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The 5 Best and 5 Worst Things To Do While Visiting Cartagena, Colombia

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

A busy side street in Cartagena Colombia

When I imagine Colombia, I think of dense rainforests full of opportunities to hike, camp, and explore, staying in straw huts without wifi or electricity. Really experiencing that jungle life, but then enter the city of Cartagena.


Cartagena, Colombia seems to be a historic city with beautiful islands and glowing turquoise blue water. The kind of city where you could go from relaxing on a beach all day to a quiet rooftop for a nice cocktail in the evening. While this is the case for most people, for me it was an entirely different beast.

Here, I’d like to show you the ups and downsides of Cartagena, Colombia, and what kind of city and activities await you there. From the people, to the tours, the city of Cartagena has a lot of things to do, but not everything may be something you want to experience.


 

So we can start off on a positive note, let's go for the 5 best parts of Cartagena first.


 

1. Rooftop Bars and Cocktails


To be perfectly honest, what I remember most from my trip is trying out so many delicious cocktails from so many interesting rooftop bars. In Cartagena, they really push the limits on what a cocktail could be and they were all amazing! From fresh basil mojitos to smoked cinnamon rum shots, every bar I went to had a new and amazing drink to try.

While most of the rooftops played somewhat loud electronic music, the views can't be beaten! Plus, you aren't bothered by vendors when you're on the rooftops so extra bonus!



Quick tip: Cafe del Mar is one of the most famous restaurants in town to catch the sunset over the ocean, but I don't think it was half as good as going to the rooftop of the Movich Hotel! From the Movich you get a luxury setting, with fewer people and better views!

 


 

2. The Caribbean Islands


A bamboo structure on a Caribbean Island off of Cartagena Colombia

One of the best parts about Cartagena is that it is on the Caribbean side of Colombia so you have access to beautiful islands with warm water and white sand beaches.


A beautiful structure on a island outside of Cartagena Colombia

We were able to take a boat to Tierra Bomba, the largest and closest island to the city and it was beautiful. It was so nice to get out of the city and enjoy a day on the beach. Staying at the Fenix Beach Club, they had classic resort-style huts with chairs and a tiki bar, everything you could hope for in a tropical getaway.

Hannah Unbound sitting on a Caribbean island outside of Cartagena Colombia

The only issue was that the boats to the islands were a bit sketch and the entry down into the water had some coral and rocks that hurt quite a bit on your feet. Otherwise, it is worth splurging a bit to get out of the city and get some sand between your toes.


I also suggest looking at the Rosario Islands as there are many to chose from and you can chart boats for one island, see multiple in one day, or even spend the night. I didn't get to try this out, but I know other people have really enjoyed this option.




 

3. Mangrove Tour


The front of the boat from a mangrove tour in Cartagena Colombia

While this may be more of a personal preference I loved our Mangrove tour! It was so nice to get out into some quiet and beautiful nature after spending a week in the city.



They had a car pick us up from our hotel to take us to the tour about 20min out of town. The tour guide was so much fun, even though he spoke mostly Spanish we were able to understand the names of the herons and egrets he pointed out and enjoy our relaxing trip on the water. He even taught us how to throw an authentic fishing net, which was heavy as hell but I still threw it better than my boyfriend!


Afterward, he sliced us up some fresh coconuts for us to drink and let us hang out at the tour building. Then, he led us to a bar down at the beach to wait for our taxi to pick us back up.


We used Ecotours Boquilla and I highly recommend them, Ivan our tour guide was very nice and professional. We loved every bit of the tour!


 


 

4. Classic South American Architecture


A clocktower on the wall of Cartagena Colombia

The most obvious beauty in Cartagena is the ancient buildings that stand in and out of the walled city. No to mention the wall itself that surrounds the main parts of the city and was created to protect this town from sea-dwelling pirates.


To this day you can walk on top of the wall and see the original canons above and the tunnels that go through below. Not to mention San Felipe Castle which was used as a fortress against the pirates which gives a 360 view of the city!



Make sure to venture outside the wall to Getsemani where you can find not only more interesting buildings, but buildings painted with beautiful murals on their walls. Plus, alleyways covered in umbrellas, flags, and paintings for sale. Just an overall beautiful stretch of the city to take a walk around.


 


 

5. Colombian Food


a close up of ceviche made in Cartagena Colombia

Of course, I have to talk about the amazing seafood and street food of Cartagena. The dish this city is probably most famous for is their ceviche which is a raw seafood dish smothered in lime juice. While there are many ways to prepare this dish, it's usually fish, shrimp, onions, and lime juice, which is just so good. I'm a girl who likes a lot of spice and seasoning on my food and even I could enjoy it (I did bring Sriracha packets though just in case).



Their street food mostly consists of fried options besides fresh-cut fruit (sliced mango with salt and lime is the best option there). The most famous fried food there being the arepa, a cornmeal pocket stuffed with meat and eggs, then deep-fried, so unhealthy, but so good, and only about 50cents USD. They have other options such as papas, a curry potato ball with meat in the middle, and a croquette type of food, with cheese and meat in the middle. You really can't go wrong, but I think my boyfriend and I both enjoyed the papas the best.


 

On my path to give you the most honest opinions on my experiences to every place I visit, I give you the not so enjoyable side of Cartagena, Colombia.


 

1. The Vendors in the Walled City


The number one worst part of Cartagena was the vendors. They weren't just lined up on the side of the street with carts of fruit or novelty t-shirts. They followed you throughout the city, walking beside you and pushing their product in your face. While they will leave you alone after a quick "No, gracias", after a whole week of being sold at constantly I was starting to not want to leave the hotel. (Again, this is where the rooftop bars come in handy, if you eat at a normal patio the vendors will sell to you at your table).


A horse drawn carriage in Cartagena Colombia

The worst offenders are the rappers, mimes, and carriages. The rappers are a group of young men that follow you down the street with a boombox and rap over the music with a special song all about you. The big issue being almost all of the rappers in the city say roughly all the same lyrics. Same with the mimes, they follow you mimicking your movements then put out their hat for payment. Simply don't give anyone eye contact and keep walking, you are under no obligation to pay anyone who followed you when you didn't ask for it.


As for the carriages, please do not ride them, most if not all abuse the horses they use, just take a regular taxi if you need a ride.


 


 

2. The Humidity of Cartagena


Hannah Unbound standing in the humidity of Cartagena Colombia

While I'm used to heat having lived in Arizona for 5 years and even humidity living in Missouri for 8 years, Colombia was on a whole other level. Simply stepping outside for a minute left me in a puddle of my own sweat, and this was in June which is supposed to be the cloudier season. While we did get a little bit of rain, it did not cool off the temperatures and only made it more humid.

Just be prepared with some fresh shirts, and carry around a bandana or sweat rag of some kind because you will need it!


 

3. Quite Touristy Inside the Walled City



When I first arrived in Cartagena I felt like it was a whole new place, full of culture and excitement, but the longer I stayed the less I felt like exploring. While there were stands of native candies and handmade bracelets I didn't feel the essence of the city. Even the famous Palenqueras (the women in the colorful dresses with fruit on their head) which were supposed to be selling fruit and performing dances, were only asking for me to take pictures with them.


Between vendors selling hats from Amazon, burger places on every other street, and loud night clubs I felt less like an explorer and more like I was in Miami. I found out that this area is meant for travelers looking for a tropical vacation to drink and soak in the sun, but that was not quite what I expected originally.

It could have also been the fact that I went at the tail end of the Covid-19 pandemic, so the city was still trying to recuperate from that, but I'm not quite sure.


 

4. Very Little Nature


A large flowering plant on a building in Cartagena

Obviously, I'm the type of person who loves to take in some fresh air, even at a local park or botanical garden. I just need to have some space and some plants on a regular basis, but that is not what you're going to get in or around the walled city of Cartagena.


While there is a small park near the entrance to Getsemani, it didn't quite satisfy my craving. That's why I suggest you do more island hopping if you're hoping to get out of the city and see some nature.

 

5. Claustrophobic Streets


A busy street in Cartagena Colombia at night time

To top off the whole anxiety of being in a city with vendors trying to sell me anything you can imagine and being entirely exhausted from the heat, the city is very small. The sidewalks are wide enough for a person and a half, and the streets are all one way and just enough room for their tiny taxis and an arepa cart.

Just imagine anytime you had to get somewhere you were fending off vendors while wiping the sweaty sunscreen out of your eyes only to be just about hit by a taxi because you had to step off the nonexistent sidewalk to avoid said vendors.


It was mildly stressful at times, to say the least. My boyfriend barely felt the anxiety but it hit me pretty hard, it all depends on your tolerance level. Mine is just very low for crowds a heat.



 


 

Hannah Unbound walking the streets of Cartagena Colombia

Those are my top 5 best and worst parts of Cartagena Colombia. While most people love it there and go back every year, I personally found it a bit crowded and quite touristy. So if you love beaches, shopping, and fancy drinks, then this is the place for you! Otherwise, I might suggest somewhere more inland with more of that classic Colombia jungle vibe.


After knowing all of this would you still go to Cartagena? Does island hopping and city tours interest you, or are you more of a hiking and greenery person?


As always you can comment below, email me or DM me on Instagram to ask me any questions you may have!


Until Next Time,

Happy Trails!



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