Cartagena is a beautiful, colonial city on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast. Clocking in at a balmy 90 degrees F pretty much all year round, it’s a delightful place to visit and experience the Costeño culture.
There is plenty to do in and around Cartagena, all for much cheaper than the prices we would pay in America or Europe.
If you have any qualms about visiting Colombia, don’t worry. I, a young gringa, walked around the city by myself all the time and I did not have a single problem. In fact, I felt very safe there. All of the narco problems that Colombia had in the 80s and 90s have since ceased, and it is quickly becoming a favorite for tourists.
Here are my favorite things to do in Cartagena:
Walk around El Centro
The old walled city is beautiful. Brightly painted Colonial houses, balconies covered in flowers, towering cathedrals and museums…you can always find something new walking through the city. Just make sure to bring plenty of water with you so you don’t melt to death. And stop in Crepes & Waffles for a waffle topped with ice cream!
City Sightseeing bus
Cost: $45,000 pesos for an adult ticket
This double-decker bus cruises around the entire coastal city, making 12 stops along the way where you can hop off and explore.
I made the mistake of booking online the first time and was charged more (because I paid USD). This is common for anything in Colombia…if you try to be a gringo and book ahead of time online, you will pay more.
You can buy tickets right on the bus, with cash or credit card. You just wait at one of the 12 stops around Cartagena and they will drive by and pick you up. The stops have signs showing the route and the schedule, but the buses often run a little behind.
The buses make the whole loop every 90 minutes. It’s a “hop on, hop off” tour, so if you want to get off and explore, you can! But be aware that you will have to wait another 90 minutes for the bus to come back around and pick you up.
They also offer a free walking tour through the walled city. I did not have time to do that when I went, so I can’t speak to how good it is. But, it’s free! If you have the time, I would definitely take advantage of it.
When you get on, you will get a set of headphones and you can listen to the tour in English, German, French, or Spanish. The last time I went, they were running a smaller bus, and I had to listen to the tour through the PA system. But, it was in Spanish and English, so it was fine. I went on the tour after having lived here for almost 11 months, and I learned a ton! It was super interesting.
The bus does have an awning on the top floor, so it’s not crazy hot. And the bottom floor is air-conditioned. If you can snag a spot on the top floor, it’s definitely better. If you are able to get on one of the stops before Bocagrande, you should have no problem with finding a seat up top. After Bocagrande and the Muelle de la Bodeguita stop, it will be nearly impossible.
This is definitely a kid-friendly activity (especially if you just want to get out of the baking sun!), but the 90 minute ride is a bit long for the kiddos. The ticket is valid for 48 hours, so maybe get off halfway through and pick up the tour the next day. Then you can explore more of the city on foot as well!
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Cost: $25,000 for foreign adults, $20,000 if you have a Colombian cedula
The castle (really, it’s a fort), is super cool. I honestly thought it would be meh, because from the street, it didn’t seem like there was a whole lot to see. And that’s sort of true…this may not be an activity for small children.
For one, it’s super hot and there is little-to-no relief from the sun (they do have a couple of pavilions). Secondly, the coolest parts of the fort are the tunnels, and they can be pretty scary to young children.
The tunnels are very well lit, and you can go pretty deep into the fort, which is eerie and fun. Just make sure you don’t get lost, or run into a bat!
The entrance ticket does not buy you a tour guide or one of the audio tours. Honestly, I can’t imagine that it is worth it. As long as the old hospital on the first level is open (it wasn’t one time when we went), you can go inside to watch a 25-minute long video about the history of the fort in air-conditioned comfort. Because we were the only ones inside the hospital, the girl turned on the English video for us!
But the best part of the fort is wandering around wherever you want, for as long as you want. Again, pack lots of water.
Cost: $50,000 for the taxi, $8,000 entrance fee
La Popa is an old monastery perched atop the hill that shares its name. We never made the trip up there, because we weren’t keen on spending $50,000 for a taxi ride to a place we could see from our apartment. But taxi drivers have to drive up a precarious hill through dangerous neighborhoods and then wait for you at the top, so you can’t get up there for less than $50,000, from what we’ve heard.
Pictures of the monastery look beautiful, so I’m sure it’s a great experience. La Popa is also the highest point of all of Cartagena, so I’m sure the city views are stunning.
Casa (or Museo) de Rafael Nunez
Rafael Nunez was a president of Colombia, most famous for writing their national anthem. His house is in the neighborhood of El Cabrero, which is on the outside of the walled city, one street inland from the beach.
The house is a beautiful white and green Colonial mansion. It’s free to get into the house, but you have to pay for a guide, if you want one. We politely declined and decided to walk through by ourselves.
The guard took pity on us and came and gave us the history anyway. I assume this is not a thing that he regularly does, but it was so sweet to see someone so passionate about his job.
The house and grounds are beautiful, but are probably not worth a special trip, especially if you have kids. I think you can probably spend a max of 30 minutes in the house. We actually spent quite a lot of time, talking with the guard and then relaxing in the shade of the back porch.
If you’re going to make the trip with kids, do it before going to the beach or doing something else fun. Better yet, after you’re done, walk another 1/4 mile to get a McDonald’s ice cream cone from the Exito just within the city walls.
Also, be sure to walk through the church across the street. It’s a humble little chapel with some interesting stained glass. It was also the final resting place of Rafael Nunez, and his second wife, Soledad Roman, and you can find their awesome tombs inside the chapel.
Chocolate Museum (Choco Museo)
The chocolate museum should be a quick visit, no more than 15- 30 minutes. It’s housed within a store in the walled city. One of the employees will walk you around the store and show you the evolution of chocolate from the cacao bean. Then they let you sample pretty much every product they sell (dinner, anyone?). The store sells bars, candy, hot chocolate, coffee, liquors, lotions…anything that you can make from the cacao bean. They do have a workshop where you can make your own chocolate, but that is an extra charge. Definitely a tasty, worthwhile trip!
Gold Museum (Museo del Oro)
Like the chocolate museum, the gold museum is a quick trip. It displays gold pieces from indigenous Colombian tribes. There are only about 3 rooms in the museum, so you can walk through when you need a break from the hot sun.
Palace of the Inquisition (Palacio de la Inquisicion)
In the same square as the Gold Museum, the Palace of the Inquisition is a large, beautiful house that contains a museum. It features all of the torture devices used by the Spanish to torture Colombians and African slaves. It sounds morbid, but with all of the kids climbing all over the torture devices, it actually seems pretty light-hearted. It is a beautiful work of architecture with a gorgeous back yard where they used to hang people.
There’s actually not a lot to look at. It was underwhelming when we went because we were expecting a lot. But I’m warning you that there’s not a lot to it, so you may actually enjoy it.
Kitty-corner to the Palace of the Inquisition is the large city library. I think it’s fun to wander around libraries, so it was worth it to me. Just tell the guard you want to look around and you can browse the amazing building and see the moderate collection of books.
After you’re done, walk down the sidewalk to your right where you will find pictures of all of the Miss Colombia’s dating back to the sixties. Miss Colombia is a huge thing to Colombians, and this fun display proves it.
You can also walk across the street to the Plaza de Bolivar, where you can sit on the benches and witness pigeon feeding and an occasional group of African dancers.
The beaches in Cartagena are not great. The waves are weak (at best), but there is a pretty strong undertow. Luckily, the lifeguards won’t ever let you go past the breakwaters, so there is little-to-no chance of you getting sucked out. And, even at the breakwaters, if you’re lucky, the water is up to your shoulders.
The beaches are very dirty. Prepare yourself for trash all over the beach, as well as in the water with you.
Most tourists go to the beaches in Bocagrande. I actually think those are the worst beaches, because they are crazy overcrowded and the cabanas, chairs, food, etc. are expensive. If you go to the beaches in Castillo Grande, just a little further down Bocagrande, the beaches will be less crowded, although still expensive.
Our favorite beaches are in Marbella, on the other side of the city. These beaches can get crowded (especially on festivos), but are generally 50%+ less crowded than the beaches in Bocagrande.
You can buy a cabana in Marbella for about $10,000, although we never do. We just find a stretch of sand to lay out towels.
All of the beaches in Cartagena are filled with women offering massages. These ladies are persistent, to say the least. They will offer to smear in sunscreen, or to massage you with oil. Honestly, it’s really hard to refuse them. The best way we’ve found is to be extremely friendly, tell them no multiple times, and if they try to touch you, touch their hands and tell them, “no, gracias”. Mentioning that you didn’t bring any plata (money) with you is always a good way to go too.
Cartagena has a very windy season, between December and March. During this season, you can see kitesurfers surfing along the miles of beaches in Bocagrande and Marbella. There are many companies that offer kitesurfing, but most of them that I found only offer hours-long or weeks-long courses that give you lessons, all of the equipment, and plenty of practice time. We didn’t find anyone that will let you spend a few bucks to just go out for one afternoon, but if you can find that, I’m sure it’d be an awesome experience!
Cost: $2,000 each way for bus, $5,000+ for “water taxi”
The beaches near La Boquilla offer a great view of the Cartagena skyline. The problem is, you have to go through one of the most impoverished parts of the city to get to the remote beaches.
Hop on any of the buses going to La Boquilla. Ride the bus to the end of the beach (the bus will drive right on the sand!) Then you have to find one of the many “boats” (they are basically rough looking canoes) to take you across the lagoon. Once there, you walk through the La Boquilla until you find an outlet to the beach. Just another 1+ mile walk down the beach will bring you to the beach.
If I had planned ahead and brought food, this would have been more worth it. But we were not prepared for a 2 hour trip to the beach. So then to make it worth it, we felt like we had to stay all day, instead of just a few hours like we had planned. We ended up leaving early, but I was not thrilled with the experience. If you are going to make the trip, definitely plan on staying all day to make it worth it.
Another thing to note is that we were with a Colombian. I honestly don’t know if I would have felt safe walking through La Boquilla with just my gringo husband and me. It was pretty sketchy, but nothing happened while we were there.
If you hate the vendors and crowds of the Cartagena beaches, La Boquilla is definitely a good alternative.
Go to the movies
Cost: $5,000 to $14,000 for one ticket, depending on the day and time
Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s a lame thing to do while you’re in another country for a limited amount of time. But they are so cheap!
We like to go to CineColombia because the theaters are super nice and close. CaribePlaza and Plaza Bocagrande both have CineColombia theaters.
At CineColombia, you can buy two different tickets…general or preferencial. Preferential seating is the top two or three rows of the theater. The seats in preferential are leather and they recline. Even though it’s not that much more to pay for these seats, we didn’t think it was worth it when we did. We always just buy seats in the top row of the general seating.
And, yes, you get to pick your exact seat, and everyone does abide by those seating assignments.
Check to see whether the movie is in English with Spanish subtitles (“subtitulos en español”) or if it is dubbed in Spanish (“hablada” or “doblada en español”). The subtitled movies are usually later in the day.
Snacks are also super cheap. We usually get one of the combos, 2 huge (called medium) drinks and 1 huge (medium) popcorn for the two of us. This is definitely enough for both of us, and probably would be too much for a person with a normal stomach. We pay $18,000 for this, or about $6 USD.
They often play a short Colombian film before they start the actual movie. This film can be anywhere from 5-11 minutes long. So if you think you’re in the wrong theater, you’re probably not. You’re just in the middle of a Colombian short film that plays after the previews.
Cost: $35,000 for adults
The aviary is one of my favorite things that I did in Cartagena, so I’m adding it to the list. The aviary is about 1 hour from Cartagena, almost all the way to Playa Blanca. You will need to rent a car, take a taxi, or take a bus part of the way there and a taxi the rest of the way (find out how here.)
Immediately upon entering, you realize what kind of an experience this will be. 80% of the birds are not caged!
We went right when they opened on a festivo day, and we shared the whole park with only 1 other family. By the time we left 2-3 hours later, the parking lot was half full. I’m not sure if it ever gets super super busy, but it was nice to be pretty much alone. It was also nice to go when the sun was not yet at its full strength.
They have an auditorium for bird shows but I’m not sure if they really do a show…when we came upon it, the handlers were just bringing birds out from nearby cages so we could feed them, perch them on our shoulders/heads, etc. This was such a cool hands-on experience, and the little girls we were with absolutely loved it. I’m not sure if this was a special circumstance, or if they usually just do shows, but it was super cool!
Cost: $25,000 for adults
The only way I know to get to the aquarium is on one of the Playa Blanca day trips. Check out this post for info about the day trips and specifics about the aquarium.
Playa Blanca Day Trip
Playa Blanca is a white sand beach about 1 hour away from Cartagena. The price of the day trip largely depends on your negotiating powers. See my post here to learn more about our Playa Blanca trips and our costs.
The Rosario Islands are part of a national park that hosts 29 islands. The cost depends on whether you are going for the day, or if you want to stay overnight at one of the resorts.
I will be writing a post about the islands soon, so check back for that!
Volcán del Totumo
This mud “volcano” (read: pit) is about an hour’s ride outside of Cartagena. Basically, you go take a mud bath and get rubbed down by some Colombians. Sounds great, right? Read my husband’s hilarious retelling here, with details about how to get tickets and what to expect.
Isla Tierra Bomba
Tierra Bomba is an island right across the bay from Cartagena. A 15 minute boat ride will take you to beautiful, less crowded white sand beaches. This was another one of my favorites. I wrote a whole post on the ins and outs of a Tierra Bomba visit, so you can check that out here.
Puerto Colombia is a little beach town on the way to Barranquilla. We actually only visited this town to go to church, but I was instantly charmed. Visit the awesome fort on the hill and then explore the small boardwalk on the beach. This is a very small town, so I’m not sure what the amenities are like, if they exist at all. But it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re going between Cartagena and Barranquilla.
Barranquilla is a huge city about 2 hours north of Cartagena. Barranquilla was the most similar to America of anywhere I went in Colombia. It’s a large city with many skyscrapers, and the downtown area actually reminded me of driving through downtown San Diego, CA.
Unlike Santa Marta and Cartagena, it lacks the old colonial charm and is more of a port city. It does not have any traditional beaches.
When we went, we just went for the zoo. But the zoo was just like an American zoo. Not super impressive, but fun nonetheless.
Barranquilla is where Carnaval is held every year. When Carnaval was approaching, we asked some Cartagenians if we should go. They said that because we had already been to parades in Cartagena, it probably wasn’t worth the trip. Carnaval is just a series of parades, but you have to pay to watch them (from what I understand). So if you happen to be in Cartagena in November, there is no need to come back in February for Carnaval.
Santa Marta is two additional hours up the coast from Cartagena, making it a 4 hour round trip. Many people enjoy Santa Marta better than Cartagena, because it is like a smaller, less busy Cartagena. We weren’t overimpressed, but it was cute. You can read more about our Santa Marta trip here.
Tayrona National Park
Tayrona is a national jungle park near Santa Marta. My husband went while I was back in the States for a weekend, so I’ll have to try to convince him to write a post about it :).
What I do know is that it’s a fairly strenuous hike through amazing jungle, and then you come out onto the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Then you sleep in a hammock with hundreds of other tourists and then hike back the next day.
One thing to note is that because of its remote location, it’s hard to find food. There is one restaurant, but it has limited hours. There are not tiendas or places to buy water, so you need to pack everything with you.
This was one of my husband’s favorite trips in Colombia and it’s easy to see why from his pictures.
As you can see, there are TONS of cheap or free things to do in Cartagena. If you go and find more fun things to do, I would love to add them to this list. Or if you do some of the things on this list, I would love to hear about your experience! Tell me about it in the comments below.
*I apologize in advance for any discrepancies in price. Many are places that I have never been, or did not pay.