Is there such a thing has a perfect city? Not at all. But the Caribbean port city of Cartagena, Colombia (also known as Cartagena de Indias) comes close. With its white sand beaches, 16th century fortress and old town, colorful colonial architecture, tropical climate, fairy tale charm, fresh seafood, and SO much more, it’s easy to see why Cartagena is a popular bucketlist destination.
Cartagena, Colombia definitely deserves its place on YOUR bucketlist! To help you discover this lovely city, I’ve compiled a small guide about my experience. Without further adieu, here’s my 3 day itinerary of what to do and see in Cartagena, Colombia!
Day 1: Arriving in Cartagena
After our mountain retreat (and my misadventure) in Minca, we took the bus and headed to Cartagena. If you’re also taking the bus into Cartagena, you’ll most likely arrive outside of the city. Grab a yellow taxi and negotiate a price before getting in and heading to Cartagena’s Old Town. The taxi driver will probably recognize the hostel’s address when you show/tell him where you need to go.
Traveler’s Tip: Be cautious when traveling as a tourist in Cartagena. There has been negative stories about taxis taking advantage of foreigners in Cartagena, i.e. ripping them off, taking them off route, etc. I felt safe, but just as a rule of thumb always use your best tool when traveling: your instinct and rational judgment.
We arrived in the bustling center. Bright colors and quaint streets immediately stood out as we neared our hostel. Fresh fruit carts, local vendors, fancy stores, and people dressed in tropical outfits lined the small streets on either side. If you’re like me, your feet will be itching to hop out and explore!
We dropped our bags off at the Casa Roman hostel, located in the old city of Cartagena. A shared room with six people cost us around 25k pesos each. Located right in the heart of the historical center, we were within 100 meters of historic and monumental landmarks. I would definitely recommend booking a night here. Plus, the icy air conditioning in the rooms and warm showers were most appreciated!
Drop all your bags off, freshen up, and take to the streets (and don’t forget your camera). Cartagena is full of mystery; a charming building or burst of color is just waiting for you around the corner!
Get lost in the streets of Cartagena, and while you’re at it, swing by Plaza Bolivar (also named El Parque de Bolivar). Just a short 3 minute walk from Casa Roman hostel, this park is hard to miss. Take shelter from the unrelenting Cartagena heat and cool off under the park’s shady trees.
This park is filled with locals, and if you come by at dusk you’ll have the pleasure of seeing the Cartagena street dancers perform with traditional Afro-Colombian music and dance. It’s quite the treat (and an unexpected one at that!) I found a lady dressed in the colors of the Colombian flag and asked her if I could take a picture. She was thrilled! I bought a mango from her fruit cart to say thanks. 🙂
Ice cream/gelato break
For whichever reason, whether hunger, heat, or pure desire, make sure to grab a gelato pop or a scoop of creamy ice cream. Nearly every ice cream shop you pass will have fairly reasonable prices, but not every location has a place to sit inside where you can escape the streets and the weather.
Treat yo’self at the Gelateria Paradiso for a oh-so-yummy ice cream while you relax in their unique, vintage-style shop. If you enjoy salted caramel ice cream, then you MUST go here. They have the best I’ve ever tasted!
Shopping in the cute boutiques
There are a plethora of adorable shops, from small Colombian business to large name brands. Take the afternoon to do a little window shopping and check out all the offers. Testing out the prices of clothes, accessories, souvenirs, etc., on the first day of your trip will help you make wiser buying choices as you continue to explore Cartagena in the following days.
There is an adorable shop that I stumbled upon called Aqua Rose. Ladies, visit here for adorable backpacks, tanks, shoes, lacey undies and bralettes, tropical bathing suits, and more. All of their products are handmade with love in Colombia in partnership with indigenous communities from all over the country, including the Wayuu of La Guajira.
Traveler’s Tip: You will definitely notice how many local vendors are selling items on the streets, but think twice before you make a purchase. Lots of the products are not handmade and it will be harder to settle on a reasonable price as you’ll need to negotiate a little. Plus, most of the items they feature are targeted for foreigners and tourists, so what you’re getting you could probably find in any other big Colombian city, like Bogotá.
If you manage to find a local store that certifies fair trade partnerships with the indigenous populations and locals who make the items (i.e. mochila bags) then buy there instead.
Sunset & cocktail at Cafe Del Mar
Finish off your first day with an exotic (yet pricey) colorful cocktail as you watch the bright orange sunset from the old city walls. One of the most popular places for this is no other than at the Cafe Del Mar. Locals and tourists alike flock here to capture their best selfies as the sun sets and reflects of the Caribbean ocean!
From here across the sea you can see the modern district of Cartagena, in all its concrete skyscraper glory. I much prefer the view within the walled old town. 😉 Cafe Del Mar also couples as the perfect place to people watch (if that’s your fav hobby, like me!) You can standby and watch the street performers (not the same as in Plaza Bolivar), enjoy the sea breeze, and snap a few photos with friends.
Day 2: Beach Day at Playa Blanca
Use your second day in Cartagena to explore its beautiful beaches. You have several options here but for sake of simplicity and time, I would recommend spending a full day at the popular and picturesque Playa Blanca.
You can take a boat, bus, or private car. On our way there, we got a private Uber. This was the safest and cheapest option since we were four girls and we were running kinda late. Our Uber driver was super friendly and dropped us off right near Playa Blanca, we then followed the trail all the way to the beach.
I must say, I was quite overwhelmed upon arrival. This beautiful, natural beach has become very popular (almost too popular) in recent years, and the beach, as a result, is lined with colorful umbrellas. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but you can imagine how busy this place gets during the high season.
Despite the crowd, Playa Blanca was like a little slice of Caribbean paradise. It was not expensive at all by the way, to rent one of the umbrellas. There are locals who will invite you to rent an umbrella/chairs for a small price. We paid around 15-20,000 pesos. And it was definitely worth it.
Soaking it in
Throw everything down on the table and run in the water! It’s so bright and blue, you almost don’t believe it. The sand is so silky white, it looks like it came straight out of a beach resort magazine.
The best part about Playa Blanca is not the amazing photo ops or even basking in the sun, but the local vendors who are so friendly and smiley! Locals will be walking up and down the beach to offer their goods and services to tourists. A sweet and sassy lady approached us and offered massages on the beach.
She first wanted to braid my hair, and when people play with my hair, well, she had me from the start to say the least. Then she sweetened the deal with a price reduction if I caved in and got the whole back massage as well. For an extra 7 dollars, was I really going to (keep) saying no? It was the best 7 dollas I spent all day! I came to find out through our broken Spanish conversation that she had 5 children! She was such a cool lady.
What to eat
When you get hungry, there’s no better place to be than at Playa Blanca. Dine on a freshly grilled fish with coconut rice, patacon, and side salad for around 20K pesos.
What could be better than eating fresh seafood in your bathing suit with cutely braided hair, relaxed muscles, and a breathtaking view on the Caribbean sea? 😉
Traveler’s Tip: Instead of buying bottled water, opt to buy the water packets/bags. They are SO much cheaper than bottled water and are just as refreshing. Not to mention its super fun to bite a little hole and slurp it up like its a popsicle. You can also buy a bigger water bag (like 6 L) and refill up recycled water bottles to save tons of money!
Back to Cartagena
Check the boat schedule in advance to find out when the last boat departs for Cartagena. The last boat leaves sometime in the mid-afternoon, as the beach “closes down” early. Only the locals who live there and the tourists sleeping overnight at Playa Blanca get to reap the benefits of having the coastline all to themselves. How lucky!
The boat ride back to Cartagena is so much fun. Try to get a seat in the front to maximize all the speed bumps. 😉 The boat drops you off just outside of the walled city, so you’ll be right be back to your hostel or hotel in minutes. You’ll recognize the location with the picturesque yellow tower marking the entrance to the Old Town (known as La Torre del Reloj). P.S If a local approaches you while you’re just inside La Torre del Reloj offering homemade coconut ice cream in a tube, TAKE IT. It’s the best, cheapest, delicious, most amazing treat with chucks of fresh, chewy coconut.
Day 3: Sights & Landmarks
Before you leave Cartagena, make sure to check off some of the iconic landmarks!
San Pedro Claver
Start your morning by observing the morning church service in the gorgeous San Pedro Claver Church.
On my last morning in Cartagena, I got up before dawn and took to the streets. It was quiet and the street lamps were still glowing from the evening. I took the opportunity to stroll around and take photos of all the colorful colonial houses, and that’s when I stumbled upon La Plaza de San Pedro Claver. The sun was now up and shining bright on all the buildings. The mesmerizing glow was reflecting so warmly off the top of the church that I just sat out in the plaza and took it all in.
That’s when I noticed two Amazon parrots chatting and singing up on the roof just opposite. One of them flew over and basked in the sun on the church. The church bells chimed and it was time for the morning service to begin. I sat in the back and watched people from all walks of life come in and take a seat. Many of them shared a welcoming smile with me. Whether you’re religious or not, a visit to the San Pedro Claver church (Saint Peter Claver) is a must.
The 16th c. fortress
You’ve already explored the walled city, so now it’s time to head over to the 16th century fortress, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. This fortress is renown for being the greatest fortress ever to have been built by the Spanish. It sits atop a hill overlooking Cartagena’s Old Town with the modern district towering in the back.
Do not miss exploring the tunnels! There is an entry fee of course (25,000 COP), but I opted out and just walked a full circle around the hill with a friend instead. So you’ll have to tell me how’s the view from the top! 😉
To really complete your stay in Cartagena, you must eat ceviche (raw fish cured in citrus juices) at the one and only: The Blue Lagoon. Inspired by the famous Blue Lagoon film with good ole’ Leonardo DiCaprio, this hidden little shack is the perfect place for ceviche.
It’s location is pretty sneaky though, and not where you’re likely to stumble upon it unless you purposely look for it. Hint: It’s located under the outdoor stairs at the Centro Commercial Getsemani! It costs about 18-20,000 COP for the classic ceviche, but it’s worth every peso. The ladies who work there are so friendly, too!
3 Days in Cartagena, Colombia
There are so many places I did not get to cover in this small guide. But hopefully this 3 day travel itinerary will already help plan your stay. I hope you love discovering Cartagena just as much as I did. I’m already looking forward to going back!
Although it’s definitely got the more “touristy” feel to it, Cartagena, Colombia offers a much different vibe than in the desert region, Bogotá, in the Zona Cafetera (coffee country), the Amazon, etc. Colombia’s diversity is incredible! 🙂
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