Planning Your Stay in Cartagena
It's no small thing to say that Cartagena is the most well-preserved Spanish colonial city in the Americas. More than Lima or even Cuzco, Cartagena is an open-air museum harkening back to a time when conquistadores, blinded by gold fever, arrived in the New World with dreams of El Dorado. Spain did indeed get the gold, but with their defeat in the Latin American Wars of Independence, they left behind one of the most beautiful fortified cities in South America.
Those planning a tropical holiday to Cartagena should know a couple of things right off. First, the city is divided into two parts, the historic Walled City (or Old Town), and everything surrounding it. The Walled City is exactly that: the historic center encircled by colonial stone walls and ramparts. Outside is the modern Cartagena, where locals live, plus the upscale beachfront district of Bocagrande—a kind of mini-Miami with its shimmering apartment towers and long stretches of beach.
Next, be aware that the Caribbean lowlands, where Cartagena is located, is one of the hottest regions in Colombia. Average highs are in the 87°F/31°C range, and it's humid. Regardless, the sultry tropical heat only adds to the ambiance, and there are more than enough great beaches located a short drive from Cartagena where you can cool off.
And even though the weather rarely changes in Cartagena, the country itself enjoys different seasons in different regions. Find out more about the best time to visit Colombia here.
24 Hours in Cartagena
Perhaps you're on a layover between destinations, or you're simply on a tight schedule. Either way, even with 24 hours or less you can see the major highlights of Cartagena if you're efficient in your sightseeing. The airport is located less than a mile from the historic center, so you can get into the Walled City quick by taxi or rideshare. And it's here you'll want to begin a walking tour of the city.
Know that the Walled City is divided into two neighborhoods: San Diego in the east, and Santo Domingo in the west. You can easily walk the entire area in two or three hours, and that includes stops to admire the sights. These include Plaza de Bolívar, around which you'll find interesting historic buildings such as the macabre Palace of the Inquisition.
There are also a number of colonial churches like Santo Domingo, which sits in the plaza of the same name. The church dates to the 16th century and right in front of it is La Gorda Gertrudis, a bronze sculpture (of a female nude) by celebrated Colombian artist Fernando Botero.
Once you've strolled through the plazas, parks, and seen the city sights from the ground, you can then do so from above. Walking atop the Walled City's some eight miles of ramparts is one of the great activities in Cartagena, as it gives you a wide scope of Old Town to one side and the mellow waters of the Caribbean on the other. Incidentally, it's also a fantastic spot to watch the sunset.
Another option if you have a bit more time before your flight is to enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride around the cobbled streets of the Walled City. The tour passes by all the old colorful colonial mansions, making for a romantic evening indeed. You can then enjoy a nightcap at one of the many bars along the Plaza de Los Coches. If you don't imbibe, then opt for some delectable sweets in the Portal de los Dulces (candy vendors) that line the plaza.
2-3 Days in Cartagena
Having a couple of free days in Cartagena is the perfect excuse to go beyond the Walled City and explore. Just south of it lies another beautiful and historic colonial enclave, Getsemaní. This colorful neighborhood is a fun nightlife destination due to its many bars and salsa clubs, but there's also more of a local presence here, particularly around the Plaza de Santisima Trinidad, where people congregate at night and vendors sell street food like arepas (corn cakes) and pinchos (meat skewers).
Also outside the old walls is a major historic landmark: Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. This massive stone fortress sits atop the San Lázaro Hill, south of Getsemaní, and watches over Cartagena and the sea. It was built by the crown in 1526 to defend the port from pirate attacks and protect the gold-laden galleons leaving for Spain. There are great views from atop its ramparts and many narrow internal passageways that make for a fun walk (claustrophobics might want to sit this one out).
Unfortunately, the beaches rimming Cartagena are neither attractive nor great for swimming. If you're looking for the quintessential white-sand beaches and turquoise waters of the Caribbean, go to Playa Blanca. This is a beach bum's paradise, as it's filled with long stretches of sand perfect for sunbathing and the waters it fronts are perfect for swimming. Playa Blanca is located on Isla Barú, a peninsula south of Cartagena and is accessible via a shuttle bus or speedboat.
4-5 Days in Cartagena
With the better part of a week at your disposal, you can really discover the region around Cartagena. After a day or two spent touring the Walled City on walking tours and carriage rides, head to Playa Blanca for a day on the beach plus a boat tour to Islas del Rosario. This group of mostly uninhabited coral islands is actually part of the Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park, which offers great diving and snorkeling opportunities.
If you want a relaxing and rejuvenating experience of the earthy variety, you can travel about an hour outside Cartagena to Volcán del Totumo. This volcano-shaped pool of mud doubles as a public bath due to the nutrients in the earth. It makes for a fun day trip, and a tour of the area plus a soak takes about three hours.
If you really want to broaden your horizons, it's advisable to combine your Cartagena holiday with a night or two in Santa Marta. This colonial town on the Caribbean is actually where Colombia was founded in the early 16th century. It has a laid-back vibe, which is a nice contrast to Cartagena, and is also home to a major historic site, the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino. This country home is where the great Liberator, Símon Bolívar, died in 1830. It's now a museum.
If you're here for five days and have managed your time well, you could plan a trip from Santa Marta to Tayrona National Park. This is Colombia's most popular protected area due to its stunning section of Caribbean coastline backed by rolling green Andes. On a day trip it's possible to visit Cabo San Juan, one of the most beautiful beaches in the entire country. There are hiking excursions as well, but these take a bit more time and thus we recommend leaving from Santa Marta as opposed to Cartagena.