While I was in Cancun, I was actually looking for flights to Cartagena. It would make sense to start exploring the northern parts of the country first and then work my way down south. However, there were no direct flights to Cartagena, that’s why I landed in Bogota. From there, I was initially planning on taking a bus. But then a couple of locals advised me to check out flights first because taking a flight is often almost the same price as riding a bus. And they were right. I found a flight via Viva Air, and it only costs 30 USD. Well yeah, the cheapest bus ticket I found was around 20 USD, but it’s gonna take around 18 hours on the average to get to Cartagena. I’ve been told it’s actually gonna take longer because there were a lot of road work going on. The flight only lasts for 1 1/2 hours. I could spare 30 bucks, so it was an easy decision to make.
I was actually keeping in touch with a local I chatted with on the couchsurfing app, and we met up at the airport in Cartagena. I’m actually really thankful I met him. For one thing, I didn’t need to worry about getting scammed by taxi drivers lol. He even told me about a very useful app that’s popular in Colombia. It’s called inDriver, and it’s way better than Uber in many ways. You just enter any amount you’re willing to pay to get to your destination and wait for a driver to respond. It’s cheaper than Uber, and definitely way more cheaper than hailing a cab. It’s available in more than 200 cities, many of which are in Central and South America. I wondered why I never heard of it.
If you’re gonna pick a place to base yourself in Cartagena, stay near the old town for a more authentic feel. Cartagena is massive, and a huge part of it is just your typical modern city. You don’t have to stay inside the walled city. I’d recommend just staying outside its wall in Getsemani. Why? Because this is where the authentic nightlife is. As soon as the sun sets, everyone hangs out at the Plaza de la Santisima Trinidad. You can’t miss it, it’s the square in front of the yellow church and it’s always bustling with activity at night. There are loads of cheap street food being sold in really huge servings, it was a struggle to finish every order. I’m not entire sure how sanitary everything is, but me and my new friends ate there for four straight nights and not once did any of us suffer from diarrhea. Many vendors also sell alcohol, and since everyone in this square is drinking, I guess it’s okay to drink beer even though it’s a public place. So that’s one useful tip. If you’re gonna drink in public, make sure you’re part of a huge crowd and everyone else is drinking too. lol. Another tip: there’s a store selling beer directly across the church. Beers are cheaper there compared to the beers sold my vendors walking around.
People just hang out in this square drinking and watching locals busking until around 10 or 11 in the evening. Around this time a lot of people decide to transfer to several bars and clubs in the area. You’re gonna hear a lot of people talking about Cafe Havana. Those traveling on a budget may balk at the 30,000 COP (about 9 USD) cover charge, but this place is almost always packed (except on Mondays and Tuesdays because it’s closed heh). If you wanna check out the nightlife in Cartagena this is your best bet. They have a live band that plays Salsa. If you’re looking for nightlife that has an authentic local feel, it’s worth checking out at least once— even if you’re not into that kind of music.
Another advantage if you stay in Getsemani? It’s right next to the old town. I’ve been to a number of Spanish colonial cities, and I have to say the walled city in Cartagena is one of the best ones I’ve set foot on. The architecture is remarkably well preserved and well maintained. Lots of buildings are colorful, and though the entire place looks polished, it still exudes an authentic vibe. It’s pretty huge too, you can easily spend an entire day just walking around. Joining a walking tour isn’t necessary, but since a number of free ones are offered you might as well take advantage of those. You’d learn more about the local culture, and you wouldn’t have to wonder about the significance of different monuments and statues that you’d find in the old town. When you’re walking around you’re bound to pass by a building with pictures of women on the tiled floor. These are the Colombia’s beauty queens. The country’s obsession with beauty pageants is amusing. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when our tour guide recalled that time when their candidate was proclaimed Miss Universe, then a few seconds later Steve Harvey told everyone he made a mistake. According to our tour guide, to this day his countrymen aren’t over it and Steve Harvey is that one person that unites Colombians in hatred. LOL.
A lot of people would recommend watching the sunset at Cafe Del Mar. It’s a bar on the walls, overlooking the Caribbean Sea. It’s a great place to relax and watch the sunset, but it is kinda overrated and drinks and more expensive. It’s always crowded too. I guess it’s because a lot of people are recommending it.
If you plan on swimming on the beach though, staying in Getsemani isn’t ideal. The nearby beaches aren’t ideal for swimming. If you want to go swimming you need to head over to the hotel area in the modern part of the city. It’s near enough so taking a cab won’t break the bank— we just paid 10,000 COP (3 USD)… or maybe it’s just because we were with a local. It’s too far to walk, but just outside the walls on the road by the sea (Avenida Santander) you can wait for mini buses to pass by. They only charge 2,300 COP per person, and these buses would pass by the beaches where you can go swimming. There were 4 of us, so we just decided to take a cab since we’d be spending about the same amount. In my opinion though, if you want to go swimming you’d better just head elsewhere since the beaches in Cartagena aren’t really beautiful and the nearby islands are easily accessible.
We decided to go to the islands on our own and just purchase ferry tickets at the port. It’s true that you can do these trips on your own because there are multiple ferries heading to the different islands everyday. The fact that you’ll see lots of locals in line to buy tickets would make anyone believe this is the cheapest way to go. However when we got back to the hostel and checked out the tours they offered, we were surprised that it would have been cheaper if we went with them. Not by much but still cheaper. We wouldn’t even have to worry about lunch because it’s included. So that’s one lesson learned. Before going off on your own, check out the tours offered by your hostel so you’ll know if you’ll be getting a better deal if you decide to do your own thing.
If you ask anyone for recommendations, you’ll probably hear Playa Blanca. We didn’t actually go here but it was one of the stops on the ferry we took. Forget all those pictures and videos that guides would show you. From afar we could clearly see that Playa Blanca is overdeveloped and crowded. Establishments were right next to each other with very little space in between, and it was shocking to see that there were still a lot of construction going on! This was on a weekday morning by the way. I wonder how it is on weekends. When we saw this we were glad we decided not to go there. We wanted to chill on the beach and Playa Blanca isn’t ideal for relaxation.
If you want to relax on a beautiful Caribbean beach, head farther to the Islas del Rosario. These are protected islands so you have to pay an additional 15,000 COP on top of the ferry ticket. The most popular destinations here are Isla Rosario and Isla Grande, maybe because these are the biggest islands. We decided to head to Isla Grande because more locals were recommending it. Take note that the ferries/ boats will drop you off at certain resorts at Isla Grande. When you’re buying tickets, you have to specify that you want to head to the resorts with beach access because some resorts are secluded and these are not near any sandy beaches!
On our way back to Cartagena we made a stop at Isla Cholon. From afar we can already hear loud music thumping. It’s a party island where lots of people were partying and getting drunk. It sure looked fun from afar, but once we actually set foot on the island, the amount of trash totally put me off. It’s not just on the beach, lots of trash were also floating on the water. Those tables right on the water looked cool, but when I got close I saw lots of food floating as well as empty cans of beer and soda. I’m always up for Spring break type of fun, but a little concern for the environment wouldn’t hurt. One can have a good time and party without being this messy.
I would say that I loved my stay in Cartagena, but keep in mind that I’m totally biased when it comes to places near the sea lol. It’s a popular tourist destination so understandably everything here is more expensive compared to other places in the country, but I’d say the vibe makes up for it. I was actually planning on heading to Santa Marta next so I could check out Tayrona National Natural Park— I’ve met lots of travelers who were raving about it. However, I failed to do my research. This was in February, and I wasn’t aware that the government closes off the national park for the entire month each year. By this time I’ve realized that I’ve had my fill of beaches and I’d rather head elsewhere. It was time to start heading south until I reach the border to Ecuador.