So first of all, for me personally this place is simply too touristy. I like it a little quieter and prefer not to be approached by tour agents and street vendors all the time. Furthermore the beaches are ok for a quick swim but nothing where I see myself hanging out for a while, maybe even a few days. In Bocagrande the panoramic view is rather disappointing due to all skyscrapers lining up behind the beach and Playa Blanca takes a lot of time to get to and it will be a disappointment if you go there with a tour.
Still it is obviously not all bad about Cartagena and in general I have always had a great time there.
In the last few years I have been to Cartagena 3 times and none of these 3 times the Caribbean town managed to convince me. Restaurants and Bars are mainly overpriced, the streets of the historic city centre are packed during the day and the beaches are full of beach vendors that tend to get annoying. The same problem I have with the Isla Baru one of the tourist magnets. This place is supposed to be a highlight and many Colombians and tourists love it. For me this is hard to understand but probably people are different, have a different mindset and simply have different expectations.
Maybe I should have visited the town before I started living in Medellin or I had visited the Tayrona Park. It might be that at the first time I arrived there I was already spoiled by the beauty of all the other amazing places I had already seen. For me the most negative point in Cartagena is the street vendors that try to sell you from Sunglasses to crabs basically everything you can imagine. This is in general wouldn’t be a problem but they simply can’t take no for an answer and this can get really annoying. Also there are just too many of them so that you can’t quite relax as there is always someone approaching you. The picture on Isla Baru (Playa Blanca) is very similar. Obviously people just try to earn some money but the way they are trying to do so is by ripping you off and getting obstrusive. This behaviour doesn’t get me to buy anything or even if I buy something from them I will never do it again. This behaviour is rather an exception compared to the rest of Colombia and probably a result of the many tourists that come there daily.
Playa Blanca (Isla Baru)
If you intend to go to Playa Blanca don’t go for the tour with the large boat but rather take a speedboat and go directly to the beach. The regular tour takes a very long time to get to the beach and you will only have a short amount of time to spent relaxing at the beach. Another disadvantage is if you go and do the tour you and all the other tourists will be treated like a cattle, once you arrive at Playa Blanca. After several hours you will be pushed in a cage where everyone can pick up his lunch (fried fish). From outside behind the fence the locals are trying to sell you drinks with the repeating words “Gaseosa, Gaseosa”, which creates a little Zombie like atmosphere and you thinks this could be an episode of the walking dead, playing in the Caribbean. After lunch you will have roughly 40 minutes to “rest” on the crowded beach. Albright I admit this is the worst case scenario and in case you take the speedboat and even rent a cabana to stay overnight, you can indeed spent some very relaxed moments on the otherwise quite beautiful beach. Also when you stay overnight and you have some more time on your hands you can probably find as well a quiet place on the beach .
Bocagrande is basically a neighbourhood in Cartagena with a huge beach where you can take a swim during your stay, in the warm Caribbean water. Particularly beautiful is this beach certainly not due to all the hotels and apartment buildings behind. Last time I was there I booked myself an Airbnb in one of the skyscrapers and the view from the top made up for the view from the bottom.
Historic City Centre (centro historico)
I have to admit the historical city centre of Cartagena is very beautiful. Especially during the evening hours this place is very charming. The colourful colonial buildings as well as the fortress that surrounds it make this place just perfect. Stay on top of the fortress and watch the sun set or stroll through the lovely little alleys and have a drink. Wandering through the streets is most likely the best experience in Cartagena.
El Tumo (mud volcano)
Another famous daytrip from Cartagena is the trip to mud volcano El Tumo. It is said that the mud in the inside of the volcano has a healing effect. El Tumo is located only 30 – 45 minutes (45 Km) with the bus or taxi, away from Cartagena. You can either book a tour with one of the many hotels and hostels in Cartagena or you can go there on your own by taking a combination of bus and taxi. A tour including transport and entrance fee will cost you around COP 25,000-40,000. If you go by yourself you will pay the entrance fee of 2,000 COP and about 10,000 COP for transport. First you have to take a bus from the Terminal Transporte Lomito Arena and later on a mototaxi to the volcano. The way by foot from Lomito Arena takes about 45 minutes. Enjoy your mud bath
Another thing that I really enjoyed apart from the historical city centre by night is the nightlife in general. Especially the Getsemani neighbourhood which is right in front of the city centre is a great place to have some drinks. Here you can not only find many hotels and hostel but also plenty of bars and clubs. A big part of the crowd at night is foreigners but there are also places where you find almost only locals. My favourite thing to do in this area in the evening, was to hang out at the Plaza de Trinidad where tourists and locals mix and have a few beers together and enjoy life. Just be warned you are not allowed to drink alcohol right in front of the place in front of the church. Always when I’m in Cartagena I start my nights here before I end up in one of the many bars and clubs around.
Culinary Cartagena has a lot to offer. No matter if you are on a budget (crabs with rice for 5.000 Pesos in the centre), or you like something in the price midrange (Mar de las Antillas) or you fancy a more elegant upper-class restaurant like Carmen, the quality of the food is always high and especially seafood and fish are highly recommended. You can obviously also find the Colombian regulars like empanadas and arepas. But you should rather eat a lobster here as it is quite cheap and tasty. Not as cheap as in La Guajira but still totally worth the price.
What to do in Cartagena?
- Stroll through the alleys of the city centre. Especially beautiful in the evening.
- Have a drink outside at the Plaza de Trinidad and dance through the night in one of the Clubs
- Visit Playa Blanca on Isla Baru
- Visit the Isla Rosario
- Do some water sports activities like kite surfing, parasailing or jet ski
- Eat fish and sea food
- Make a sailing boat trip to the stunning Panamanian islands of San Blas
Basically I believe that spending one day in Cartagena is enough. Skip the beaches and rather enjoy the city centre and the nightlife as you will find better beach sides in Colombia like Capurgana, Tayrona or Palomino. These are places where you can relax to the fullest and furthermore they are simply amazing. But if sun and water is enough to make you happy, you will probably be able to enjoy Cartagena even for a few more days.
My personal experience is that it can be quite difficult to find a centrally located hostel or Hotel in Cartagena with a good value for money. That is why the last time I stayed in Cartagena I decided to rent myself an apartment in Bocagrande. Apart from the fact that it was aver y beautiful apartment in a building with a pool and a gym I also had the advantage of having a fully equipped kitchen and it cost me the same price as an middle-price ranged hotel. After dividing the costs by 4 I paid as much as for a bad in a dormitory. If you feel like renting an apartment via Airbnb and in case you still have no Airbnb-Account feel free to sign up via my link and you will get 29 EUR/32 USD from me which will make your 1st booking almost free. Sign up here
In case you prefer a bed in a hotel or hostel because it is easier to meet new people or because the hotel is closer to the Centro Historico I have some recommendations for you here:.
Balcones de Venecia
Getsemani, Calle Tripita y Media N° 31-52, Getsemani, 130015
The first time I visited the city I spent in the hotel Balcones de Venecia. For sure the best about this place is the perfect location. The hotel is located just a few minutes from the city centre. From the Plaza de Trinidad and the party area it is also just a few minutes away. There are several Club very close to this place but still you won’t be disturbed by any noise as it is located in a small side street. The employees are very friendly and helpfulDie Angestellten sind sehr liebenwürdig und hilfsbereit. For more information click here
Hotel San Felipe
Carrera 9 No .31-72, Getsemani, 130001
In the hotel San Felipe I have also already spent two nights. Here as well the location is great and close to the centro historico. Apart from that there is not much luxury. It is very simple but clean. For more Information click here
Upper price range
Sofitel Santa Clara
Calle Del Torno, 39 – 29 Barrio San Diego, San Diego, 130015
The former monastery is an absolute luxury hotel with 2 restaurants and a Spa. The hotel is located very central and just a few metres from the Plaza Santo Domingo. If you can afford it you shouldn’t miss this as it is absolutely stunning. For more information click here