When looking for what to do in Cartagena, Colombia, you’ll find no shortage of answers. Whether you’re a history buff or a nightlife lover or an eco-adventurer, you can jam pack a weekend or extended stay with exciting activities. The port city of Cartagena is your gringo springboard into South America.
A quick glimpse of Cartagena
- Cartagena’s old city, Centro Historico, is so well preserved it has that fairy tale perception of urban Caribbean life. Similar to San Juan, Puerto Rico with its cobblestoned streets, magnificent churches and tropical plazas, vibrant colored homes, the scent of local street food.
- Further south, Bocagrande and El Laguito offer a more modern tourist destination. High rise hotels, mainstream shops, and nightclubs.
- Beyond that, Cartagena’s function industrial seaport and sprawling suburbs.
What to do in Cartagena for history buffs
The heart of every Cartagena visit is a trek through the Walled City. Within these thick, stone fortifications called Las Murallas (their construction finished in 1796) is one of the most exquisitely maintained “old towns” in the world, complete with Colonial architecture in all the brilliant colors of the Caribbean. The place is freakin’ gorgeous.
The inner neighborhoods of El Centro and San Diego are the most popular and considered safest, though the outer neighborhood of Getsemani offers a great chance to see a little more hustle and bustle of the locals. Taking your own leisure walking tour is the best way to explore all its vibrant timelessness.
The old city offers the most compact area of points of interests including cathedrals, plazas, and museums as well as shops and some of the best restaurants.
Just remember it’s hot. Real hot, all the time. Be sure to have bottled water handy.
Further beyond walled city is the Castillo de San Felippe. Construction began on this looming fortress in 1536 and final expansions were finished in 1763, more than two hundred years later. The castle is visually striking on the outside and filled with a labyrinth of tunnels on the inside. Being a popular tourist attraction, you can also expect to see many street vendors hawking local snacks. There may also be a guy or two with live sloths and offering you the chance to be photoed with the little fellows. Let’s be clear these dudes are not representatives of the local zoo. While I can harp on Colombia’s problem with animal smuggling, you must remember these men are just trying to feed their families in a developing country. And it’s hard to resist the charm of those darn sloths.
If you need to be reminded why you left your home country, stop by Las Bovedas in the late mornings when the cruise ships spew busloads of tourists to these former military barracks. The twenty or so “dungeons” are now all filled with souvenir shops. While the architecture is lovely, the frantic gringos who’ve left their sofas for the first time in their lives will turn their walkers into weapons in panicked pursuit to hit one more shop. Tip: The first store sells the same stuff as the last.
What to do in Cartagena when it’s party time
Bocagrande and El Laguito are Colombia’s answer to Miami’s South Beach. President Obama Secret Service men can testified to the quality of the finest escorts in this area. Every resort has its own nightclub. If you can’t get lucky in one, you’re probably the unluckiest person on Earth.
For a more native vibe, the nightclubs of Getsemaní neighborhood of the walled city are a touch seedier, but hardly as cheesy as their Bocagrande cousins. Salsa is the dance of choice. While many of us grindos may find the beats too intoxicating to avoid embarrassing ourselves on the dance floor, simply sitting back and watching the bouncing, sweaty skin of hot Latinos can equally be a great way to spend the evening.
For lower key options, quieter bars can be found all around the San Diego neighborhood of the Centro Historico. Sip a caiperinia at an outdoor at San Pedro Claver Square or if it’s air conditioning you crave (and you will) there’s the Bar El Coro at Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Hotel and Spa. The tropical drink menu is as lush as its large atrium. Live music plays almost every night.
We were visited at our table by the atrium’s resident toucan, which had no problem sharing a seat but trying to photograph the uncooperative feathered hooligan proved a blurry frustration.
For the less adventurous, there’s always the Hard Rock Café. Meh.
What to do in Cartagena when you’re morbidly curious
Should you need to repent for your sinful evening, a history of human horror awaits you at the Museo Historico de Cartagena de Indias and the Palacio de la Inquisición. Also known as the Inquisition Museum.
At the time of my visit there was still no English audio tour available, but was told that is in the works. You will likely need an English-speaking guide for the 50 shades of Roman Catholic intolerance.
If you’re just there to satiate your closet sado-masochist desires – the rack, guillotine, and other classic torture devices are excruciatingly self explanatory.
A less painful option is the Cathedral de San Pedro Claver. Considered a must visit both historically and spiritually if so inclined. Again, you may need an English-speaking tour guide for all the historical facts. There will be several soliciting this service the second you part your Yankee lips at the ticket booth. They are legit and for around ten bucks you’ll leave well informed. I found it less necessary.
A quick stroll through the courtyard and a visit to cathedral sufficed. At the altar you will see on display in his glass casket the skeletal remains of Saint Peter Claver, patron Saint of seafarers and slavery. An abolitionist who said to have baptized over 300,000 slaves.
Locals in prayer seemed unphased by the snapping photos of tourist insensitivity toward this hero of human rights… I got a sweet close up of the skull and repented the Inquisition Museum afterward.
What to do in Cartagena when you need a beach
On the mainland is the beach at Bocagrande (the “Big Mouth”). Lined with hotels, nightclubs, and shops, this stretch of gray volcanic sand is shared by tourists and locals alike.
If you haven’t seen enough jiggling sweaty flesh at the clubs, you’ll be delighted that what amounts to little more than a length of colored dental floss counts as a bikini.
I opted for a day trip to the Islas del Rosario, a group of tiny islands and a short yet bumpy sea ride from the city.
Each tour stops at a little eco-hotel with a pool and bar. More for relaxation, it has the white sand and crystal clear water you expect in the Caribbean. Lunch provided consists of fresh caught fish or Caribbean lobster (meat or vegetarian options can be arranged) and a variety of local fruit. Trips start about $70 a person. A half hour snorkelling tour to nearby reefs can be added for about $30 more. Bring cash.
Another off the mainland option is Playa Blanca on the Isla de Barú. Sugary sand and coconuts galore, but word has it that beaches are starting to get more and more developed. Hence, more crowded.
So these are just my humble suggestions of what to do in Cartagena. I encourage others to share their own insights and experiences in the comments section. Have an awesome trip!