Things to do in Cartagena Colombia - The Ultimate Travel Guide
Here is the ultimate travel guide to things to do in Cartagena Colombia. The country may have not had the best reputations in previous years, but that is all changing. With the country putting its risky past behind it, combined with the rise in low-cost flights to the area, Colombia is fast becoming one of the trendiest places to visit in the world. Topping the list of many travelers’ Colombia itinerary is the city of Cartagena. A city which effortlessly mixes historical and cultural wonder with the beauty of the Colombian coast, it should come as no surprise that travelers are beginning to flock to vibrant Cartagena.
The historic heart of old Cartagena, a visit to the Walled City is the most popular of things to do in Cartagena Colombia. Despite becoming slightly touristy in recent years, the streets of the Walled City are definitely worth a stroll. Protected by a large fortress, this area once gave the citizens shelter from invading pirates and incoming storms. With its plentiful historic buildings, it has not lost any of its old-world charms and is filled with bars, shops, and restaurants.
One place you should definitely visit when visiting the Walled City is Cafe del Mar. This iconic bar is situated on the city walls and is well-known as the best place in Cartagena to watch the sunset.
The best way of exploring the walled city – and indeed the whole of the old town – is by taking a guided tour. As well as seeing all the best sights in the area, you will learn fascinating information about the city and its history.
Walk the City Walls - Or Go By Horse and Carriage
The city ramparts of the Walled City are incredibly well-preserved and it is possible to walk along them to see their lookout posts and cannons. It makes for a pleasant stroll, with the sea on one side and the old city on the other.
However, if you do not feel like walking the whole way around, you can opt to take a horse and carriage ride around the perimeter. This is a particularly lovely activity to do at night when the city is lit up.
Puerto del Reloj
Once the original entrance to the walled city, this gate and clock tower is an incredible mix of architectural styles. During the colonial era, the gate was linked to the district of Getsemani by a drawbridge over a moat, with the side arches functioning as a chapel and an armory; nowadays these side arches act as walkways. A clock tower has been present on the entrance since the 18th century, with the current four-sided clock and Republican-style tower added in 1888.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Cartagena’s most famous landmark, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas was built during the 16th and 17th centuries to protect the city from marauding pirates who wished to steal the silver and gold which was due to make its way to Europe. The fortress also played an important role in defeating the English invasion in 1741.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is a huge structure and there is much to see on a visit here. Hiking to the top of the fortress will give you splendid views over the walled city. Other highlights inside the castle include: a trip to the former hospital where you can watch a video detailing the Castillo’s history; a walk through some of the tunnels, where it is easy to imagine yourself living in the castle when it was under attack; and the statue of Blas de Lezo, an important Spanish naval officer.
If you are interested in the city’s history, a visit to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is one of the most fascinating things to do in Cartagena Colombia.
Museo del Oro Zenu
Due to its importance in the gold industry, pretty much every major city in Colombia has a gold museum. Cartagena is no exception and even though the Museum of Gold here is quite small, it is nevertheless one of the most interesting things to do in Cartagena Colombia. Here you will find lots of displays detailing the different regions in Colombia and the types of gold mining that occur throughout the country. There are also fine collections of gold and pottery artifacts of the Zenu people who lived in the area prior to the Spanish Conquest. What's interesting is that the Museum of Gold is free to visit, and it makes it one of the best things to do in Cartagena Colombia.
Cartagena Cathedral may not have the opulent splendor of other cathedrals of its kind around the world, but it is still one of the most beautiful things to do in Cartagena Colombia. Construction on the cathedral began in 1575 but was interrupted when cannons fired on the orders of Sir Francis Drake destroyed part of the building in 1586. It was finally completed in 1612, but the feature by which the cathedral is now famous for – its stunning terracotta dome – was not added until later.
While the bright yellow exterior is impressive in itself, it is inside you will find most glorious. Inside of the main door, you will see four restored statues of four saints – Pedro, Pablo, Gregorio and Sebastian – which used to decorate the facade. You can also see a Carrara marble pulpit, 18th-century gilded altar, and the fine church doorway.
Palace of the Inquisition
Cartagena is a city with a long and varied history, dating all the way back to pre-Colombian times. In the Palace of the Inquisition, anyone able to uncover some of the darker periods in Colombia’s history. The wonderful Spanish colonial architecture of this palace is in great contrast with the deeds which were conducted here, as it was once one of the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition. The building was used to question and try Jews and other people belonging to denominations other than the Catholic Church, along with individuals who were believed to practice witchcraft and sorcery.
The collections here make the Palace of the Inquisition one of the most fascinating of things to do in Cartagena Colombia, although they are not for the faint of heart. Here you can see many examples of torture equipment used during the Inquisition, some of which are pretty horrifying. However, the palace also houses some fine examples of pre-Colombian pottery and gives a detailed timeline of the city using artifacts such as furniture, paintings, and weapons. There is even an excellent model of Cartagena dating from the 19th century as well as a collection of maps from different eras.
Iglesia de San Pedro Claver
Located in a plaza of the same name, the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver is one of the most beautiful churches in Cartagena. The church is actually part of a complex of religious buildings as well as an interesting archaeological museum. In addition to the stunning exterior, you should head inside to see the remains of Saint Peter Claver, a Spanish priest who dedicated his life to converting the New Granada slaves to Christianity, which are located at the altar. The altar itself is made of marble and was a gift from Pope Leo XIII. Another highlight is the facade carved from Tierra Bomba stone.
Convento de La Popa
So-called because the building resembles the shape of a ship’s poop deck, Convento de La Popa sits upon the highest hill in Cartagena. As well as being a convent, it also served as an additional fortress for the city. Now it houses a museum and the chapel of the Virgen de la Candelaria which you can visit, although most people come here for the amazing views over the whole of Cartagena and the Caribbean Sea. The courtyard is also exceptionally pretty with its flowered patios.
Mercado de Bazurto
If you want a taste of local Cartagena life, head down to Mercado de Bazurto. This traditional food market, located just a 15-minute walk from the old center, is huge, loud and dirty, but also one of the most fun things to do in Cartagena Colombia.
It is possible to buy every food imaginable from Mercado de Bazurto, from fresh fruit and vegetables to all varieties of meat. You may even see some people selling cooked turtle, even though this is largely discouraged by the local government.
You may never have considered taking a mud bath in a volcano, but that is what makes El Totumo a unique experience among things to do in Cartagena Colombia. Located about 45 minutes north-east of the city, this still-active volcano gives visitors the opportunity to take a bath in natural mud. According to legend, the volcano was once a fiery pit of lava and ash until a local priest, believing the volcano to be the work of Satan, turned it into the mud by sprinkling holy water in it in a bid to banish the Devil.
Nowadays, many tourists make their way to El Totumo to bathe in the mud which apparently has healing properties. Whether this is true or not is up for debate, but what is certain is that you will have incredibly smooth skin afterward. Once you have wallowed in the mud, you will be led to a small but beautiful lagoon where local Colombian village women will scrub you down to get the mud off you. If you are shy about your body, beware; these women have no issues with taking off your swimsuit in order to get rid of all the mud!
There are not many who associate Cartagena with beaches, but there are certainly plenty to choose from in and around the city. Bocagrande and La Boquilla beaches are located within the city itself; although they do not live up to the perfect ideal of tropical beaches, they are certainly good enough if you do not fancy venturing too far. However, the most beautiful beaches can be found outside of Cartagena.
One of the best beaches is the Playa Blanca, approximately a one-hour drive from Cartagena. Because this is one of the most popular things to do in Cartagena Colombia, there are many companies offering tours to and from the beach, or alternatively, you could use a taxi; the taxi drivers know the route well, so this should not be a problem.
If you want to experience Caribbean-style tropical islands while on your trip to Cartagena, you should head to the Rosario Islands. This group of 27 islands lie just off the coast of the city and offer gorgeous white sand, crystal clear sea and amazing coral reefs. They are the perfect location for swimming, boating, and scuba diving as well as just kicking back and sunbathing. There is also an oceanarium which is home to a number of marine species, including turtles, fish, sharks, and dolphins.
Other amazing beaches include Tierra Bomba and Isla Grande.
Mangroves and Snorkelling Day Tour
It is obviously great to just relax on the beaches of Cartagena, but if you do fancy being a bit more active, you should take the Mangroves and Snorkelling Day Tour, as listed on TripsPoint.com.
On this tour, you will pass through traditional villages and lush nature on your way to Baru Island, where you will enjoy an hour’s snorkeling before exploring the mangroves to spot numerous species of animals and birds.
Street Art in Getsemani
While the majority of visitors to Cartagena focus their trip around the walled city of the old town, there are other districts which you should definitely add to your itinerary. Getsemani is the best of the alternative things to do in Cartagena Colombia. Once the stomping ground of prostitutes and thieves, Getsemani is now a cool little district with a colorful central plaza, hip cafes and bars, and stunning architecture. However, it is the vibrant arts scene which draws people to Getsemani. The neighborhood is well-renowned for its street art and spending a day strolling around its streets admiring the various murals is one of the best things to do in Cartagena Colombia.
Plaza la Trinidad
For those who are coming to Cartagena for the culinary delights, Plaza la Trinidad does not disappoint. This cool little square in Getsemani is filled with fantastic restaurants and bars, making it a great spot to experience the nightlife of Cartagena. As well as the restaurants, there are also plenty of street food vendors serving up all kinds of traditional fare. Due to the low prices of the establishments around here, Plaza la Trinidad is popular with both locals and tourists.
But it is not just the food that you should come for. The plaza is buzzing with all kinds of street entertainment, such as jugglers, acrobats, musicians, and dancers, and there is also the possibility that you will catch a football game being played by the locals.
Party on a Chiva
Cartagena may be known as a city of outstanding historical importance and beauty, but what you may not know is that it is also the ultimate party city. One of the quintessential things to do in Cartagena Colombia – and what could be called a right of passage for all those traveling in the country – is partying on a Chiva. Once a form of general transportation, these days a Chiva is a colorful bus complete with party lights and onboard live music which will take you around the city’s hotspots in search of fun. There is even a bar on the bus so you can start your party as soon as you climb on. After stopping at a variety of bars, you will end the night at a larger club where you will be free to dance the night away.
No trip is complete without a little retail therapy and Cartagena is a fantastic place to indulge in some shopping. One of the most popular shopping areas in the city is Las Bovedas. Translating as ‘the vaults’, these structures were originally meant to be used as weapons and ammunitions storage for the nearby fort; however, it is said that they were actually used as dungeons and were particularly perilous for prisoners at high tide when water from the sea would come flooding in. Today the Las Bovedas house a number of cute and quaint shops and boutiques selling everything from tourist souvenirs to authentic Colombian items such as clothing and artwork.
If you prefer your products more upmarket, there are a number of stores you can visit. Silvia Tcherassi is a well-known local designer who makes high-quality women’s clothing and accessories, St. Dom is Cartagena’s answer to Colette, and the Museo del Chocolate sells some of the country’s finest cocoa products.
There Is Such a Great Variety of Things to Do in Cartagena Colombia
Whether you are looking for a destination to indulge your fascination with Latin history or simply want the perfect combination of beach and city break, you can be guaranteed that Cartagena is a great choice. With such a great variety of things to do in Cartagena Colombia, you just know it will be a spectacular holiday.