Cartagena is one of the biggest cities we’ve sailed into, and even with Covid lockdowns, we found it lively and entertaining. Even though this isn’t our first visit to Cartagena, we still had a lot to see and discover. I went on some tours my first time here, but I’ve done a lot in the 5 years in between visits, so the city seems new to me. It’s been a blast exploring Cartagena again. Read on for my Cartagena highlights.
Orientation to Cartagena
When you arrive in Cartagena, the views are stunning. The ocean is next to skyscrapers and old stone walls. There’s an ancient clock-tower and a modern gold building. On the water are old wooden sailing ships and luxurious catamarans. On the streets are women in colorful traditional costumes, including fruit hats, alongside hundreds of people driving mopeds.
This is Cartagena, Colombia: a city of contrasts, and we love it! It’s also a city of neighborhoods: First is El Centro, known as the Old City or Walled City, a historic zone and a UNESCO World Heritage site. To the south is Bocagrande, the residential strip of modern beachfront high-rises filled with restaurants and malls. Getsemani, a gentrifying district with colorful streets and nightlife, is south of the walled city and west across the harbor from Bocagrande. There is so much to see and do you might get overwhelmed, so here are our Cartagena highlights.
Staying in Cartagena
Most people aren’t like us, bringing our home with us to new places. In that case, here are recommendations of where to stay in Cartagena from an expert.
Some Cartagena highlights you can do on your own: walk the walls of the old city, visit the historic Spanish-style squares, marvel at the street art, practice your Spanish, and sample the great food and drink. Walking around Cartagena is a fun experience in itself.
Read on for the Cartagena highlights which we highly recommend to other visitors.
Needing a refresher on this historical city, we signed up for a cycling tour with a cool theme: movies. Cycling the walled city feels like something in a movie so why not learn about the cinemagraphic history of Cartagena?
We had a 4 hour ride through Bocagrande and the Walled City with our amazing tour guide, Gerardo, who designed this tour because he grew up in film. His father founded the Cartagena Film Festival and he founded Cartagena Bike Tours. And to say Gerardo is an expert is an understatement. He told us stories and pointed out scenes from more than 20 movies filmed in the streets of Cartagena. He also introduced us to locals, showed off his favorite restaurants, and shared interesting stories. Brian and I were happy to get on bikes again, and Gerardo made it a fascinating day in Cartagena.
Wildlife in the City
Right in between El Centro and Getsemani is a public park where wild animals live. You wouldn’t know about the monkeys or sloths dwelling in the trees unless somebody told you or you got very lucky. The best way to spot these adorable animals is to look at the other people in the park. Is there a group of people looking up? They are either watching monkeys or sloths. Or giant iguanas. We’ve seen those too!
The park is called Parque de Centenario and it is literally across the street from The Clock Tower in the Old City of Cartagena. Visiting the sloths and monkeys is one of our highlights in Cartagena. The first time we went looking was the best because we saw both. A monkey even ran out in the path in front of me! If you like wild animals, this is the place to go. But don’t disturb or feed them. They have enough to eat in the trees.
If you are walking between El Centro and Getsemani, definitely cut through Parque de Centenario for the chance of seeing iguanas, monkeys, and sloths.
Caribbean Naval Museum
We live on a boat and are obsessed with all things nautical. Of course we visited this museum, just as we did in Curaçao! Cartagena’s naval museum is located in the walled city, in a historical area near the monastic complex of San Pedro Claver. The building was previously used to train marines and houses a large collection of nautical and military materials.
Good news! Lots of the displays are translated into English, and with multiple floors of nautical artifacts, we spent a few hours here. Model boats, photos, a submarine, and a display on scuba diving all drew us in.
The Rosario Islands
One of the most popular tourist sites in Cartagena is not in the city. You have to take a boat to get there. Lucky for us, we have a boat and have been to The Rosario Islands a few times.
Touring The Rosario Islands
Many tourists sign on for day tours, hitting multiple islands and stopping for lunch and drinks along the way. There are many easy options for anyone to get to the islands. Near the clock tower in El Centro, tour operators peddle all variety of day trips, many to Las Islas Rosarios.
Alternatively, as we did, sign up with a scuba operator who will get you on one of the tourist boats and drop you at the island with the dive shop. Scuba diving The Rosario Islands is a nice experience. The water temperature is perfect; refreshing but comfortable for long periods of immersion. Visibility is variable, as are the currents and waves, which we learned when we returned on our boat.
Anchoring in the Rosario Islands
We found a nice spot for anchoring for a couple of nights, and had hoped to go diving on our own in the Rosario Islands. Unfortunately, the wind shifted, the waves started bucking the boat, and we had to move. We moved and found a protected anchorage in Cholon Bay.
Day trips to Cholon Bay are very popular, and it can get hectic at the beach bars. After hours it calms down and we relaxed and enjoyed.
We’re planning to return to the Rosario Islands on our boat, and hopefully do more diving. It’s so beautiful no wonder it’s a Cartagena highlight.
Eating and Drinking
They say Cartagena is the most expensive city in Colombia, but it’s still affordable compared to most of the Caribbean, U.S.A. and definitely Canada. Set price lunches with a protein, sides, and sometimes even soup can be found for <$5 US. A dinner at one of South America’s best restaurants, with drinks, cost us $50 for the two of us. And the food! We’ve had ceviche, pizza, Caribbean, steak, tacos, and the list goes on.
Supermarkets are good too, but your best bet for fresh fruit and veggies is to hit up one of the vendors with carts. Some sell a cornucopia of mixed produce, while others specialize in one item, like mangoes or avocados. 3 giant avocados for $2, anyone? You won’t go hungry in Cartagena!
Cartagena Highlights: Enjoy!
How can you not have fun in a city that likes fireworks and music as much as Cartagena does? Now that restrictions are loosening and visitors are returning to the city, we’ll probably have to wait to go to some of the more popular tourist attractions. We can handle that if we get to spend more time enjoying the Cartagena highlights, watching sloths and looking at street art.
What are your thoughts on Cartagena and all she has to offer? Share in the comments.