48 Hours in…Cartagena, Colombia
By: Alyssa Galik
I’ve been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Education for the past two years outside of Cartagena. The close proximity along with visits from friends and family has given me many opportunities to explore nearly everything the city has to offer.
I tried to make this list meet any budget or interests. It’s a jam-packed itinerary but at the end of the day, Cartagena is a city best explored by wandering its colorful streets and indulging in the wide array of cuisines available. If you don’t plan to take it slow, the heat and humidity might just force you to take frequent breaks in search of A/C anyways.
Below is a map of the Historical Center in Cartagena. Everything is walkable and I refer to Centro and Getsemani in the article but they are areas only about a 15-minute walk from each other, all within the walled city. Getsemani is where most hostels are located and has a more local and artistic feel while Centro and San Diego is where most hotels and points of interest are.
$ = $3-5 USD
$$ = $6-9 USD
$$$ = $10-14 USD
$$$$ = $15-20 USD
Breakfast: Epoca Espresso Bar ($$) – the best place for breakfast. Good coffee and a mix of Colombian and Western dishes.
Wander around the historical center. It’s easy to get lost but the area is small. Check out all the beautiful colonial buildings with flowery balconies and snap some photos.
Check out the various plazas and churches in the Centro. Plaza Santo Domingo with its famous Botero statue. Plaza de los Conchos and the clock tower, also a great place to buy local sweets. Plaza San Diego and Plaza Bolivar are also prime spots. Don’t get overwhelmed by all the names though, just wander around the Centro for an hour or so and you could hit all of them.
Stop by the museum La Presentacion, a cool colonial house that doubles as a free modern art museum and café.
Also check out local street art by wandering around the Getsemani neighborhood.
Or join a free walking tour at 10 am but know you’ll be walking around for 2.5 hours during the hottest part of the day. Prepare with sunscreen, hats, and maybe an umbrella to block the sun. This tour will cover both the Centro and Getsemani areas and give some great historical background to all the main points of interest. Another tour runs at 4:00pm.
Girasoles ($) for a menu of the day Colombian-style vegetarian lunch
Historical Museum of Cartagena is located in what used to be the Palace of the Inquisition overseeing Central America to Peru, built in the 18th century. Learn about the history of the inquisition and colonization period in Cartagena as well as look at some modern exhibits. Entrance $18,000 COP ($6 USD).
On the other side of Plaza Bolivar is the Zenú Gold Museum, a nice, free A/C-filled place to take a look through.
Check out Juan Valdez (Starbucks of Colombia) and buy some coffee for friends back home.
If you want something a little less corporate try Cafe San Alberto.
Or Abaco Libros y Cafe, a bookstore café. Great place to just sit and read or relax for a bit, Try the coconut lemonade if you aren’t into coffee, a must in Cartagena!
Castillo San Felipe – a 30-minute walk from Centro or $8,000 COP ($3 USD) taxi ride away. The old Spanish fort is a great place to explore with lots of tunnels and hidden rooms. Entrance $25,000 COP ($9 USD).
Start walking along the wall starting at supermarket Exito San Diego around 5 or an hour before sunset.
End walk at Café Del Mar, located on the wall. Grab a cocktail and enjoy the sunset over the ocean.
Budget ($$) – Crepes and Waffles near San Pedro plaza, a Colombian chain that hires exclusively single mothers, an extensive menu and the best rooftop dinner view in the Centro
Splurge ($$$$) – Peru Fusion in Centro for sushi with a Peruvian twist
You’ll want to save room for dessert! Gelateria Tramonti is a popular tiny gelato place run by the nicest Italian man. They also have several vegan and sugar-free options. If you’re stuffed, head back after the bars – it’s open until 1 am.
Check out Alquimico Bar ($$$) and head to the roof to try one of their amazing cocktails.
If you want something a little more fancy try El Baron ($$$), creative cocktails for $10 USD and sit outside in the plaza in front of the San Pedro Claver Church
Bazurto Social Club has a live band on weekends for the more local champete and reggaeton style of music & dance
Island Hop – book a day tour with your hostel/hotel, most are reasonably priced and have everything organized. Here’s a breakdown of the 3 main island trips. Most tours run on a 9am-4pm schedule.
Playa Blanca – located on Isla Baru, this is the most popular trip and most crowded beach but also the most beautiful. Only accessible now by a 40-minute shuttle bus. I would recommend only going during the week and you can find less busy spots if you walk further down the beach.
Rosarios Islands – my personal favorite but a longer boat ride (1 hr). These are coral islands located in a national marine park. The water is very clear with a lot of great reefs for snorkeling or diving. If you have more time I recommend staying there for at least a night. A tour would usually take you to a small aquarium and Isla Grande for the beach and lunch.
Tierra Bomba – the closest option, only a 15-minute boat ride from the city. The water is not the clearest, but many options to relax on the beach for the day with the Cartagena skyline in the distance. I recommend the Beach Hostel or Blue Apple Beach House to hang out for the day. Blue Apple is on the other side of the island so the water is clearer and arranges day trips if you contact them directly.
Lunch at any of these places should be seafood or fish, of course! I would recommend the mojarra roja or red snapper, fried. Pargo and sierra are also great and usually caught right from the beach, while mojarra is usually farmed. The fish comes fried and whole although sierra is usually a fillet, still fried. The typical plate comes with patacones (fried plantains), coconut rice, soup, and salad.
Happy Hour at El Bistro ($) in Centro (4-7pm), $3 cocktails like passion fruit mojitos and lulo vodka smash along with delicious tapas
Or happy hour drinks at Malagana Bar ($$) in Getsemani, head straight for the roof (also probably a great place for sunset).
La Cevicheria ($$$) for the best ceviche in town. Anthony Bourdain even visited here for his episode on Colombia. Get there early or be prepared for a wait.
Carmen ($$$$) or Japanese-style sister restaurant Moshi in Centro – each has an amazing tasting menu that will be a steal if you’re coming with dollars. You’ll need to make a reservation about a week or so in advance.
Even if you don’t eat dinner at Carmen, head to the bar there after dinner and watch the bartenders make amazingly detailed cocktails while you throw one back for around $8 USD
Go salsa dancing at Cafe Havana in Getsemani, a popular spot with a live band
Afterwards, wander over to Plaza de la Trinidad a block away. Prime hangout spot at night for locals and tourists alike. Great place to people watch and get some late night fast food.