With only 2 days to spend in Cartagena, I tried to get an adequate fill of the city while also not rushing around for 48 straight hours.
I stayed in the neighborhood Getsemani. It is walking distance to the ocean, night life, and the many day tours to the islands which take off from the port.
You can take boat tours to the nearby islands, offering up that tropical feeling and the crystal clear ocean water. Plus it is pretty easy to book the tours as all the hotels and hostels concierge will assist you. Don’t forget also those guys with bright colored vests in the streets walking around with binders of photos of the islands you can tour to. They’ll hop in front of your walk path and try to sell you a tour. The tours are legit and the same thing the hotels will book for you, it is just the fact that their technique is sketchy for people who aren’t used to strange people walking in front of you and hounding you to spend your money.
Give yourself 2 days to knock out this itinerary:
1. Walk or take a very short cab ride to the beach.
From Getsemani, a cab ride to Bocagrande beach should cost you between 7k-10k pesos. As of April 2017 the exchange rate is 2,950=$1, so that’s about $3 US. To give you some perspective, my cab ride from Getsemani to the airport (5 miles) was 12,000 pesos.
I walked the sidewalks instead of a cab. About a mile walk, and you get to see the city layout a bit.
The beach has dark sand, no waves, on foot vendors. It’s not going to be your favorite beach in the world. It doesn’t have crystal clear water and the backdrop of tropical islands in the distance.
But who cares, if you are planning a trip to Cartagena you probably have already discovered that it is not a destination known for its beach. Take those day tours for the nice beaches.
(Photo below from travel-lush.com) I am recommending the city beach because it is swimmable water, ample stretch of sand to hang out on, and enough kiosks/vendors to keep you fueled and quenched. The suns heat alone is brutal enough to draw you to the beach for a half day. Plus, it’s a beach. Whether you’re a backpacker hopping across cities for months or on a weekend work getaway, the beach meets all travelers at one shared thought. Unwind time.
2. Enter through the castle walls in the “walled in” city.
After the beach, spend the evening walking through the Old Walled in City. Walking up to it, you realize that it is actually just a walled in neighborhood of Cartagena. Finished in 1796 it was necessary protection from coastal storms and pirate attacks. From the outside looks it is a castle theme block wall maybe 20 feet tall and at least 10 feet thick all around. I was bad when it came to photos in Cartagena, so I am using Trip Advisor’s photo below.
It’s colorful with tons of street vendors selling fresh fruit and juices. You can buy a large cup of sliced freshly sliced watermelon for 1,000 pesos, about $.30. Hard to turn that down, especially because most of the fruit I tried in Colombia tastes much better than the U.S.
Lots of Italian and French chefs have brought their talents into Cartagena, right here in the streets of the Old City. They have opened fancy restaurants that don’t burn through your wallet. There are few countries your currency will go farther in than in Colombia.
Later on in the evening I was walking, I came across a photo shoot. It was a pretty local woman in a very detailed and colorful traditional Colombian dress with a few pricey cameras pointed towards her. One guy had a towel and would dab around her face every couple minutes to erase the sweat from reacting with her makeup.
It’s a good place for a shoot because the walls slathered in light blue or pink and green against a 300 year old sun-cracked wooden cellar door is hard to find in most cities. I can imagine how good those photos must have turned out. I didn’t take a photo, I figured I would leave that up to them.
3. Book the 1/2 day tour to Volcan del Totumo (Volcano Totumo).
This isn’t a free thing to do, but I had a great time. This tour is popular so just tell the front desk or street salesman you want to take the tour to Volcan del Totumo. For reference, I paid 60,000 pesos. Anywhere from 60-80k is what you should expect.
Departed the city at 8:30am and began the 2 hour bus ride with 16 other tourists to the sight. It is not in Cartagena, but this and Barranquilla are the 2 closest major cities nearby the Volcano, making them the most popular for visiting from.
They will take you to the Volcano, you’ll strip down to swim shorts and climb up the stairs. They have organized a person who solely takes photos of you. You give this guy your cellphone and he takes your photo before, during and after entering the mud from up above. When you are next in line to descend the ladder and plop in the mud, you show him which cell phone is yours and he will snap 20-30 photos as you float like a bobber in the “healing” mud.
I was pleased as they turned out well. Should be good, because this guy does it all day everyday. There are also some masseuses that will rub you down for 5 minutes in the mud. The photo guy costs 4k. The massage is 4k. That equals about $1.25 each, it would be wise to do them both!
Exit the mud after a good think mud coating, pose for a mud covered photo, walk very slowly down the down set of stairs, and head into the lake nearby to wash off. Change into a set of clothes which I recommend bringing, then hop back on the bus. Next you are on the way to a beach back close to Cartagena, where they will feed you a nice full lunch on the beach.
They dropped us at 1pm at some beach and we ate a full meal prepared by locals. We left the beach at about 2pm and made it back by 3pm. For 60,000 pesos you get a front door pickup/dropoff, lunch, beach stop and a mud bath. Came out to be $20 USD.
4. Spend the final evening watching the sun fall down at Cerro de la Popa.
This was the easiest and possibly most satisfying part of Cartagena for me. Watch the sunset from a small mountain within the city, where you will get a 360 degree view and a true vision of the different neighborhoods and old buildings from above. Me and some friends I met at the hostel took a cab ride for 60k pesos. That included 4 people, the drive there, wait for 1 hour then drive back after the sunset.
My 2 days went by quickly in Cartagena. I came in on a 6 hour bus ride from Santa Marta on a Tuesday night and an Uber to the airport Friday morning destined for Santiago de Cali. I ate patacones in the walled in city. I had a freshly prepared street cart lulada. I asked late night locals on the street directions to a nearby restaurant to find my gringo friends.
Fast times in historic cities. I always say yes to that.