Updated: Apr 15, 2021
Cartagena – A little sketchier than the Instagram photos
No first trip to Colombia is complete without going to Cartagena. With a wonderful tropical emersion of Caribbean and Colombian customs, beautiful architecture oh and white sand islands, Cartagena seems to have it all. Cartagena is the most visited city by tourists, and the locals know that. The weather is warm year round and pictures show the place to be almost magical. And in most cases it is.
But wanting to be an honest reviewer, I have to give the full details.
Coming down to Colombia I visited Medellin and Cartagena. If you would have asked me before the trip Which city do I think I’ll feel the safest, I would have said Cartagena for sure! But there is a hidden dark side to the city.
As you are about to land, you look out and see the huge skyrises on the peninsula and the airport is super close to the beach. Being a small airport you take the stairs down to the tarmac and get hit by the humidity. Being on the water this is expected and pretty cool actually. You think to yourself, I’m here! Grab a taxi and head your spot.
There are 3 main sections you’ll stay in. Gizerman, Inside the Walls, or Bocagrande.
1) Bocagrande: If you are looking to stay around your hotel mostly and lay by the pool, then you’ll stay in here where all the major sky rises and hotel chains. Not personally my cup of tea as I like to get out and explore the city more.
2) Gizerman: was by far the most recommended. Here you can get a cool little hotel, clean and safe with small pool in the courtyard to cool off in and at a very reasonable price. (Recommendation: Cartagena Legend. This is where I stayed. The rooms had A/C (a MUST!!) and a fan, with a pool in the courtyard. A small breakfast is included with your stay and the price was really good.)
3) Inside the walls: A mix of luxury and tradition. The hotels here are more upper class and are in the traditional Caribbean architecture. More accommodations and luxury of course means a higher rate. (Recommendation: Anandaz. Place looked amazing. I popped in for a drink in the hotel lobby and was impressed with the attention to detail).
However, besides the amazing colors, architecture and location, there is a bit of a darkside.
1) There are so many people pan-handling or trying to sell you something as you walk through the town. It is overwhelming. You get exhausted telling people “No Gracias.” Plus, late night robberies are quite common so if you are walking back to your hotel, try to walk in a larger group or see if a hotel employee will show you the way. A lot of store and restaurant owners are super nice and will walk you to your destination. I was looking for the grocery store to buy some waters for the place, and when I asked a gentleman from an Italian restaurant if he know where it was, he promptly lead the way. He didn’t ask for anything but I gave him a 4000 col peso tip ($1.30) and a “Muchos Gracias” and he was very thankful.
2) Little kids begging for money constantly inside the walls at night. And if you give it to one, then you are marked tourist and every person selling something will swarm you.
3) People trying to sell you cocaine or Tussi (which I was told is a form of Ecstasy). Constantly! I couldn’t walk 30 steps before someone else was coming up and asking me. If someone asks if you want Chictle (gum) but tap there nose… They’re not looking to sell you gum.
4) How legal and open the city is with prostitution. When you walk in the main square of the The Walls, you will see maybe 15-20 groups of girls 2-4 deep that are there for one reason. They do not approach you but it was something completely unexpected. Even when the police would ride through on the motorbikes, no one moved an inch.
5) The beaches in Bocogrande are overrated. Usually when you stay at a luxury hotel that is on the beach, you have access to the beach. Either directly or a section roped off for guests. This is not the case. You have to rent the chairs from someone and then you are approached by people the whole time you are trying to enjoy yourself.
6) Don’t do the boat tours. The islands of Rosorio are about an hour boat ride off the main section of Cartagena but they want to maximize the space on the boat so they’ll wait until they can pack the boat with approximately 26 people whom won’t even be going to the same beach. So whatever beach or package you signed up for, there may be 2-3 stops before that. Turning a 1 hour boat ride into 2, just to get to “your beach.”
a. Get a private boat, or confirm that it is a direct ride. Playa Blanco is going to be the most recommended beach since it is on the mainland and easiest to go to. But go to Playa Bora Bora if you want to go to one and chill all day.
7) Hard to stay out for long periods of time during the day. It’s hot and humid…. Drink plenty of water!
Most popular spot to watch the sunset is Café Del Mar for sure. It is on the top of the wall and along the ocean. With a Colombian flag waving in the wind next to a replica cannon, it offers a great photo opportunity. Depending on the night it could be a DJ or live music with Pelequanos women dancing around.
There are other side trip you will see. The mud baths of Tutomo and the Pink Lake. I was planning on going to both of these but was informed by a couple people in Cartagena that it is more of a ‘oh I did it’ kind of thing. The mud pit is just a square that you climb a ladder down in. People down there will start massaging you (for a fee) but its basically just slathering you the mud. If you want someone to take your picture, that’s also a small fee. None of it is a lot of money but when you pay to get in somewhere, then need to pay everyone inside that turned me off. Plus, I heard it was man made and not natural. The pink lake will make for a cool photo, especially if you have a drone. But I was told that you’ll spend 15 mins there and be done.
Would I go back to Cartagena… yes! Especially since I know now what to expect but it was a bit of a shock at first and that’s why I want to give everyone else the truth on what it is like. The private boat ride to the islands would be the #1 thing I would do different. It’ll cost a little more for sure but having the luxury to go to the island you want, or dock offshore and jump in the waters will be worth it!