Cartagena (Colombia)

Cartagena or Cartagena de Indias is a city and a world heritage site in Bolívar, Colombia. The city was one of the first sanctuaries of freed African slaves in the Americas and is currently populated by an ethnic mix representative of Colombia's own variety.

Understand

 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
 
Daily highs (°C) 31.0 31.0 31.1 31.5 31.7 31.9 32.0 31.9 31.7 31.2 31.4 31.4
Nightly lows (°C) 22.7 23.0 23.6 24.5 24.9 25.0 24.7 24.8 24.7 24.4 24.4 23.4
Precipitation (mm) 4.4 0.9 1.5 21.9 88.5 97.8 88.6 110.5 144.0 198.3 121.3 34.8

Source:w:Cartagena, Colombia#Climate

Cartagena with its almost 900.000 inhabitants is located on the northern coast at the Caribbean Sea. Founded by the Spanish in 1533, it was fortified and functioned as the center of the Inquisition in the region. The impressive buildings from the Spanish time today make up a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Today Cartagena is the most visited city in the country by tourists. It gets extremely crowded in the December holidays and the holy week, when schools are out and most Colombians take their vacations. The city has basically two main parts where tourists go: the walled colonial city ("ciudad amurallada"), which is truly amazing and has many fancy restaurants, clubs and hotels; and a long strip of hotel towers and condos fronting onto the beach, known as Bocagrande. It is also nice to visit the exclusive neighborhood of Castillogrande, filled with recently built condos, places to jog, and a quiet beach to soak up some sun.

Being located in the tropics, the climate of the city is defined by dry and rain seasons. The dry season is from December to April and it also rains a little less in July. Nevertheless, there are still on average more sunny than rainy days per month in the rainy season. Apart of September and October, the monthly amount of rain isn't much more than 100 mm. Thanks to this, the temperature is also quite constant around the year with daytime highs of +32°C and nighttime lows of +23°C.

Tourist Offices

Also, there are small Tourist kiosks on Plaza de San Pedro Claver and on Plaza de los Coches.

Get in

By plane

Inside the airport

The   Rafael Núñez International Airport (IATA: CTG) receives international flights from New York City (JetBlue), Panama City (Copa Airlines), Quito, Fort Lauderdale (Spirit Airlines), Miami (Avianca) and Madrid (Iberia). There are several seasonal flights from many cities in Canada.

There are domestic non-stop flights from Medellín, Cali, San Andrés, Bogotá, Montería (ADA airlines), Barrancabermeja, Bucaramanga, and Cúcuta. The new low-cost airline VivaColombia also serves the city.

The airport is located 3 km north-east of the old city. At the airport you can find several ATMs and an exchange bureau where you can change cash and traveler's checks. To get downtown, go to the taxi stand which will give you a receipt with the exact amount you'll have to pay to the driver, around $10-12,000 depending on your destination (2015 rate). To get into town more cheaply, walk about 50 m (150 ft) to the street and hail one of yellow cabs. You should be able to get a cab to take you into town for about $6,000. A still more affordable alternative are the "Metrocar" minibuses with fares from $1000-1700 going from the airport to the India Catalina monument at the western edge of downtown.

By bus

Cartagena skyline from the city walls

The   bus terminal is 11 km east of the old city. Frequent white and green air-conditioned metrocar buses go to the old city and cost $1,700. Taking a cab costs $10,000, a late night surcharge of $500 applies after 8PM. Expreso Brasilia has lines:

Unitransco has lines:

Rapido Ochoa has lines:

If you are coming overland from Panama, your first bus will be from Turbo. Turbo to Monteria is $25,000 (4 hours) and Monteria to Cartagena $35,000 (4 hours) for express services. Expreso Brasilia, Expreso Amerlujo and Unitransco have a daily connection via Barranquilla to the Venezuelan capital Caracas, the two former for $200,000 taking 20 hours. If you travel with Unitransco it's a bit cheaper but it entails and additional transfer of buses at the border.

You may be able to bargain down prices for long-distance tickets, locals do that too.

By boat

Cartagena is an important port for charter boats between Colombia and Panama. There are several private boats doing this trip, but expect to have to wait several days to find a boat. Fares vary between US $375 and US $500 depending on the size of the boat and the on-board services. The trip usually takes 4 nights and 5 days and includes a 2- or 3-day stopover in San Blas Islands. At the Panama end, the boats either leave from the Portobelo Area or from Carti Islands Kuna Yala rather than Colón. Reliable information about departure dates and captains can be found at the hotel Casa Viena.

Especially during cooler months in North America, cruise ships regularly pay day-long port calls here. Depending on their size and numbers on any day, available shore excursions can vary from visits to the city proper, to beaches and islands nearby. Very few will venture to cities elsewhere. The   harbor for cruise ships is located about 3 km southeast of the old town, probably best accessible by taxi or by foot.

By car

The city is connected to the rest of Colombia by good roads. Ruta 90 (Transversal del Caribe) goes along the coast connecting Cartagena to places line Barranquilla and Turbo and has been built out to limited-access highway. You can drive here from Bogota too, but that's a drive of more than 1000 km.

Get around

By foot

The old town in particular is best explored walking. Most places in Bocagrande are also within walking distance.

By bus

To reach other destinations such as the San Felipe fort, there are many buses running all over the city. Ask the driver or other people who are waiting which bus goes to your destination. An urban bus ticket cost $1500, sold by the driver. On the downside, buses drive slower, stop at each corner and seldom take the direct way so expect a bus ride from A to B to take several times that of a taxi ride.

By bike

By taxi

Taxis are yellow in Cartagena

Taxis don't have meters in Cartagena, fares should be negotiated. There are printed fares, but they are more like minimum fares. Even negotiated rates are often higher, especially in high season. There are also night and air condition surcharges each of a few hundred pesos. Confirm your fare before getting in the taxi. Taxi drivers may demand ridiculous rates if not negotiated in advance.

Taxis are generally easy to find, although in the old town you may have to walk a few blocks away from the center, toward the wider road close to wall. From the old town to Boca Grande or vice versa or any transport inside Bocagrande or inside old town expect to pay $6,000; from the airport to the old town or vice versa is $10-12,000.

By chariot

A chariot is a popular way for tourists to get to know the old town. These can be flagged down in the street or there are usually some waiting at the Plaza Bolívar or close to the Santa Clara hotel. They are reminiscent of public transportation of colonial Cartagena, and essentially complete the atmosphere of the old town.

By boat

Cartagena has several harbours for Boats going out to the Islas del Rosario and Playa Blanca, including the Muelle Turistico de la Bodeguita, Muelle Todomar. One of the easiest options (which includes a good lunch and roundtrip tickets [you can come back the same day or stay as long as you'd like as long as you keep your ticket stub]) is to go on one of the big ships like the Alcatraz. These come at the best price at $25,000, but beware - they take around four hours to actually get to Playa Blanca because they move really slowly and stop at the aquarium at Rosario Islands first (which is rather boring).

See

Colonial street within the walled city

Cartagena has several faces; one of a dirty, sprawling Caribbean metropolis, in Bocagrande the one of a massive "hotel ghetto" and finally the old town with its well-polished face of a once affluent colonial city. Cartagena's main attraction is its historic old town surrounded by the city wall. Main entrance is the Clock Tower Building. The walled city includes the neighbourhoods Centro, San Diego, Getsemaní and the modern part La Matuna. The oldest part of Cartagena is around Plaza Trinidad in Getsemaní. Cartagena's five hundred year-old coralstone forts and great parts of its walled city are admirably intact and represent some of the finest examples of civil and military architecture of the Spanish colonial times.

Almost all churches in the historic center are worth visiting, especially Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, in honor of the priest St. Pedro Claver, who was the first saint of the new world for his work with slaves; La Catedral, near Plaza de Bolívar and the Iglesia de Santo Domingo

The old town is divided into three parts: El Centro with the cathedral and the many palaces in Andalucian style, San Diego, which was the quarters of traders and bourgeoisie lived and Getsemaní which was the home of the lower classes. The old harbor of Getsemaní, formerly separating El Centro and San Diego has during the last century transformed into the old town's new commercial area, La Matuna. Here you can also find the pedestrian area Camellón de los Martires, a good place to start exploring the old town.

San Pedro Claver
Museum of the Inquisition
Castillo de San Felipe

Do

Night shot of the façade of the Cathedral of Cartagena de Indias

Nearby coral reefs, powdery beaches, impressive mangroves, and waterways complement the historic and urban beauty.

Tours

You can also take a horse and carriage tour, per #Get around.

Learn

Beaches southwest of Cartagena

The easiest way of going to the beach is heading to the west coast, where there are sand beaches both north of the old town and on the Bocagrande peninsula.

However, there are a couple of beach destinations one or a few hours by boat from Cartagena. Commonly boats leave Cartagena (most near Muelle de la Bodeguita) in the morning and return in the early afternoon. Trips are often available as two-way boat tickets including lunch, but to avoid disappointment don't do business with the wandering ticket touts but buy tickets from a ticket office or kiosk. Be aware that there is a port surcharge of $10.000 not included in posted ticket prices. Also, for these out-of-city destinations you may want to bring some bug spray.

Playa Blanca

  Playa Blanca is widely regarded as the best beach of Cartagena, but it is not that easy to reach. With its white sand and crystal clear water it is probably one of the best beaches in Colombia. After tour boats leave in the afternoon it is also very peaceful and quiet. It is worth staying on Playa Blanca for at least one night. There are several places where you can rent hammocks, get food and drinks. For example, "Wittenbergs place".

On the beach you will be approached to buy massages, fruit platters, sea food and jewelry among other things — they can at times be rather persistent touting their products and services. Watch out for the vendors selling oysters: they will give you an oyster as a present (regalo) to taste. They will quickly crack the shells and serve you a number of oysters, after which you are told that they each cost $2.000. Avoid this $30.000 charge and the subsequent argument on the beach. If you are looking for great seafood and Coco Locos, ask around for Nelson Mandela. Sunbathers are often ushered to rent a "stall" for $5,000.

Bay of Cholon. Farther down from Playa Blanca on Isla Baru in the bay of Cholon is Sportbaru- a place well worth of visit. This tranquil beachfront resort offers water sports, boat tours, eco hikes, gaming and gathering facilities, restaurant and bar; and an exceptional staff that is very accommodating to meet any of your needs. You can take a day tour there from Cartagena, or stay overnight in comfortable cabanas that are all facing the beach.

Islas del Rosario

Islas del Rosario. Several agents arrange boat tours to Islas del Rosario. A set of small islands out of the coast. Usually the tour include lunch, a visit to an aquarium and a few hours at Playa Blanca. Not included in the price is harbor tax and park entrance ($12.000 total) and the entrance fee to the aquarium ($15.000). If you buy your tour at one of the street vendors, don't pay in advance, preferably pay part or all at return in Cartagena. At least one of these tours is to a resort "Coco Liso" which is something like a Colombian butlins. You will be promised a beach, pay a high fee, then disembark a boat after an hour and a half to be greeted with a fairly basic hotel, gimmicky pool, and a tiny slice of beach. Buying a piece of "coral" jewellery from one of the many hawkers, engage them in conversation, and they might lead you to their private beach - quite beautiful, and all the more interesting for having its existence totally denied by the tour operators. The tourist offices in the centre of the old town and a good place to compare the many possible trips to the islands.

Events

Major events take place during the dry season, coinciding with the Northern Hemisphere winter.

Buy

View of Old Cartagena

Getting money

Most hotels, upscale restaurants take credit cards, but many places, especially taxis only accept Colombian pesos. Some banks may exchange money, but the rates may not be the most convenient. The easiest method for obtaining pesos is to use your debit card at an ATM machine. Another option is to use a Cambio or curreny exchange kiosk, however, your exchange rate will be a little higher than by using a debit card. Using a credit card at the ATM machine will require you to use a PIN number, so contact your financial institution before your trip.

Banks

Handicrafts

...souvenirs are also readily available

Handcrafts are fashionable and sophisticated. Emeralds are available for sale all over Cartagena, including polished and uncut loose emeralds and beautiful jewelry. The prices can be reasonable and the variety available is extensive in the old walled city. The stores that sell emeralds and emerald jewelry use various names such as "Taller y Fabrica de Joyas" (workshop and manufactuer of jewelry), "Museo de Artesanias y Esmeraldas" (museum of crafts and emeralds) or simply "Joyeria" (jewelry). Store owners will negotiate and provide a certificate of "authenticity".

Books

Touts

Take some care. Street hawkers are everywhere, ready to lead you to stores that pay them considerable "commissions"; you actually pay them...through higher prices. And many reliable sources report that, without in-depth knowledge of emeralds and ability to recognize 14K and 18K gold, you risk buying fake or "enhanced" stones or gold-plated metalwork at some stores, or paying more for quality items here than you would in reputable stores elsewhere in the Caribbean or at home.

When approached by a street vendor, your best bet is to smile and say "no, thank you", and they will more likely leave you alone. If you do it in a harsh way, they are likely going to follow you around for longer.

Eat

Colorful street in Cartagena

Cartagena features a rich fusion cuisine, combining ingredients and methods of the New and Old worlds, as well as of the original African, Arabian and other legacies of its inhabitants. Eating set menu lunches and dinners in local restaurants called 'corrientes' costs around $6.000 (US $3). A typical dish consists of fried fish (if you are by the beach), chicken or meat, served with coconut rice (arroz de coco), fried plantains (patacones) and salad. There are many places that sell $2.000 fruit juices. Colombia boasts a very good range of exotic fruits that can be mixed with water or milk.

In the old town, dozens of good restaurants can be found dotted around the streetsm particularly concentrated close to the Plaza Santo Domingo. Beware that many of the city's restaurants are not open on Sundays.

Budget

This page uses the following price ranges for a typical meal for one, including soft drink:
Budget <$15,000
Mid-range $15,000-40,000
Splurge >$40,000

Mid-range

From street vendors you can buy some refreshing fruit, for instance

Splurge

Drink

Night view of Cartagena from La Popa

Coffee

The most common type of coffee in Colombia is the sweet tinto. This can be bought from street vendors all over Cartagena for $500.

Nightlife

Most bars and clubs are found in the old town or at Avenida del Arsenal near the Convention Center. Plaza San Diego is a square with a lot of bars and restaurants, very lively in the weekends.

Sleep

This guide uses the following price ranges for a standard double room:
Budget <$80,000 (<USD 25)
Mid-range $80,000-250,000 (USD 25-80)
Splurge >$250,000 (USD >80)

In the ciudad amurallada, the most famous hotels are Sofitel Santa Clara and Charleston Santa Teresa, both old monasteries renovated in the 90s. Either of them have fabulous facilities - expect prices like Monaco. Otherwise, the newest part of the city, Bocagrande, offers the largest number of hotels of all prices. You should always try to stay in the ciudad amurallada, since this is what makes Cartagena unique, rather than its beaches, which are normally too crowded and not really clean. If you cannot afford the five-star hotels, you may try with colonial houses turned into hostels, but they are rather small and sometimes getting a room there may be a matter of luck.

Like in some other parts of Latin America, like Uruguay, more expensive hotel rooms may be quoted in US dollars even at the hotel's own web page.

Budget

Narrow streets downtown

Budget hotels and hostels can be found in Getsemaní around the Calle de la Media Luna. If you're already in Cartagena just walk along the Calle de la Media Luna and check out the numerous hostals to get an impression of their offering. You'll notice that the 'value for money' differs heavily between the places, even though they're next to each other: For $50.000 you can either stay in a really nice private double room or in a dodgy dorm.

Mid-range

Walls with bastions surround the old town

Splurge

Cartagena from air. Some of the skyscrapers of the Bocagrande peninsula to the right are hotels

Up-scale hotels can be found in San Diego and El Centro area of the old city.


Stay safe

Cartagena by night

The touristed old town is not more dangerous than a city in the first world, but going off the beaten path to the periphery of the city there is a real risk of getting robbed. Be very careful when walking at night specially around lonely parts of the city. Locals are in general helpful and kind. The street vendors can be very annoying, but a simple "No quiero nada" in Spanish will keep them away.

There is a scam going on where tourists are lured into buying drugs. Firstly, save for small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption, drugs are illegal in Colombia. But if you do this, "police" (the rest of the con gang) will emerge in a minute, drag you off to the nearest ATM and demand that you withdraw astronomical sums to pay "fines" or even kidnap you.

Watch out for the "money-changing-magicians"

Those street vendors offer you a very good exchange rate. After you have counted the money you will recognize that a small amount is missing, and after complaining he will put exactly that amount on top again. In the same move they will take some big notes from the bottom. Most people won't count their money a second time, and first think they made a good deal but in fact got ripped off.

Dodgy tours to Islas del Rosario and Playa Blanca

The tours offered to visit Islas del Rosario and Playa Blanca can be quite a let down. You'll be offered a price for a tour which "includes" either snorkeling or entrance to the aquarium and a meal at Playa Blanca for about $50.000. Once on the trip you find out that you have to pay extra for the aquarium or the snorkeling - $15.000. Make sure the tour guides on the boat are told by the person who sold the tour what is included in order to avoid disagreements.

The best way to book a tour is going inside the marina and avoiding the "sales" people outside. They are getting a cut for the sales and have no responsibility to you. Once inside ask for Elizabeth (known lovingly as La negra Liz"). She owns several boats, will give you the best price, and most importantly her word. You can rent your own small boat for $700.000 or secure a seat for $75.000. Ask them before hand about the itinerary. Her company in particular has its own "resort" in the Rosario Islands. The resort is clean, nice and has good food for a reasonable price. Unfortunately, their beach access is limited and less than spectacular. Her boats will insist on taking you there, but you have a choice. Playa blanca is by far the best beach, but it can be overwhelming with the locals trying to sell you their products.

More upscale destinations include the Baru Island and private resorts owned by the big hotels (Santa Clara, Santa Teresa). In most, you are allowed to spend the day at the beach. Every tour boat has their own agenda.

Taking a long distance bus

If you plan to take a bus to Santa Marta from bus terminal, it is advised to approach ticket counters and buy tickets directly there. Otherwise be aware: normally there is a bus service with connection in Barranquilla, where you will have to change a bus and pay a new fare to Santa Marta again, even if you have already paid it in a previous bus and even if you were promised that this was an absolutely direct bus to Santa Marta. If you happen to have this kind of connection in Barranquilla, make sure that you keep your tickets with you (even though they are being collected shortly after departure) and make sure that the guy, who will meet you in a bus and guide to another bus during a connection was clearly notified by a bus driver that you have already paid your fare to Santa Marta.

Stay healthy

Colombia has an outbreak of the Zika virus, which is hazardous for pregnant women since it can severely damage the baby in the womb. The Colombian government is advising its residents to avoid pregnancy and various other governments advise women who are or might become pregnant to avoid travel to the area. Here is the travel advisory from the US government Center for Disease Control.

Hospitals

Connect

Mail box in Parque Bolívar

Post

Sending postcards to Europe is expensive; a stamp costs $6.800.

Internet

Cope

Consulates

Libraries

Go next

Santa Marta
Totumo
The easiest way to get there is to take a tour. These cost around $30.000 (12/2010, $50.000 but booked from Hilton) with Rafael Perez tours (next door to the Cartagena Plaza Hotel in Bocagrande) and include the one hour each way journey to the volcano, as well as lunch and a swim at La Boquilla on the return to Cartagena. Another tour company is Los Pinos, which also charges $35.000 (or $25.000 without lunch) and uses the Manzanillo del Mar fishing village for a swim on the return journey. This tour can be booked from many hotels, such as the Casa Viena, in Calle San Andrés (Getsemaní), 5-664-6242 or Hostel Mamallena in Calle Media Luna 5-664-0948. Although the mud bath and massages are offered free of charge, you will be expected to tip anyone who helped you before your bus leaves. Other services expecting tips include storing your belongings, your shoes, holding onto your camera and taking snaps while you are immersed in the mud, and the women who help you wash off in the laguna. Tips of between $1.000-5.000 for each person are the norm, depending on the service. Be sure to bring change.
Going by yourself is quite a hassle, but you may find you have the whole volcano to yourself and can take all the time you want. (12/2010, $3.000 for every help, massage, guy who takes photos of you, women who helps who washing afterwards.) Take a bus from the city center to Terminal de transporte ($1.700). There, take the hourly bus to Galerazamba and get off at Lomito Arena ($6.000). From there it is 45 minute walk or take a motortaxi ($2.000). The whole trip takes about 2.5 hours. The last bus back from Lomito Arena leaves around 3PM.
Bocachica is worth to visit to see its restored fortress (fuerte de San Fernando). The beach isn't really special but OK to hang out for some hours .you find several open air restaurant serving food and drinks. Local boats leave during the day every 30-45 minutes from "Muelle de los Pegassos". The boat ride takes about 15 minutes. Guides will try to sell you expensive "all included" trips to Bocachica but you should pay just the local fare ($5.000/one way, July 2009). Once you ask for the price it will get more expensive.
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