Get lost in Old Town, sample streetside empanadas in Getsemani, and dance cumbia til dawn before heading off on a boat tour to explore the bay and nearby islands…these are just some of the adventures to be had in Cartagena, Colombia.
A gorgeous and historic coastal city along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, in Cartagena you’ll be at a crossroads between the Caribbean and South America. Many travelers use it as an introduction to South America before heading east along the coast or down to the bustling destinations of Medellin or Bogota (or perhaps a quick jaunt to Ecuador or Peru?).
We’ve covered all the basics for traveling to Cartagena in this post, including:
- Travel budget
- Top cultural experiences in Cartagena
- How fast is the WiFi?
- Best local eats and drink
Ready to prep and plan for your adventure to Latin America? Here are the top 10 things you need to know before visiting Cartagena, Colombia.
How Hard Is It on the Wallet?
Cartagena, Colombia ranks right in the middle when it comes to budget-friendly cities for travelers. Setting your travel budget will depend on what kind of excursions you want to do and where you want to stay.
For starters, staying in the middle of the historic Old Town is more expensive than the nearby neighborhood of Getsemani. Sit-down restaurants in the Old Town will also be much more on par with U.S. and Western Europe prices than other areas of the city.
Cartagena also gets a 2.5 instead of a 2 because it’s one of the pricier destinations for travelers in Colombia. If you live like a local in Bogota or Medellin, or even Santa Marta, you’ll notice that prices there are much cheaper. Also, note that the local currency is COP (Colombian pesos). Here’s a little breakdown of what to expect for costs in Cartagena, Colombia:
Accommodation: Hostels in Cartagena can still be found on the cheap for less than 50,000 COP (11 USD) per night. The city is also filled with luxury hotels, and prices are currently around 650,000 COP (150 USD) per night.
Food: Some of Cartagena’s top street foods like meat skewers and empanadas only cost about a dollar or two (higher if you’re in Old Town). Lunch or dinner at a non-touristy restaurant will set you back about 13,000 COP per person (3-4 USD). Breakfast in Cartagena can be found for cheaper, and plan to spend less than $4 on a plate of eggs, arepa, and coffee (or chocolate completo, most likely). If you want to be fancy, expect to pay about 100,000 COP for a two or three-course dinner for two.
Transportation and tours: Cartagena is pretty walkable so you don’t need to worry much about transportation costs if you’re sticking to the city. The airport is also super close to town, and a taxi ride there will set you back about 13,000 COP (about $3 USD – make sure to have exact change in pesos, though!).
If you want to get the best price on a tour, our recommendation is to head to a hotel or hostel in Getsemani and ask all about them at their information deck. You can do everything from book a private boat tour of the bay, charter a yacht to some nearby islands (a few hours off the coast), and so much more. Expect to pay about $100 per person (if you’re in a group of 4 people) to charter a boat.
Are the Locals Friendly?
Colombians are lovely and welcoming, and with some knowledge of Spanish you’ll probably find yourself chatting away with just about everyone you meet during your trip.
For reference, the website Nomadlist rates Cartagena as “great” when it comes to friendliness towards foreigners. As with any destination, some knowledge of the culture and language (complete with a big smile) can go a long way.
Basic Dos and Don’ts
Each city in Colombia is unique, so your dos and don’ts list will be a little different depending on whether you’re in Bogota or a Caribbean area like Cartagena. Especially if you’re visiting Cartagena for the first time, here’s some things to keep in mind:
- Don’t drink the tap water.
- Don’t leave your bags unattended in touristy areas or flash your valuables while wandering the streets. This is known in Colombia as “offering up papaya”.
- Don’t walk around alone at night. Old Town will be a little safer for travelers because most areas are well-lit and there’s plenty of bars and nightclubs open at all hours. If you do venture off, always make sure that you’re in a group and use a ride share app (much better than a taxi at night) to get from where you are to your hotel.
- Don’t just casually ask locals about Pablo Escobar. This one goes from a huge pet peeve to an outright no-no: Colombians don’t want to hear about what you think of Pablo Escobar or talk about him at all. The country is working hard to change its reputation, so help them out a little by not bringing up the past and be happy that you’ve been welcomed in their beautiful country.
- Don’t say you can’t dance. In Colombia, not dancing is really not an option. A city like Cartagena is filled with culture and dance is at the heart of it, so it’s best just to feel the rhythm and go with the flow.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the cultural etiquette for travelers to Cartagena, but it’s a start. Make sure to read up on more dos and don’ts before your trip.
Top Trending Things to Do in Cartagena
Landed in Cartagena and ready to explore? Here are the top things to do in 2022.
- Charter a yacht to nearby islands: Book a boat and an expert tour guide to explore some islands in the Caribbean that are a day trip away from the shores of Cartagena. Top picks include the Rosario Islands and Isla Grande.
- Sunset tour: You can have your very own private tour guide organize a walking tour of Cartagena’s most picturesque spots in town. Enjoy some snacks, drinks, take the best pictures for golden hour, all before ending the day by the city wall to watch one of the most glorious sunsets in the Caribbean.
- Walking tours: Traveling on a budget? There are a few free or low-cost walking tours you can join in Cartagena. Take advantage of the free walking tour of Cartagena’s beautiful Old Town that’s been a hit with tourists for over eight years now. Another popular tour is a walking tour of Getsemani and San Diego neighborhoods, where you can check out funky murals and some of Cartagena’s best street art.
How Safe Is It?
Cartagena has a much higher safety index compared to other cities in Colombia. Currently, the city rates at a 82 while Bogota is at a 46, nearby Barranquilla at 47, and Medellin at 46. But, there are still some things to be aware of when you visit Cartagena.
Pickpockets can be common, especially in touristy areas and if you’re visibly carrying valuable items (note the “don’t offer papaya” rule).
Watch out if you go out clubbing, because there are stories of people being drugged and then mugged. Western males between the ages of 30-45 are typically the target, and instances have even been known to occur in broad daylight, so make sure to keep your wits about you.
And if you’re an LGBTQ+ traveler, you’ll be happy to know that Colombia recognizes same-sex relationships.
Travel Insurance Tips for Your Trip:
Travel insurance is always a good idea when going on any type of trip. Get yourself covered (and, at a super low cost!) with the right health insurance just in case you get sick or if your travel stuff gets stolen or lost at some point during your travels to Cartagena.
Local Eats and Drink in Cartagena, Colombia
With mouth-watering arepas and coffee for breakfast, fresh tropical fruits throughout the day, and all kinds of local dishes to sample for dinner, you will eat well in Cartagena. Here are the highlights:
- Cazuela de Mariscos: Cartagena is by the sea, after all, so some of the city’s best dishes are seafood-related. This local dish is a seafood stew brewed in coconut milk.
- Ceviche: Try this local favorite Cartagena style, which is served with coconut milk and sour cream.
- Posta Negra: This uber-local dish is one of the city’s most beloved meals, which consists of beef eye rounds roasted in everything from Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, and even coca-cola.
Cartagena also has an impressive amount of international foods, so if you want to ease into things at the start of your trip (or splurge on a meal), there are plenty of cute cafes and restaurants in the city that serve pastas, sandwiches, pizzas, and other comfort foods.
What Are the Best Apps to Use in Cartagena?
It might be handy to download these apps to your phone before your trip to Cartagena:
- Tappsi: Colombia’s alternative to Uber. This local taxi app that will allow you to safely hail a ride using your phone.
- WhatsApp: This is the main messenger app preferred across Latin America, so download it if you haven’t already.
- Google Translate: If you need help with translation when taking a ride share or checking into your hotel.
- Babbel: A great language app for learning Spanish!
How’s the WiFi?
The WiFi signal doesn’t run super quick inside the walled city of Cartagena, but it’s decent. Most hotels do have WiFi for guests and you can buy a cheap local SIM card to use data or even hotspot yourself. The average speed in Cartagena 5 Mbps. If you need an internet break for the afternoon, here are some cafes in Cartagena with good WiFi.
What Are the Top Cultural Experiences in Cartagena?
Cartagena is a city filled with culture so you can plenty of choice when it comes to unforgettable experiences. Here are some top picks:
- Salsa lessons (with a view, to boot): This amazing experience in Cartagena gets you moving and shaking like a local. A true cultural encounter!
- Food tour: Are you a foodie who also happens to be a book nerd? This tour will be perfect for you! Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of Colombia’s most beloved writers, and this food tour integrates some local dishes enjoyed by the characters in his books.
- Coffee tour: Cartagena is home to some amazing coffee houses and they are a great way to get to know Colombia’s iconic brew. There are a few local cafes in Getsemani that offer coffee experiences that are definitely worth checking out.
How Long Can I Stay?
Travelers from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and more can visit Colombia for leisure without applying for a tourist visa beforehand. You can typically stay for up to 90 days for your first visit.
If you want to stay in Colombia longer, you can request to extend your stay at the local immigration authority. The current policy allows for up to 180 days in one calendar year.
See what all the buzz is about and why Cartagena is an amazing destination in Colombia for your travel radar. With so much beauty to discover, you’ll be wondering why you didn’t plan a visit to Cartagena sooner!
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Disclaimer: Current travel rules and restrictions can change without notice. The decision to travel is ultimately your responsibility. Contact your consulate and/or local authorities to confirm your nationality’s entry and/or any changes to travel requirements before traveling. Travel Off Path does not endorse traveling against government advisories