3 Days in Cartagena: What to Do and to Avoid
When I first visited Colombia in 2010, I was swept away to the coast to indulge and spend 3 days in Cartagena. Just a 1-hour plane ride away from Bogotá, you can find cheap tickets to Cartagena starting USD $40 and probably even less via Viva Colombia.
Where is Cartagena you ask? Although only an hour plane ride away from Bogota, the city is located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.
When I arrived to Cartagena, it was exactly how I pictured Colombia to be: hot, colorful and lively. What a drastic change compared to the capital! The people, the flavors, and the way of life were so different from one another. The weather in Cartagena was hot, humid and sticky. I was glad to have brought my little skirts, dresses and shorts; all the things I would never wear in Bogota!
I was just surprised that the beaches weren’t well taken care of and that people headed off to the islands to put their feet in the sand. But more on that later…
In my mind it was sort of like Cuba with big black mamas dressed up in colorful dresses, mojitos served alongside blazing sunsets and colorful colonial buildings. I’ve seen pictures of Cuba and I know it is different, but in my mind, that’s how it seemed at the time.
A good friend from University came to visit and the big question was where to take her in order for her to fall in love with Colombia. So I spoke with several friends as to what the best plan would be as there is so much to see and to do in this country. We settled on the idea that as it was her first time in Colombia, for her to fall in love with the country, it would be best to take her to the coast to Cartagena.
We only stayed three days as it was election weekend and there was ley seca, meaning there would be very little party, no alcohol and not many people.
So here’s a recollection of what we did in three days and an honest opinion of our stay and things to do when you have 3 days in Cartagena.
We were looking for economic lodging, therefore we stayed in the neighborhood of Getsemani, a less touristy neighborhood, better known for its lively night ambience. This is basically where all the nightclubs were supposed to be. Unluckily, as we chose the quietest weekend of the year, I can’t speak on the subject. If you’re going to spend 3 days in Cartagena, make sure you avoid long weekends as it can quickly become overcrowded.
We spent some time wandering around the small neighborhood, soaking in the Caribbean feel of the coast of Colombia and admiring the colonial and colorful architecture.
Later we walked to the Castillo of San Felipe, where we got to check out some cool tunnels and an impressive view of the city. There’s not much to the fortress, but as there’s not a lot of sights to see in Cartagena, you might as well!
Walking back from the Castillo de San Felipe, Getsemani was only a 10 minute walk to La Torre del Reloj, which was the main gate to the entrance of the historic center, also called la ciudad amurallada.
We set out to explore and discover every corner and street of la ciudad amurallada. Right when we thought it couldn’t be more breathtaking, we would turn the next street and there would be an even more impressive view.
The whole afternoon revolved around gapping at the colonial architecture, buying small trinkets from street sellers, sipping on freshly cut coconut and eating fried fish with coconut rice. What a life!
Unfortunately, most of the stores were closed and there were very few sellers due to election weekend. But on the bright side, we felt as if we had the city to ourselves and were able to really enjoy the beautiful views without the busy crowds that usually take over Cartagena.
Fascinated by the historic center, we headed back for a bit to soak in the beauty and then headed to Bocagrande. Bocagrande is another part of the city with more modern buildings, a bit Miami-ish. Again, I don’t know if it was because of election weekend, but the streets were deserted and there was not much to do, so we looked for a place to eat and headed back to la ciudad amurallada.
**UPDATE** After having been to Cartagena over 3 times now, I definitely recommend that you skip Bocagrande. Unless your hotel is located in the area, there’s nothing to see or do in this residential area. INSTEAD, get a nice hotel during your 3 days in Cartagena and spend the day sipping cocktails by the pool.
We finished off the evening in Café del Mar to enjoy the stunning sunset and a cool drink while listening to good music.
On our last day, we wanted to do the typical plan of going to an island, but we had a hard time choosing which one. The experience of Playa Blanca back in 2010 didn’t evoke the best memories as I remembered it being overcrowded and dirty. However, I doubted my memory as this had happened over six years ago during the peak season of December. The tourist office in Cartagena only gave us one tour company option. There were other companies who offered packages on the pier, but they all seemed to offer the similar packages at similar prices.
The hard part was choosing an island as we hadn’t read reviews before hand and were also on a budget. Some of the nicer islands looked like resorts but we were looking for a natural untouched beach. After looking at a few pictures we opted for the traditional trip to Playa Blanca.
Only 30 minutes away from the mainland, we quickly arrived in the morning to spend the entire day and skipped the side activities. Unfortunately, the weather was not in our favor and so we had to negotiate a flimsy looking tent for a mere $5,000 pesos to avoid the rain. The beach was relatively empty, but sadly, the sand was wet and extremely dirty, possibly even dirtier than I remembered.
Every 5 meters I treaded, I saw huge mounds of poop and every now and then someone playing in the sand. It was so gross!!!! (I’ll spare you the pictures)
Women walking down the beach from end to end selling massages were also a pain. My friend and I negotiated a 30-minute massage each for $35,000 total and the woman tried to do only 15-minutes each for the same price! Although we didn’t get ripped off and only paid $17,000, renegotiating was exhausting and trying to get change was impossible.
Even the friendly and smiley guy that whipped up your delicious coco loco, chatted you up and served you that cold beer could not be trusted. I won’t go into details, but I felt surrounded by vultures. Luckily I spoke Spanish, but I have heard of cases where free massage samples turned out costing $200,000 pesos for 20 minutes!!! Not cool…
The fried crispy fish with coconut rice that came with the tour turned out to be limp oily fish with normal rice…what a disappointment.
If I would have known, I would have preferred to spend my 3 days in Cartagena in a fancy hotel in the historic center for the same price of a crappy afternoon. However, I have heard of tourists who have been to Playa Blanca, walked about 20 minutes to a quieter location and have had a totally different experience.
What I did was the tour that was offered at the tourist office and stayed at the main beach where they dropped us off (something which I strongly don’t recommend). Don’t do what I did, go to another island, or try walking a bit further to see if you can escape the dirty beach, crowds, garbage, poop and vultures.
Or even better, if you have a friend that has a place in Cartagena, stay with them. Maybe they’ll even have a boat to take you to desert islands where you can enjoy cleaner beaches, free from tourists and trash.
But being realistic, if you’re on a budget, the other islands were quite pricey and look more like resort beaches instead of your ideal barren island Caribbean fantasy. So if you are price sensitive, I would forgo the whole island idea altogether. But if you do have the cash to spend during your 3 days in Cartagena, skip the organized tours and get a private boat as I’m sure there are plenty of beautiful beaches to explore.
Overall it started off lovely and finished a bit sour. Next time, I would like to experience 3 days Cartagena with a local, going there when there’s a bit more people and going to enjoy the wonderful music festivals and great restaurants.
**UPDATE** I have gone back since with locals who had a place for us to stay, knew where to eat and drove us around on their private boat, and let me tell you: my 3 days in Cartagena were awesome!!
If you want to enjoy Cartagena, it’s a place to splurge and indulge, don’t go there backpacking.