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.

Wide open city walls in Cartagena
I actually considered doing sprints up here ?

 

More from the city walls of Cartagena
A bright yellow hiding place

 

Cannons on the city walls of Cartagena
Bombs away

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.

The entrance to the Old City in Cartagena
The ultimate landmark

 

Church in Cartagena
An old church in an old city

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.

Castle on the Hill in Cartagena
I swear the climb up is harder than it appears

 

View from the castle in Cartagena
Wow, the weather was perfect. Perfectly hot

 

Self timer photo of me at the castle in Cartagena
Whaddup self timer?

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.

Fruit lady in Cartagena
I nabbed this shot from afar. In hindsight, I should have just bought her fruit and taken a nice photo. Don’t be like me!

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!

Coffee Menu at Cafe de Mural
A sneak peak of all the fancy, sciency drinks available

 

My coffee looks like beer
Science in Action

 

Nitro Cold Coffee at Cafe de Mural
Looks like a beer, but it’s Nitro Cold Coffee

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.

Blue house in Cartagena
Blue his house with a blue little window

 

Street art in Cartagena
Putting the ART in cARTagena

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.

Cafe del Mar for sunset
You can pay a premium for chairs…

 

Sunset on the city walls of Cartagena
…Or those nooks in the city walls are perfectly bum-sized

 

Sunset over Cartagena
In conclusion, sunset

Tour operators often push you to buy expensive day tours. Read how you can fill your days on a budget in Cartagena, Colombia.

21 thoughts on “What To Do in Cartagena Besides the Expensive Day Tours”

  1. I love seeing the other side of Cartagena and these are some fabulous recommendations. That nitro coffee look bold and perfect for the morning or mid-day slump. The castle you visited definitely seems like a must do as well.

    1. Thank you! And that coffee can only be consumed midday…He opens at 3pm with the rationale that at that time people would be drinking coffee for the appreciation vs. need for caffeine!

  2. Cartagena reminds me a lot of some of the cities I’ve seen in Spain! I guess there’s a reason for that…lol. I would definitely love to visit here one day, too =)

    1. I am actually currently in Medellin and have been for about six weeks. It’s such an amazing city and very different from the coast

  3. Cartagena is beautiful! I LOVE finding historical sights when I travel, so that castle would be my first stop in town. :) Walking tours are our favorite way to see a new city since they do such a good job of introducing the place to you. That’s awesome you found a worthwhile free tour!

  4. Thank you for this comprehensive guide! Makes me want to head there right now ;-)
    Which was the walking tour provider you would recommend, though?

    Thank you & happy continued travels!
    C

  5. I agree with you about not liking day tours to beaches. Isnt there anyway to take private boats to islands? But otherwise to Cartagena looks like a good mixture of history and modernity and has some good views

    1. I’m sure there are private boats to the islands but I’m not sure that it is a way to save money! It is definitely the perfect mix as you mention!!

  6. Nitro cold coffee?!?!?! OMG that sounds amazing!!!! I love visiting castles and free walking tours is always nice. Besides the coffee the street food and tropical fresh fresh sound delicious and refreshing.

  7. I love fresh fruit too. I do agree that fruit tastes better when it is cut for me, and for the cultural photo opp, I could be swayed. Walking tours are such educational fun things to do that I opt for them frequently. I hope to get to Colombia someday!

  8. Looks like such a great place to visit! The coffee looks amazing! I would love to try it! I also love walking tours or food tours given by locals! Such a fun experience and even better when they are free!

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