Cartagena is chock-full of cool things to keep kids' attention from their iPads. Whether you want to seek out the best entertainment, burn calories on walking tours, or experience an awesome cultural immersion, read on for our top tips intended to help you have the best family vacation ever. For further information, see Tips for Traveling with Kids in Colombia.
#1 Tour the Colonial Quarter in a Horse-Drawn Carriage
To get your bearings, there’s no better way to start your Cartagena vacation than by exploring the Casco Viejo—historic core—in a horse-drawn carriage. It’s the perfect way to experience the colonial quarter. You’ll gain insights into the past as your guide narrates your journey—perfect for kids interested in history. A sunset and evening tour adds a touch of romance for parents, and children will love the added sense of adventure. You can reserve in advance from one of the tour agencies, or hail a carriage on virtually any street; it’s considered fine to haggle to get an acceptable rate. For options on where to book your stay in and around Cartagena's colonial quarter, see this article.
#2 Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Built by slaves beginning in 1536 and not finally completed until 1762, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the three largest castles ever built in the Americas. Located atop San Lázaro Hill, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is a massive fortress with sloping ramparts that once guarded the landward approach to the Cartagena. Kids will enjoy exploring the maze of dark tunnels echoing every footstep, as well as the battlements with their rusted cannons. Don’t miss the Almacén de Pólvora (Gunpowder Store).
Many of the steps and paths here have been worn by the relentless march of millions of feet over the centuries, so tread carefully. Multilingual signs are minimal, but there are English-language audio guides for rent. You can also hire a qualified guide for a more rewarding experience. The castle is a 15-minute walk east from Cartagena's historic center via the colorful Getsemani district. Take a sunhat and plenty of water, as it can get brutally hot while exploring.
#3 Walk the City Walls
Once one of the three main ports of the Spanish treasure fleet, it’s no surprise that Cartagena is surrounded by man-made bulwarks. These include the perimeter wall with battlements and baluartes (watch-towers). La Muralla (the wall) surrounds the east, north, and west sides of the historic core and walking atop it is a great way to explore the city. Make sure to allow for stops at key sites of interest.
If you want to walk the entire wall, the logical place to begin is Baluarte de San Pedro Martir, on the easternmost apex. Follow it north past the old Plaza de Toros (bullring) to Plaza de Las Bóvedas. Here storerooms built into the city walls house souvenir and crafts stores. Combine it with a visit to the tiny Museo de las Fortificaciones, adjacent, with exhibits on the city defenses.
Continue along the north side and walk south to Baluarte de San Francisco Javier. Descend to the plazuela (little plaza) to visit the Museo Naval del Caribe—the naval museum. The last walled section leads east to the Torre del Reloj (clocktower) and Plaza de los Coches, where youngsters can pick among the sugary sweets displayed for sale at the Portal de los Dulces. See the Best Things to Do in Cartagena article for more information about sites to see during your walk.
#4 Head Out of Town on a Nature Tour
Just 20 minutes north of the city lies the quaint fishing village of La Boquilla. Here you'll find mangrove wetlands that are home to a wealth of natural treasures. Your kids will love discovering the exotic flora and fauna as well as meeting local fishermen in the area. Tours typically leave in the morning or later in the afternoon and comprise between two and three hours.
After arriving in the village and meeting the locals, you and the family will be whisked away on a canoe trip through mangrove tunnels to Juan Pablo Lagoon, where you'll be treated to a variety of wildlife including (if you're lucky) green parrots relaxing on the water banks. Estimates place the number of migratory bird species that can be found here at 100. So you're bound to see many species, including egrets, tanagers, and pelicans. Local expert guides will be with you every step of the way to offer commentary on these natural wonders.
#5 Make Artisanal Chocolates at the ChocoMuseo
Just thinking of visiting the ChocoMuseo (Chocolate Museum), you can almost taste the scrumptious treats that await. We’d give it high marks even if it were only an educational lesson about how chocolate is made. But here you’ll don aprons and play Willy Wonka in a hands-on chocolate-making workshop. Kids and the young at heart get to grind their own chocolate powder, mix the ingredients, and bake and decorate their own chocolates. Plus, the place doubles as a café serving all manner of sinfully sweet chocolate drinks, cookies, and more.
#6 Museo del Oro Zenú and Museo del Inquisición
Glimmering with pre-Columbian gold, jade and emerald artifacts, the Museo del Oro Zenú is the crown jewel of Cartagena’s museums. A mini version of Bogotá’s spectacular Museo del Oro, this one concentrates on the indigenous Zenú culture, which inhabited the region at the time of the Spanish conquest. Your jaw will drop as you admire an astonishing wealth of gold adornments and delicate figurines such as felines, frogs, and anthropomorphic figures. The air-conditioning is usually cranked up, making it refreshing escape from the heat.
Next, step across Plaza de Bolívar, to the Palacio de la Inquisición, once the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition. Beyond its exquisite baroque stone exterior, it displays a fascinating and sordid array of torture instruments used by faith-based sadists in colonial days. There are no worries here about not being able to hold a child’s attention.
#7 Islas del Rosario and Playa Blanca, Barú
If you and the kids want some beach time, then head out on a day excursion to the unspoiled Islas del Rosario archipelago—30 miles west of Cartagena. Several local tour operators offer organized boat trips to this protected marine park spanning 463 square miles of turquoise Caribbean waters and white-sand beaches. Rent snorkel gear and swim with the fishes that swarm the coral reefs, or laze in the sun while the young ones build sandcastles and play in the shallows. Most excursions include lunch on the beach, and some offer complimentary kayaks and paddleboards.
An alternative excursion is to Playa Blanca, a popular beach resort at Barú—15 miles southwest of Cartagena—known for its namesake white sands.
#8 Aviario Nacional de Colombia (Barú Bird Sanctuary)
Opened in 2016, this little-known wildlife refuge on Isla Barú—a 45-minute taxi ride from Cartagena—is a perfect escape for nature-loving families and is best combined with a few relaxing hours at Playa Blanca. The privately owned facility displays around 140 bird species in large enclosures that mimic the birds’ natural habitats, including lagoons and mangroves accessed by boardwalk trails. Most of the feathered friends here are native to Colombia—from the Andean cock-of-the-rock to hummingbirds, macaws and even a flock of flamingos. A highlight is the reserve's two harpy eagles. South America's largest bird of prey, these birds have a wingspan of 7 feet, plus huge talons used for seizing monkeys and sloths from the treetops.
#9 Play in One of Cartagena's (Many) Hotel Pools
Nothing is more refreshing after long hours exploring Cartagena than hanging out poolside, and there are plenty of hotels that offer protected places for your family to take a dip. The Hilton Cartagena is a great bet, with four multi-tiered pools, a waterslide, and a swim-up bar for mom and dad. And spending some time at a large-scale chain hotel has more kid-friendly perks like a children’s play area and multiple restaurants that are varying levels of casual.
If you're not staying at the Hilton, you can buy a day pass that also includes a discounted price on food, drinks, and spa services. Keep in mind that the pool can get crowded in the afternoons, so choose your swimming times wisely. Other hotels with pools and day pass options include the Sofitel and the Hyatt Regency. For more ideas, here's a list of 9 Great Hotel Pools in Cartagena.
#10 Explore the Walled City by Bicycle
Kids have a potent combination of natural energy plus a craving for excitement. So we can’t think of a better way to satisfy both urges than exploring Cartagena by bicycle. The relatively traffic-free streets of the historic Walled City are tailor-made for two-wheel exploring. The beachfront ride through the Boca Grande neighborhood is also a great ride, offering a chance for kids to take a break to play on the beach. For those inveterate cyclists interested in exploring the entire country on two wheels, check out this article.