Whether you spend your Colombian vacation trekking through the Amazon rainforest, exploring the vibrant city of Medellin, weathering the chilly gray skies of Bogota, or maybe even doing all three, ending your trip in Cartagena is the perfect way to relax and recharge before heading back home again.
Cartagena is known around the world for its colorful walled city, extensive fortifications, authentic food, and stunning white-sand beaches. Now you can discover all of this and more with our guide to the top 10 things to do in Cartagena.
1. Swim at Playa Blanca
If you’ve ever dreamed of visiting a Caribbean beach, you’re in luck because they’re so easy to reach from Cartagena. The Muelle de la Bodeguita marina (located right outside of the walled city) sells both boat and bus tickets to nearby Playa Blanca. Simply choose your preferred method of transportation and then settle in for a quick one-hour trip. Soon, you’ll find yourself eating, drinking, swimming, and relaxing on the white-sand beaches of paradise.
2. Snorkel or Dive in the Rosario Islands
If you’re scuba certified, diving in Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park is one of Cartagena’s highlights. The park spans more than 450 square miles of islands and coral reefs and most dive trips to it include transport, two dives, knowledgeable guides, and a lunch break on the beach. If you’ve never gone scuba diving before but still want to explore this unique underwater park, you can also book snorkeling trips with the diving companies or even spend a few days finally getting that open water scuba certification you’ve been dreaming of.
3. Indulge in Seafood and Colombian Sweets
One specialty every traveler should try in Cartagena is ceviche, a cold dish in which seafood like fish, shrimp, calamari, and octopus is cooked in acidic lemon juices rather than heat. Acclaimed chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain recommended La Cevicheria as one of the best restaurants to try it on his visit to the city. After you eat, make sure to save some room for dessert from the Portal de las Dulces. The colorful marketplace is lined with stands selling delicious Colombian treats like obleas (wafer sandwiches), cocadas (coconut candy), and much, much more.
4. Dance All Night in the Salsa Clubs
Watch a few YouTube videos to learn the basic salsa dancing steps before you travel to Cartagena because you’ll definitely put the knowledge to good use. Salsa clubs dot the city and everyone is welcome to join in on the fun. Some of the hottest spots to dance the night away are Cafe Havana and Donde Fidel, both of which serve up plenty of cervezas to help you feel a little less self-conscious about your two left feet.
5. Explore the Walled City
Did you know that Cartagena was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984? One of the reasons it was inscribed was because “The port of Cartagena—together with Havana and San Juan, Puerto Rico—was an essential link in the route to the West Indies and thus an important chapter in the history of world exploration.” The walled city was a melting pot of cultures and its winding streets tell the story of hundreds of years of history through churches, shops, and quiet shaded corners just begging to be discovered on a long, aimless walk through the city.
6. Go Island Hopping
Vogue claims that Colombia’s Rosario Islands were practically made for Instagram, and they just might be right. Even if you can’t afford to rent out your own private island, many of the islands like Isla Grande and Isla Marina offer accommodation to help you relax and get away from it all in a truly idyllic setting. Sure, WiFi, running water, and electricity may all be in short supply but the sounds of the waves crashing against your doorstep every morning just might make up for the inconvenience.
7. Take a Mud Bath
The Totumo Mud Volcano is a popular destination for vacationers in Cartagena who want to leave the beaches behind and try something new. To go, ask your hostel or hotel to set up a half-day trip with one of the many tour companies in the city who are more than happy to whisk you away to bathe in the slippery mud. Afterward, jump in the nearby lake to wash off (after snapping a few mud-covered photos, of course) and return home with smooth skin and a unique experience checked off your bucket list.
8. Visit the Churches
Three out of every four Colombians identify as Catholic so you can find beautiful churches in every corner of the country. Some of the most notable churches in Cartagena are the Sanctuary of St. Peter Claver, built in 1580 and home to the remains of its holy namesake, the Convento de la Popa, located on the highest point in the city, the Cathedral of Cartagena, and the restored Convento de Santo Domingo.
9. Check out a Few Museums
First, visit the Museo Historico de Cartagena de Indias—ominously located in the old Palace of the Inquisition—to learn more about both the good and the bad in this city’s history. Afterward, lighten things up with a trip to the Museo del Oro Zenu to marvel at gold and silver artifacts from pre-Colombian cultures and then complete your education at the Choco Museo to learn how Colombia creates and exports its famous chocolate (and sample a few pieces of the sweet treat as well).
10. Shop ‘til you Drop at the Markets
Browse the stalls overflowing with fish, meat, fresh veggies, and more at Mercado de Bazurto and then round out your Cartagena trip with one final stop at Las Bovedas market. It may be housed in a former jail, but Las Bovedas has been transformed into the perfect place to stock up on colorful Colombian souvenirs for friends and family back home before you board your plane and wave one final goodbye to this Caribbean paradise.