The extreme inequality of Colombia is nowhere more at display than in Cartagena: the queen of the Caribbean coast has an incredible walled city centre full of tourists. The Bocagrande peninsula is a ridiculously posh area full of residential and hotel towers. And the rest of the city… is poor as hell, full of prostitution and petty crime.
An exaggeration? Try it for yourself. In the Getsemani neighborhood – a beautiful old barrio in the middle of a gentrification process with hostals, boutique hotels, coffee shops, galleries and street art – several women waved a bit too enthusiastically at me, offering their sexual services. And the way to the Convento de la Popa, only two kilometres outside of the centre, is too dangerous to walk.
Don’t let it scare you though. The centre has great vibes, amazing nightlife and the views to match. And the countless street sellers, well, they are annoying but they are also just there to make a living.
So there is the walled city, Bocanegra peninsula and nothing more? Not entirely. There are plenty of beaches as well. Some of them can only be reached by boat. The better ones are Playa Blanca (on the Isla de Baru) and the Islas del Rosario, 27 small coral islands 35 kilometres southwest of the city.
Food and drinks
Where to start? The city centre caters for everyone and isn’t even expensive. But lots of the tourist action is moving to Getsemani. Carrera 10 and around is full of bars and restaurants in all price categories. It ends on Plaza de la Santisima Trinidad, where locals and tourists flock at night to see street dancers, and eat in the surrounding restaurants.
A nice place as well is Muelle, which you might not find on Google Maps even. It is on the waterside behind / east of the Convention Centre. There are several food trucks with standard international fare, but the garden seats with views over the old city (including the cathedral) and the Bocagrande peninsula are priceless.
Activities / things to do
- old town:
- Palacio de la Inquisicion: it’s a beautiful building with a cruel history. Nowadays it is the inquisitors museum, displaying the interrogation tools the Spaniards used
- Museo del Oro Zenu: the miniature version of the Museo de Oro in Bogota, the gold museum there
- Museo de Arte Moderno: in a surprisingly huge building inside the city walls, this museum has good temporary exhibitions of contemporary art
- Catedral: the views from outside the centre of this domed building are amazing, especially at night. Inside it is an astonishing cathedral, especially after the restoration between 2017 and 2019
- Centro Commercial La Serrezuela: usually I don’t mention shopping centers here. But this is a special one. Apparently built on the site of the former bull ring, it is constructed around a new, wooden, circus-shaped theatre. Whether it is actually used for performances I can’t tell, but it is an architectural marvel, surrounded by luxury shops
- city walls: surprisingly accessible, you can walk a good two kilometres on the inner wall from the La Serrezuela mentioned above to the cathedral area. Do it around sunset to get the best views. There is also an outer wall around the Getsemani district
- around the old town:
- Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas: you can’t ignore this vast complex built on the San Lazario hill, east of the centre but within a safe walking distance. It is the biggest fortress the Spaniards ever built in their colonies, was never conquered, and is an amazing display of ingenuity. It is full of tunnels and anti-intrusion measures
- Convento de la Popa: NOT within safe walking distance of the centre. Probably the first time I heard locals so emphatically warn against walking to a tourist spot, because some of the surrounding barrios are extremely poor and the road up the hill has bushes where robbers apparently hide. Probably also the first time I heeded the warnings and took a taxi up and a motortaxi down, which could get expensive as lots of taxistas (and Uber) don’t want to drive up the hill. Once there though, the centuries-old convent is magnificent, with religious art, and a chapel with an impressive golden altar
- Mercado Bazurto: didn’t visit it myself, but my love for Latin markets is well-known. This is apparently another bustling marketplace full of noisy stalls and excellent street food, catering to the real locals
- beaches: there are many in and around town, but you need to make an effort (and invest some money) to get away from the crowds. Playa Blanca on the Isla de Baru is 20km by boat outside town, the Islas del Rosario are even further away. Ask locals for tips as well, avoid the weekends when possible
Getting to Cartagena and getting around
- air: the airport is close to the centre, not very big but surprisingly has several direct connections to the US and Europe. Plenty of domestic flights as well of course
- bus: the main bus terminal is inconveniently located 8 kilometres outside of the city centre. Taxis aren’t super expensive though, and local buses (on the left side when you leave the terminal) bring you to the centre for even less until 9pm in the evening
- getting around: within the centre, and even to Bocagrande, you can walk. Once outside, also for safety reasons, stick to taxis
- Weather: it can get really hot here. From May to November you can expect regular periods of rain, and a sea breeze. Outside of these months, it gets dry and feels like an oven. Daytime temperatures vary between 30 and 32 degrees all year, during the night it barely drops below 24 degrees
- Safety: Cartagena isn’t easy. The city centre though should be safe, as there are vast quantities of policemen patrolling the streets and they don’t take it lightly when tourists are being harrassed. Outside of the centre, be smart. Don’t show valuables, or leave them in your hotel