Cartagena, Colombia is a beachy, Caribbean paradise. It is famous for its Old Town, a UNESCO world heritage site, and stunning beaches. The catch is, these beautiful beaches are not part of Cartagena at all! They exist on small islands off the coast, which require you to book a trip in order to reach them. To me, one of the best parts of a beach destination is being able to wake up, walk to the beach, and walk back when I am done. I would hate to be forced to stay on the beach for longer than me and my fair skin desired because I am at the mercy of a tour guide. That is not to say that Cartagena isn’t an amazing destination, but you need to look outside the beautiful beaches (unless you want to drop a pretty penny for the transport and possible lunch they may include). I’ve compiled some alternative activities that you can do on your own, without paying for a tour.
Walk on the City Walls
I hopped up on the city walls every single day I was in the Old City. You get a great view of the city, not to mention a much needed breeze. I went up there to walk, to take in the views, to take photos, to watch the sunset, to read a book; the opportunities are endless.
Take a Free Walking Tour
If you read my previous post, you know I love free walking tours. If you haven’t read it, um, just do it, I’ve even linked to it. Anywho. There are two companies that offer free walking tours in Cartagena. Now, it is very important that you choose the correct operator. I had originally booked a tour with one of them, and when the start time rolled around, no one showed up. Luckily I had learned of the other tour operator, because I actually saw them (they show up for their tours), and I had a great experience. The guide was very engaging and interactive. He learned all of our names and asked us a zillion questions, in exchange for small prizes.
Explore the Castle
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is a castle and everyone likes a castle. It was built back in the 1500’s and is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Old City. There is an entrance fee of 25,ooo pesos which I found worthwhile. It is a cool place to explore and take in the beautiful view of the Old City as well as the newer parts.
Buy Fresh, Tropical Fruit
Holy crap! And I thought Asia had good fruit. Ok, they do, I can’t compare. We can all just agree it is better than the fruit in the US or Europe. To me, there is nothing better than buying a fresh mango that somebody already cut up for me. The going rate for a mango is 2000-3000 pesos ($0.70-$1.00), unless you opt to purchase from one of the beautiful ladies in traditional garb as they charge a premium which includes a photo op.
Get a Tan and Swim
You can still go to the beach without booking a fancy day trip! What is your objective? Swim a little? Get a tan? There are perfectly suitable beaches close by to get your swim and tan on. A taxi from the Old City to Bocagrande beach should cost about 8000 pesos (less than three dollars). Is it something to look at? Um, no. But your eyes are closed while you’re sunbathing anyway…
Drink a Fancy Coffee…in the Name of Science
I enjoy visiting a cafe or two during my time in any city. It is a great way to caffeinate and take a break from exploring. For me, the fancier, funkier, or hipper the cafe the better. Within reason mind you. Not some self-righteous coffee snobs that will not serve milk with their coffee, but that is a story for another time. In Cartagena, I can’t recommend Cafe de Mural enough. The shop is loaded up with Erlenmeyer flasks and beakers which makes my nerdy, engineering heart swoon. Many of the coffees are prepared as though they are science experiments. And my Nitro Cold Coffee was no different!
Eat Street Food
Cartagena is famous for their Arepa de Huevo (arepa of egg…no translation for you on the arepa front). So you should try it! There are also a bunch of other fried goodies you can get on the street which end up making a pretty economical meal!
Putz Around Getsemani
Knowing what I know now, Getsemani is the place to stay for a backpacker. It is significantly cheaper than inside the city walls, and has plenty of hostels, restaurants and street art. Not to mention that cool cafe, Cafe de Mural is in the area. It is still super close to the Old City and is a cool area to wander around, get lost, and take pictures of colorful houses and impressive street art.
Watch the Sunset
There is this restaurant called Cafe del Mar that many may recommend you visit to watch the sunset. Get there early they say, it gets busy. Yes, this cafe is positioned in an ideal location on the city walls to view the sunset. But, another ideal position is about 20 feet to the left (or right). Buy a cheap beer from one of the vendors, pop a squat somewhere on the wall, and enjoy. Believe it or not, it is the same sunset featured at Cafe del Mar.