Cartagena, Colombia, aka Cartagena de Indias, is Colombia's most popular tourist destination. This is hardly surprising considering it has year-round warm weather, a charming, colonial vibe, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In short, you should include a few days in Cartagena if you plan to tour Colombia. So if you want to know what activities you must cover during a short stay in Cartagena, read on to learn more about the 9 top things to do in Cartagena.
Cartagena is most well known for its colorful, colonial architecture and city walls. This, along with the many ivy-covered balconies, make the Old City a charm to explore by foot.
Cartagena was once a major port in the Spanish colonial trade. Goods were brought from Bogotá up the Magdalena River to the river port town of Mompox before passing through Cartagena on their way to Spain. Goods brought back from Europe followed the same route. This trading route made Cartagena extremely wealthy.
Besides taking in the former colonial mansions that stand as testaments to this wealth, and seeing some pretty plazas and parks, you also have to walk along a section of the city's iconic walls. It is, in fact, one of the most complete examples of city walls from this era.
Built to protect the city from pirates and foreign invaders, you can walk atop much of the wall that still stands today. You'll also want to make sure you get a photo with the Clocktower that marks the entrance to the walls.
Outside the Clocktower's arches, you can cross over to the equally historic district of Getsemaní. Formerly the home of the colonial era working-class, mostly consisting of freed slaves and artisans, it is considered to be the birthplace of Cartagena's culture.
Today, the neighborhood is home to several hostels and hip cafes and restaurants. There are also some lovely photo opportunities here. In particular, you'll want to check out the narrow alleyway with colorful umbrellas overhead, known as Callejón Angosto, and the nearby street art.
San Pedro Claver was a Jesuit priest in Cartagena who advocated for the humane treatment of the many slaves imported into the city. He would later be named the Saint of Human Rights by the Catholic Church, and the church where he spent much of his life was renamed in his honor.
Visitors can tour the church today. The former cloisters house some interesting examples of colonial-era religious relics and art and paintings that depict Pedro Claver's life. You can also see Claver's humble living quarters.
You'll then be able to enter the sanctuary itself. There is an 18th-century organ that was donated by the pope and remains in use today. There is also some beautiful stained glass. Below the altar, you can see the remains of Pedro Claver.
There are several other fascinating historic churches in Cartagena, but San Pedro is the most convenient to get to, so you should make a point to include it on your list of things to do in Cartagena.
There are several interesting museums in Cartagena, such as the Palacio de la Inquisición where you can learn about the Spanish Inquisition and even see some torture devices. There is also the Museo del Oro, where you can learn about the goldwork of Colombia's indigenous peoples.
The best museum in the city without question, however, is Museo Naval del Caribe, or Naval Museum in English, which is located behind San Pedro Claver Church. It has the best exhibits and is also the most informative, so those who want to understand Cartagena's history should definitely visit it.
Downstairs, you'll learn about colonial-era Cartagena, including seeing some neat models of Cartagena's fortifications, like Castillo San Felipe. There are also exhibits on the various attacks by foreign invaders on Cartagena, including those by Francis Drake and Edward Vernon. Each exhibit has great day-by-day accounts of the attacks.
On the second floor of the museum, you'll learn about Cartagena's role in Colombia's independence. As a significant military base and center of wealth, it played an essential role in the wars for independence. An annual festival is held every November to honor its declaration of independence.
There are also exhibits here on Colombia's modern Navy, including its little known role in the Korean War. Kids will love the interactive models of a submarine and the bridge of a warship.
Speaking of military history, no trip to Cartagena is complete without touring the impressive Castillo San Felipe. It is located about a 15-minute walk or short taxi ride outside of the Walled City.
The fort is a unique piece of colonial-era military history. Since it was built atop a hill, it does not follow the usual, perpendicular square shape of forts built at the time. It is also the largest fort built by the Spanish on the mainland during the colonial era.
It is best to do this activity at the start of a day to beat not only the crowds but the hot Caribbean sun as well. You can choose to do a guided tour or just pay the entry fee and explore the fort yourself.
Be sure to catch the short animated video about the fort's construction and the defeat of Vernon's force. You can also walk through the tunnels connecting the different parts of the fort. The view at the top of the fort is also terrific, and don't forget to snap a photo with the giant Colombian flag!
Colombia, like the rest of Latin America, has a great street food scene. One unique street food to Cartagena is the Arepa de Huevo. It can be enjoyed for breakfast or as a snack during the day or in the evening.
Almost more like an empanada than your standard arepa, the Arepa de Huevo has an egg and ground beef inside. While it is occasionally seen in the interior, it originated on the Caribbean coast and is best enjoyed here.
If you want to try some unique spins on the traditional Arepa de Huevo, check out Donde Magola outside the Exito Supermarket inside the Walled City. They have a number of different varieties, including with shrimp, chorizo sausage, and my personal favorite, fried pork skin chicarrón in place of the ground beef.
If you are a vegetarian, you can get it with just the egg (street vendors often usually have it with just egg, too). And, if you want to look like a true local, enjoy it with a Kola Roman. This red, sweet soda is one of the oldest sodas still in production today. It dates back to 1865.
Located about a 90-minute boat ride off of Cartagena's coast, the Rosario Islands is an idyllic chain of small coral islands surrounded by crystal-clear water.
There are a few options for visiting the islands. There are standard tours that take groups out to the islands on small speed boats. These tours stop in the islands and allow visitors to choose to enter the aquarium or go snorkeling for an additional fee, or just lounge on a beach. After that, you head to the famous Playa Blanca for lunch and an afternoon of hanging out on the white sand beach there.
A second option is to buy a day pass for one of the resorts on the islands. These usually include boat transportation to and from the islands, lunch, and access to the beach and pool areas of the resorts.
Finally, if you want to do the islands in style, you can rent your own boat. Botes de la Bahía and Boating Cartagena are two of the better-known companies. You will usually need to get a group of at least seven people together to make this cost-effective, and the price will vary depending on the size of the boat that you want. Usually, these private tours include several stops in the islands, and lots of people choose to spend much or even all day at the popular party spot, Cholón.
The islands are stunning and worth visiting, no matter which of the above option you choose.
Hotel Movich, located near Plaza Bolivar inside the Walled City, has unquestionably the prettiest view in Cartagena!
Open to the public except for when there are private events; it's a great place to cool off with a cold drink and maybe an appetizer before taking in the sunset with the backdrop of San Pedro Church, the rest of the Walled City, the bay, and the modern high rises of Bocagrande and beyond.
Another fantastic alternative sunset spot, if you're staying multiple nights, is Café del Mar. This cafe is located atop the city wall itself and has an excellent view over the Caribbean.
Set on the Caribbean sea, Cartagena, not surprisingly, has some tasty fresh seafood. Ceviches, creamy seafood rices, shrimp al ajillo (a garlic sauce), and the seafood stew in coconut juice known as cazuela del mariscos, are all among the great seafood dishes to try while you are in Cartagena.
If there is one seafood meal you have to sample, however, it is the traditional fried fish with coconut rice and patacones, fried plantain patties. This meal is a Cartagena staple and includes three local favorites in one. It is especially tasty at the beach with a cold beer.
You do get served the entire fish, which if you're not used to, can be a little intimidating. The best way to approach eating it is to carefully eat the meat on one side, before flipping it and eating the other side. Also, don't be afraid to use your hands!
My number one recommendation for where to sample seafood would be Club de Pesca, located at the site of an old fort in the neighborhood of Manga. It has a lovely view over the bay. Other places to try include El Bistro and La Mulata inside the walled city.
Now you know all there is to know about the 9 activities you can't miss when you plan your visit to Cartagena. From beautiful colonial architecture and historic fortifications to Caribbean islands and amazing food, including the above suggestions on your Cartagena itinerary will ensure you get the most out of your visit.
So, what are you waiting for? Plan your trip to Cartagena already!
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