Cartagena Colombia travel tips: The old and the relatively new in Cartagena
The old and the relatively new in Cartagena

I recently spent a week in beautiful Cartagena, Colombia. Work has been quite busy and, frankly, I just wanted some time to relax – me time! Halef was there earlier this year and had a wonderful vacation. So, piggy-backing off of all he learned down there, I figured I would take advantage of my Delta SkyMiles and book a trip. So, for 20k SkyMiles and less than $200 later, I was headed to Colombia. What can you do in Cartagena for days? Turns out, there’s plenty to see and do! Here are my Cartagena Colombia travel tips.

1. Bring Sunscreen

Cartagena is hot. And because it’s very close to the equator, that sun beats down on you fiercely! Normally, I’d recommend buying things like sunscreen and toiletries when you get to your destination. But in this case, bring it with you. Sunscreen is very expensive here. I made the mistake of forgetting my large tube of SPF 50. I bought a very small tube here and it cost me around $12 USD. In Cartagena, that’s easily 3-4 good meals! Pack it and use it often.

2. Hostels in Cartagena

There are plenty of hostels in Cartagena. I chose to stay at El Viajero hostel because it was right in the old city and was highly recommended. For a private room, I paid around $40 per night. That’s a lot if you’re on a budget, but since I was only there for a week, I wasn’t too concerned with how much I was spending. If you choose to stay in a dorm, you can do so here for about $17 per night. The advantage of booking a private room is that you control your own air conditioning. In a dorm, they shut it off during the day. If you plan on spending any time in your room while the sun is up, it’s going to be uncomfortable.

Cartagena Colombia travel tips: El Viajero Hostel, Cartagena
El Viajero Hostel, Cartagena

El Viajero was a pretty good hostel. The front desk staff spoke English fairly well and were very helpful if you needed anything. The rest of the staff (including the bar staff) speak Spanish only, which brings me to my next tip:

3. Learn some Spanish

When thinking about Cartagena travel tips, this is a biggie! Unlike most other places I’ve traveled, almost no one here speaks enough English to communicate well. Since I have not yet been to many countries in the Spanish-speaking world, I don’t know if this is the norm, but it is here. You’ll need to brush off your old “Spanish 101” book and get back up to speed on the pleasantries at the very least. Cartagena is a tourist town, with the economy almost completely dependent on catering to tourists from all over the world. Gap year students, people coming for the week like me, or the thousands who descend on the city when the cruise ships arrive, what most of these people have in common is that they usually speak English fairly well. So I was surprised that few people in Cartagena speak the language.

But that’s OK! Just learn some Spanish and you’re good!. Even if you speak none, you’ll be fine. It’s just more difficult in my opinion (especially when, like me, you have to explain that you’re a vegetarian and shrimp is not a vegetable). I’m four classes into a Beginner Spanish class. I found it tough, but manageable. Since I started getting out of my westerner bubble and traveling more, I’ve learned to just go with the flow. You should, too!

4. Take a “free” walking tour

Cartagena Colombia travel tips: Our free walking tour guide, Edgar
Our free walking tour guide, Edgar

I’m a fan of walking tours. They’re never really in-depth looks at a city, but they are good introductions. I went with Free Tour Cartagena. Edgar, our guide, brought the sights of the city to life for us through stories. He was very knowledgeable about the history of the city and the little nooks and crannies you might definitely miss f you were to simply walk the city on your own. Our tour was two hours and I enjoyed it immensely.

For those of you who know something about these “free” tours, you know they’re not really free. You are expected to tip at the end. You may also know that there is a little bit of controversy surrounding them (see this Rick Steeves blog post, for example). While I know the analogy isn’t perfect, I think about these free tours in the same way I think about Uber and AirBnB. The tour guide may be required to kick back a few bucks per guest to the “owner” of the tour company, just like Uber and AirBnB hosts have to do the same. It’s the world we’re in now, for better or worse. In the end, it’s up to you to make your decision.

(UPDATE: I’ve since written a post about free walking tours. Read it here.)

5. Dive the Rosario Islands

If you have a diving certification, take a day trip or overnight trip to the Rosario Islands and see what the world looks like underwater. As an avid diver, I didn’t need to read a post on Colombia travel tips to know I was going to do this. Diving is on my agenda everywhere I go, if it’s possible! Off the Rosario Islands, you’ll see lobsters, crabs, trumpetfish, parrot fish, and much more. That’s not to mention the beautiful corals you’ll encounter. The diving here is not the best in the world, but it’s a nice getaway from the hustle and bustle of Cartagena.

Cartagena Colombia travel tips: Transportation to and from the Rosario Islands
Transportation to and from the Rosario Islands

I used a company called Diving Planet. I booked two days of diving with them, which included two dives per day plus a night dive on the first day. If you’ve never done a night dive, this is a good, easy one. The beam of your torch/flashlight will ensure that you will see lots of life! Dives last about 45-50 minutes and your guides (mine were Juan and Viviana) were very laid back and cool. Diving Planet will get you to the Islands right from their office in Cartagena and back. Lunch is provided on the first day and all diving equipment is included. Easy!

My only negative experience on the island was that I stayed at the overpriced Cocolisa resort. I had a huge room with a king bed and two sofa beds. Can you say overkill? The bed was as hard as a rock. There is also nothing to do at this “resort” except relax by the pool and drink at the bar – neither of which interested me. And forget leaving the resort. There’s nothing within walking distance. You’re a captive audience here. Don’t get me wrong. This in no way had a negative impact on my trip. Just a note that it was way overpriced for what you got.

6. Eat street food

This is an easy one. In fact, in any post I write that contains the words “[Insert location here] Travel Tips,” it’ll almost always contain a section on street food. In Cartagena, street food is everywhere. From delicious arepas to fruit vendors, you’ll find something delicious. I have to admit, I didn’t eat a lot of street food in Cartagena. My Spanish is not yet good enough to explain my veggie life to a vendor. But I found a few delicious items to much on there and you will too. In fact, you could probably save yourself a whole bunch of money by ditching the restaurants altogether and eating street food.

Cartagena Colombia travel tips: An arepa stuffed with queso and butter
An arepa stuffed with queso and butter

By far, my favorite food was the good old basic arepa. I ate far too many of them. Arepas are probably the best basic food I have ever eaten. For about 60 cents, you get one of these little treasures smothered in butter and cheese. Of course, you can get them other ways as well – covered in chocolate or various fruit concoctions. But I liked them for a mid-morning snack and after walking around the city, so cheese and butter fit nicely for me.

7. Eat at Girasoles

Girasoles is a vegan restaurant about a 2-minute walk from El Viajero hostel. This restaurant made my life so simple for the week I was there. Every day, I’d have my lunch there, never having to worry whether someone accidentally put fish or chicken in my food. Girasoles has a set menu for lunch. It usually consists of a delicious soup or salad, a fruit drink, and an entree plate.

Cartagena Colombia travel tips: Yummy food at Girasoles
Yummy food at Girasoles

Without exception, every meal I had at Girasoles was a treat. And it’s a great reminder that, when you learn to do it right, a vegetarian life can be filled with variety and deliciousness. Whether you’re a vegetarian or not, I recommend you give this place a try for at least one meal. That meal will set you back about $3 US. I don’t recommend Girasoles because it’s a vegetarian joint. I recommend it because the food is damned good!

8. Walk the Wall

Old Cartagena is a walled city founded in 1533. It is surrounded by a wall that is roughly 11 km long. The wall was started in the 1580s and, while not terribly high, affords you a great view of the city from a height, meaning you’ll get some great photos. The wall saved the city from pirates and conquerors on many occasions. It basically made Cartagena an impregnable city. My favorite part of Cartagena is that the city is so colorful.

Balconies in two distinct styles
Balconies in two distinct styles

Everywhere you go, you’re bombarded by visual stimuli. When you walk the wall, you get to soak it all in. It’s so relaxing. The day I did it, there was a nice breeze coming off the ocean, so that made it even more enjoyable. Plus, it seems to be the one place in Cartagena where there aren’t a lot of vendors trying to sell you hats and beads. Though it’s possible that it was an off day!

Cartagena is an amazing city, albeit a little too touristy for my liking. My hostel was great, the diving was ok, it’s colorful, the people are super friendly, and the food is incredible! What about you? Have you been to Cartagena?  What did you like best?

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Michael is originally from Canada but now resides in Atlanta, GA with his husband, Halef, who also writes here. He is a Couchsurfing expert and has traveled to over 40 countries to date. Currently saving all his money for a Round the World adventure.

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