Cartagena Travel – the Ultimate Guide
Cartagena took my breath away. The port city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is full of history, colorful buildings, and blue water.
I had the time of my life when I spent almost two weeks in Cartagena.
It was my first time in Colombia and a huge learning experience for me.
Before I went to Cartagena, I looked for a post like this with no luck. A comprehensive guide that is also budget savvy. It’s the only way I travel. But now I have my experience and the expertise of one of my good friend, William, who was born and raised in Colombia and still visits at least 4 times a year.
I visited Cartagena in April. And when I left the northeast, it was in the high 40s at most. So when I landed in this city of 85-92 degrees I was ecstatic! And hot…
Cartagena’s winter is our Spring. And winter means humidity for them. And rain. Thankfully for us, we just missed the rainy season but it was SO HUMID.
I love to run and I tried a few times with luck once.
Here are Cartagena weather averages thanks to the NOAA.
Hotels in Cartagena
There are two places you can stay in Cartagena, Bocagranda or near the Walled City.
Bocagrande is the part of Cartagena with the apartments and hotels on the beach. It’s the peninsula part of the city with high rises that are almost all white. Here you can find hotels like the Hyatt but you’re absolute best bet, best value for your money, bang for your buck, etc is using AirBnB for your stay in Bocagrande.
Pros – The views, close to the beach, more touristy, brand new buildings.
Cons – Further from the best local restaurant, bars, and best place to stroll at night.
The Walled City is right in the heart of the city. It’s where you will find the Old City and its colorful architecture.
These hotels are boutique hotels and they can be a little more costly but there are deals to be found.
Hotel Boutique las Carretera is the best bang for your buck. Breakfast is included, there is Wifi and a pool.
Delirio Hotel is another good option with breakfast included, internet, but no pool.
I stayed in Bocagrande but coming here was the best part of my stay. Here you will find the best walks and nightlife.
Pros – In the middle of all of the great restaurants, rooftop terraces, nightlife, and charm.
Cons – No beach view, further from the beach, older buildings.
Getting Around Cartagena
One of the best ways to get around on a budget in any city is to use public transportation.
I didn’t do this in Cartagena but I did use other types of common transportation like yellow cabs, Uber, and other transportation.
My favorite way to get around was the yellow taxis. Especially for travel less than 7 miles. They would charge 8,000 COP or $3 per trip. It was a steal. They’re also always available. I would always just know there was a cab around the corner.
Uber is the cheapest in Cartagena but it’s still way too difficult to get a ride with them. I’m assuming there’s a lack of drivers and way too many economical yellow cabs.
Culture in Cartagena
The language in Colombia is Spanish, and while a lot of people in the touristy part try to understand English, it’s not really their job to understand our language. There were people from all over the world while I was there but I specifically saw Americans, Italians, and Brazilians. I am Latina and speak Spanish, but if you don’t, learning a few words like please (por favor), thank you (gracias), Good Morning (Buenos Dias), and other common phrases is important.
Colombian people are well-mannered and friendly but not uncomfortably so. I found their mannerisms great.
The only warning I can offer is that the salespeople in Cartagena are very pushy. You have to say no gracias at least 5 times to get them to leave you alone.
Rent a Motorcycle in Cartagena
If I ever go back to Cartagena, I will definitely be renting a motorcycle. Especially if my trip is more than 4-5 days. Cab rides are very inexpensive like I mentioned but the freedom to go back and forth as much as I wanted would have been great.
Cheap Cell Service – Cartagena
I thought getting my phone up and running was going to be a lot easier than what it turned out to be.
The first thing to do is check how much it would be for your current provider to provide you with full capabilities in Colombia. Verizon had a really easy to use webpage, that gave me the price of $10/day after just a few clicks. That’s not expensive but also not economical. There are way cheaper ways to do it and a lot of other things I could use $100+ for.
My good friend William told me how to get local service all week for under $20. And guess what, he wasn’t lying. I had service the entire time I was in Colombia. I spent 40,000 COP which is $15.
What I didn’t know, was how simple this wasn’t going to be. I had the information I needed but I was missing the actual action items. Now I know.
Step 1 – Before you head to Colombia, go to the App Store or Google Play and download WhatsApp. Also, make sure anyone you want to communicate with back home has the app. In my case, I already had this app as did most of friends and family because we have family living in other countries. It’s a free app that allows you to call and text over data or wifi and not need sell service or roaming.
Step 2 – Get the SIM card
A Claro SIM card should cost you no more than 10,000 COP or about $4.
The best place to get a Claro SIM card is at a Claro store. They also have Claro kiosks inside supermarkets like Olimpica. Anywhere else and you can find yourself purchasing a stolen SIM card.
Step 3 – Put the sim in your phone
Don’t use the phone…I’m not kidding
Step 4 – Add money to the phone using *611#
Still, don’t use the phone
Step 5 – What you want is a data package or paquete de dato
There’s a package for 500mb or 1/2GB and WhatsApp access for 7 days that costs 15,000 COP or $5.50. I purchased this package twice.
The reason I did this one and not another package with more data is because you get WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter for 7 days no matter how much of the data you use. In combination with the free WiFi at the hotel, I wasn’t sure if I was going to need more than 500mb.
Cash in Cartagena
Colombia uses pesos, COP and the conversion is quite high and can be shocking compared to other countries. Right now 1 USD is a little more than 2,800 COP.
Note that exchange rates float freely against one another and are in constant fluctuation. Last week the conversion was 2,700 COP to 1 USD.
Honestly, I received the best rate of exchange at a small place while I was walking around. Western Unions were also littered around the city but their fees to exchange were higher. You can expect to pay 100-300 COPs per dollar converted.
What are your ATM fees? Sometimes taking out cash and paying $12 in ATM fees is cheaper than the exchange rate you get charged when converting money. Make sure to look up your fees and do the math.
How Much Cash?
Almost every place in Cartagena takes credit card, and if you have the right travel reward card (and I really think you should), then you should use it as much as possible.
But cash is necessary for sure. I would plan for $100 per day per family.
Cartagena’s Centro – Walled City
In the heart of Cartagena, you will find the magnificent historic Walled City. Walking into Old Town is like taking a step back in time, with its narrow streets, charm, and burst of colors, there’s no way to not get mesmerized in the romance of this place.
Horse-drawn carriages are typical sights on the streets of the Walled City as well as people from all over the world. The streets are bustling with local crafts, artists, and vendors as well as high-end stores.
This was a major port founded in 1533 and named after the city of Cartagena, Spain. It became the main port for trade between Spain and its overseas empire. The walls were built to defend against pirates of the Caribbean.
Two worthy mentions:
I’m not a huge ice cream fan but this is the best ice cream popsicle I have ever had. These are the finest handmade ice creams available in over 20 flavors. My favorite one was La Galleta de Abuela (Grandma’s cookies). This place is not to be missed.
Great spot for Arepas and Patacones. Not only that but the prices are amazing and the location is quaint and very local feeling.
To-do in Cartagena
If you do research on Cartagena or things to do in Cartagena, you will see Rosario Beach again and again.
Obviously, we wanted to visit Rosario Beach as well since we had seen the great photos online and wanted to go. But after talking to a local guide, who warned us about how touristy and full of peddlers it was, we decided to go to Playa Blanca.
Both beaches share the same beautiful water. Turquoise blue and crystal clear. Not to be missed.
There are a lot of places you can hang out but we went to a restaurant with beach cabanas called Banana Beach. They have all the prices listed on their menu so they can’t haggle you and they’re well known for the good, fresh food and service.
For this trip, we used Leon Transportation. We paid 250,000 pesos for the 1 hour trip for two and the local guide’s expertise and guidance. We were the only ones with the guide and he’s the one that showed us Banana Beach.
Rosario Islands or Playa Blanca is a must do while you are in Cartagena.
This is a local beach about 35 minutes from the city.
What was really nice about this beach was how empty and laid back it was on a Monday we went.
The water at this beach wasn’t nearly as clear as Playa Blanca but it was still nice.
If you want to travel to this beach I would contact Leon Transportation. This is what we used. They will drive you to the beach, protect you from unnecessary charges, and make sure you just have a good time.
Castillo San Felipe
Named in honor of Phillip IV of Spain, this fortress was built in 1536.
This is a must do. If you don’t have a tour guide, the audio tour is fantastic and a great addition.
Try to visit on the coldest day of your trip and close to the evening. The view of the city as the sunsets is not to be missed. Also, bring water and dress comfortably.
There will be vendors near and within the castle, you can get water and Arepas con huevos from them (I highly suggest, this is a corn cake with cheese and egg in the middle. Not to be missed).
Cartagena Travel Tips
Outside of the city, past the $500/night hotel rooms and upscale restaurants, is the immense poverty of Cartagena and the slums.
The touristy part of the city, as well as the touristy sights, are full of locals just finding a way to earn an income and make ends meet. And while their desire to make money is understandable to us all, their persistence and quite frankly, lack of respect, can get frustrating as a tourist.
Especially at the beach, people will try to sell you things and earn money in other ways. Here are a few very useful tips.
- If you see something you like, offer half of what they’re saying it costs. They will start with a ridiculously high number
- Don’t try anything on unless you’re willing to buy it. Try it on and then they’ll ask to be paid for it even when they said it was just a preview.
- If you aren’t going to pay for a massage, do not let them touch you at all. They will try to demonstrate and then ask you for $50 or $100.
For everything in Cartagena, make sure you know the price ahead of time. Try not to eat places without prices on their menu, when you get in a cab ask how much the fare will be before the car starts moving, as the street vendor how much the water is before he hands it to you. All you have to say is “¿Quanto.?”
All in all, I highly suggest a trip to Cartagena for anyone. I can’t wait to one day head back there, it was an experience of a lifetime and worthy of a second trip.