Visiting Cartagena – A Detailed Guide
August 17, 2017
Upon leaving the quiet bay of Taganga, we had set our sites on a much larger city – Cartagena! The word around town is that this city is nothing special, fellow travelers had explained that it hadn’t much to offer when they were visiting Cartagena. Although we love the advice of others, we can become weary when people say these things as past experience has proved us otherwise! So, we booked three nights and jumped on the bus! Now, we have this detailed guide to Cartagena to help you enjoy it as much as we did.
The bus from Taganga was 5 hours? Well, that’s what they told us anyways! It turned out to be about 7 because we arrived during peak hour traffic. Although the bus ride dragged on as soon as we entered the city, it was an awesome opportunity to get an idea of where Cartagena was built. The city is all on islands that have been joined to form the peninsula built strategically by the Spanish in it’s early years. Cartagena was the gateway to the continent and the history here (although we didn’t know it at the time) was huge.
Upon arriving at our hostel we soon learned that Cartagena wasn’t all about it’s history of trade and war, the area around the city was a place to enjoy beautiful beaches and cold beers. The most famous of the beaches is Playa Blanca – a beautiful stretch of beach 45 minutes from town. It is known to be busy and overcrowded, but if you follow our tips later in this blog you can enjoy an area all to yourself.
We absolutely loved our time in Cartagena and it really exceeded what others had told us! We learned once again why it is so important to explore places for yourself and take a chance on travel destinations which may have been talked down, for it might just be the best decision you make! Here is our guide for visiting Cartagena:
How to get to Cartagena
Bus – The station is located 45 minutes out of town and at peak times it can be impossible to get a taxi. However, there are public Metro-car buses that go to the old town for only COP2,000 (they have large signs so you won’t have trouble finding the right one.)
From Taganga or Santa Marta there are direct shuttles that drop off directly in the old town for COP45,000, this is handy as the bus station is out of town. However, if on a budget there are buses for COP25,000 that leave from the station in Santa Marta and end at the station in Cartagena, these are very frequent and don’t require booking in advance.
From Bogota (COP130,000, 20 hours) and Medellin (COP85,000, 14 hours) there are several buses everyday and night that make the journey. A good company we used alot in Colombia is called Expreso Brasilia – the buses are clean and sometimes have personal backseat entertainment.
Plane – If you decide to fly domestically or internationally you are in luck! The airport is only 10 minutes from the city and costs no more than COP13,000. This has to be one of the most convenient airports in the world!
*Canadian citizens are required to pay a COP190,000 fee when entering Colombia by air, land or sea
Hostels in Cartagena
As far as the area to stay in, you need to be close to the old town – this is where the action happens (and with the traffic in Cartagena you don’t want to be traveling far frequently!) There are many hostels in Cartagena, however, the hostel I stayed at was called Hostel Mamallena and I really enjoyed my stay. The vibe here was awesome for meeting new people and the facilities were good, as well as the location which was perfect (and they even had a free breakfast!)
What to do in Cartagena
Drown in it’s history on the Free Walking Tour Cartagena
Every place you go in South America always hits you with a huge history lesson, though in my opinion Cartagena’s story is a pinnacle. The free walking tour Cartagena takes you through the ages and explores the city and it’s history. You will also find out where the best sunset is (although you will also find it below.) I highly recommend this tour while visiting Cartagena.
Details – The tour runs twice a day and goes for about 2.5 hours, the times are 10am and 4pm and the best thing is that they are free – except for a tip of course! You can book HERE.
Visit Playa Blanca, Cartagena
When visiting Cartagena one of the things on the top of your “to do list” should be to go to the most beautiful beach in the area, Playa Blanca. It is a good way to spend the day. The bay is filled with coral reefs that make for good snorkeling and the seaside restaurants cook some amazing seafood (just be sure to agree on a price before hand if there isn’t a set price on the menu!) The easiest way to get to Playa Blanca is the direct return shuttle that costs COP50,000 from Hostel Mamallena, this seemed to be a popular choice as we took the last two seats! Make sure to book in advance!
*Tip – As soon as you arrive at the beach turn to the right and walk for 10 or 15 minutes, this is where it is less busy and you can find a spot for yourself to relax.
Party the Night Away
Cartagena is renown for its nightlife, backpackers flock from all over to party here. While visiting Cartagena, do yourself a favor and have at least one bug night out on the town! Although I don’t rate the clubs as much, with all the travelers here to party the hostel bars are pumping! The hostel we stayed at was great for this and we really had an awesome time drinking the night away with new friends.
*Note, there are a lot of escorts in Cartagena at the clubs so don’t be too flattered if you get a cheeky grab
Walk the Old Town and take a Thousand Pictures
The walking tour is great for learning the history and getting an idea for where things are, however to truly see the beautiful old town (and capture it on camera) I needed more time. The city has so many little streets that make for some great pictures and walking on top of the surrounding wall gave us a great view. Spending a few hours exploring allowed me to find some amazing spots and even cheap places to enjoy lunch!
Enjoy the most Beautiful Sunset while Visiting Cartagena
If you are deciding to skip the free walking tour but still want to enjoy the sunset from the best seat in town then I’ll share the secret – located on top of the wall surrounding the old town this place offers an amazing view of the sunset and street vendors selling cheep beers! It doesn’t get much better than that (check the picture below for the exact location).
Budget Tips for Cartagena
Cartagena has a bad reputation for being expensive and we found that the case also, however with a few tips we managed to keep our budget the same as any other Colombian city.
– Eat at local restaurants that offer a meal of the day (“menu del dia”.) Just near Hostel Mamallena we found a great restaurant called Este es el Punto (it’s on maps.me app) that offered amazing food for COP8,000 (soup, main and drink). Also Subway offers a COP5,200 chicken sub.
– Drink your own booze. Sounds obvious but if you have booked a hostel that doesn’t allow outside booze then you could be in trouble, luckily ours allowed it and we saved money big time. Please be aware that drinks out at popular clubs are expensive and a beer will be at least COP10,000.
– Use uber instead of taxi’s. Taxi’s in cartagena are unreliable and always try to charge extra. We found Uber to be 20% to 30% cheaper.
– If you head to Playa Blanca take your own lunch if your on a tight budget, the cheapest place I found was COP12,000 for a burger.
These where all my favorite things to do in Cartagena, if you have anything to add or any questions please don’t hesitate to comment below. Hope this guide to Cartagena helps you while visiting Cartagena! Enjoy!
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