Cartagena was somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for ages. However, when I finally got the chance to see the Colombian city for myself, I only had a single day due to the fact that I was visiting as part of a Panama Canal cruise. One day in Cartagena wasn’t exactly what I imagined, but it was better than nothing and I was determined to make the most of it. So, for anyone else who finds themselves in this colourful city for only a short period of time, then here are my recommendations for what to see and do in Cartagena in one day.
Step Back in Time at Castillo San Felipe De Barajas
Castillo San Felipe De Barajas is Cartagena’s famous fortress. It was built in the 1500s and expanded multiple times throughout the years. It’s said to be the greatest Spanish fortress ever built. Today, Castillo San Felipe De Barajas is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must visit when in Cartagena.
There is a small fee to enter Castillo San Felipe (about $3USD) though for a little extra you can get an audio guide for your tour as well. It’s worth the extra couple of dollars to get the history and stories of pirates and battles as you walk the walls and explore the underground tunnels.
Castillo San Felipe De Barajas is best visited in the morning, so you can escape the hottest parts of the day.
Explore Old Town
Old Town Cartagena is what you’ve likely seen on those postcard-perfect photos popping up on your Instagram feed. Bright and colourful buildings, streets lined with flowering trees, and local women dressed in multi-coloured tiered skirts with fruit baskets balanced on your head (they are happy to let you take their photos, but you’ll need to pay!).
Old Town Cartagena was the Cartagena that I was so excited to see and explore and despite the fact that it’s pretty compact, there’s quite a bit to see and do. Here’s what you’ll want to check out.
Walk Along the Old Town Walls
Cartagena is a walled city and within Old Town you can walk up to the walls and take in the views. They aren’t particularly high per say, so don’t expect amazing panoramas, but it’s still a fun thing to do. I got an impromptu dance lesson on the Old Town Walls when I visited which was pretty fun.
Shop at Bovedas Market
If you plan on doing some souvenir shopping, the Bovedas Market is the place to do it. The yellow building was once a prison, but today the cells each contain small shops where you can find anything and everything from shot glasses to hammocks to emeralds (though before you buy emeralds in Cartagena, you’ll want to do your research to make sure you don’t get scammed).
Photograph the Colourful Streets
Old Town Cartagena’s streets are a photographers dream. Brightly coloured houses, bold doors, and delicate vines and flowers twisting through cracks in the wall or the sidewalks. I had some serious house envy as I wandered through these streets clicking my camera about 500 times as I went. Just remember, these buildings are homes and businesses, and these streets are used by local drivers to be respectful of the locals and residents when taking your photos.
Check Out Getsemani
Getsemani is known as one of the best local neighbourhoods in Cartagena for visitors to explore. It’s only about a ten-minute walk from the walls of Old Town and is known for its street art. In the past, this part of the city was known for crime and prostitution, but today it’s lively and considered to be the hipster part of Cartagena.
Try the Local Food and Drink
You can’t spend one day in Cartagena without trying the local food and drink. There’s no shortages of places to get some, from street food vendors to restaurants. Old Town and Getsemani are both great spots to grab a bite to eat or a cold drink.
When it comes to foods to try, you’ll find plenty of options. If you are looking to try the street food, look for a spot that sells arepas which are local cornmeal type pancakes that are stuffed with meat, vegetables, or cheese. You can also find cevice vendors, along with carts selling beef or chicken skewers.
If you would rather eat at a restaurant, then you might want to try La Cevicheria which was a favourite of the late Anthony Bourdain. As for drinks, well you can’t really go wrong. I can tell you though, if you like beer, that Aguila Originalsare pretty darn good on a hot day!
Final Tips for One Day in Cartagena
Cartagena is a lot of fun, but remember, like with all other big cities you do need to be careful of your surroundings. Pickpockets and theft can be common here for those who don’t keep an eye on their belongings.
Colombia has a reputation for being dangerous, but I never once felt unsafe during my one day in Cartagena. That being said, I stuck to the touristic areas, explored during the day, and made sure I was aware of my belongings and surroundings at all times- as you should do in any city. Since I was only here for a port stop, I can’t comment on the night life or being out after dark.
Visitors should also know that Colombia has their own currency (the Colombian Peso) however, American dollars are widely accepted here as well. The exchange rate may not be the best, but if you are only in Cartagena for one day then it’s probably easier to deal with the higher exchange rate then trying to find an ATM or currency exchange office (both of which normally come with fees anyway).
One day in Cartagena may not seem like a lot, but you’d be surprised at how much you can see and do in this short period of time. That being said, you’ll probably end up like me and want to go back!
A Note on Travel Insurance in Colombia
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine twice before (once for damaged luggage, once because I developed a lung infection while traveling). While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance. With prices starting at $37 for 4 weeks, they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.