Hey, Cartagena… one word. Notions.
Let me start this blog by saying I really enjoyed Cartagena. After living in Medellín for nearly two months, volunteering and saving a shit ton of money by doing so, we approached our trip to Cartagena as a holiday within a holiday. We were prepared to treat ourselves and go “all out” but being honest, what Cartagena had to offer wasn’t anything hugely special.
Sure it has beautiful Caribbean islands within an hour from its shoreline. But so does majority of the countries in Central America, and they don’t charge you to visit. As in they don’t make you book a bloody tour to visit.
OK so it has the perfect mix of city madness, stunning beaches, an incredibly historic walled-city, castles and dreamy streets, all of which we genuinely appreciated, every second of it. But I still had some sort of problem with Cartagena. It reminded me of that one person who thinks they are the absolute shit (as in they think they’re above and beyond everyone else!). The reality is, there is nothing you can do here that you cannot do elsewhere, for quarter the price.
It’s an expensive city, and probably not the place you want to start your trip in Colombia. Another reason I’m delighted we didn’t go for the San Blas trip. I can imagine how amazing it would be to sail into the docks of Cartegena and be met with the stunning contrast of sky scrapers, and the reminisce of the old city fortifications. Cannons and all! But I am glad this wasn’t my first introduction to Colombia.
Heavily influenced by the Spanish invasion, I cannot stress how beautiful Cartagena is. It has the right to be so proud of what it has to offer, but it’s overly touristy, the prices alone will tell you that.
If we didn’t take the “ah let’s spoil ourselves approach” we would have found it hard to stick to our strict budget. We aimed to splash out, visit every island, do every tour, consume as much ceviche as we could, but in the end we just couldn’t justify it.
Look, the tours aren’t extortionate. A little over priced for us yes, but we did hear that they are all worth it.
We just found it difficult to enjoy the city without spending here or there. It was missing that special spark, even sitting and people watching was boring. I mean watching a bunch of tourists enjoying themselves isn’t half as fun as watching locals go about their day.
One of our favourite days was spent exploring outside the walls, walking from our hostel in the Bruselas neighbourhood through the Prado, Bosque, Chino and Manga areas.
Now here’s where you will see the ‘real’ Cartagena. Streets ridden with litter, the stench of polluted water, stray animals roaming the streets, and a homeless person on every corner. The total opposite of the city. And usually the city is where you find such problems. Right?
It’s a bit of a facade. Where the prim and proper live behind the wall. Where the gringo is welcomed, treated like royalty but our pockets bled dry. Where the middle and upper class roam. All while the “peasants” are left to fend themselves outside the wall.
But it’s outside the walls where you’ll receive a “hello and welcome”, here is where locals will approach you for a chat, with no agenda to sell you anything. And it was here that we felt most comfortable.
We wouldn’t return to Cartagena in a hurry, but we’re glad we visited and we suggest you do the same.
My only tip would be to visit somewhere else first and enjoy Colombia without having an unwanted “she’s a tourist and she has money” signed strapped to you (they never believe us when we admit we’re actually broke and living off all the money we own!).
My second “only” tip would be to prepare for the heat and the mosquitos. The heat is insane, a dead sweltering heat that makes you feel swollen, and sweat profusely. And what does sweating lead to? More mozzie bites!
And on that note, let’s not suck the life out of Cartagena any more and take a look at what it has to offer.
Pictures of the beauty included.
From Medellín to Cartagena:
Let me start by saying the Medellín to Cartagena bus journey is never ending. We couldn’t imagine doing this journey during the day, and suggest you take a overnight bus
Busses to Cartagena leave from Medellín’s
Terminal de Norte (take the metro to Caribe station). Exhaust all your options and ask around but the two main companies are Expresso Brasilia (Gate 24) and Rapido Ochoa (Gate 23). Prices can range from 50,000 COP (€14) to 120,000 COP (€33) depending on season.
After settling for a few weeks in Medellin, we were total amateurs and picked the busiest day to travel (the day after bank holiday!) so we had no choice but to fork out 125,000 COP (€35) for a bus ticket (it still kills me to this day). This was the most expensive bus journey we’ve taken on our entire Latin American adventure.
Don’t make the mistake we did, you shouldn’t pay any more than 70,000 COP (€19), don’t pay anymore!
We left Medellín at 10pm and arrived into Cartagena at 2.30pm the following day. The expected 13 hour bus turned into 16 hours.
The bus terminal in Cartagena is over a half an hour from the city centre. You can grab a taxi but the cheaper option is to take the public bus. However, if you prefer to take a taxi, be sure to Uber. The yellow cabs are overly priced, especially if you’re a gringo.
Budgeteers should jump the 2,100 COP (€0.60) ‘Metrocar’ bus that waits outside the terminal entrance. It will take at least 40 minutes, but will (eventually) drop you in the city centre.
Accommodation in Cartagena:
Looking up prices of accomodation in Cartagena, this is one of those rare occasions where we booked in advance.
A new-ish hostel in the neighbourhood of Bruseles, Maos House Hostel, was a 25 minute walk into Centro Histórico. Seems long, but since we got three nights at the cost of €37 (in total) for a private room with shared bathroom, we were sold.
We cannot recommend this place enough, such a beautiful and comfortable hostel. Edgar and Mary are the best hosts! Edgar constantly checked in to make sure we had everything we needed and he even contacted us ahead of our arrival to ensure we knew how to get there.
He’s genuinely the friendliest guy in Cartagena and he has great contacts with local tour agencies, so you’ll get some decent prices with no false promises attached.
Edgar said he is more than happy to help our readers with any questions whether it’s regards to the hostel or not. So if you have any, let us know and we will put you in touch. It’s also helpful to have a man on the ground.
Things To Do in Cartagena:
Explore The Walled City:
Like it says on the tin, this is a walled city. But within the city walls is the epicentre of Cartagena, the Centro Historico. Which is also, you guessed it, behind a wall. So essentially this place is wall within a wall.
As you approach the Centro Historico, there is a unmissable arch, a beautiful entrance really. Enter, and feel like you’ve walked into Doctor Who’s phonebox that spins you back in time.
Eye-dropping architecture, narrow cobblestone streets, beautifully dimmed street lights, with a soundtrack of plucked guitars strings and trotting, as men dressed in suits direct their horse and carriage through the centre.
There are a number of parks, full of entertainment, street performers and youths performing and introducing the excited gringo to their traditional dance.
Artisanal markets, restauarants, clothes shops and stalls line the streets, all quite expensive to be honest.
We couldn’t help but think it reminded us of Dubrovnik, Croatia, with a Spanish influence of course. It is a beautiful little world but we feel it is very “upscale”, as middle class people, we felt we dirtied the place a little.
Walk The Wall:
What more can we say, it’s free, it has a 360° view of the city and it’s the best place to catch a sunset which takes place from 5.30pm onwards.
Instead of entering the Centro Historico arch, facing it, take a left and walk along the wall. You will soon come to steps that lead up onto it, it’ll be near the canons.
Whatever you do, don’t walk it in the midday sun you madman!
Spa Day at Volcano Totumo:
OK so to backtrack on what I said earlier, maybe Cartagena has that one thing that nowhere else has. A natural mudbath in the crater of a volcano!
My favourite childhood game “stuck in the mud” came to life here, and man did we laugh. So much so, we ate mud.
Over 10 people at a time climb into the dirty hole. Sinking into the crater is the strangest sensation. There is no bottom, yet you don’t float. I can only describe it as a bath of jelly. You’re sort of stuck, but you can move. Swimming gets you nowhere and the thick muggy feel stops you from sinking. To make your way around the bath, grab onto the wooden edges or the person close to you. Yep, it’s THAT personal!
We spent more than a half hour in there, getting massages, chatting to fellow spas, and wiping the soil from our eyes. God, the laughs!
Now this was unforgettable. But like everything here, it comes at a price.
After a night of research, we learned you can do this trip without a tour. But after comparing prices, and speaking with our host Edgar, we went with a tour instead. Less hassle, and cheaper overall – for once!
However, here is what we found out should you stick to your guns and want to avoid any tours.
1. Take the local bus back to the main terminal.
Cost: 2,100 COP (€0.60)
Time: 40-60 minutes
2. Ask the terminal staff to direct to you to busses heading towards Volcano Totumo.
Cost: 20,000 COP (€5.50)
Time: 1.5-2 hours
3. Short walk from bus stop to the attraction and enter
Cost: 5,000 COP (€1.40)
4. Total costs to DIY (including return busses)
50,000 COP (€14) per person.
WITH A TOUR:
Costs: 60,000 COP (€17) per person.
The extra 10,000 COP (€3) with a tour means you will be picked up and dropped off on a direct bus. Includes entry fees and a tasty lunch on the beach. A full dish of your choice (chicken, meat, fish) with salad, coconut rice, plantain and a beverage. Go for the fish, it was literally caught that day.
For any extras at the volcano you will need to tip. To justify it, remember that these tips go directly into the pockets of the locals, who are just trying to support their families. If you can manage to fork out on a tour to get there, you can afford the little extras.
How do you capture such a fun and different experience if you’re plopped in a mud bath? Sorted!
Young men will take your phone or camera and will continuously snap throughout the day. As you queue, as you enter and while in there. Call on them anytime you want a specific photo. These guys are impressive. Holding more than 10 cameras at a time (with care) they will remember every camera and every owner. It’s a gift really.
Tip: 3,000 COP (€0.80) covers 1-4 people.
When you first climb into the volcano, there are men who will offer you a massage. This is optional but we went for it, and have no regrets.
As we queued, there were some women in front who expressed concerns that the massages seemed creepy and that “they heard” these men molest women.
Here, BULLSHIT! I can confirm that there was NOTHING creepy about the massage. It was enjoyable, as they focus only on your joints, back and neck. I had a great lol with my massuer, and to judge someone so horribly says more about you than them (meow!).
If you feel in any way uncomfortable, don’t go for the massage but please don’t disrespect these people over a Chinese whisper. If something bad happens, which it won’t, report it immediately.
Tip: 3,000 COP (€0.80)
Wash It Off:
The laughing continues…
When you’ve had your fair share of mineral mud, as you leave the volcano, your shoes will magically appear at the bottom, ready and waiting for you (sorcery!).
Walk down to the nearby lake, and here there will be the most wonderful women waiting to wash you.
We miss our Mammies, and we already felt like big kids so we politely accepted a wash. But like a Mammy’s wash, it’s thorough, and you will end up butt naked in the lake (sitting in the water, so no one will see your bits!).
My lovely lady drowned me with buckets of water, washing my hair, behind my ears, between my toes, and magically whipped off my bikini, to return it mud free. We were in absolute tears at this bit. Two grown ass adults being scrubbed down in the lake.
Again, this is optional, so if you’re in anyway shy, don’t worry. Either way, no one will see you naked, we promise!
Tip: 3,000 COP (€0.80)
If there is one thing you must do in Cartagena, this is it. This saved Cartagena for us and we cannot stop telling people about it.
The only thing to note is to wear dark swimwear, this way the mud won’t stain.
Free Walking Tour:
We are still on our ‘Free Walking Tour’ buzz but this time, we’re only here to tell you about it, since we didn’t have the chance to do it ourselves.
Local posters caught our eye, so all we know is there are two tours a day (10am and 4pm) every day, meeting in the Centro Historico. I imagine, since it’s such a history rich city, this will be a really interesting walking tour. Do let us know how it goes.
San Felipe Castle:
We had heard there were a pair of giant boots in Cartagena, a monument dedicated to the local poet Luis Carlos Lopez.
Of course this peaked our interest and on the way there, we discovered the San Felipe Castle (as you can tell, a lot of research went into this trip!).
The castle sits high up on the hill, overlooking the nearby neighbourhoods and at the price of 25,000 COP (€7) per person, you can go explore to your hearts content.
To play “old woman who lives in a shoe”, is free and worth a picture. They’re within walking distance (excuse the pun) from the centre, between Calle 30 and Carrera 18.
Visit the Beaches:
The most popular beaches in Cartagena are Playa Blanca and the Rosario Islands.
Playa Blanca is easy to visit, you can walk from the Centro Historico, or hop a local bus from outside the arch.
Just be warned, you won’t get any peace on this beach. Vendors, children, massuers will constantly approach you with hope of making money. It gets a little annoying. Maybe try find a hidden quarter.
Oh, and forget escaping to the sea, there are vendors in there also. It’s madness.
Other beaches worth noting, according to our hostels’ cleaner, are Bocagrande and Laguito, here is where the locals sun themselves. We wish we went there!
We were also told about an island closer to the mainland called Isla de Tierra Bomba. Less expensive than Rosario, as beautiful and it comes with a view of the city.
Head to the port, between the arch and the convention centre for prices.
You can treat yourself with a boat trip to Cartagena’s Caribbean island for as little as 50,000 COP (€14).
Again, head to the port for prices or book with a local tour agency, all found in the Getsemani neighbourhood.
If you do book with the street touts, we were told not to hand over the full fee and instead pay on your return back to Cartagena.
The basic tour package includes transport, boat trip, lunch and one hour free bar.
Again, please be warned that some tour agencies will shuffle you around like a herd of sheep, insisting you visit the island’s aquarium and go snorkelling. You will then get some personal beach time.
The price of the aquarium is not included in the tour price, and sometimes the snorkelling is compulsory, so please ensure you triple check with the tour agency.
I mean, not to be overly moany here but for us, the aquarium visit is a little bizarre. Unless you have kids, why would you want to visit an aquarium on a Caribbean island, and why can’t these creatures be left in their own habitat. Offering you the chance to visit them there? Hmmm…
We heard a lot of horror stories, too many for our liking. But don’t let this put you off, it’s merely about being smart and choosing the right tour and company.
If in any doubt, we recommend contacting our host Edgar and booking through him, he has a number of tour packages to suit every need and will ensure you won’t get ripped off, nor promised the sun, moon and stars.
We also recommend the tour company Rustica Ecologica, in Getsamani.
In the end, we didn’t go for this tour. After The Corn Islands, we couldn’t justify this as a Caribbean experience.
Stroll Around the Getsemani District:
A free day out, and a fun day out. There are really nice vibes around this neighbourhood. Quirky cafes, restaurants and bars, this area is popular with backpackers, especially since all the hostels are located here.
No more than a 5 minute walk from the Centro Historico, prices are a little cheaper and there are some fantatsic Menu del Dia (meal deal) options.
Plaza Maria Rosa is buzzing at night with cheap food stalls and street entertainment. Stroll down the nearby streets and check out the eye pleasing graffiti and street art.
Close to the Plaza is Sabor Mulato de Getsemani, all food is cooked and served by an extremely nice woman. This little eatery is her home, and it really feels like that. We had the Menu del Dia for 15,000 COP (€5). Soup for starters, a fresh Ceviche dish for mains and a drink. Totally worth it.
Venture Outside the Walls:
We don’t just mean outside the Centro Historico, we mean the entire city centre. As I said this, alongside the mud volcano, was our Cartagena highlight.
We felt less like a walking wallet and way more welcome/comfortable. It is safe to walk, right up until about 9pm. Staying away from deserted alleys, and walking without your personal items swinging out of you. There is a lot of poverty here but the people will be excited to see you.
Go burst the bubble and say hi to them. Start in the Manga area, this is where expats live and locals drink. A nice area, and definitely way cheaper than the centre. Extremely safe.
Keep venturing around the water and through Prado, Bosque, Chino and Bruseles to see what we can only describe as the “real” Cartagena.
We happily walked home from the city every day, taking a different road each time and we can’t really say why but this is genuinely worth seeing. You’ll feel a little more in touch with Cartagena.
I worry that you’ve read this far and now feel a little negative towards the tourist capital of Colombia. This is not my intention, this blog is our experience and our opinion with information so you can find exactly what you want to do in the buzzing beachside city.
No, we wouldn’t go back, but we know plenty of people who have disliked places we love. As the saying goes, take EVERYTHING with a pinch of salt and go discover it for yourself.
Most importantly, please share your experience with us and let us know how you get on here. If anything, Cartagena is so stunning to see and your eyes will be very happy with your decision.
Above all, have fun and stay safe guys.