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Things to do in Cartagena

Things to do in  Cartagena

Welcome to Cartagena

Founded in 1533 as a center of the Spanish empire, Cartagena developed into a sea of colors and a UNESCO World Heritage site within the colonial walled city. City tours–by car, foot, or even horse-drawn cart–take visitors through the cobbled streets and to the famous San Felipe fortress. Focused tours shine light on the multi-cultural worlds of local gastronomy or music, or the life of locally born author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Nearby La Popa hill offers views of the old city, the harbor, and the 17th-century Santa Cruz monastery. Taking a cooking class or visiting a gold museum reveals the city's heritage, a mix of African, European colonizer, and Native American. At night, the streets of the hot and humid city fill with markets, traditional dances, and revelers spilling out of bustling nightclubs. For those who want to escape, a short boat tour brings travelers to Barú and Playa Blanca, where the white beaches and crystalline water are pure Caribbean paradise. A little further and travelers reach the Rosario Islands, a national park featuring one of the most important coral reefs in the country. To the northwest of Cartagena, the renowned El Totumo mud volcano allows locals and travelers to enjoy therapeutic massages and the natural healing properties of mud baths.

Top 10 attractions in Cartagena

#1

Totumo Mud Volcano (El Totumo)

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Take the wooden steps up the 15-meter mud mound that is Totumo Volcano (Volcán de Lodo El Totumo) then look down to be greeted by a mud bath big enough to fit dozens of bathers. A popular day trip from Cartagena, it's said that the volcano goes hundreds of meters deep, but when you dip into the warm mud you'll find that it's so dense it's impossible to do anything but bob about at the top. While wallowing, it’s possible to pay one of the attendants for a personal massage. Legend has it that Totumo Volcano used to spew out fire and lava, but a local priest, believing such hellfire to be the work of the devil, used holy water to turn it all to mud. After the bath, everyone heads to the next-door lagoon to wash off the gloop, which local women will help you wash off with buckets of water, for a small fee, if you wish.More
#2

Old Town Cartagena

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A leisurely walk through the narrow streets of Old Town Cartagena, with bougainvillea spilling off second-floor balconies and brightly painted Colonial houses, invites visitors to escape into the past. The bustle of daily life mixes with the historical architecture of this walled city by the ocean. In addition to the beautiful boutique stores, numerous restaurants, and colorful street vendors, there are many treasures to see around town and just outside the city walls. The leafy Plaza de Bolivar serves as a good place to start a tour in Cartagena and to see some of the local culture and buy fruit from the colorfully dressed women known as palanqueras. Next to the plaza, the free Gold Museum (Museo de Oro) displays pieces that tell the history of the Zenú indigenous tribe. The nearby Palace of the Inquisition (Palacio de la Inquisición) provides a rather gruesome look at Colombia’s past and the Spanish Inquisition -- some of the torture devices used on the accused are on display.More
#3

San Felipe de Barajas Castle (Castillo San Felipe de Barajas)

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Cartagena’s strategic significance as Europe’s conquest of the Americas intensified cannot be overstated. Some say that if the British had won the 1741 Battle of Cartagena, that South America would now speak English. They didn’t, largely because of massive El Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the largest and most formidable Spanish colonial fortress in the hemisphere. Begun in 1536, almost immediately after the conquistadors arrived, the massive megastructure sits atop San Lazaro Hill, with flawless views across the harbor. Bristling with cannons and other armaments, it was enlarged and re-fortified in 1657 and 1763 as part of an ongoing arms race against other European powers. A marvel of military engineering, the compound’s angles and parapets offer maximum coverage, and are connected by a warren of secret tunnels threading the mountain of stone.More
#4

Rosario Islands (Islas del Rosario)

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Less than an hour southwest of Cartagena’s port is a fragile archipelago of some 30 picture-perfect islands, wrapped in shimmering white-sand beaches, and strung like rosary beads through the deep blue Caribbean Sea. They sit atop the world’s third-largest barrier reef, which has protected as Islas del Rosario National Park since 1977. Though this clearly remains a mixed-use area, the designation has helped conserve 1300 species of flora and fauna present on and around the islands. Dozens of operators offer day trips to the Islas del Rosario, which lie between 45 and 90 minutes southwest of the city, depending on the type of boat you’re on. As you cruise past Boca Chica and out into the open sea, don’t miss the 18th-century Spanish fortresses of of San Rafael and San Fernando.More
#5

Bolivar Square (Plaza Bolivar)

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This shady park, centered on a trickling fountain and statue of Simon Bolivar, is a more local hangout spot than the upmarket cafes taking over Plaza Santo Domingo. The benches are full of pensive-looking old men, and wandering baristas make their rounds, selling sweet sips of “tinto,” black coffee, for a few pesos. The afternoon entertainment might well be an itinerant preacher saving souls for centavos. Of course, it’s a fine place for travelers just looking for a shady spot to relax. The square is surrounded by some of the city’s prettiest buildings, and you’ll be able to buy the same shell jewelry, woven hats, beautiful watercolors, and Botero knockoffs from Plaza Bolivar’s vendors as you would anywhere else within the city walls.More
#6

Convento de la Popa de la Galera

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Gleaming white in its vantage point, high above Cartagena’s protected bay, the Convento de la Popa is visible from almost anywhere in the city. Though it’s a bit of a chore to get here—you’ll need to hire a taxi (to avoid walking through poor, rather unsafe neighborhoods) or book a city tour—it’s worth the effort. The convent itself is quite pretty, particularly the flower-filled interior courtyard of graceful stone arcades. It was founded by an Augustian order in 1607, after Father Alonso de La Cruz Peredes received a divine message to build the chapel in honor of Cartagena’s Patron, Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria. Her lovely gold altar also worth a look. But you’re really here for the grand views over the city, from atop a 150m (500ft) hill above the bay. You can see almost everything, from the the delicate strand of skyscrapers rising from slender Boca Grande, to the dusty reds of tejas tiles topping the old walled city.More
#7

Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Zenu)

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Opened in 1982, Cartagena's Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Zenu) is dedicated to Colombia's indigenous Zenu people. Housed in a grand colonial building facing the Plaza Bolivar, the first room greets visitors with a pre-Hispanic golden jaguar and an ornate gold filigree butterfly. In fact, there are 538 gold pieces to see, as well as 61 carvings, including bone carvings, which you'll find in the next room — La Sociedad — dedicated to the body painting and textile traditions of the Zenú. The final exhibit, La Epoca Hidráulico, profiles the Zenú people's hydraulic engineering feats. It's estimated that, up to 2,500 years ago, half a million hectares of Panzenu land was cultivated with the aid of a vast network of hand-excavated canals that ran up to 4km long and 10 meters wide, making them some of the largest man-made features in the Americas. Cartagena’s Gold Museum also has an onsite bookshop and auditorium.More
#8

Las Bovedas

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At the northeastern corner of the old walled city is Cartagena’s grandest arcade, stretching with imperial purpose from Santa Clara to Santa Catalina Fortress. Behind the 47 painted archways are a string colorful souvenir shops, well stocked with all the emeralds, Botero knockoffs, hammocks, hats and molas that your coworkers and catsitters might desire. These unusually proportioned alcoves are interspersed with equally cramped bars, galleries, and other businesses. It’s a fun place to shop and photogenic spot to enjoy, but the rather oppressive barrel ceilings that overarch each vault (boveda) come with a bit of history. The vaulted alcoves were originally built into the massive sea wall between 1792 and 1796, and at first used to store provisions. They were repurposed during the early 1800s as an incredibly uncomfortable prison.More
#9

Santo Domingo Church (Iglesia de Santo Domingo)

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Iglesia Santo Domingo, founded in 1534, is the oldest church in Cartagena and one of the first in the hemisphere. The original stone structure, finished in 1551, was so badly damaged by Sir Francis Drake in 1586 that a new church needed to be built; the current incarnation was finally completed some time during the 1700s. The cool, spacious interior, with its imposing central nave lined with massive stone columns and inspiring marble altar are unusual, and certainly worth a look. Most travelers will spend more time on Plaza Santo Domingo, right out front, the spot to enjoy a little rest and relaxation of a premium-priced beverage. Surrounded by some of the city’s finest architecture, and filled with umbrella-shaded café tables, the plaza is also a magnet for souvenir vendors. Be sure to bargain.More
#10

Old Shoes Monument (Los Zapatos Viejos)

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At the base of the imposing San Felipe Castle, Cartagena’s Old Shoes Monument (Los Zapatos Viejos) is, you guessed it, a giant sculpture of a pair of old boots. A popular spot for a selfie or ten, the monument was created by the sculptor Hector Lombana as a reference to the popular poem, “Mi Ciudad Nativa,” by local poet, and one of South America’s most respected writers, Luis Carlos López. In the final line, López compares the love and sense of comfort he feels for his hometown of Cartagena to that which he feels for a pair of worn-in, but familiar and comfortable shoes. And on a plaque in front of the famous sculpture, you can read the whole poem in full.More

Trip ideas

How to Spend 2 Days in Cartagena

How to Spend 2 Days in Cartagena

How to Spend 3 Days in Cartagena

How to Spend 3 Days in Cartagena

Recent reviews from experiences in Cartagena

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El mejor experiencia!!!
Ben, Feb 2021
Discover Cartagena by Locals
We had such a great time getting behind the scenes of the basurero market and being welcomed into someone’s home to see how life really is.
star-5
Cultural Experience
Good_Westindian, Feb 2021
Freedom Tour of Palenque
Great drive; got to see another side of Cartagena.
star-4
Hit all the spots with a knowledgeable guide
Angela_P, Jan 2021
Private City Tour of Cartagena
My husband and I did the afternoon tour with Nico who brought us to see the entrance to el reloj, walk through the graffiti streets of Getsemani, and the major attractions like the convent of la Popa and el castillo de san felipe.
star-4
Hitting the Cultural & Historical Highlights of Cartegena
Angela_P, Jan 2021
Private City Tour of Cartagena
Nico did a fine job of explaining each spot (in english) so we understood the importance of each landmark.
star-5
A unique, authentic Colombian experience!
DevinC, Dec 2020
Totumo volcano + Galerazamba
It was a great and affordable way to get out of Cartagena for a while to see more of the country!
star-4
Good
vukoslav_c, May 2020
Wonderful Full-Day Tayrona Park Tour from Cartagena, Crystal Beach Sector.
Tayrona park is interesting but not enough time to visit other places in the patk only Cristal beach which was very bussy.
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Hop on hop
Charles_M, Mar 2020
City Sightseeing Cartagena Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour Shore Excursion
Great way to see as much historical of Cartagena, Columbia as you desire.
star-5
Great way to see the best beaches
Taylor_B, Feb 2020
Full-Day Rosario Islands Including Barú, Cholon and Playa Blanca
Great way to see rural areas outside the city on hour bus ride to playa banca.
star-5
Such a unique experience
Taylor_B, Feb 2020
Full-Day Mud Volcano and Indigena's Town (Galerazamba) from Cartagena
Great way to see some of colombia outside the city.
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Kayaking
lanizabor, Dec 2019
Cartagena In Kayak
The kayak trip was very enjoyable and it was fun to see the city of Cartagena from the water.
star-5
Good Relaxing Tour
, Nov 2019
Cartagena City Tour
Roberto also gave great recommendations of things to do and see throughout the city!!
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Very fulfilling experience
Jonathan C, Oct 2019
Street Food Tour of Cartagena
Our tour guide, Cheo, spoke good English and explained some of the history of Cartagena.
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Highly Recommended!
dkl74, Oct 2018
Half-Day Tour of Cartagena by Air-Conditioned Vehicles
The tour with Nico was quite informative and he was very attentive to the English speaking audiences.
star-4
So much to see and experience in...
jlamont, Dec 2017
City Sightseeing Cartagena Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour
So much to see and experience in Cartagena!
star-5
As a whole, the tour was wonderful...
Sasha M, Mar 2018
Baru and Playa Blanca Transportation and Lunch from Cartagena
As an added bonus, he was able to communicate with us in English (a rarity in Cartagena) He took us to the most desolate part of Playa Blanca and we were able to use the amenities of a hostel.
star-4
The bus collected us from our hotel...
Rosie K, Jul 2017
Baru and Playa Blanca Transportation and Lunch from Cartagena
The long narrow beach was crowded but vibrant and it was really interesting to see this area out of Cartagena.
star-4
A very nice tour. I got to see many...
Kristofer A, Jun 2017
Cartagena City Tour with View from the Highest Point
I got to see many of the major tourist sites and got a good feel for the different areas/neighborhoods of Cartagena.
star-5
A great tour through local art...
Kristofer A, Jun 2017
Cartagena Art Tour
A great tour through local art galleries and to see some of the street art in the Getsemani neighborhood.
star-5
Didn't expect to see as much as we...
TW_Suzy, Oct 2016
Half-Day Tour of Cartagena by Air-Conditioned Vehicles
Didn't expect to see as much as we did, but it was amazing to see Cartagena.
star-5
My husband and I had William as our...
Manuella E, Mar 2017
Cartagena City Tour with View from the Highest Point
William has good english and is great at giving the background to the city.

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