The city of Cartagena is the place to come in Colombia for some history served with a hefty helping of vibrancy. Known during the Spanish colonial era as Cartagena de Indias, the Caribbean city was founded in 1533 – something that you can certainly feel as you explore the streets, plazas and centuries-old buildings of its historic center.
The central parts of Cartagena come alive at night, with tourists, backpackers and locals positively drinking in the lively atmosphere in bars set in renovated – and sometimes unrenovated – heritage buildings.
Equal parts colorful and historical, the walled city and its surrounding areas make for a picturesque place to come for a trip. But it isn’t all about this relatively tiny center of town; make your way south, and you’ll find yourself in a decidedly modern side of Cartagena. Complete with skyscrapers and a long stretch of beach, in the area of Bocagrande, it is easy to see that Cartagena is the fifth largest city in Colombia.
Map of Cartagena
1. Centro · 2. Bocagrande & Laguito · 3. Getsemaní · 4. San Diego
· 5. Manga · 6. Marbella · 7. La Boquilla · 8. Crespo
In the north, however, you will find a different culture to that of the center and its crumbling buildings. La Boquilla is home to an Afro-Caribbean community that help show that Cartagena – in fact, all of Colombia – isn’t just a Spanish speaking ex-colony: it’s a melting pot of languages and cultures that makes up this South American country.
With an airport to get you in and out of Cartegena, arriving and departing is a breeze. The center is so compact you can explore it all on foot, from the 500-year-old churches to the revitalized, graffitied lanes. However, there are more places to base yourself on a trip to Cartegena than inside its old city walls, so here is a selection of other spots in the city that might be perfect for your trip.
The district of Centro is the historic walled city and center of Cartagena. Here is the place to come to explore the history of the town, with its many lanes and monuments jostling for space. For a start, there’s the 500-year-old Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, the colorful Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría dating back to 1577, and the beautiful baroque building that was once the Palace of the Inquisition.
You will also be able to join in the fun at lively squares like Plaza Santo Domingo, which is lined with terrace restaurants, features a fun Botero sculpture, and plays host to street performers and dancing by night. Speaking of which, the nightlife in this area is great, with many bars open till late – like the cocktail lounge of El Baron.
Staying in Centro means, for the most part, staying in beautiful old buildings. This ranges all the way from elegant hotels set in 17th-century edifices to boutique offerings in villas complete with pools in the courtyard, ranging from high-end to surprisingly affordable.
Bocagrande, situated on a spit of land curving south of central Cartagena, is the modern face of the city. Here is where you will find upscale designer clothing stores, government buildings, high-rise hotels, and plenty of skyscrapers. For those wanting a more modern stay in Cartagena, this is it.
But it’s not just about the high-rises; Bocagrande is also known for its beach life, with many pockets of sun, sea, and sand to enjoy along its Caribbean coast. There are many restaurants, both local and international, found here too, as well as upscale hotels.
Laguito, a tiny area at the end of the peninsula, is named for its small lake (‘laguito’ in Spanish). Around it, as well as a selection of hotels which includes the Hilton, are places to eat and drink overlooking the water. This is a great spot for sunset; fans of a sundowner will have an uninterrupted view of the sun going down over the water from the Playas El Laguito.
Previously known as something of a rough area with a lot of crime, Getsemaní is certainly on the up – though some areas of this district are still not completely safe to wander around after dark. Today, Getsemaní is known for being the hipster-friendly side to Cartagena; historic buildings with colorful murals and graffiti have been turned into tourist attractions, such as the rainbow of colors and imagery on Calle de las Tortugas.
Here, you’ll find a wealth of bars, restaurants, cafes, and nightclubs, where you can rub shoulders with Cartagena’s fun-loving cool kids and backpackers alike. Getsemaní is also packed with a whole lot of places to stay, the majority of which are located in historic buildings. From sociable hostels to boutique offerings, there is something for everyone in this party-ready area of town.
Just north of the walled city itself lies San Diego. There is something of a bohemian atmosphere infused into this part of town, helped by the fact that the Art College of Bellas Artes is located here. There are plenty of fun places for students to meet up in the area, giving it an energy all of its own.
San Diego is not short of sights, either. You will find parts of the old fortified walls of the city, the Cordon Amurallado, and the Las Bovedas Market – a cool shopping area that looks and feels like a cave, which is probably because it used to be a jail. There is also the Casa de Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a reconstruction of the Colombian writer’s house, where you can go to learn about his life and works.
This area is also full of good restaurants and is perfect for a sunset stroll along the waterfront to Fisherman’s Beach. The accommodation in San Diego includes lively hostels and relaxing hotels boasting terraces and pools.
Manga is an island set to the south of Getsemaní. This is a leafy, residential neighborhood filled with tree-lined streets and quiet parks, such as the Parque Pastelillo. An unfussy area of town, this is a quieter alternative to the center if you’re looking to spend a more chilled couple or family break to Cartagena.
It’s not an overly touristed part of town, because there aren’t a lot of sights. There is a marina where you can watch the yachts swaying in the sea, but it’s more about blending in with the local life of this low-key district.
Apartments and hotels in Manga are very affordable. Some even have small pools and sea views, so you get to spend a hassle-free, independent time in this cool city – all only a stone’s throw from the most historic parts anyway.
A relatively quiet area to the north of the center sandwiched between Santander Avenue and the Caribbean Sea, Marbella is known for its beach, the sandy Playa Marbella. It comes with parasols, sun loungers, and palm trees. This place is a popular spot – not just for soaking up the sun and paddling around in the surf, but also for beach volleyball. If you’re not up for a game, you’re free to watch.
There’s a pedestrian path running along the seafront here. It’s an excellent spot for watching local life and picnicking; there’s even a skate park here. From here, it’s a short taxi ride to the walled city itself, plus taxis are quite easy to flag down in Marbella.
Though not right next door to the airport, it’s close enough that getting to an early flight is easy, yet far enough that you don’t hear the planes. There is a selection of beachfront hotels to choose from in Marbella, some high rise chains and apartments.
North of Marbella is the long island that is La Boquilla. Formerly a fishing village, and often described as such, La Boquilla is a 25-minute drive from Cartagena’s center and just a 5 minute drive to the airport.
La Boquilla is made up of two different areas: Morros, which is where you’ll find skyscrapers and luxury gated communities, and the original town of La Boquilla further to the north. There are a handful of modern chain hotels to stay in Morros overlooking the Caribbean, as well as small local hotels and homely inns for a more affordable stay.
Whilst high rise hotels and clean beaches are the norm for Morros, that’s not the case for the original La Boquilla. This older area is a patchwork of local authentic restaurants and busy fishermen bringing in the day’s catch; try out the delicious fried fish at one of these eateries. Back in Morros, enjoy strolls along the shore, sunning yourself on the beach, and having a cocktail from one of the mobile cocktail vendors!
Located in the northern part of Marbella, Crespo is very well located if you’re planning on flying into, or out of, the city. The Rafael Núñez International Airport is practically on the doorstep. While not packed with sights to see and things to do, staying in this area of town does mean that you will get a seriously convenient location.
There are a fair few restaurants to choose from here, meaning that you won’t be completely cut off by staying in this airport-friendly zone, but you’re still far enough away from the bustling center of town that you won’t be overrun by noise and late nights.
If you are interested in staying in this more modern part of Cartagena, you are going to find a number of affordable and mid-range apartments and hotels – mostly within striking distance of the airport.