I’m so excited to finally share my travel guide for Cartagena! This trip to Colombia was my first time ever in South America, and I was not disappointed! I had a feeling I’d love Colombia; my family is latin and I absolutely love the culture. Plus, growing up, my family had four exchange students, two of which were from Colombia. And let’s be real, Narcos is one of my favorite shows ever. Haha, kidding. Kind of.
For real though, I can’t recommend Cartagena enough. I’ve been to 30+ countries and Colombia for sure is in the top 5. I definitely want to make it to Medellin next! The Colombian culture is so rich and the people are so beyond nice. When we were walking on the street looking for our hotel, a man selling t-shirts walked up to us and asked us what we were looking for. He very kindly helped up find our hotel and even rang the semi-hidden doorbell for us. Every time we saw him again (which was like 4 times a day) he was like “Hey! Mi amiga!!” I loved it!
The friendly people, as well as the gorgeous streets, really reminded me of Havana. I will say everything was newer and nicer in Cartagena, but Havana would definitely be the closest comparison of all the places I’ve been.
What to Know
Communicating and Spending
The official language of Colombia is Spanish, but most people did speak English, especially at the nicer shops and restaurants. Some of the street vendors didn’t speak English, though. I speak Spanish, so it was very easy for me to communicate with the locals. That was another thing that was similar to Cuba – the dialect. I was just in Spain and the Spanish there is so different from the Spanish I’m used to from my Puerto Rican grandma and my Nicaraguan mom.
The currency in Colombia is the Colombian Peso. The exchange rate changes daily, but I will say that the prices there are not that much cheaper than the prices in the US as of this writing. Their menus and sales tags are in thousands of pesos. So for example, it would say 8 as the price for rice and beans; this means it costs 8,000 pesos, which is about $2.65. Ok so yeah, I guess it is pretty cheap. All of the restaurants we went to took cards, but cash is needed for the street vendors and tipping.
They do have Uber in Cartagena, but we had a bad experience with ours! So when you get to the airport, there is a little computer screen where you can put in where you need to go. It will then print out a ticket with the price and you give that ticket to your taxi driver, which is in a line right outside the door. Your price is guaranteed and there are no scams – great! When we tried though, our hotel didn’t pop up and we weren’t 100% sure what would be the next closest option, so we decided to order an Uber. Huge mistake.
First of all, he took almost 30 minutes to get there. Second of all, he went to the wrong place even though I told him numerous times exactly where we were. Then, when we were finally in the car, he tried to communicate with us, but we couldn’t understand. He then pulled over and texted into a translate app. He was asking us for more money since it took him so long to get there! How does that make any sense?! So we said no and he then pulled over two more times so he could type on his translate app, making the trip take twice as long as it should have. When you’ve been traveling all day, you just want to get to the hotel, you know!? We were worried that he wouldn’t take us to our destination, but he did take us pretty close and I just ended up reporting him to Uber. Luckily, we stayed inside the walled city, so we didn’t need a car except for one other time.
I’m sure it’s easy enough to get a taxi, but apps are even easier, right? They have this app there called Easy Taxi. It works just like Uber – you enter your pickup spot and destination, order a ride, and pay directly in the app. Very easy, especially if you don’t speak Spanish and your driver doesn’t speak English! One of the locals told me about this app, so I guess that’s what they use there most often!
Anyway, when we got out of the uber, we were bombarded by street vendors. There are tons of people selling shirts, handmade bags, jewelry, hats, fruits, I mean, you name it. This was another reason it reminded me of Havana – that’s how it was like there. This honestly didn’t really bother me that much. If you kindly say no thank you, they don’t pester you or anything like that. I did end up getting a really cute little bag for about $6, so I’m glad they were there!
Cartagena is extremely safe, especially compared to what you might have learned from Narcos on Netflix. But I felt totally safe walking around at night by myself. There weren’t shady characters lurking in the shadows, I never felt like people were staring at me in a creepy way, never felt scared at all. Of course, we asked our concierge about the safety before walking the streets alone at night, but he confirmed that Cartagena is very safe and the crime is very low, especially in the walled city. That’s another similarity to Havana, but unlike Havana, Cartagena did not have tons of cops all over the place. In fact, I don’t remember seeing any except maybe once or twice.
What to Pack
Cartagena is HOT. We did go in summer, but it’s hot year round there. And not only is it hot, but it is extremely humid. About 85% on every day we were there. I love the heat, but there’s no way someone can comfortably wear full-length pants there. I wore pants one day (the pic I used here) and changed within 5 minutes. I was dying. And I’m literally always cold. I would suggest bringing lots of bathing suits, shorts, short dresses, and tank tops. And definitely hair ties. You will never need heels in Cartagena. Sure, there are nice restaurants and stuff, but no need to go all out. Most of the streets are cobblestone anyway. Who you tryna impress? Just be comfortable and wear flats. They keep it casual in Cartagena!
Where to Stay
Absolutely 10000% stay in the walled city in Cartagena. That is where all the action is. It’s a pretty small space – everywhere we wanted to go was within 2-3 blocks. You can walk over to Gestamani too very easily. This is where I have to mention that Cartagena is not a beach town. You’re not gonna be staying in some waterfront resort. That’s not Cartagena. If you want to go to the beach, there are options, but as far as where you stay, it’s gotta be in the walled city. Trust me!
Where to Eat & Drink
Hands down our favorite place to eat in Cartagena was Época. Granted, this place was next door to our hotel, but I’m telling you, it’s amazing. Not only is the coffee heavenly, but the food is absolutely delicious. We went here twice a day every day for a week straight and it never got old. The cocktails are bomb and the staff is super sweet. Plus they have wifi! Man, I miss Época!
If you’re looking for a nice dinner place, check out Bohemia. Not only is the decor absolutely stunning, with tons of greenery and twinkling lights, but the ambiance is so welcoming and warm, yet upscale and private. The night we were there, there was a band with a woman singing outside, which was nice as well. Our drinks and meals were both divine and we couldn’t stop talking about how much we loved everything about this place. Bohemia is definitely a fab option for dinner in Cartagena!
My favorite bar in Cartagena was, by far, El Barón. The inside of the bar is very tiny – there are only 4 very small tables, but it creates a very cozy atmosphere that I loved. There is also plenty of outdoor seating, even though the inside was never fully packed out any of the nights we were there. I think a lot of people do sit outside. It’s located in this little square with performers and vendors and stuff. Anyway, the cocktails at this place are amazing. The bartenders really have fun with their craft. They compete all over the world and it’s very clear when you taste their creations. My personal favorite was the unusual gimlet. Ah, even just thinking about it now, I can taste the rose. It’s incredible. It was created by my friend Oscar (I mean, I met him there when he was bartending and we follow each other on insta now so we are totes amigos) and I had one to start off the night every time we went out. I even ended up going to El Barón by myself one night because Danasia was being lame and wanted to stay in. It was definitely my top pick for a drink after dinner!
Another fun option for nightlife is Alquímico. I got the feeling that it kind of has a similar culture for the staff and bartenders as El Barón. Personally, I didn’t enjoy the drinks as much, but the venue is really cool. There are three levels: The bottom level is a regular bar with tables and stuff, the second level has a pool table and another bar and some tables, and the top floor is a large outdoor terrace with another bar and plenty of seating. It’s still pretty hot at night, but I thought it felt nice out, so we sat outside when we went. It was really an awesome atmosphere and I definitely would have gone back if I had found a drink on the menu I liked!
After a night on the town, you definitely have to get some street food. I’ll confess, I didn’t personally get any, but it is a very well known and highly recommended thing in Cartagena. Danasia ended up going out and getting some steak after I went to sleep one night and she said it was amazing. I wish I got the chance to try some. Next time!
What to Do
Besides going out to eat and grabbing drinks, there is plenty to do in Cartagena. I would definitely recommend getting some pool time in since the sun is so strong there. It’s so nice and relaxing to lay out and take a dip in the pool. But there is also the beach option. The best place to go for beaches is the Rosario islands, which is about an hour away by boat from Cartagena. We didn’t end up going there, though I wish we did. Instead, we went to the Blue Apple, which is only about 20 minutes away by boat. It was alright. There’s a minimum spend you have to reach, which we did on drink alone, but we didn’t really end up making any friends. I was hoping for more of a social atmosphere and that was definitely not the case. There were people there, but it wasn’t full by any means. And no one really talked to us. Oh well, now we know!
Within the walled city, there are a lot of awesome shops to check out. I would recommend just walking around and checking them all out. One of our favorites was Loto Del Sur. There were so many wonderfully scented soaps, lotions, and other goodies. There’s also a great bookstore and coffee shop that we loved called Ábaco. They of course have plenty of Gabriel García Márquez!
I’m not typically a fan of group tours, but there is a free walking tour in Cartagena. We didn’t do it because nothing worked with our schedule, but what can it hurt if it’s free, right?
Finally, another popular thing to do that, once again, we didn’t do (haha, oops) is jewelry making classes. Emeralds are mined in Colombia, so it’s a popular place to buy them and there’s an industry around it as you can imagine. One way to experience this is by taking a jewelry making class that incorporates emeralds. The jewelry making classes are pretty pricey, but you do get to keep the jewelry you make which is pretty cool. I honestly really wish we would have done this, but I was being stingy with my money and didn’t want to pay $100 for a class. I think it would have been worth it for the experience and the souvenir!