Visiting Cartagena on your Colombia itinerary? Well, you wouldn’t be the first! This vibrant, Spanish-colonial, coastal town is one of the most visited places in all of Colombia. Regardless of what there is to do in Cartagena, understanding a few tips for visiting Cartagena ahead of your arrival will definitely come in handy.
From outlets to money and Cartagena’s beaches, there are definitely a few things to know before you visit Cartagena. Let’s get to it!
Tips For Visiting Cartagena
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1. Cartagena Is Hot. Very, Very Hot
You’re close to the equator, along the northern coast of Colombia which faces the Caribbean Sea….to say it’s hot is an understatement. We visited Cartagena in late January and into early February and their “winter temperatures” rose into the 90s. Chilly winter temps, right??
Cartagena is hot and oh-so humid, so do your best to start your day off early to get some sightseeing in. If the temperatures get too much, try booking accommodation with a pool, head to a few museums, or grab a coffee and a bite to eat in an air-conditioned eatery or coffee shop.
Oh, and definitely make a pitstop at La Palettería to get an ice-cold popsicle.
2. It’s Really As Beautiful As People Say It Is
Facts. Cartagena is beautiful. From its cobblestone streets to its historic and colorful Spanish colonial architecture, and the DOORS! The doors on some of these houses and buildings are magnificent, not to mention the hanging gardens and outdoor balconies which add a perfect little cherry on top of it all.
In all honesty, Cartagena reminded us of Old San Juan. It’s historic, colorful, and charming, which will leave that memory card of yours full. There are never too many photos you can take of Cartagena’s streets.
3. …but Cartagena Is Crowded
Do you think all that beauty is just going to go unnoticed?! Absolutely not. Thanks to Cartagena being a cruise port and its rise to fame through social media, Cartagena is one of the most visited places in all of South America. Yes, all of South America, as in the entire continent.
Around 4.5 million people visit Cartagena annually. The Old City of Cartagena (Centro) is small, so its streets are inevitably crowded with tourists and locals. We recommend making reservations at any of the restaurants you want to eat at and also book any tour you may be interested in well in advance.
4. Get Up Early
Not only to beat the heat but the crowds too. In our opinion, the best time to explore Cartagena is at sunrise. You will have the place to yourself which is perfect for any photographers wanting to get “people free” photos of Cartagena’s Old City.
5. It’s Easy To Get To
Especially if you plan to fly. Cartagena’s airport has handfuls of international flights coming and going daily. Not to mention, the numerous amount of domestic flights that arrive and depart from Cartagena daily too!
Rafael Núñez International Airport is Cartagena’s airport and it’s located north of the Old Walled City. Once you land, rest assured that Cartagena’s Old City is only a short taxi or Uber ride away (15 minutes or so).
6. Avoid Cartagena’s Beaches, and Go To The Islands instead
Yes, Cartagena has beaches. Should you go? Meh, no. While Cartagena is nestled along the Caribbean coasts of Colombia, its beaches are far from white and sandy with pretty blue waters.
Due to Cartagena being a massive port city, not only for cruises but for freight liners too, and the number of tourists this place sees, unfortunately, the water has been affected due to pollution. At one time, 70+ years ago we are told, the coast along Cartagena was lovely. However, that is not the case today.
If you are looking to get some beach time in, we highly recommend skipping the beaches in Cartagena and heading to the neighboring islands of Isla Barú or Islas del Rosario. Islas del Rosario (Isle Grande) is only accessible by a 1-hour boat ride whereas Isla Barú can be accessed by boat or car via the peninsula bridge.
7. Fruit Lady Photos Are Not Free
When visiting Cartagena, you may take notice of some fruit vendors. Cartagena’s fruit ladies or also known as The Palenqueras, are colorfully dressed women who effortlessly balance a bouquet of fruit atop their heads as they wander the streets of Cartagena. They will encourage you, the tourist, to take a photo with them or of their Palenqueras group. If you do, just know that the photo is not free. You’ll be expected to pay a few pesos for your photo souvenir.
8. Get Out of Cartagena’s Old City and Explore Getsemani
Laying just outside of Cartagena’s historic old city is the neighborhood of Getsemani. While Cartagena and Getsemani are only a few minutes from each other, they can feel like different worlds at times. Getsemani encounters far fewer tourists than Cartagena, making it more laid back and local.
Home to beautiful street murals, umbrella-covered streets, and Salsa bars, Getsemani is a perfect break from what can be the chaos of Cartagena. Plus, Getsemani is home to amazing restaurants, so if you can’t get a reservation in Cartagena’s Old City, definitely plan to eat and drink in Getsemani.
9. Book Ahead, This Place is Busy
As soon as you know the dates as to when you’re visiting Cartagena, BOOK your accommodations! Remember that millions of people visit Cartagena yearly so if you are looking for a certain type of accommodation, you’ll want to be sure to book as far in advance as you can.
The same goes for any tours you are looking to take or any restaurants you are wanting to try. Reservations are encouraged where you can make them!
10. Skip The Taxis. Walk.
You do not need to rent a car or even book a cab to get anywhere within Cartagena’s Old City or to get to Getsemani for that matter. Everything is walkable! Everything. And we promise, if you think something is too far and opt to get a taxi or Uber, it’ll take you longer to get to vs if you just walked. The traffic in Cartagena can be crazy.
11. The Water in Cartagena is Safe to Drink
Yes, you read that right. The tap water in Cartagena is safe to drink. So sleep easy knowing you can brush your teeth, have ice in your cocktails, and drink the water without encountering tummy troubles.
If you are a little wary of trusting the tap water, you can opt to filter the water further, you know, to take the better safe than sorry route. The Life Straw will help purify your water further if you are wanting to give tap water a try and avoid single-use plastic water bottles.
12. Cartagena Uses U.S. Outlets
All you Americans visiting Cartagena, leave your outlet adapters at home! Colombia uses the same outlets as we do. For anyone visiting Cartagena, not from the United States, you’ll need to pack your adapter with you. If you are unsure if you have the right outlet adapter, you can check out this adapter pack for your trip to Colombia and future travels.
13. Cards are Accepted, but Cash is Pesos
Credit and debit cards are widely accepted at restaurants all around Cartagena, but if you want to pay in cash, Colombian Pesos is the only form of currency accepted. No USD’s or Euros. If you have any cash you want to exchange, plan to do so before leaving your home country, or you can exchange your home currency for Colombian Pesos when you arrive at Rafael Núñez International Airport.
14. Skip The Horse-Drawn Carriage Rides
Of the many things to do in Cartagena, you may read about taking a horse-drawn carriage ride around the Old City. While it sounds enchanting, animal tourism is a slippery slope and can go wrong quickly. When traveling, anytime you do an activity with animals, you really want to be sure the animal’s welfare is coming first, not tourist fun.
Like in Thailand, don’t ride the elephants, and in Cartagena, taking a carriage ride with some horses that don’t look to be in the best shape is something you should opt to skip.
15. Brace Yourself for The Salesman
From the moment you leave your hotel to the moment you get back you will be encountered by many a salesman asking you to buy a sombrero, a bracelet, a soccer jersey, or book a tour. Be kind, but assertive if you have no interest to purchase anything, and just keep walking. Also saying “no gracias” goes a long way.
16. Cartagena is Expensive
Cartagena was by far the most expensive place of the areas we visited in Colombia. From the food to its drinks and places to stay, Cartagena is definitely on the higher end of things when compared to other places in Colombia you may be exploring.
But expensive is relative to you as a person. So, if you are looking to travel for cheap, Cartagena may be expensive in your eyes. However, if you are coming from the States or Europe, Cartagena may be right in line or even cheaper than what you were anticipating.
17. Brush Up on Your Spanish
The national language of Colombia is Spanish and it should be known that English really isn’t widely spoken. However, of the place we visited in Colombia, Cartagena was by far the most English-friendly destination.
Knowing a few words will help navigate any potential conversation barriers and makes you a favorite with the locals! Plan to have Google Translate downloaded and at the ready, in case you run into any language barriers. We used this app big time during our travel throughout Colombia!
18. Is Cartagena Safe?
In the height of the cartel days in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, Cartagena was actually a very unsafe place to visit. However, all that has changed now, and Colombia as a country has transformed for the better.
However, to say that nothing bad will happen to you there is a little unrealistic. When visiting Cartagena, petty theft like pickpocketing is among the most common. Also, you may get offered cocaine. If you choose to partake, just be aware of the potential consequences that can come along with that decision (potential robbery, arrest, etc).
Just be smart and aware of your surroundings and you’ll be just fine. We spent almost 10 days in Cartagena and at no point did we ever feel unsafe or threatened. Common sense goes a long way 🙂
Getsemani is much more local and laid-back than Centro Cartagena. With fantastic restaurants, bars, and street art, Getsemani is the hipper cousin to the more touristy old city of Cartagena. Cartagena’s Old City (Centro) is where tourists flock to stay, and for good reason. Cobblestone streets, colonial Spanish architecture, colorful houses, and amazing bars and restaurants can be found in the Old City.
Both areas are fantastic places to stay and place you close to the best things to do in Cartagena. The best part is you can easily experience both Getsemani and Cartagena’s Old City in one day or spend several exploring both neighborhoods in detail. So don’t fret, you can’t go wrong with whichever area you decide to stay in.
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– Lauren & Jesse Stuart (The Stüs)