Romantic notions, rich history and modernity all seem to meld together in Cartagena. In the old city of Cartagena, beautifully carved balconies stretch gracefully from the brightly coloured houses over roads once walked by historical figures like Simon Bolivar, while just down the street a tall jungle of concrete, steel and window hotels and apartments rule the skyline. The charm of Cartagena is clearly written on the walls of the old city which still sits relatively untouched despite the years of violence and war in Colombia. The country’s crown jewel was long seen as off limits by warring factions; as such this city full of personality has long since been seen as a safe haven. Despite a single truck bomb set off by Pablo Escobar’s Extraditables Cartagena has remained calm and peaceful. Although Cartagena is very unique in its own right it has a vibe that will remind you of a perfect mix between New Orleans and a quaint Spanish village. This great city has nearly everyone who visits raving about its beauty and longing to spend a little bit more time wandering the narrow cobbled streets and exploring this city as rich in history as any place in the Americas.
Time Needed: 2-5 days
Budget: 35-55$ a day
Things to do in Cartagena
- Old Town: One could easily spend hours getting lost in the beauty of the old city in Cartagena. If it seems like there is a museum or historical building on every single corner you would be too far off. For those who are into history this is a paradise as rich as anywhere in the world.
- Palacio de la Inquisition: The Spanish inquisition actually also made a large impact on South America as well. Trials for treason during the Inquisition where held in this beautiful building.
- Mercado Bazurto (Mercado Central): This is a wild maze and can be more than a little bit overwhelming to visitors. All senses are tickled as visitors wander through the bustling walkways.
- Museo de Oro: It seems like every city in Colombia has a gold museum, and Cartagena is no different. If you had to pick one to visit then visit the one in Bogota but if you have a love of gold, this one is worth a visit as well.
- Cathedral: This is one of the oldest standing cathedrals in all of the Americas. Construction was started in the early 1500s and it remains a symbol of Cartagena to this day.
- Castillo de San Felipe: The absolutely massive San Felipe castle is a must see in Cartagena. The Spanish used Cartagena as a port for delivering extracted gold and silver to Spain. However, this made the city a target for pirates and privateers. As such, the city needed to build a strong fort for protection. This fort is basically solid cement and it seems that it would be impossible to penetrate it.
- Scuba Diving: Cartagena is quickly becoming a very popular scuba diving destination thanks to the very low prices. You’ll find more clear waters in places like San Andres, this is still a very good place to learn.
- Beaches & Islands: Although Playa Grande sits right in town, you’ll get better beaches by jumping on a tour or a transfer boat to one of the nearby islands or beaches where you’ll find cleaner waters and nicer beaches.
- Chiva: Basically, a chiva is an open bus loaded with party animals, booze and music. The chivas drive around town at night stopping off a couple bars along the way. This is a must do in Cartagena and nearly any hostel can organize something along these lines.
Where to Eat in Cartagena
There are lots of really good places to eat in Cartagena. In Gethsemane, along the main hostel strip you’ll find a number of cheap little restaurants. There is a restaurant along the strip with a surf theme that has great food for a very good value. Within the walls of the old city you’ll find that the food is much more expensive, but you can find anything for traditional coastal Colombian food like cabro (goat), or foreign foods like sushi. If you have some cash to spend try a little seafood place called La Cevicheria which offers traditional ceviche with a Colombian twist.
Where to Stay in Cartagena
Most of the backpacker’s hostels in Cartagena are found in the area of Gethsemane which is adjacent to the old city. This is definitely the shadier part of town, but the price of rooms more than makes up for the prices. One option is a hostel called Makako Chill Out Hostel which offers dorm beds for about 9US$. Inside the walls of the old city you’ll also find El Viajero Hostel which is a chain but offers great atmosphere and a great location.
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