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Cartagena, Colombia is a melting pot of African, Caribbean, and Indigenous Colombian cultures. Women in traditional African dress carrying baskets of fruit on their heads can be seen walking down the street alongside street hustlers selling sun hats. Street artists can be found dancing and singing to outdoor diners as horse-drawn carriages pass by. The juxtaposition of these different cultures, ideas, and time periods makes Cartagena a vibrant, colorful, and uniquely interesting place. We’ve narrowed down all of our experiences from Cartagena into the following 6 essential things to do in Cartagena, Colombia that will give you the most well-rounded taste of all that Cartagena has to offer.
1. Take a free walking tour
The first thing I like to do when visiting any new city is take a free walking tour around the main areas of the city. In Cartagena, the most popular areas are the Walled City and its bordering neighborhoods of Getsemani and San Diego, so I thought this free walking tour of the Walled City would be the perfect introduction to Cartagena.
Our tour guide, Arturo (or Sir Arthur, as he called himself) was an animated guide who liked to act out the stories he told from history. In addition, he shared heavily about the different social classes in Cartagena and how relationships and dating differ among the different social classes. It was hard to tell whether this is actually a pervasive theme in the local culture or just in Sir Arthur’s personal life, but nonetheless we learned something new.
My favorite parts of the tour were when we stopped at an arepas (corn pancakes, often filled with meat or veggies) food stand and had the opportunity to order some of the most delicious arepas con queso (cheese arepas), and when we ended the tour at the beautiful Cafe del Mar restaurant just in time to watch the sunset. All in all, a free walking tour is a great way to get oriented with a new city and pinpoint the sights you want to return to and the sights you don’t care much for.
Beyond Colombia offers free walking tours in English every day at 10:00AM and 4:00PM from Camellón de los Mártires. You are not required to make a reservation in advance, but I would recommend doing so anyway as I saw some groups get turned away because there was no more space in the tour. You can book online here.
2. Eat street food – lots of it
In addition to free walking tours, Beyond Colombia also offers free food tours of Cartagena. If you love food as much as I do, you’ll want to book this tour. Some of the best food in Cartagena can be found in small, unassuming street stands that you would never be able to find on your own, so following a local food guide can greatly enhance your culinary experience in Cartagena. Some of my favorite street foods in the Walled City are the ceviche at Ostrería Sincelejo and the arepas con huevo (egg arepas) from a street stand outside of the Townhouse Hotel & Rooftop.
3. Spend a day at the beach
A trip to Cartagena is not complete without a day at the beach, but what many people don’t know is that most of the beaches in Cartagena are not great. If you want to find a nice beach to relax for the day, I would recommend checking out Blue Apple Beach House on the island of Barú, about a 30 minute boat ride from the Walled City. There are two pools with plenty of lounge chairs around the pool and on the beach, and you can either take a day trip there or stay overnight at their hotel. The pool area does turn into somewhat of a party scene on weekends, so save this for a vacation with friends or a lover rather than with young children. You can book day trips here and overnight stays here.
4. Visit Bazurto Market
Cartagena is a bit of a touristy city, so if you’re looking for an authentic dose of culture, book a guided tour to Bazurto Market. I went with Insider Cartagena and had a wonderful experience with my guide, Paula. While you are able to visit Bazurto without a guide, your experience will be so much better if you go with a local guide who can explain the history and customs of Bazurto Market to you and prevent you from getting too many unwanted advances, as you’ll stand out like a sore thumb amongst all the locals.
We learned about everything from local fruits I’d never seen before to champeta and other types of music brought over from Africa and the Caribbean to ancient African superstitions and traditions that have managed to survive generations of oppression. You’ll also get to walk around a lower-class neighborhood and see how locals live in Cartagena. If I had to pick one favorite experience in Cartagena, it would either be this or the salsa class. Speaking of which…
5. Take a salsa class and hit the town dancing
Thanks to my friend Gabby from Packs Light, I was introduced to a local Cartagena woman named Maria before I even stepped foot in Colombia. Born and raised in Cartagena, Maria now shares her love for Cartagena with tourists by teaching them how to salsa and taking them to the hottest salsa bars in Cartagena. Despite being horrible dancers, my nine girlfriends and I really put ourselves out there and had the most fun night with Maria and her sidekick, John, a professional salsa dancer in Colombia. You can book a salsa experience with Maria here.
6. Go scuba diving
One of my best diving experiences was with Buzos de Baru in Cartagena. Not only did we see lots of unique and interesting fish and coral, but our divemasters were professional, fun, and most importantly, made us feel safe. I’ve only been PADI open water certified for one year with about 10 dives under my belt, so I am still very much a beginner, and Hope had never scuba dived before, so feeling safe and comfortable was our top priority going into our dives in Cartagena. As an added bonus, our divemasters took photos and videos of us during our dives that they shared with us afterwards for free. You can book your dives here.
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