Cartagena de Indias is easily the most beautiful, photogenic, and historic city in all of Colombia. It’s a must-see when visiting the country. It’s set on the Caribbean Sea with the old town behind Spanish colonial walls, with several colonial-era buildings with large flowered balconies.
It’s very easy to get to Cartagena. There are several flights a day from major cities in Colombia, and from international cities like Miami, New York, and Panama City to Cartagena’s Rafael Núñez International Airport. The airport is small and has a reliable taxi service. You tell the taxi service the area you are traveling to. They give you a receipt with a fixed price to pay the driver once reaching your destination. From the airport to Getsemaní, we paid COP$9,800 (as of December 2014). To Bocagrande, we paid COP$18,500 (as of July 2017).
The bus terminal is very far from the city center. It can take a very long and expensive taxi ride to get there, but there are buses to all major cities in Colombia. The most frequent buses go to nearby cities like Barranquilla and Santa Marta.
If transferring between Cartagena and Santa Marta or Barranquilla, you can use MarSol. They pick you up from your hotel and drop you off at your destination for a good door-to-door service that is very reasonably priced. It will probably save you time and money in the long run if you choose this service rather than going to the bus station. We paid COP$42,000 per person (as of December 2014) from Cartagena to Santa Marta and it was reserved by the hotel. It was COP$21,000 to Barranquilla (as of December 2014).
Getting around Cartagena is easy. Most tourists will stay in either the old town, Getsemaní, or the modern area of Bocagrande. You can easily walk to most major sites from Getsemaní or the old town, but will need a taxi from Bocagrande (which can add up quickly).
Taxis in Cartagena don’t run on meters. I’ve paid different rates for the same route, all within a couple thousand pesos. You might want to ask the price before getting into the taxi.
There are yellow and white taxis that work in the city. The yellow taxis are cheaper while the white ones, which tend to gather around luxury hotels, charge much higher prices.
Food and Lodging
Cartagena is a safe city especially if you stick to the tourist trail. I’ve stayed in Getsemaní three times, which was once considered unsafe, but never once felt any threat. As of July 2017, things have dramatically changed in Getsemaní. It’s a great place to stay at a lower price than the walled city and there are several terrific restaurants that can be found there.
Heat and Humidity
Cartagena is unbearably hot and humid. It’s important to drink plenty of liquids and try not to stay outside for very long periods. You might want to take a towel or an extra shirt to change into while walking around during the day. I was drenched in sweat just about every time I left my hotel room.
A huge annoyance is the street vendors and men selling tours in the old town. They are like vultures and will keep pouncing on you no matter how hard you push them away. They will start filling out tour vouchers without your approval and pester you until you buy or get angry and walk away, but they will follow you even more. If you want to avoid any hassle or possible rip-off, it’s best to book tours through your hotel. Tour companies prefer this and will tell you that you are not obligated to buy anything from the vultures.
I can recommend Mauricio for a good walking tour of the city. He stands outside of the Puerta del Reloj every morning looking for customers. He charges COP$20,000 per person (as of October 2014) for a good two hour walk through the old town and Getsemaní, stopping at several important spots along the way. Mauricio speaks good English and tries very hard to make sure his customers are happy. He will also aggressively try to sell more tours, but just be firm and tell him no if you aren’t interested.
Angelo is another vulture. He sold me a chiva tour of the city. It worked out well in the end, but there was a little confusion at the beginning because he undercut the price of the tour and charged us COP$40,000 each. We ended up having to pay an extra COP$9,000 admission to one of the sites on the itinerary. He also fought with Mauricio the next morning over who was going to sell us a boat tour to the Islas del Rosario and Playa Blanca. It was quite a scene. We didn’t buy from either of them.
When it rains heavily, Cartagena’s streets turn into rivers. This causes traffic to back up and plans to be delayed. If you’re in Bocagrande and it’s raining, don’t count on getting to the historic old town easily. I’ve missed out on reservations at Mistura because taxis wouldn’t or couldn’t take me to the old town because of flooding. I’ve also had to wade through knee-deep water to get to my hotel.
If you’re looking for beaches, Cartagena has them but they aren’t that great. I wouldn’t recommend them. They’re overcrowded and dirty and the water isn’t what you’d expect from a typical Caribbean beach. It’s better to go to Playa Blanca or one of the resorts on Isla Grande.