Soaking up the Cartagena Old Town

Nature
The wow factor for nature - does it show nature at its best? Doesn't need to be the wilder-beast migration or diving with hundreds of hammerheads. Rather make you pause as you realise just how awesome the natural world can be
2
Culture
How much does this experience showcase some of the better and finer things that us humans can offer? Sure, it can be ancient ruins and renaissance churches, but it can also be festivals or soaking up some of the great modern cities of the world
8
Fun factor/activity
Very simple - was it fun? This is usually linked in with doing some kind of activity - i mean, walking along some cliffs is nice, but paragliding from them, now that is fun. Its a vastly underrated factor in a truly great experience
4
Avoid the crowds
Big tour groups and being surrounded by loud fellow tourists can sap the life out of even the greatest of travel experiences. This score is to reflect just how much you can avoid this. But. . . The score also takes into account if the crowds actually add to the experience, such as with a party town or a bustling food market
2
World famous
How world famous is the experience?
6
unique
How hard is it to have a similar experience in other places round the world?
7
Overall Score
The highest score of nature or culture, + fun factor, + avoid the crowds, + the highest score of world famous or unique. Then turned into a score out of 100. More details at the bottom of the page
52 *What the scores mean and where do they come from
continent
South America
country
Colombia
Length of time
1-2 days
Rough cost
Obviously people have different tastes, so this will depend on those tastes, but this is a rough idea of price of the whole experience based on 2 people able to split the accommodation costs and excluding travel there and back
$ 150
Time of year visited
March
Primary Tags
Click on any of the tags to see all travel experiences with the same tag
RANKING
How this travel experience ranks compared to all the other experiences on this site
257th/334 This travel experience's ranking compared to all the other experiences on this site
Top 80% SUMMARY RATING: Worth doing

Summary

Wandering through the historic old town of Cartagena, it’s easy to let your mind wander and think back to the time of discovery, adventure and pirates as you soak up the cobbled streets and stunning architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage site.  This, plus some great restaurants, make Cartagena one of the must visit sites of Colombia

Unfortunately, the downside is that it gets super busy with the sheer volume of tourists (I got the impression Cartagena is the #1 choice destination for people’s first visit to Colombia), and some of the most intense number of hawkers I’ve seen anywhere in the world.  This also makes some of the plans for trips to the nearby beaches or those islands to the South West not quite the romantic paradise you’d have hoped for

Definitely worth the visit though as Cartagena has to be in the top 5 Old Towns in Latin America

highlights

#1 Getting yourself lost in the beautiful cobbled streets of the Old Town and imagining what it must have been like back in the days of discovery, adventure and pirates

#2 Trying some of the many fantastic restaurants on offer throughout the Old Town

#3 Having a drink overlooking the winding streets from one of the rooftop bars

#4 Chilling . . . for 10mins . . . on one of the many beaches . . . before you get hassled!

#5 Checking out the Sea Walls that surround a long side of the Old Town and give great sea views

Travel Tips

  • The Old Town is big enough to get lost in and I suggest you do exactly that.  Wandering through the streets and losing yourself in your imagination for what it would have been like was the highlight for me.  Make sure you wander along the sea walls and, if in the mood, pick up a guide
  • Beaches – I think many people come to Cartagena thinking it will be the lovely combination of Old Town (yes) and paradise-style beaches (less so).  There are some nice beaches, its just that they are rammed and you need to be prepared for very regular hawkers (genuinely some of the most persistent I’ve experienced in the world, although often not without charm!):
    • Beaches by Boca Grande – not really much to write home about, but nice for a walk along the beach and if you’re staying in a hotel nearby
    • Beaches a boat ride away to the South West near Islas del Rosario – far nicer than those in Cartagena, but, again, rammed.  Be prepared as well for some bumpy seas to get there
  • Bars & Restaurants.  Some awesome spots in Cartagena.  I’d recommend:
    • Restaurant – Montesacro Resto Bar, and eat at the bar
    • Restaurant – Restaurante Donde Olano, and eat in the courtyard
    • Bar – Townhouse Boutique Hotel, great rooftop views
    • Restaurant – Caffe Lunatico, if you’re in the Getsemani / La Matuna area for lunch
  • Hotels.  We tried both staying inside and just outside of the main Old Town area.  Looking back, on balance I’d say aim for staying in the Old Town as its just more convenient, especially after a day of walking around the Old Town in the heat.  But I would say that if you’re on a budget that some of the areas outside the Old Town are also nice, quieter and give you more of an insight into other neighbourhoods (often which are packed with great restaurants).  Both places we stayed at I would recommend:
    • Old Town – Hotel Boutique at the Park.  Very cool inner courtyard and views over one of the central parks
    • Outside the Old Town – Peregrinos Hostel Cartagena de Indias.  Way cheaper option, yet very nice with decent rooms.  15min nice walk into the Old Town
  • Safety – felt safe throughout the time in Cartagena.  Very different vibe to Bogota and Medellin
  • Book recommendations:
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the traditional must read literature.  At times it can be a little slow going, but it created its own genre (magic realism . . . obviously) and very much tells the story in a round about way of many of the difficulties faced by Colombia
    • To give a perspective of just what it must have been like for the American civilisations before the Spanish arrived, I highly recommend 1491 by Charles Mann.  It will change your view from what is likely to be that of basic jungle tribes / Indians hunting the buffalo on the plains to what they really were – in many ways equally sophisticated civilisations to those of Eurasia
    • For a broad, often quite opinionated, overview of modern South America, I also recommend Viva South America Oliver Balch
  • Broader Colombia – for how Bogota can fit into a bigger 3 week trip to see the highlights of Colombia, see 3 weeks in Colombia for itinerary and tips

Experiences nearby

The below map shows experiences nearby with a colour that reflect the Overall Score of those experiences

Score Detail

Background - how many times have you asked someone what a travel experience was like and the response was "amazing" or "awesome"?  That response is nice to know, but it makes it hard to differentiate that experience compared to others.  That is exactly what these scores are trying to do - differentiate the experience by giving a score out of 10 based on 6 categories and then giving an overall experience score

This overall experience score is calculated by:  take the highest of the "Culture" or "Nature" score (1-10) + "Fun factor" (1-10) + "Avoiding the crowds" (1-10) + highest of the "Unique" or "World Famous score" (1-10).  Then convert into a score out of 100

Extra detail - the logic being that I find all of the 6 individual scores important, but I don't want to mark an experience down just because it doesn't cover both "Culture" and "Nature", or because it isn't both "World Famous" and "Unique".  Take the examples of Safari in The Serengeti and walking through Rome - they both appeal at opposite ends of the nature / culture spectrum, and you can have a fantastic time without needing to appeal to both sides.  So, their overall scores aren't penalized for their lack of one or the other, and I've done the same for "World Famous" vs "Unique".  But . . . I do think that the "Fun factor" of an experience is important, irrelevant of other factors, and so is "Avoiding the Crowds" (or where there are crowds that add to the experience).  So, both of these scores are standalone