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Things to do in Cartagena? Upon arrival, it will be quite evident that you don’t need a list of things to do in Cartagena.
Narrow cobblestone streets, multi-coloured colonial architecture, lively music in the plazas, horse-drawn buggies and a fortified stone wall shouting out the city’s historical importance as a port beg to be explored, enjoyed and understood.
Along with these gems are masses of tourists matched only in number by vendors relentlessly offering to sell you goods of all kinds under a scorching sun. Taxi drivers are exceptionally good at ripping you off and most vendors appear uninterested in striking up even the shortest of conversations.
That being said, Cartagena with its heat and humidity manages to enthrall.
Don’t race all over. Don’t worry about any list of things to do in Cartagena. Saunter with the locals. Wander through the plazas and return more than once to the same streets because the light will be different.
and what’s happening is bound to have changed.
Things To Do In Cartagena: The Take It Slow Guide
1. Wander the Historical Centre In Cartagena
Old Town Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is well-loved by its visitors. It’s no wonder.
Colourful facades graced with blooms of all colours are enough to stop you in your tracks. Wander aimlessly and you will be enchanted by plazas, churches and preserved colonial buildings. Horses and buggies clip-clop by amidst the notorious yellow taxis that are constantly beeping their horns. Cartagena doesn’t stop.
Palenqueras wait for their picture to be taken. Do not even try to take a snap on the sly. Talk to the ladies and make a deal. The going rate is about COP$5000 ($2.15 Cdn).
I asked these lovely ladies why they were called Palenqueras. Proudly they explained that they come from the first free town of the Americas called Palenque, run by runaway African slaves. Palenque, southeast of Cartagena, they told me is where the real roots of Cartagena are found.
Cartagena will capture you.
2. Things To Do In Cartagena: Connect to The Sea
Cartegena is Colombia’s gem sitting by the Caribbean Sea. The antique fortified stone wall built to protect the historical port still stands today. Cartagena was critically important to the Spanish Caribbean trade hundreds of years ago. Gold, silver, cacao and tobacco were shipped to Spain from here. Even today, Cartagena is the second largest port in Latin America.
Plan to stroll along the wall at sunset. It provides great views of the sea and over the rooftops of the old town. Grab a crevice in the wall and position yourself to admire the setting sun.
Purchase a beer from a vendor selling cold ones out of the cooler slung over his shoulder or pull up a seat at Café del Mar and marvel at the view as the sun dips below the horizon.
There is a small fleet of fishermen that leave their boats just outside the city walls. Wander by and see what these men might proudly share with you.
If you need a beach fix, there are plenty of day trips that will take you to Playa Blanca or the Rosario Islands. (See Travel Tips)
3. Visit Parque del Centenario
This park, just outside the walled city, was built in 1911. It is a welcome relief to find a bit of shade in the park all the while searching for its most interesting residents.
Walk through the park, listen to the parakeets, and be sure to look for the sloths and iguanas. There are a couple of monkeys hiding up in those trees too!
Walk through Parque Centenario to get to Getsamaní.
4. Things To Do In Cartagena: Wander Getsamaní
Strolling the narrow streets of trendy Getsamaní, I couldn’t help but feel I had discovered authentic Cartagena. Nothing could be further from the truth with regards to the discovery, as Getsamaní is definitely on travellers’ radar. It is though, much less busy than Old Town and full of locals who actually live there. Plaza de la Trinidad, in front of the church, is lively day and night.
The clatter of dice rolling across a gameboard draws your eye down a small side street. Gathered is a cluster of men focussed on their game. Every night they’re there. Real Cartagena.
Plazaleta del Pozo, where furniture is refinished during the day, transforms into a busy restaurant scene in the evening where local music fills the airwaves.
There is no agenda here. Just explore.
Each narrow street tells a story.
What will be yours?
5. Enjoy a Colombian Coffee In Cartagena
I thoroughly enjoyed my Colombian coffee in Salento and Cartagena did not disappoint. There are plenty of local independent coffee shops to support.
Folklore Colombian Café
This coffee shop serves up delicious coffee, sells coffee beans and is a great place to hang out if you are needing some good wifi. It is quite hard to find strong wifi on the Caribbean Coast but Folklore delivers and their staff is absolutely lovely. Sit inside in the airconditioned space or enjoy the outdoor garden.
Location: On Calle 32, just off of Plaza de la Aduana
Abaco Libros y Café (Abacus Books and Coffee)
The coffee here is also outstanding (and there are beer and wine on offer too). The wifi is good although the tables are rather close together if you plan to work. The bonus here is the books on display and staring at that ladder wondering if you should just climb to the top! Sip a little and peruse the books or at least the ones that are not wrapped in plastic. Delight in the great selection of books by Gabriel García Márquez, a Colombian treasure. Abaco also has a few seats outside.
Location: Corner of Calle de la Iglesia and Calle de la Mantilla
Café del Mural In Cartagena
Café del Mural takes its coffee seriously. There is a lovely place to sit outside but wander in and you can see the roasting machines and a variety of paraphernalia used to create their perfect cup of coffee.
Classes are available to learn about coffee roasting.
This café does not open until 3 pm. Sigh…if you are like me and love that morning cup to get you off to the right start. But Café del Mural is well worth the wait.
Location: Calle de San Juan in Getsamaní
Stepping Stones In Cartagena
Find Calle de San Andrés in Getsamani. It’s the street with the flags hanging. Part way down is the café Stepping Stones. Please support this café. They employ Afro-Colombian and indigenous Colombians to help break the cycle of poverty and lack of education. Reading the menu alone is worth the visit. Coffee is served along with a decent menu. The avocado on an arepa was outstanding.
6. Things To Do In Cartagena: Savour the Street Food
Cartagena is bursting with options. Locals line up for arepas and other fried food. Vendors create food right on the street corners and others sell fresh cut mango, watermelon and some fruits you have never even heard of!
My favourite was Colombitalia Arepas on Calle de San Andrés in Getsamaní.
You’ll find it by the lineup. Check out the menu. Order. Go a few doors down. Buy a beer. Pull up a piece of sidewalk. Wait for your arepa. Pay when you receive it.
I tried both the vegetarian arepa and the chicken one. Both were DELICIOUS!
Cost: COP$8000 ($3.40 Cdn)
7. Climb to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas stands guard over Cartagena. It was initially built atop San Lázaro Hill in the 1600’s to protect the bustling Spanish port of Cartagena. Additions were made to the fortress over the years until it covered the entire hill with its strong walls, strategic views and connecting tunnels.
In 1741 when thousands of British troops fought to take over Cartagena, the last stand was the castle. General Jenkins was sure of his victory and sent word back to Britain that he had won the battle. Little did he know what lay ahead. In trying to secure the Castillo, the Brits lost terribly.
If they had won, would South America be English speaking today?
Castillo de San Felipe became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. People now stroll the ramparts, explore the tunnels and take in the wonderful views over Cartagena.
Entrance: COP$25 000 ($10.60Cdn)
Hours: 8 am – 6 pm. Go early to beat the heat.
Getting There: Walk over the bridge from Getsemaní.
Tip: Don’t miss the animation set up in the “Hospital.” It is an entertaining explanation of the Castillo’s history.
8. Visit Aviario Nacional Colombia (National Aviary of Colombia)
Colombia has incredible biodiversity including 1900 species of birds. I fell for birds back in Central America and my experience in Thailand was quite the story too. So, I’ll never turn down the chance to see a cool bird or two.
I also tracked down some birds with Jungle Joe in Minca, who informed me that Colombia’s National Bird is the condor. Not too long ago they were extinct in Colombia as locals had killed them all. After reintroducing pairs from Peru, the condor is on the comeback in Colombia.
The newly opened Aviario Nacional near Cartagena is the place to go if you are a certified “bird nerd” or have an interest in seeing colourful wildlife up close. Aviario Nacional is a conservation organization and has 165 species of birds such as scarlet ibis, roseate spoonbills, macaws and grey-crowned cranes. Those cranes will actually peck you if you get too close. Oops. It kind of hurt!
Entrance: COP$60000 ($25.20 Cdn)
Hours: Open daily from 9 am – 5 pm. Go early to try to beat the heat.
Getting There: Currently, there is no public transportation to get to the Aviario Nacional Colombia. You will have to find other nature lovers to share a cab. Make a deal with the driver to wait a certain amount of time (2 hours).