Cartagena de Indias, known simply as Cartagena, is a city full of beauty – from the colorful houses to flowered balconies, the incredible views never stop. In addition to the views, the city is full of delicious food, unique experiences, and friendly locals. All these factors make it the perfect destination for those looking to visit Colombia. The city gives off a mix of New Orleans and Puerto Rican vibes, making it feel familiar, but it brings it own charm as well. In this post I’ll give you ideas on what to do if you have 4 Days in Cartagena, Colombia, so that you have the best time on your visit there!
A Brief City History | Cartagena, Colombia
The are where Cartagena now lies was once home to the Puerto Hormiga Culture, which was primarily centered around the Sinú River Delta to Cartegena Bay. In fact, this area is where archaeologists have found the most ceramic objects in all of the Americas, and these all came from that particular civilization. The Monsú culture rose next, and also featured a high use of pottery in their culture, as well as agriculture and manufacturing. From 3000 BC onwards, the area would be inhabited by a variety of cultures, including those with ties to the Karib, Malibu, and Arawak who featured around the Caribbean.
By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, the area was primarily inhabited by Carib tribes within the Moconae language family. The Spanish arrived first in 1500, but faced really strong opposition from the native people there. In fact, Captain Juan de la Cosa who sailed there in 1504 was killed along with 300 of his men as a result invading the land. Spain then turned attention to Hispaniola and Cuba, for a time at least.
A more permanent settlement was not founded in Cartagena until 1533, when Pedro de Heredia sailed there. He fought an all-day battle in Turbaco after arrival, and after defeating the native people there, he spent three months exploring the land. During this expedition, he stole a number of gold pieces, including a gold porcupine of 132 pounds. Over the years he also raided Sinú tombs and temples of gold to accumulate more wealth. Heredia founded Cartagena on June 1, 1533 in the former location of the indigenous Calamarí village. It was named after the port city “Cartagena” in Murcia, Spain (and not the more ancient Cartagena in present day Tunisia). In addition to everything else, Heredia was also the first to bring African slaves to Colombia. And by the 1600s, Cartagena also came to be an important slave market as well.
Cartagena became an important part of the colonial world as it became a major port city for silver exported from Bolivia. This also made it a target for the other colonizers in the area, such as the French and the English. To evade attacks, the city erected eleven kilometers of defensive walls, which have made the city a UNESCO World Heritage Site today. These walls were built in stages between 1614 to 1786 and made it a nearly impregnable city.
After being under Spanish rule for 275 years, Cartagena became one of the many Latin American countries that began their fight for independence. They first banished the Spanish Governor Francisco de Montes in 1810 as they feared he sympathized with the French. And on November 11th of that year, they signed their Declaration of Independence. This was not to be an easy win though, as it led to war with Spain that lasted from 1815 to 1821. With the help of a patriot army led by General Mariano Montilla and Admiral José Prudencio Padilla, they finally had victory against Spain. However, due to the siege placed on the city by Spain and the loss of its place as a colonial military outpost, the city faced steep decline until the start of the 20th century.
Today, Cartagena is well known for its well-preserved historical city center with walkable walls and close access to the beach. It has one of the largest ports in South America, allowing it to have an economy also centered on industry and commerce.
Know Before You Go | Cartagena, Colombia
Lodging & Logistics
Getting There: Cartagena is serviced by the Rafael Nuñez International Airport, a small airport right outside the walled city. This airport serves nearly every airport in the country, including Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport. Most international flights enter the country via Panama or Aruba. There are some direct flights from the US as well, from cities such as New York, Miami, and Ft. Lauderdale.
Where to Stay: There are really three main options for where to stay in the city for tourists.The Walled City – This is where I recommend that you stay as it is full of restaurants, shops, and museums. It is also just unbelievably cute! You will have no shortage of things to do when strolling the streets of the city contained within the colonial walls. If you are looking to stay in this part of the city, I recommend considering the Alfiz Hotel.
Getsemaní – This neighborhood has experienced a recent revitalization, and is full of beautiful, colorful murals, as well as great places to eat. It is more residential than the walled city and does not have as many attractions. However, it does offer a lot of character and local charm. I’d recommend trying one of the many boutique hotels you can find here, such as Hotel Casa Canabal by Faranda Boutique.
Bocagrande – This is the area of the city that gives off more of those Miami vibes in terms of how it looks. While it looks like Miami, it doesn’t feel like Miami. Meaning that it is generally more low-key than the walled city, and does not have as many attractions. But if you like the quiet, it’s definitely worth checking out though. A nice hotel option to consider is the Madisson Boutique Hotel Cartegena.
Getting Around: If you stay in the walled city, you can literally walk everywhere within the walls in 10 minutes or less. It was a running joke with me and my friends on whether our walk would take more than 7 minutes – and usually it did not! You can also walk easily between the walled city and Getsmaní in around 15 minutes or so. Getting around Bocagrande is easiest via taxi or uber, and both are readily available. You can, of course, use these options in the rest of the city whenever your feet tire :). If you decide to take a taxi, be sure to confirm the price before you hop in the car to avoide overpriced fares.
When to Go: You can travel to this city pretty much any time of the year, as the weather is fairly consistent year round. The weather is very humid with typical highs are in the upper 80s and lows in the mid 70s. There are short rainy seasons from May-June and from October-November too. You should keep this in mind as you plan your trip.
Currency Situation: At the time this of this post, the Colombian Peso (COP) was valued at 2,962.13 to the US Dollar. Click here for the most current exchange rates. Most cash comes in the thousands, and most ATMs won’t allow you to get more than 400-500 thousand colombian pesos in one transaction. Note, nearly all your transactions require cash, so be prepared to have it on hand at all times. I recommend getting currency in advance from your bank if you can, but you’ll need to plan and order at least a week in advanced. In terms of overall cost, compared to pricing in the US, your money will go pretty far in Colombia.
Language Considerations: As you can guess, Spanish is the primary language spoken by the citizens of Cartagena. I will also note that very little English is spoken in the city, so it is helpful to be armed with key phrases before your trip there. Check out my post on Spanish for Travel to help you prepare!
Health: Do not drink the water or eat any fruit not peeled by yourself while in Cartagena. This tip will save your stomach 🙂
Where to Eat: There are so many great places to eat at in Cartagena, especially if you like fish. Check out my post on the Best Places to Eat in Cartagena for some food inspo!
4 Days in Cartagena | The Itinerary
Day 1 | Getting to Know the City
Start your first day off at the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena’s colonial fortress. The fortress is well-preserved, and offers impressive panoramic views of the city (these are those impressive city walls I mentioned above). After your visit to the fortress, next up is a city tour! As I’ve mentioned in many posts, like this one on Paris, I think that the best way to experience a new city is via walking tour. The Cartagena: Walled City and Getsemani Walking Tour is a great option to consider. This 2 hour tour will take you to the following sites (and more) as you get acclimated to your new surroundings:
La Plaza de la Aduana: This is the oldest square in the city, and was once where the home of Heredia was found. Today, this area of the old city features many restaurants, banks, and exchange shops. As you can see in the image below, it is quite beautiful, even if it does feature a statue to Christopher Columbus. If you visit during the right time, you can catch open air concerts and other events here. And around the holidays, you’ll see an amazing display of Christmas lights here too.
Santo Domingo Square: This area is the center for nightlife in Cartagena. You’ll find a wide variety of bars, shops, cafés, and restaurants. Stop here to see a variety of street performers for some low-cost entertainment as well. One of the draws to this square is the statue of Gorda (fat) Gertrude, and legend has it, new couples that fondle her chest region will have long-lasting relationship.
Cathedral of Santa Catalina de Alejandría: This cathedral was built between 1577 and 1612, and has remained practically unchanged until today. It has a beautiful yellow façade and is lovely to see from the exterior or while walking inside.
Getsemani Neighborhood: This neighborhood is known best for his bohemian spirit. You’ll find a variety of color murals and plenty of flowers while walking through this area.
Throughout the tour, you’ll have a chance to try local sweets (like the dulce de leche treats below), and tropical fruit juices.
As another option, you may want to try a free walking tour – the price will ultimately be about the same due to the expected tip at the end. During my time in Cartagena, I took this free walking tour offered by Travel City Tours and had a wonderful time. This tour take you throughout the walled city and covers a bit of Getsemaní and Bocagrande as well. Our tour guide, Milena, gave a lot of great context on the colonial history of the city as well as daily life today in the city.
Close out your evening at Café Del Mar to catch amazing sunset views and spectacular views of the ocean. Enjoy live music and refreshments while you soak it all in.
Day 2 | Island Hopping
For your second day in the Cartagena, head out of the city for a beach day! If you are traveling with 3 or more people, you should definitely consider doing a Private Island Hopping Tour of the nearby islands and beaches. Cartagena Connections is just one of the many companies with whom you can book these tours. We chose this company for our tour, and our day went something like this:
- 9AM: Port Call in Bocagrande
- 10AM: Arrival at the Rosario Islands – We spent time swimming off of the coast here, you can opt to snorkel at this point as well.
- 11AM: Depart Rosario Islands for Cholón
- 12PM: Arrival at Cholón – It was a full-on beach party here at Cholón! Lots of live music and people hanging out in the shallow waters around the beach. This is where you’ll like eat lunch – ours was delicious! Don’t let the fact that they cook the lunch in tents over open fires turn you off, those cooks know what they’re doing. Note that once you dock, you’ll be greeted by people who find you a spot to dine on the beach and serve your food, etc.
- 2PM: Head to Playa Blanca
- 2:30PM: Arrival at Playa Blanca – Here you’ll find your most standard type of beach. Vendors do pass by every now and then, but ultimately weren’t very aggresive
- 4PM: Head back to Cartagena – Due to the rising of the tide, know that the waters may be a bit rough
- 5PM: Arrival at Bocagrande
For our party of 3, the cost was around $150 per person to island hop in a private boat. We also provided tips to our boat drivers and those who set us up at Cholón as well – just something to factor into what you pay. Know that the price per person improves if you bring a larger group. However, if that is out of your budget, you could opt to do a similar experience with a group for around $80 per person, like this tour below:
At the end of your day, you may want to check out La Cevichería – which was one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite restaurants in the city. I do recommend you read my post on the best places to eat in Cartagena for more restaurant gems!
Day 3 | Salsa, Museums & Shopping
Kick off your third day in Cartagena with a Salsa class! We took a private beginners’ salsa class at Crazy Salsa. Our class was so much fun and great for the inexperienced. If you would like to take a group class, there are various options for times, and levels of experience. You can even try out other types of dance, such as Bachata.
If museums interest you, you can spend some time at the ones listed below:
- Zenú Gold Museum: Located inside a colonial mansion, this museum offers a history of gold, and it’s impact in Cartagena
- Museo de Cacao: A small museum full of chocolates, which offers experiences such as chocolate-making classes
- Emerald Museum: This museums contains examples of gems found throughout Colombia, and information on how they are mined
- Museum of Modern Art: This museum features art from local, national, and international artists and is located in a lovely old colonial building
Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the city streets and doing some shopping with the street vendors. When purchasing, remember to bargain! The vendors actually expect it. Don’t be afraid to cut their initial offer and half, then work your way from there.
If you want to start putting your salsa skills to use right away, spend the evening at Salsa Donde Fidel in the Plaza de los Coches. Here you can dance as much as you’d like or just watch from across the street in the provided seating.
Related: The Best Restaurants in Cartagena
Day 4 | Mud Volcano Excursion & Getsemaní
On your final day in Cartagena, spend the morning hanging out at the Totumo Mud Volcano! This is a cool, yet slightly odd experience, which allows you to soak yourself in the supposed healing powers of the mud. It feels a bit slimy and is super buoyant, allowing you to float automatically – a bit like the dead sea. I don’t know if the benefits are real, but I will say that the skin on my face cleared up after my visit there!
Whether they are real or not, it’s just a cool experience that you’ll have a hard time finding anywhere else. I will note that it does involve getting cleaned off by a group of women at the end, which may seem too personal for some. You do have the option to clean yourself, but you probably won’t do it as well as they can.
If you take the tour in the morning, you will have lunch provided after your dip in the mud. This is why you should take this option over the afternoon one. As with the boat tour, it is pretty much required to tip those who help you throughout the process. Tips should be valued at around $1-2 USD, so won’t break the bank. If you are interested in this tour, you can book this experience using this link!
When you get back to the city, spend the afternoon strolling the streets of Getsemaní. It is the perfect place to grab snapshots for Instagram, as the streets are full of beautiful murals – some of which were designed for this very purpose. While in Getsemaní, you will be able to shop for prices lower than what you find in the walled city as well. So if you want to save your coins, this is the place for you.
What to do If You Have More Time in Colombia
If you have more time, there are a few cities that you should see before you leave this enchanting country:
- Palomino: Located on the Caribbean coast, this city offers beautiful beaches and lush greenery.
- Palenque: The first “free town” for African’s in the Americas, this is a special place that preserves many of the African traditions lost to other cultures in the African diaspora.
- Medellín: Known as the “City of Eternal Spring”, due to it’s pleasant year-round weather, this city in the mountains is known for its expansive views, lively nightlife, and great food.
And if you want some additional ideas and inspo, here is a list of 75+ things to do in Cartagena!
4 Days in Cartagena, Colombia | Final Thoughts
I hope that this post gives you a good idea of what to do in Cartagena, Colombia. This four-day itinerary is not comprehensive, of course, but will allow you to cover a good amount of ground in a short amount of time. I loved my time there and wish I had more of it! If you’ve been to Cartagena before, what did I miss?? Put your recommendations in the comments below!
- Spanish for Travel | Basic Phrases
- The Best Restaurants in Cartagena
- Lima Travel Guide | A Four-Day Itinerary
- What to do in Cusco | A 2-Day Travel Guide
- Climbing Machu Picchu Mountain