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Before I started my trip in South America I didn’t have plans spend much time in Colombia. I knew I was going to travel from Panama to Colombia with San Blas Adventures, but after that I figured I’d jet off to another country in South America. This was mainly based on the fact that I knew little about Colombia, but boy was I wrong to think I should skip it.
As I traveled through Central America the one country I heard raved again and again by other travelers was Colombia. When we landed in Zapzurro after the San Blas Islands, it became obvious why. Colombia is beautiful.
After spending the night in Capurganá, me and most of the San Blas crew took a bus to Cartagena. We arrived late in the evening and felt immediately impressed by the city. I fell hard and fast for Cartagena, and here’s why you will too.
The Coolest and most Colourful Neighbourhoods
Walking around Cartagena is a photographers dream. Every street feels like a postcard, with the gorgeous bright-colored buildings, beautiful flowers hanging off every window frame, old wooden balconies, and artistic graffiti. What’s more, is that each neighborhood in Cartagena has its own distinct personality. Here are some of my favorites.
Although outside of the walled town, this neighborhood is still considered part of the Old Town of Cartagena. Getsemani is famous for its wonderful street art. I could spend a day just walking around the streets of Getsemani taking in all the beautiful murals.
Getsemani is also home to Plaza Trinidad, a central square which you can count on being full of people every night. Both locals and visitors come to the square to drink, eat, and generally have a good time. We ended up here almost every night, and it was a great spot to meet people!
I love Centro because of the stunning architecture found throughout this neighborhood. The streets are picturesque, and lined with the cutest hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars. It’s a perfect place to come hang out and soak up some of Cartagena’s charm.
Completely different then the old town of Cartagena, this newer neighborhood is located right on the city’s main beach. With a similar vibe to what you would expect in Miami, this beachfront neighborhood is full of high-rise buildings.
The Charm of Old Town
Old Cartagena was one of Spain’s most important ports. The area was built with stone fortresses and walls up to 20 meters thick and 11 kilometers long around. Today, it is one of the best places to visit in Cartagena. I could get lost walking around Old Town all day. From the colorful streets to colonial architecture, Old Town is a dream to walk through.
The best things to do in Old Town, Cartagena
People watch in the plazas. Cartagena is full of gorgeous squares and plazas to spend time in. My favorites are Plaza San Pedro Claver, which features a beautiful church, statues, and benches to take a rest on. The plaza also has sculptures which are a tribute to the street activities played in the square. Another great plaza to relax on is Plaza de Bolivar, as it’s in a shady spot with lots of trees so you can escape the sun here and watch the many street performers.
Take a free walking tour. Free Tour Cartagena meet every day at 10 am and 4 pm at Plaza Santa Teresa to take you on walking tour of the main highlights of old town. This is a great way to learn about the history of old town, and meet other travelers!
Explore the Bovedas market. This unique market is a series of souvenir shops that were built in the cells of a former prison. Each cell contains a small shop selling souveniers.
Explore San Felipe Castle. You can walk around this historic castle built by the Spanish, and even explore the network of tunnels running beneath. Afterwards, take in the Caribbean sunset from the walled city at Cafe Del Mar.
The nightlife in Cartagena is wild. During the evenings, the squares throughout Old Town fill up with people. Both tourists and locals come out, along with many food vendors come selling local delights and beer, as well as many street performers. It’s a great atmosphere and way to take in the local culture.
Aside from the squares, there are a number of cool and quirky bars to visit in Cartagena. I loved KGB bar which is a Russian themed bar that had lots of interesting decor and areas to explore.
There are also a ton of clubs in Cartagena including electronic ones. I was just so excited to just be somewhere that wasn’t playing Reguetón, although you can still find lots of bars playing that if you want it. In Plaza Santa Domingo, you will find tons of club promoters standing around promoting the clubs and if you talk to them you can get free entry. The nightlife goes late here and some clubs stay open until 6am.
Chiva Party Bus in Cartagena
We decided to take the Chiva Party Bus which was quite the experience. We didn’t know much about what the Chiva bus was, other then locals told us it would be fun. We got picked up at the hostel by a giant open-air school bus but were the only people on it. We were concerned at first, because they advertised unlimited cocktails and there were none in sight.
After about an hour of driving around town and picking up more people, they eventually stopped at the store to buy a flask of alcohol and a small bottle of mix to give us. I guess that counts as a cocktail!
The bus was full of an eclectic collection of people. We were the only gringos on the bus and everyone else from other parts of Latin America. Everyone was having a GOOD time. There is live latin music on the bus and the crowd got pretty rowdy. It was fun getting into it even though none of us still had any idea what was happening.
The bus is also a city tour, but all the information is in Spanish so unless you speak good Spanish it’s not overly helpful. At the end of the tour the bus drops you off at a night club. Overall it was fun, confusing and silly experience.
The friendly sloth family in Centennial Park
Parque Centenario, or Centennial Park, is a gorgeous urban park in Cartagena. The park commemorates the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of Cartagena’s independence in 1811. The Park was renovated in 2013, and offers visitors a lovely green space to relax in with plenty of trees, gardens, benches, and fountains.
What I loved about Centennial park, however, is all the wildlife you can find there. I know, wildlife in a city? I wasn’t expecting it either. While walking around Centennial park, a giant iguana appeared in front of me. I started photographing it and then began to realize how much wildlife there was in the park, from squirrels below to monkeys hanging in the tree.
I kept walking around the park with my camera in-hand, wondering what other animals would appear from the trees. I was about to leave the park when a man started making a clawing motion at me and pointing towards a tree. He wasn’t crazy, he was just communicating that there was a sloth up in the tree! Actually not just a sloth, a sloth family. There was a mom, dad and baby who were all so active. I could have touched them with my hand they were so close. FYI, you shouldn’t actually touch sloths, their fur is full of bacteria and it’s bad for them and you.
I couldn’t believe it. After going on so many nature hikes to see sloths high up in trees in Costa Rica, here was one right in a park in front of me! My friend recently visited the park in February 2019 and confirmed that the baby sloth has grown up and still lives in the park, and the moma sloth has another baby! What a happy sloth story.
Thanks to its location near the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena is home to some fantastic seafood.
Check out La Cevicheria, a great choice to enjoy a meal in the Old Town. This show was raved about by Anthony Bourdain which has made this restaurant popular. Like the name entails, the Ceviche is top-notch.
Even if you’re on a tight budget, the local market street food is also delicious. I would go as far to say it’s some of the best. In my experience the street food is safe to eat, I never had any problems and I ate a ton of it. TSome of the best street food to eat is empanadas, arepas, patacones, and bollos. Wash it down a local fresh delicious juice which are also found at street vendors.
What else to do in Cartagena
Mud Volcano Tour from Cartagena
If you are looking for a quirky day trip out of the city, check out the mud baths just outside of Cartagena. Mud Volcano Tours run everyday from the city and we were able to book it through out hostel. We weren’t sure what to expect out of this, but it is literally a pile of mud you sit in that’s shaped like a volcano. The sensation feels crazy because of all the salt you can’t sink down, so you just float in the mud.
At the mud volcano tour there are local men offering massages. Initially the idea of sounded nice but when I saw them grabbing people as they got in the mud I decided I did not want this. You have to tell them several times you don’t want the massage or they will keep grabbing you and charge you after!
The mud is nice for your skin once you get it off. There is a lake nearby where you can get the mud off which you can definitely do yourself despite what the Colombian women there will tell you. They women stand in the river and will attack you with buckets of water as you walk in in an attempt to wash you. Again, you have to tell them no or they will charge you!
Aside from the overly touchy Colombians, I enjoyed the mud baths. Afterwards, the mud volcano tour stops at a lovely little poolside area for lunch where you can relax for a few hours.
Where to stay in Cartagena
One of the best neighborhoods to stay in with a high concentration of hostels is Getsemani. For the best party hostel, head to Media Luna. You probably won’t sleep, but you’ll have a good time.
Case en al Aqua is one of the most popular hostels in South America. It’s a floating hostel in the middle of the Caribbean sea, so it’s not hard to see why. However, you have to book this place MONTHS in advance in order to secure your spot due to its popularity. As I showed up in Colombia unplanned, I couldn’t secure a spot there on such short notice but I’ve heard nothing but wonderful reviews from other backpackers. Please go so I can live vicariously through you. This hostel is not technically in Cartagena, but you take the boat from the city.
A great place to stay and support a good cause is the Volunteer Hostel, which is also located in downtown Getsemani. The hostel focuses on promoting responsible tourism, and 25 percent of its income goes to support the Fundación por la Educación Multidimensional.
What to do after Cartagena, Colombia
An easy next destination after Cartagena is to take a four-hour bus to Santa Marta. From there you can explore all the amazing outdoor activities in Northern Colombia including incredible hikes and dives. Colombia is such an interesting country, check out these fun facts about Colombia to learn more about it.
With its gorgeous Old City, colourful neighborhoods, urban park with wildlife, and top-notch culinary and nightlife scenes, Cartagena checks all the boxes for an awesome city. Let me know in the comments below if you’ve been to Cartagena, and what you thought!
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