After seeing so many colorful photos of travelers exploring the walls of Cartagena, Colombia, I couldn’t wait to tick this place off my list. It sits on the top of many “must-see” travel destination lists. It’s a tropical escape for travelers looking to have the Caribbean experience without the high prices of Caribbean islands.
We spent 5 days in Cartagena, and I must say it was too much. I’d recommend 3-4 days at most to stay, as there isn’t much to do beyond eating and drinking and the islands tour.
Cartagena is a city that exploded in growth recently, and there’s not a whole lot to explore beyond what would fill a 3-4 day itinerary. You could sneak in day trips or visit Santa Marta for better beaches than what you’ll find in Cartagena. It’s still 100% worth a visit when traveling through Colombia, especially if you love eating and drinking.
This was the first place we went wrong. We stayed too far outside of the city center. Prices are a lot cheaper outside, BUT it’s far more inconvenient to take taxis in and out, and the outskirts are not inviting. If I were to return, I’d definitely recommend spending the extra money for a nice hotel on the inside of the old city walls.
Restaurants & Bars
Our first dinner in Cartagena at this place set high standards for the rest of the trip! It was phenomenal. Zaitun is a middle-eastern style restaurant in the heart of the city. It serves an impressive menu of Mediterranean, Colombian, and Caribbean cuisine, craft cocktails, and delicious desserts. Everything looked spectacular. I ordered the seafood risotto and was not disappointed. It was chock-full of shrimp, scallops, mussels, all the good stuff. I ate every last bite and was dreaming about it for days after. If you want to enjoy a “fancier” meal while in Cartagena, GO TO ZAITUN. You won’t regret it.
A craft cocktail-lovers paradise, this bar is a must-stop in Cartagena, even if for just one drink. Spoiler – we did not have only one drink. It’s a 3-story establishment, and every floor has a different theme and cocktail menu. Every single drink, even ones with ingredients I was apprehensive about, was delicious. They make their own custom spirits, and clarify various liquor mixes, use fresh herbs, and lots of delicious fruit in their drinks. At least a pre-dinner drink or a nightcap must be enjoyed at Alquimico when in Cartagena.
This is a great breakfast spot. They have awesome iced coffee, mimosas, and delicious brunch food. I had avocado on toast with eggs, and it did not disappoint, and my fellow travel companions enjoyed their food too. It was a pleasant atmosphere with indoor seating.
Need a mojito for some relief from the heat? Stop here – no question. They had amazing cocktails, and their mojitos were crafted perfectly. Not too sweet, not too boozy, and super refreshing. It’s a charming restaurant and bar with tasteful Cuban music and decor. We stopped here twice during our stay in Cartagena and were happy with our decision both times.
Abaco Libros y Cafe
Need a caffeine pick-me-up and a book? Stop by this bookstore/coffee shop/bar combo! You can even sneak a shot of Bailey’s in your coffee, and enjoy at the cafe counter or search for a read for the rest of your vacation.
Want to enjoy the South American classic, an Arepa, on a budget? Quepos Arepa is a place to go! This delicious spot has tons of different arepas to try, they are all super cheap and loaded with avocado, cotija cheese, chicken, and sauces, in the style of Venezuelan arepas.
Noted as one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite spots in Cartagena, this ceviche restaurant definitely lived up to the hype. We had shrimp, different types of ceviche, and a mixed seafood rice dish. It was incredible, I’ve never eaten that much seafood in one sitting and every bite was delicious.
Things to Do
The main point of a visit to Cartagena is to relax. Leisurely walks, drinks and delicious food, and sunshine are all plentiful in this Colombian coastal city. That being said, there are a few other activities to fill your time and enjoy while in Cartagena.
Rosario Islands Catamaran Cruise
If there’s one “must-do” activity in Cartagena, it’s a boat tour of the Rosario Islands. It was fabulous – there were very few people booked on our cruise, so it was like having a private boat to ourselves. It took us to several swim spots, where we could jump in the sparkling blue waters and snorkel. Definitely pack plenty of sunscreens, a hat, and sunglasses as the sun is brutal. It’s perfect for tanning though – Cartagena doesn’t really have any good beaches within the city, so this was a great alternative. They serve lunch on board (included in ticket price), and drinks are reasonable, bring cash or card to charge liquor and beer. It was my favorite thing we did while in Cartagena by far.
Walk the Streets
With all the colorful buildings, terraces with green plants and flowers blooming off the deck over the walls, look up when walking around. Enjoy the quaint shops and restaurants hidden away around every corner, one of the best things to do for a day in Cartagena is to walk around.
Don’t miss the shops at Las Bovedas. They were once dungeons, now converted to a string of tourist shops.
The Historical Fort – Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
If you are interested in the history of Cartagena and need a break from drinks and food, a tour of the fort in Cartagena is worth a visit I would recommend going early in the morning or late afternoon as it’s hot at midday, with little to no shade in much of the structure.
Something I WOULDN’T recommend to do in Cartagena
Visiting Tierra Bomba Island
If you don’t research Cartagena beforehand, you may be surprised to discover that the beaches aren’t right within the city, as I mentioned before. This isn’t a huge deal, as you have options to get to beaches nearby by boat tours (like the Rosario Islands Tour) and to an island called Tierra Bomba. Close to the city, it has white sandy beaches and provides the tropical vibes, or at least that’s what photos led us to believe.
To get here, you can book a private tour, but as those options seemed expensive for a casual beach day on our last day in the city. We opted for the “local” route instead and took a lancha (small motorboat) from the mainland. The whole day was a struggle from start to finish. Upon arriving at the beach where the boats leave from, we were bombarded with different boat operators trying to get us to pick them. It was annoying and overwhelming. The boat ride was crazy, huge waves felt like they were going to take us out. We paid only for one way, as it seemed super disorganized. It seemed impossible to hunt down the same boat operator for the return Upon arriving, however, we were “escorted” around by a woman who harassed us about our departure time. She tried to micro-manage what we did on the island, directing us towards specific bars and following us around. It felt like having a babysitter that we didn’t ask for.
Returning to the mainland was a colossal pain, waiting for boats to come back to take enough tourists. It’s a decent beach, very close to the city, with some restaurants and bars to enjoy drinks in the sand. The experience of being hassled at every moment, however, made it not worth it. I would skip Tierra Bomba and go for a day trip out of Cartagena instead if you have extra days to fill – you can find much quieter, beautiful beaches not far away by bus or taxi.
Overall, Cartagena is a lovely city, a must-see on a visit to Colombia. I’d say the duration of your stay is everything here, stay long enough to explore the city and enjoy restaurants, but not too long. Pencil in some day trips or a cheap flight to another island city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Don’t forget your camera and sunscreen, as this place is hot and sunny year-round.