Cartagena, Colombia

 out of 1  review
  • Northwest Coast of South America
  • Best Times to Visit: Jan-Apr


Spanish (minimal English)



Adventure-Seeker? Check out activities with a flame  (   ) for some extra thrills!!


Volcanic Mud Bath  ( Santa Catalina) – El Totumu is volcano that consist of mud instead of lava and stretches almost 2 miles down into the earth! The mud gives a unique type of buoyancy (you kinda feel like you’re in outer space) which prevents you from sinking so even if you tried to dive down you could not. Definitely one of my favorite moments when in Cartagena. [You can try but you can negotiate better once you get to Cartagena]


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Waveflow Clubhouse ( Boca Grande) – Judging that surfing is an acquired skill that most of us do not have it, watching your buddies attempt to surf on the only indoor surfing simulator in Latin America is bound to be loads of laughs. You will be welcomed by the awesome atmosphere, delicious food, and courteous staff. I recommend the ceviche and sushi and can duo as a night stop as well. (Pricing: 15Min=20MIL / 30Min= 30MIL)


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Rent a Private Boat – If you have 6 or more people with you then renting a private boat is the way to go!! Our group of 10 rented a mid-tier boat for $575 USD and it went to Playa Blanca, Cholon (private boats only), and Rosario Island. Lunch was awesome, we went jet skiing, had cheap massages, ate lobster and enjoyed the over water cabana. Oh the memories!! I talk more about boat pricing with Cartagena Connections in the Affordability section


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Free Walking Tour (Old City) – Discover Cartagena though a 2 hour tour covering the most important sites with the Walled City. Tours are from 10-12 or from 3-5 each day respectively. Booking in advance is necessary and it is “technically free” but make sure to leave a tip. Tell Edgar I said hey!!!


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Scuba Diving (  )– Delight in an underwater experience of the Isla Rosario Islands and see amazing coral and an underwater ship wreck. You can even dive at night!! There are few options to pick from but give Dolphing Diving School a try. Their main office is in old town.

San Felipe de Barajas Castle – The enormous castle was the greatest fortress built in a Spanish colony and is composed of a maze of intricate, underground tunnels. An amazing source of history built in 1536, its incredible grand entrance will be sure to impress. Ensure to have an audio guide or actual tour guide to appreciate one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. It will likely be hot and humid but the views are worth it. (Adult/Child COP$20,000/10,000 | Hours 8am-6pm)


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Kite Surfing (  – Don’t be afraid, if you are an experienced kite surfer or if you are getting your kite surfing cherry popped, the instructors in Cartagena will walk you through every step and make you feel comfortable. The teachers love what they do, they have great equipment and you will love navigating thorough the Caribbean Sea with the wind at your back.

The Mangroves Tour – Enjoy some of the natural beauty of Cartagena and learn some early history of the Amerindians by taking a canoe ride through calm waters of the mangroves. Normally done in conjunction with the Mud Volcano, the tour includes lunch and a secluded but underwhelming beach. You also visit an ancient erotic garden which is pretty unique but still would’ve skipped it in hindsight. [Also can book once you arrive in Cartagena]


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General History – Cartagena’s earliest inhabitants were Amerindian people which date back as far as 4000 BC. Founded in 1553 by the Spanish, Cartagena started as a small village but gained popularity when precious gems, gold, and silver were discovered to be in possession by the Amerindian people (In particular the tombs of Sinus). After a fire, the village was essentially burned to the ground and the governor ordered that all new buildings be made out of stone, a major reason why you can still see this old architecture of Cartagena today.



Surprisingly, at least to me, the Spanish did not enslave the indigenous people and actually made it illegal to enslave them. They mostly drove them away. However, once the African slave trade began, The Spanish eventually allowed Cartagena to be a rare African slave trade center for the Spanish which also brought great wealth to the city.

Cartagena and Pirates – More money more problems and this is what came to Cartagena. Pirates and other countries like France and England knew of this great wealth so there was a constant onslaught of attacks to steal these precious metals.



This is what caused for the wall to be built around Cartagena. It definitely helped protect the city to some degree, its best showing where 2500 troops fended off 25000 British troop and 186 ships but this success was rare and Cartagena was still usually the punching bag of other countries. Eventually Cartagena got its independence from Spain in 1821.



Modern History – In the 20th century, there have been a variety of civil wars that have plagued Cartagena and also drug trafficking and cocaine caused the city to be quite dangerous, in particular, Getsamani.



However, with the help of U.S., the Colombian government has been able to make significant progress in halting the drug cartel, in particular in Cartagena.  Bill Clinton gave 1.3 billion dollars to help fight against drug trafficking and the civil unrest. The decreased violence has significantly helped the political climate and the aid helps to ensure the continual exportation of oil, coffee, platinum and tobacco allowing the economy to continue to thrive.





Cartagena, like most South American countries is really inexpensive when compared to the U.S. I did a Chiva Tour (check “Nightlife” section if you’re not sure what this is) for 35 mil and not only did I get unlimited drinks and empanadas, but the bus takes you around the city and gives you complimentary access to a nightclub. This is a great deal especially when nightclubs cost 15MIL-20 MIL to get in on their own.

If you go out to eat in old town, most meals will be around $40,000-$80,000 COP but could be a bit cheaper. A gin and tonic cost $22,000 COP and a serving of ceviche cost $25,000 COP when I ate at a few spots for a reference point. (May 2015)


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I was with a group of 10 in Cartagena so we also rented a boat from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for $575 USD and it brought us to three different locations. This was one of the mid-tier boats but they can go as low as $200 USD for small speed boats and upwards of $3000+ USD for mini yachts. You can bring as much food and alcohol as you want on the boat as well (see the underlying theme here). Lunch was relatively inexpensive as we decided against paying the extra $100 USD and bought our items individually when we arrived at Cholon: ( Lobster 45 MIL, Shrimp 35 MIL, Chicken 30 MIL, Fish 25 MIL, Cocktail 15 MIL, Beer 5 MIL).


  • Big Mac (Colombia): $7,900 Pesos or $2.92 USD [2015]
  • Big Mac (USA): $4.79 [2015]
  • Exchange Rate: $1 to 3,207 COP / 1 COP to $0.00032 USD (Note Exchange rates are constantly changing. Please use following link for must up to date chance rate



If not for the the pestering of locals to purchase things, relaxation would on an all time high with multitude of beaches but “C’est la vie” (don’t mind my french reference in a Spanish speaking country lol) 

Shopping – There is plenty of great shopping to do in Colombia while you are wandering through the old city so be sure to keep your eyes opens, especially for souvenirs. This is a great opportunity to buy Colombian styled bathing suits from brands such as Maaji or even the Colombian woven bags (“mochillas”) for yourself or for someone back home.



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Isla Del Rosario – You can’t go to Cartagena without going to the islands. The beaches on the mainland are OK, but they get substantially better when you take that 1 hour boat ride into 27 island archipelago. Also, where else in the world will someone come up to your boat and offer to sell and cook you lobster? With no consolidated list of these islands online (at least none that I could find) here is my take at a fair chunk of them:


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Isla del Sol – A private island where you can beat the crowds and enjoy a bit of paradise. The boat ride is relatively quick and you will enjoy the pristine water and sunny playas.


Isla Encanto – Clean and calm ocean awaits you on this private island. Normally your tour will have the option to go to Isla Rosario for the aquarium but you can opt to spend all day on this little gem so you can enjoy its turquoise water and beautiful white sand.


Isla Grande – One of the largest islands in the archipelago (get it Grande??) with some magical beaches and internal lagoons. Consider staying at one of the hotels/guesthouses overnight so you can do some night swims and see some bioluminescent plankton,


Isla Rosario – Not much of beach here but main attraction is the aquarium ($17 USD), with its dolphin show, or snorkeling ($11 USD). Unfortunately the coral is not in good shape as well. Skip this island unless outdoor aquariums are your thing.


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Playa Dulce – A beautiful island where you can definitely recharge and have some true rest and relaxation. This island only allows 20 visitors a day so the palm trees, the white sand, and the crystal clear waters are all yours!!


Isla del Pirata – A secluded island that is great for snorkeling and seeing marine life. There will also be little to no harassers trying to convince you to buy something. However, there is no “beach”, it is rocky, and it is a bit more pricey to get there ($40,000 pesos round trip)

Words of Caution 1 – The smaller the group the better when traveling to the islands so try to look for tours of 20 or 30 instead of the cattle herder boat of 50 if you are not getting a private boat. Make sure you negotiate on price and try to be no more $75 Mil (including port tax and lunch). The speed boat you will be on will likely offer very little shade so bring sun-block and be prepared for at least an hour ride to the islands. Do not take the slower boats.


Word of Caution 2 –  Also, expect to be up-charged. You can do additional excursions like snorkeling, jet skis, etc but they all come at an additional cost (~$8 or $25,000 pesos for snorkel / $20 or $60,000 pesos for jet skis). Lunch should be provided and should include a fish, rice, plantain, coconut rice etc and most tours will allocate 2-3 hours of beach time but confirm with them. However, if you have a group of 6 or more¬ charter a private boat, you will have more control and it will be a better time. TRUST ME!!

Playa Bocagrande (Bocagrande) – With a Miami vibe, as high rise hotels and fancy restaurants are the background scene behind this long sandy stretch, “Big Mouth” is like the Ipanema beach of Rio. It is very crowded during the high season, especially around Hotel Caribe. Also, be ready for the vendors to narrow in on you like a heat seeking missile to sell you trinkets and massages. This beach is OK but the Rosario Islands are still far superior.


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El Laguito – Just as commercial as Bocagrande this beach is the hot spot for spring break students. The most pristine stretch of beachfront is in front of the Hilton where President Obama stayed in 2012.




Cafe Del Mar (Old City) – For a chill feel but with a phenomenal view, you have to go to Café Del Mar, which is actually located on top of the old walls. This open aired bar doesn’t have a large selection of food (like 4 items) but the drinks are pretty good and it is the perfect place to watch the sunset [ $$$ ]



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Carmen Cartagena (Old City) – The best restaurant in Cartagena hands down!! A menu based on diversity but with special focus on seafood. Dishes of exquisite tiradito, ceviche with coconut foam, or honey and lavender ice cream are just the tip of the iceberg. This incredible gastronomical experience of flavors is served in a set menu of 5 or 7 courses which range from 160-180MIL. A seat at this table is highly desired so make a reservation for dinner at least 3-4 weeks in advance. If not try your luck during lunch. [ $$$ ]



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La Paletteria (Old City) – While you are taking a walk through the old city be sure stop here and indulge in variety of and Latin American fruits in popsicle form. A welcome relief from the heat, enjoy flavors like Mango, Tamarind, Passion Fruit, Maracujo, Baileys, Coconut, Oreo Cheesecake, and Nutella. Did I just make your mouth water a little?? [ $ ]

Pulpito Gourmet (Old City) – Excellent service and a thoroughly enjoyed meal is what awaits at El Pulpito. Stumbled across this restaurant by accident and had some of the best ceviche, sea bass, and coconut rice of the trip. They also have 2×1 special for drinks. A very relaxing atmosphere at a fair price with most dishes ranging between 25 MIL – 45 MIL. [ $$ ]


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La Cevicheria (Old City) – The most popular place for Ceviche in Cartagena!! They have quite the variation of ceviche dishes, those being on specialty menu being a bit better. Try the Peruvian ceviche, lobster ceviche, the shrimp diablo, or the mellow lobster rice. It is a bit pricey for Cartagena standards and it wasn’t the greatest ceviche I’ve ever had but I would definitely go back again and try something new [ $$ ]



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La Perla (Old City) – With the feel of a swanky lounge, indulge in delightful array of food options whose presentation cannot be outdone by its flavor. With a creative list of cocktails that help round off the meal you are sure to have a well-balanced experience. This could be in the running for one of your faves in Cartagena. Of course try the ceviche but don’t miss out on the octopus or mashed yucca. [ $$ ]

Gelateria Paradiso – An excellent option to cool you down from the Cartagena heat, so take your pick of at some of the best gelato, frozen yogurt, sorbet, or ice cream around town. They offer a variety of flavors and even some vegan options. Just try not to make this your lunch since the portions are large and it is only 7 MIL a serving. 


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A Stroll Through Old Town – One of the most romantic things you can do in Cartagena is take a stroll with your mate through the cobblestone streets of this beautiful city.  Don’t have a plan, just walk and see where the next corner takes you.  


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Playa Blanca (Isla Baru) –  A long white beach lined with cabanas and some of the warmest waters your will every experience. This is the most well-known beach in Cartagena but also the most touristy. Boats will unload passengers here throughout the day and you may get annoyed by all the vendors but just take it all in stride. Enjoy the host of water activities offered, get a cheap message, or just sit back and enjoy a drink. It is pretty peaceful after all the boats leave (around 4pm). You can also take a bus or Uber here!!

Cholon (Isla Baru) –  This is an island you can only reach if you have a personal boat. Not much of a beach but if you are partying off the side of your boat, it doesn’t matter. You have a variety of water activities, opportunities for massages and to buy some jewelry. You also have a personal table where you enjoy lunch while standing in the sea under an over water bungalow.


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Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona – This beautiful park is about 4 hours outside of Cartagena, located right outside of Santa Marta. It is a bit of a trek but if you have some extra days to spare, do it. As Colombia’s most exotic national park it has stunning landscapes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and some of the most breathtaking beaches in the country. There are also some great hikes. Make sure to bring ID, lots of water, and cash to make purchases.




Chiva Tour (All Over)– This is an absolute must if you go to Cartagena!! Get on a Columbian party bus where you can mix and mingle with about 40+ other people while you sing, dance, and get unlimited rum and empanadas. The chiva buses will make stops throughout the city so you can take pictures and even dance in the street. You also get entrance into a discoteca (Leblon for me) and it was great. It isn’t too far from Mister Babilla.


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Mister Babilla (Getsamani) – A vibrant club that will have on your feet dancing all night to rumba, salsa, and other local jams. With a number of different room to accommodate your mood, and host of people dancing on tables, even if you don’t frequent clubs often make an exception for one of the best spots in Cartagena (Entrance $10-$15 MIL).


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Media Luna (Getsamani) – A night of rooftop bliss with awesome live music and a fiesta that goes until 4 a.m, Media Luna is the place to be on Wednesday night. Located in what I like to call “backpackers central”, Media Luna duos as a party hostel during the day and it is located in the “edgier” part of Getsamani. However, don’t freak out it is fine. There will be a ton of other bars/clubs in close proximity as well.

Café Havana (Getsamani) – If you want salsa then you want Café Havana. This mix between a bar and club became famous after Hillary Clinton came here for the turn up in 2012 (Hillary’s Turn Up Photos). Amazing live bands that normally start around 11 p.m., a festive atmosphere, and some great people watching are what awaits you. It can get quite crowded and it is one of the pricier spots but it’s worth it. (Entrance $20MIL COP)  


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Bareke (Bocagrande) – Welcome to a real Colombian party with a terrace, great food, and a good atmosphere. This local secret opens at 5 p.m. and is a great bar to kick off the night or take it way past the midnight hours. They have a 2×1 special on margaritas on Thursdays.

Tu Candela (Old City) – Located inside the Walled City, nearby the clock tower, you will enjoy good vibes and an assortment of music playing reggaetone, salsa, merengue and some American music for good measure. Drinks are expensive (15,000 COP) and there are a lot of working girls. But you’re in a historic place, Obama’s secret service men loved this bar ;-).


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There are a variety of locations to really stay at when in Cartagena:


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Inside the Walled City – There are various bars, restaurants, museums, and hotels located inside the historic walled city of Cartagena. Built in the 16th century, its cobblestone streets and brightly colored building make this an amazing walking city. If you like being where most of the action is then this would be the place.


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Gethsemane – With a controversial past (more info in the “History section), Gethsamane has gone through quite a rebirth and is just a few minutes’ walks from the Old City if you are nearby the clock tower. It is party central for foreigners and locals alike. The higher end party areas are by the coast (Avenida de Arsenal) and then you also have “backpacker central”, with a variety of bars, hostels, and cheap eat restaurants. There are some dimly lit areas so just be safe and smart at night and you will have a great time!!  I have hear stories of people being robbed here, so again be careful.


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El Laguito – This small neighborhood is sometimes referred to as the Little Boca Grande and is mostly an area for upscale hotels like the Hilton. This hotel in particular is where many political officials like Obama (and his secret service) have staid. I spent about 5 days in El Laguito in an Air BNB that accommodated 10 people. Our lodging was excellent but the neighborhood itself was pretty dead. We had to take taxis often to get the Old City to get into some of the action.


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Bocagrande – Bocagrande used to be the hotspot back in the heyday but right now most activities are in the city center or Gethsemane. Cartagena’s version on South Beach you can walk up and down the strip (near by Hotel Capilla Del Mar) but it is a bit pricier over here. Accommodations are better here for larger groups but not a lot of action.


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Visa – Not required. Ensure passport is valid for 6 months and you have an available page for a passport stamp.


Airport Transport – You will fly into Rafael Nunez airport (CTG) and take a 15-20 minute taxi ride into the city. It should cost around 10,000-15,000 pesos to get to the old city and a bit more to get to Boca Grande. Taxis are pretty safe so you don’t have anything to worry about.


General Transport – If you stay in the Old City or Getsamani, just about everything is in walking distance but it will be hot, so keep that in mind. Taxis would be your next mode of transportation and are relatively cheap. There are no meters in taxis so make sure you negotiate (i.e. Old Town to Boca Grande 1.5-2MIL) or you could buy a Hop on / Hop off bus ticket and use that as your transport for a couple of days



Pros – After writing this city guide I just want to go back to Cartagena!! It is a city full of culture that is affordable and has EXCELLENT food, a great nightlife, a variety of beaches to relax, and some really unique activities like El Totumo. What is not to love?!!


Cons –Oh wait, what is not to love are the onslaught of vendors that aggressively and constantly try to sell you things when you to the beaches.  If you can take that all in stride, Cartagena will be one of your favorite destinations.



Interesting Fact – President Obama made a trip down to Cartagena for an anti-drug trafficking summit but his secret service men got a little too frisky with ladies of the night. You may remember this on the news….I mentioned the location of the club under the “Nightlife” section.

My Travel Tips – Get lost in the walled city. I gave some recommendations for places to eat but let your gut bet your guide. Just make sure you do not leave the city without trying ceviche, coconut rice, fresh fish, plantain and Colombian flavored ice cream. You will be pleasantly surprised. It is also pretty hot and humid so try to do thing earlier in the day or later in the evening.


My Experience –  Cartagena is amazing! It is the perfect mix of Adventure, Food, Culture, and Nightlife all at an affordable cost. I went with my girlfriend and a group of business school students from Kellogg (you will start to notice that as a reoccurring theme with a lot of my trips). We stayed in El Laguito in a penthouse suite that fit 10 people. The accommodations were definitely on point but the only downside was that we had to take a taxi to go into the walled city every day because that is where all the great restaurants and bars were located. The upside was the taxi’s were very cheap at around $2 USD per ride.

When in the Walled City, we allowed ourselves to get lost and just went down the next cobblestone street that looked appealing. We wandered into a number of restaurants and really experienced the city spontaneously. I would highly suggest you do the same.


We found our way to Café Del Mar to watch the sunset and we also ate at La Cevecheria (it was just OK to me). One night, we also did a Chiva Tour which was absolutely amazing as it took you through different parts of the walled city blasting salsa music while supplying you with food and boos. Eventually the tour ended at club in Gethsemane where we continued to party into the early mornings hours.


Outside of the Walled City, El Totumo Volcano is a site that cannot be missed! It is such a unique experience. When you drive up, you just see this dusty hill and you think to yourself, this is a volcano? You go up these rickety steps to its peak of about 100 ft and then when you look down what awaits you is the greatest mud bath you will ever experience!! [ I am NOT naked in the below picture btw just we are clear lol]

As you submerge yourself into the mud, you will float as if there is no gravity. It’s so cool!! Then locals, also in the volcano, will come up to you and give you a mud massage. After spending about 10 minutes in there, then they direct you out of the volcano and have you wash off in the river. Let’s just say I wish I could have one of these in my backyard!


Apart from the Mud Volcano, I also had to get some much needed beach time. Boca Grande has some OK beaches but Isla Rosario Islands is where it’s at. I describe the cost and experience for renting a private boat in the “Affordability” section in detail but long story short, spending the day traversing through Cartagena’s archipelago was by far my best boating experience…EVER!!  Let’s just say the crew was lit so much so we added an addition to the group.

We went to three different locations with our private driver, drinking and just having a good time. Then in one stop we had people coming up to our boat selling us $5 lobster, at another there were water sports , and then at another you have phenomenal, cheap lunch under a Cabana follow by a $3 massage while in the water.

I am actually thinking of doing a reunion trip back there because it was just so much fun! EPIC!!

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  1. Lawrence
    19 Sep 2017
    Things To Do
    Local Food

    Cartagena surprised me when it came to having some adventurous activities to do. I remember hearing about the mud volcano, El Totumo, but never giving it much thought and also thinking it wouldn’t even be all that. When I arrived my thoughts were confirmed because it is definitely does not look like your average volcano. However, once you climb up those steps and hop into the mud, it is definitely an experience to remember. I wish I just could have been in it longer. I am guessing this is what Neil Armstrong felt like when he was on the moon lol. Definitely a must-do when you come to Cartagena.

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