What You Really Need to Know About Cartagena, Colombia
Now known for its vibrant colorful streets and lively Colombian culture, Cartagena has quickly become a top destination spot for travelers and tourists. Before when you thought of Colombia the first thing you thought of was the drug cartel. Although this is still very real, blogs, websites and travelers have done a great job at showcasing the more attractive side of the country. However, what they probably won’t tell you is that Cartagena was one of the largest slave trading ports in the world. In fact, over 1.1 million slaves were brought into Cartagena, making slave trading their most profitable business in the 16th century.
As a result, Cartagena has one of the largest population of African descendants (if you are Black you have a high chance that your ancestors came through Plaza del Esclavo). Now known as Plaza de los Coches, this popular spot can be found on trip for shopping and candy but was once the site of millions of blacks chained, branded and sold. Today 26% of the Columbia population is Afro-Colombian. (For perspective, Black people make up about 13% of the US population.)
Now that we got that quick history lesson out of the way, I hope you consider exploring and learning Cartagena through a different lens. Before you go, below is a list of things to do, eat, see and wear while visiting this culture rich historical city.
in a nut shell:
- Rent a Colombian house for lodging in the walled city – it is so worth it
- Walking tour in the walled city – scope out a “legit” guide, basically you get what you pay for
- Day trip to Rosario Islands and Isla Baru
- Explore outside the walled city
- Try the street food and fruit
- Visit San Basilio Palenque
- Try a Club Colombia – cheap but tasty and refreshing local beer can get just about anywhere for around 1 USD
- Brush up on your Español
- BE OPEN MINDED AND HAVE FUN!!
- Café del Mar – touristy, drinks and food are overpriced and not great, BYOB and grab a spot on the wall to catch the sunset instead
- Café Havana – I know, I know, it is on all the lists but its super packed & touristy; a little too hyped up in my opinion
- Stick to recommended restaurants – try a few but explore local hole in the walls for delish authentic CHEAP food
- Be scared to negotiate
- Exchange money – take cash out of the ATM (post coming soon on money and traveling)
- Drink the water – stick to bottled and ensure the seal isn’t broken
Still want more details? Okay fine, see below :)
1. Stay in the walled city – whether you go with a big group or just one other person it is so worth it to lodge inside the old town/walled city in a Colombian house. The streets are picturesque and you can pretty much walk anywhere. The houses are beautiful and worth the price. If you are on a tighter budget stay right outside of the walled city and uber/or walk.
2. Walking tour of the walled city (approx. 2 hours) – to truly learn about the history of Cartagena do a thorough walking tour. There are free ones but as with anything, you get what you pay for. Resources below, or go to the clock tower or Plaza de los Choches and scope out a local. If you find Rafael, you are in luck.
3. Rosario islands and Isla de Baru (Day trip) – you can rent a private boat or go with a tour group, either way this is a MUST. The beaches are gorgeous, clear waters white sand hence the name Playa Blanca. Make sure you stop at Cholon for an experience like no other; party, fresh sea food a healthy mix of local visitors and tourists.
4. Venture outside the walled city – don’t worry it is safe but of course always be cautious and avoid being flashy (having your iPhone out, overly fancy clothes, anything that screams money – remember it is still a developing country)
5. Getsemani neighborhood – walking distance from the walled city, cool fun nightlife, super lively good spots to eat.
6. Catch the sunset – I would skip places like Café del Mar that are basically tourist traps with crazy high prices and just grab a bottle of wine/alcohol and pick a spot on the wall to watch the sunset. Its far more authentic and not to mention more fun. Drinking in the streets is allowed so take advantage.
7. Horse & carriage ride around the old city – pricey but super romantic
8. Party!!! – I went from Thursday to Monday on a Colombian Holiday weekend but it seems like there is always something going on:
- Bazurto Social Club – eclectic Afro-Caribbean bar
- Tasca Maria bar – tiny but fun
- Awa coco – super local, dancing all night (there was glow in the dark face painting!)
- VIP/ La Cumbre – there are a row of roof top clubs in the wall city by clock tower
3,000 Colombian pesos are about 1 USD; Therefore, everything is pretty cheap including the food. Of course it is nice to go to all of the recommended spots from top blogs/trip advisor but if you are like me and really like to immerse yourself in the culture and try the local food, do just that! Either way you will eat suchhhhh good food.
1. Try pretty much any hole in the wall spot for authentic tasty Colombian food – rice, beans, yucca, pollo, carne, plantanos etc. (you can get a plate from 4-7 USD)
2. Walking food tour –in the walled city to try a bit of everything
3. El Arsenal the Rum Box Bar – more modern, but the owner Abraham is from North Carolina (my home state and went to my Alma Marta) so show him some love! He is a great resource for local spots and makes great drinks
4. El Arepazo 100% Venezolano – chain in Boca Grande AMAZING arepas
5. Mila – for fancy pastries (la duree of the old city)
6. Demente – great for groups in Getsemani tons of other spots around there as well
7. La Casa del Habano – supposedly the best mojitos in Cartagena. I didn’t try them but went to a bar around the corner with equally as cheap mojitos
8. Gelatema Tramonti – best gelato I’ve ever had! And they are open until 1am!
9. Balarueta – restaurant on the wall with a live band and late night dancing
10. Ceviche Ceviche CEVICHE!
1. San Castillo de Filipe – historic site with great views of the city
2. San Basilio de Palenque – villages called palenques were established by escaped slaves where they lived freely and preserved the African customs. These were considered the first freed slaves in the Americas. San Basilio de Palenque is the only surviving African village [the other 124 were destroyed] in Colombia.
(approx. 2 hour drive you can uber and ask your uber driver to stay while you explore, keep in mind these people suffer not only from poverty but extreme racial discrimination from the people in the city of Cartagena – although the people are welcoming, be conscious of how you could be viewed as a tourist)
3. Boca Grande – known as little Miami (beaches aren’t that nice but fun to explore the “new city” and walk the “strip”)
It is SUPER hot in Cartagena. The temperatures average 85+ degrees with 90% and above humidity. You are lucky to get 3 blocks without being drenched in sweat. Stick to the basics:
1. Tennis shoes – trust me you will thank me later
2. Hat, glasses sunscreen & bug spray
3. Looser clothes for ventilation
4. Carry a small backpack or knapsack for all day exploring
5. No need to be super flashy and fancy unless you want a lot of attention
Boat tour: Cartagena boat rentals
Martha is AWESOME! She hooks you up with concierge, boat trips and a private cook if needed.
Walking tours/activities: Cartagena Connections
Let me know if you try any, have questions, or recos for me to check out next time!
xo – the traveling fro.