Cartagena has a great number of activities and sights that can appeal to a variety of tastes. You can head to the Rosario Islands for snorkeling and diving or the quiet fishing village of La Boquilla. There is excellent seafood, heaving markets, and great nightlife. If you prefer to take in a bit of culture and history, there are several nice museums to visit and Colonial-era buildings and forts to explore. Plan on spending three or four days in and around Cartagena to get a full picture of the place.
Guided Tour of Mercado Bazurto
This immense market contains all manner of fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, and seafood. The best chefs in Cartagena shop here but you won’t see many tourists. It’s a hot and crowded place, with plenty of sights, smells and sounds to assault your senses for a couple of hours.
You can see craftspeople creating their wares and enjoy tasty snacks or a lunch. Some unusual dishes are available (stewed turtle anyone?). It can be fun to meet some of the shopkeepers and talk about daily life and their business: for this, you’ll need Spanish skills or go on a guided tour. If you visit, don’t bring any valuables and keep your wits about you as pickpockets have been known to frequent this market.
Go Museum Hopping
The museums of Cartagena are well-worth a visit. Most are located in the Old Town, making it easy to visit them in a half day.
The Museo del Oro Zenú contains a dazzling array of gold and pottery items from the indigenous Zenú people. It’s similar to the more famous gold museum in Bogotá, just on a much smaller scale. The nearby Museo de Arte Moderno contains modern art and paintings produced by well-known Colombian artists. It is housed in a converted 17th century former Royal Customs House.
The Palacio de la Inquisición (Palace of the Inquisition) is one of Cartagena’s most beautiful buildings, and houses one of the best museums in town. Here the Spanish colonists did their best to end heresy in Cartagena – you can see their various tools of torture. The museum collection also contains historical items from Colonial and independence times.
Walk the Streets of the Walled City
One of the best things to do in Cartagena is to walk the streets of the Walled City (Ciudad Amurallda). The area contains beautiful examples of colonial-era mansions, churches, and plazas. Aromatic flowers overflow from balconies and small lanes are lined with cafes, upscale restaurants, and hole-in-the-wall bars.
It’s fun just to leave your map in the hotel and get a little lost. You’ll eventually reach the city walls (Las Murallas), constructed to defend against pirates and other enemies. There are several places where you can get up on walls and enjoy the sunset views.
One nice way to enjoy the Old Town is to take an evening horse-drawn carriage ride through its streets – this is a particularly romantic option for couples.
Explore the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
This awesome fort is an engineering marvel and certainly one of the most impressive forts in Latin America. Construction began in 1639 and was not completed until 1762. A number of invaders tried to take the fort but all attempts were unsuccessful.
The fort contains a complex network of tunnels, once used to move equipment and soldiers. Today you can tour the tunnels – a somewhat spooky walk that will ignite feelings of Indiana Jones. The battlements, topped with canons, are also available to explore.
Take the audio tour as there are few signs in English. Try to visit early to avoid the heat of the day and bring a big bottle of water whenever you go.
Relax on the Beach at Islas del Rosario
There are 27 small coral islands located off the coast of Cartagena, at a distance of 35 km. The area has been declared a national park to protect the delicate coral reefs. Boat tours from Cartagena stop off at several locations for snorkeling and swimming.
The water here is crystal clear and white sand beaches are perfect for sunbathing and swimming. The waters around the islands can be a little rough, so if you are prone to seasickness, avoid going on a windy day. If you prefer to spend the night, there are several hotels and eco-resorts on Isla Grande and Islas del Rosario.
Many of the boat tours also stop in Playa Blanca, which is actually on the mainland south of Cartegena, but easier to reach by boat.
Party Aboard a Chiva
For a fun night out in Cartegena, hop aboard a party Chiva (typical Colombian bus) which tours the city with a local vallenato band and a bar serving all-you-can-drink alcohol. You can dance on the bus, which occasionally stops in nightclubs for more dancing. It’s a fun night out and easily organized through your hotel. The ride usually ends at a salsa club so you can continue the party further into the night.
If you are not interested in a late night party, but still want to ride around town in style, tourist buses that look like chivas give city tours.
Float in a Mud Volcano
A visit to the Volcan de Totumo promises to be a unique experience. This bizarre volcano-shaped pile of earth contains a pool of mud 100 m deep. The stuff is so thick your body will simply float at the top. You can dip yourself in the mud while attendants help out with a massage, cleansing, and photos. The volcano is located 50 km from Cartagena and a tour to the place takes about 3 hours.
Meet the Locals in Getsamaní
This redeveloped neighborhood of Cartagena, just south of the Old Town, once suffered from high crime rates but is now safe and well worth a visit. Getsamaní has budget hotels, street vendors selling delicious food and plazas where kids come to play soccer after school. There's excellent live music venues, hip cafes and street performers. A lot of the action occurs around Plaza de la Trinidad.
Another reason to explore the area is the graffiti art, which expresses much of the local attitudes towards social inequality, tolerance, folktales and depictions of Caribbean life. You can take a graffiti art tour of the neighborhood, this is best done on Sundays when the streets are largely empty and you can get better views of the street art.
Explore La Boquilla Fishing Village
La Boquilla, a small fishing village, is located 7 km north of Cartagena. There is a decent beach here and a few restaurants located in shacks where you can order a plate of seafood with a side of plantain paties, soup, and rice. It's also popular with kiteboarders and it can be fun to watch them in action. You can try your hand at kitesurfing as some locals offer equipment and classes, including Kitesurf Cartagena. In addition, the small village behind the beach is a good place to experience life in a local barrio. A taxi here from the Old Town takes about 15 minutes.