Cartagena: a Port City and One Hot Mess
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Cartagena is a hot mess:
On one hand it’s a vibrant beautiful port city where cruise ships also dock. It has a beautiful historic center and is the major tourist destination for Colombia. The city has the feel of a touristy city in Spain. On other hand, outside of historic center it’s so congested with traffic you can barely cross the street. It’s loud and dirty, sweltering hot with pesky peddlers.

Fortress San Filipe – the largest Spanish fort built in the Americas

The city’s full name is Cartagena de Indias – a reminder that the early Spanish navigators believed they had reached the Far East when they first landed in 1533. The core of the city was built by the Spaniards – a walled in city with impenetrable fortresses to fend off pirates, French and English attacks. Beautiful churches, plazas, convents and statues abound. After Colombia’s independence in 1821 the fortresses were irrelevant and abandoned until restoration started in 1924.

The seafront boulevard outside the old city crowded with hotels, apartaments, towers, resorts, shows and fast food outlets.

The city within the walls – also called the inner city or El Centro, was where the high officials and nobility originally lived. You can easily walk most of its narrow streets strolling around in a half day – best in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the humid mid-day heat.

Here they have a big meal at mid-day and lay low or at least stay in the shade during the hot afternoon hours. There are lots of upscale hotels, shops featuring boutique European retailers, international restaurants, bars, clubs and all the plazas have free WiFi. This part of town is one of the most expensive in Colombia with everything costing double what it costs in the rest of the country.

a church in Getsamani

Getsemani is a little neighborhood just outside of the walls- called the outer city where a lot of colonial buildings still survive.  It is a little more Colombia affordable, reflecting the real Colombia of today, and there are a lot of hotels and restaurants here. But gentrification is pushing most of the locals out of this neighborhood as the corporations and merchants move in.

Torre El Reloj – Cartagena

Beaches of Cartagena

There are Caribbean beaches here but they are big city beaches: Bocagrande within walking distance of the city where the beaches are not too tidy and crowed. Another city beach close by is Marbella which is the ‘locals’ beach. Or one can go down to the end of the peninsula where all the big chain hotels are and the beaches are a bit better. And then there’s Bocachica on the little island of Tierrabomba where boats leave from the tourist dock Muelle Turistico at 8 in the morning for a 2 hour trip to the island’s beach costing $2.50 each way – boats return at 4.

Bazurto Market – the central market of Cartagena

the Bazurto market – a fish vendor
the Bazurto market – a fish vendor
a woman cooking a seafood rice at a food stall in the Bazurto market

Another good day trip is to go to town’s central market – Bazurto Market where they sell everything from clothes to meat, seafood, fruits and vegetables. It’s a bustling city market considered one of the best in Colombia.

Sanitary conditions are lax to say the least but I’ve been in worse restaurant kitchens in the USA . If you’re a little skittish skip it. But if you like markets and want a glimpse into the real life of Cartagena, it’s a must see. Don’t bring valuable possessions but do bring your street smarts.

I had a hotel in the market district for just $20 a night probably a third of what you would pay in the walled city center. Not a great neighborhood but a nice hotel with a private bath, comfortable bed, air-conditioning and cable t.v.  They had  a restaurant downstairs serving three square meals a day for just $3-$5 per meal with a nice, informative staff. It was a $2 and 5 minute cab ride to the walled city center.

For more on Colombian cities see the articles:

Medellin – the land of eternal spring

Bogota and Zipaquira – are they worth seeing?

Please leave your comments, personal experiences or any questions you may have in the comment box below and we will get back to you. 

Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at:

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