Oro, accompanied by a Zenu guide, who will give you a fascinating insight into the stories and contexts behind the pieces.
After the museum, you’ll head to the 20 de Julio neighbourhood just outside of Cartagena city. This is where the Ninha workshop takes place.
Alongside the Indigenous women who lead the weaving, you’ll get to learn more about the history of the community, as well as how to weave using their unique process of Cana Flecha.
The day is a truly insightful one and the money goes towards supporting the community.
#12 Explore Mercado Bazurto
If you really want to escape the tourists and experience the true craziness of Colombia, then head to Mercado Bazurto.
Just 15 minutes east of the Old City, this market is crazy, manic and loud. Words can’t really describe how much is going on here.
Head there early in the morning and you’ll be greeted with stalls overflowing with colourful fruits and vegetables, bread, cheese and meat.
Top Tip: Watch out. The meat stalls aren’t for the faint-hearted!
#13 Try paratriking
Most people have never heard of paratriking so we’re going to take a guess that it’s not on your bucket list… yet.
Well, the concept is pretty similar to paragliding with a parachute — except the trike you’re sitting in has an engine in the rear. This is what allows you to take off from the ground.
Cartagena is a great place to take to the skies and feel like a bird. You’ll get views of the Old City, the ever-growing skyscrapers and the sea.
The paratrike flight lasts for 10-15 minutes and starts from $42 depending on the duration.
If you’re looking to fill an hour of your time, then the Museo del Oro Zenu is a great thing to do — it’s filled with information about the Indigenous people and their history, it’s free and there’s air conditioning (something you’ll appreciate in Cartagena’s heat)!
The Gold Museum opened its doors to the public in 1982 and since then it has been displaying a variety of pieces from before Spanish colonisation.
The museum is small, displaying 902 archaeological objects made from gold, silver and ceramics.
Entrance is free and the museum is open every day apart from Mondays.
#15 Try kitesurfing
As you drive along the coast from Cartagena’s airport, you might notice some figures moving about on the surface of the ocean. Kitesurfers!
If this is an activity you’d like to try out whilst in Cartagena, there are plenty of companies offering both group and private lessons.
Pure KiteSurf is a professional and reputable company that will get you taking to the waves and the sky in no time.
Their group lessons start at $42 per hour, whilst their private lessons cost $60 for one hour. The more hours you take, the cheaper the hourly rate. Why not use your time in Cartagena to become a pro kitesurfer?
Rounding it up
Now you’ve picked the best things to do in Cartagena, it’s time to start ticking off that bucket list. Not sure how to plan your trip? Our guide is here to help! You’ll find out how long to stay in Cartagena, where to eat, how to get around and more. Happy planning!
Our favourite places to stay in Cartagena
Cartagena is a popular international tourist destination in Colombia. This means that it’s flooded with hotels, particularly luxury resorts.
Finding a cheap place to stay here can be a bit harder due to the high demand, but there are many great options to choose from.
Here are our favourite places to stay in Cartagena:
San Lazaro Art Hotel — Treat Yourself
How often do you get to stay in a hotel that overlooks a castle? With floor to ceiling windows in most rooms, you’ll never want to close your curtains and stop looking at San Felipe de Barajas Castle.
The rooftop pool, terrace restaurant and bar also offer the same incredible view. All of the rooms offer ultimate comfort, with huge beds and modern bathrooms.
Kate is a writer, (ex)Management Consultant and avid traveller. She recently returned from a 2-year career break exploring the world and decided corporate life wasn’t for her. She’ll soon be testing life as a digital nomad. She’s visited over 40 countries and fell in love with Latin America in particular. Her travelling has inspired a passion for yoga, salsa, hiking and Spanish.
Aleksandra is a writer and editor who recently moved from Hong Kong to London. She’s worked and studied in four countries (and counting) and picked up a new hobby in each of them. She’s a big fan of long train journeys so you can count on her to take the scenic route, finding a few hidden gems along the way.