Cartagena is a wonderfully vibrant city full of history and culture, from its colonial architecture and original city walls to its many and varied museums. There are also many parks and beaches providing opportunities to relax and unwind. A trip to Colombia would be incomplete without a visit to this city boasting Café Havana, Casa Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and its local mud bath volcano. Below I’ve put together a three-day itinerary for seeing the best of Cartagena, with ideas for what to do afterwards.
Day One: Explore the Ciudad Murallada (Walled City)
A day full of urban exploration is one that must start off with a filling breakfast. For us, that place was the Gato Negro Café. This café was a few doors down from the hostel we stayed in, so we decided to try it out for breakfast on our first morning. We liked it so much we ended up going there every morning we were in Cartagena for breakfast, and I’m not ashamed to say that I had the same thing every morning: the savoury crepes with cheese, tomato, onion and peppers. It comes with nicely made tea or coffee and fresh juice which changes from day-to-day, all for 9,000COL. The crepes are delicious, the café’s really cute and cosy, and the staff were really friendly.
Once you’re fuelled up for the day, it’s time to head off to the walled city. On your way, make sure to walk through the Parque del Centenario, a huge park full of lush vegetation, within which you will find a multitude of stalls selling all sorts of souvenirs, clothes and books – great place for a browse. Upon exiting the park, you should see two statues of winged horse statues across the road; this is the Muelle de los Pegasos, which is pretty cool to see and you can get some great photos looking out over the dock as well.
From there head over to the clock tower; with its bright yellow colour you cannot miss it. The clock tower and the vaults on the other side of the plaza behind the wall are part of the original city wall; the vaults were used as Spanish headquarters and then as a jail for Patriots during Independence and at the beginning of the Republic. Now-a-days it hosts a variety of art galleries, sweet and souvenir shops and bars. The clock tower is part of the entrance to the walled city, under which three open doors can be found, the central one being the only original door. They’re a brilliant example of colonial architecture and are iconic parts of Cartagena itself. There’s a tourist information booth near the Plaza de la Paz and the clock tower, and a tourist information centre within the Plaza de los Coches where you can get a map of the area; when we went, the booth was never open, and it took three tries, but we eventually managed to be at the information centre when it was open (at 4pm as opposed to 10am, no idea what was going on).
Armed with a map, you’re fully prepared to head out and explore the walled city. It is full of old colonial buildings, churches, parks, plazas, and parts of the original city wall. From Plaza de los Coches I would recommend heading to Plaza San Pedro Claver; you’ll know you’re in the right place when you start to see a collection of metal statues depicting people going about their daily life sewing, playing chess, and listening to music. It’s a wonderful quirk that really brightens the square up. The Museo de Arte Moderno de Cartagena can be found here, so feel free to pop in for a visit. After that head to Plaza Bolivar, where you can relax in the park, haggle with vendors over cheap souvenirs, grab a snack, or visit the Palacio de la Inquisicion, a museum dedicated to exhibiting the torture devices used by the Church to get people to confess to being witches. A block over is Plaza de Santa Domingo, where you can find the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, with a statue of Pope John Paul II, and a lot of restaurants, street performers, traditional art being sold, and other tourist attractions.
From Plaza Santo Domingo it’s a short walk to get to the original city walls. Chunks of the original town wall still run around the outside of the walled part of the city, and there are numerous points at which you can walk up to the top of the wall and walk along it; this gives you a brilliant view over the ocean and over the city itself. It’s a very relaxing walk, and a great way to take a break for the hustle and bustle of the streets while still exploring the area. As you make your way to the wall, make sure to pass by the Teatro Adolfo Mejia, which is a stunning piece of architecture. Walking along the wall in a clockwise direction will take you past Casa Gabriel Garcia Marquez; you can’t go inside, but there’s a beautiful mural on the wall of the building next door to it on Calle del Cuarto.
If you’re feeling a little drained, Calle del Cuarto is a great place to stop; you can find a variety of cute pubs and restaurants along the street, all with outdoor seating on the footpath that spills out onto the street at night. It’s quite a tourist hot-spot so it is a little expensive, but not too bad if you’re looking for a cool drink and a light snack.
Feeling refreshed, continue to wander the old town for as long as you please: there’s some cute street art to be found near Plaza Fernandez de Madrid, and everywhere you go there are beautiful colonial buildings to admire. As it grows dark the old town lights up, giving it an enchanting glow.
For dinner, I would recommend Lunarossa; it’s a small traditional restaurant near the Gato Negro Café that does a delicious set dinner for 9,000COL – beautiful soup to start, followed by a dish of meat, rice, chips and vegetables. It’s really filling and really cheap – you can’t go wrong with it.
Day Two: Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas & Museums
About a fifteen to twenty-minute walk away from the walled city is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Despite its name, it is a fortress rather than a castle, and was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. It’s quite a large site, and you can easily spend a couple of hours or more wandering around it, exploring the various underground passageways, buildings, and walkways. There are fabulous views over the city from the top of the fortress, and you’ll have the chance to get yourself a snack and a cool drink, and sit in the shade. I would highly advise that you wear suncream and bring plenty of water with you as most of your time in the fortress will be spent outdoors and it gets really hot during the day. It costs 25,000COL to enter the fortress, and it’s extra if you want to buy an audioguide; we didn’t get one, but we spoke to some people who did and they found it very interesting, so it’s up to you whether you want one or not.
After the Castillo is a great time to grab yourself a snack and have a break from the heat of the sun. I would head to Plaza San Diego in the walled city; it’s a cute little square where you will find lots of locals gathered along with vendors selling all sorts of street food, and street performers. It’s a great place to sit and soak up the atmosphere around you.
Given that there are so many museums to be found in the walled city, it’s unlikely that you would have managed to visit them all the day before, so the afternoon is a great time to go check some out. My personal recommendation would be the Museo de Oro, or Gold Museum. It’s free to enter, and while it’s quite small, it definitely packs a punch. The museum holds an impressive collection of ancient gold artefacts, and there’s plenty of information about the process of making these gold figurines and jewellery and their history. The collection spans two levels, and takes around thirty minutes to get through.
For dinner, head to Kokoa Suchi Wok, an Asian restaurant on Carrera 10 in the Getsemani area. The restaurant itself is really lovely looking, the service is superb, the menus are in English and Spanish, and the food is delicious! Sushi is their main dish, and is served beautifully presented on a wooden board; they also do hot noodle and rice dishes in a variety of spices. There’s a good selection of cocktails available, and happy hour is on every day.
Day Three: Volcan Totumo and Café Havana
Any quick bit of research into what to do in Cartagena will bring up the same thing over and over again: Volcan Totumo, or the mud bath volcano. This is a 15-foot-high volcano (there’s a bit of a debate over whether it’s naturally occurring or man-made) within which is a lot of mud that’s naturally heated from the ground. The level of mud in the volcano varies; the day we went it was practically level with the top. You can try to make your own way to Totumo, but it’s a bit of a mission involving several buses and a taxi, so unless you’re driving, the best way to experience this is to go on a tour. At the time that we went it was 45,000COL to go without getting lunch, or 60,000COL to go and then get lunch afterwards. We knew we could get a cheaper lunch in Lunarossa so paid just for the volcano tour, which includes transport and the entrance fee into the site.
We had seen some reviews on Trip Advisor with people complaining that it wasn’t a proper ‘spa’ experience; this is because it is NOT a spa; it’s simply a chance to immerse yourself in a mud bath inside a volcano. Inside the mud bath there are men who do massages for a cost of 3,000COL – this is optional, but you’ll need to be really vocal about not wanting a massage as they simply assume everyone wants one and will manhandle you into position the second you set foot in the mud. Being in the mud bath is sort of surreal; it feels sort of akin to being in thick custard or some other really viscous liquid – you can move but only sluggishly, but if you stay still you remain suspended in the liquid without sinking. When you’re out of the mud bath, you make your way down to the river where women wait to wash you down. This is an experience in itself as they practically strip you naked in an attempt to wash the mud off you, for a cost of 3,000COL. The tour in full is sort of a bizarre experience, but it’s definitely one you won’t forget any time soon!
Back in the city after lunch, take time to rest in preparation for the night time activities; we went for a nap which was wonderful! After dinner, head to the Getsemani area; this area used to be famous for prostitution, but is now a really touristy area, full of bars, cafes and really nice pieces of street art. Head to Plaza de la Santisima Trinidad; a cute square where you’ll find pieces of street art, beautiful colonial buildings, bars, and lots of locals hanging out, playing music, drinking, and eating street food. It’s fun to grab some drinks and snacks and sit out with them, or if you feel like trying out some cocktails, head to Demente, which is on the corner of the square. It’s a really nice bar and restaurant which serves expensive but delicious drinks; we especially liked the Michelada which is beer, lime juice, and spices, served in a salt-rimmed glass, sort of a beer margarita. I also love the chairs which are all small metal rocking chairs; great fun when drinking!
If you feel like dancing, head to Café Havana, Cartagena’s most famous salsa club. With a 25,000COL entrance fee, it’s expensive, but it’s worth the experience of dancing with the crowds around the horseshoe-shaped bar to loud and lively music from a live salsa band. The one things we were disappointed by were the mojitos: we had read that Café Havana was famous for its mojitos, so naturally we had to order one. However, because they have called their mojito ‘world famous’ they have to make so many a night that the bartenders have resorted to an assembly line service and pre-mixed ingredients; the mint is barely crushed, there’s no fresh lime and the drink just doesn’t taste very nice.
• Tayrona National Park
This is found north of Cartagena, and is a great place for those looking to chill out on a beach and do nothing for several days. The park is expensive to enter, but you can camp there and make it worth your money. We weren’t able to go there because of time constraints, but you can find a great account of camping in the national park here.
• La Ciudad Perdida
This hike is 100% on my to-do list for when we come back to Colombia in the future: a 5/6-day hike through the jungle to La Ciudad Perdida, or the lost city. It’s an ancient city in the jungle near Santa Marta, which wasn’t discovered until 1972 by a group of grave robbers. For decades, there was a lot of guerrilla and paramilitary activity in the area, but it’s now safe to hike to with a guide. I really enjoyed reading this account of the hike.
• Cross over to Panama
There are a few different ways to get to Panama from Cartagena; you can sail, take a bus to the Darien Gap and then a boat across to Panama, or fly to Panama. We didn’t have the money to go on a cruise, and the account we read of taking the bus and boat completely put us off that option, so we ended up flying; it’s cheaper than taking a boat and much faster and safe than both the cruise and the bus/boat options.
If you find yourself visiting Cartagena I hope that this itinerary will give you some ideas of what to do and help you build an itinerary of your own.