Family travel: 5 nights in Cartagena

We enjoyed a relaxing stay in Medellin and were ready for the Caribbean coast, the sea and some warmth. It was great in the mountains but we never like to be too far away from the sun or sea! Our next stop on our family adventure was 5 nights in Cartagena. A walled city next to the sea & steeped in history.

Our first impressions – boy it’s soooooo hot and humid!! It was that dry heat where you can’t breathe!  We were desperate to jump in the sea… Unfortunately our plans to enjoy a bit of beach time didn’t come to fruition, which I’ll explain more in a bit!

One aspect we did enjoy, was walking freely through the ancient city and enjoying the colours of Getsemani! 

We also had a slight faux par with the accommodation side of things. But, do you know what – lessons we learn mean that we can pass the knowledge onto others!

Places to stay in Cartagena

If you have the cash, you will love Cartagena old town with its boutique style hotels in colonial style buildings! But these were above our price budget.  We did look at some places in Getsemani, but there were many mentions of party hostels or no children allowed. Plus we arrived around a bank holiday (Colombus day) and accommodation was fairly booked.

Therefore we opted for a place about a 20 minute walk out of town, called Casa 41. The place was ok, we had a kitchen, air con room (you need that here – it’s too hot otherwise!!), an outdoor area & friendly staff. 

Luckily Ethan was on hand to take flattering pictures of me in the hammock!

However, due to the bank holiday the staff suggested that the walk into town was not recommended as the area isn’t safe to walk, especially around bank holidays! There are supposedly too many opportunists around 😔.

We were therefore restricted to using taxis (they weren’t difficult to get), but added COP 7,000 per trip to our cost. Plus, we couldn’t easily escape the heat and once we got back to the hostel we found ourselves stuck indoors! Hmmm.. not the best option, but we made do. 

If we came again, I’d definitely recommend the Getsemani area! 

 

Places to eat in Cartagena

Again, budget restrictions meant we were cooking in our hostel. But one day when we were out we decided to have a great. 

Beer & Laundry – Basically the name says it all. You can drop off your laundry, have a beer and pizza and wait 2 hours for it to be finished.  We didn’t have laundry but we did order 2 fresh pizzas and enjoyed a chat with the owners. It was ok – definitely not an Italian but a nice quiet place to escape the heat! 

We arrived late afternoon, not realising they were closing at 5pm. It was a clean, small, but air conditioned place. 

Cafe del Mar – known as the sunset spot with gorgeous views on the early thing and popular with holiday makers. Cafe del mar serve cocktails and drinks to enjoy, but it is expensive! 

Most backpackers opt to bring a beer (or buy one from the local Street sellers) and sit on the wall to enjoy the sunset! Come and grab a spot early. 

There are lots of eateries in Getsemani area, but we found that most of the restaurants in the old town were catered more to American tourists.  Mucho $$$!!

 

Safety in Cartagena

We found the streets of the old town and the city wall to be very safe. There wasn’t a strong police presence but tourists walked around freely. We never had or saw any trouble, but we know it exists.

Unfortunately only a few weeks later we heard a story from a fellow traveller of personal robbery. I was devastated for her, but luckily she didn’t lose her phone or her purse. I asked her if I could share her story to raise awareness. Knowing what to look for or be aware of is half the battle and forewarned is forearmed!

So she told me it was Independence Day in Cartagena (again a public holiday when we were told it wasn’t safe to wander around the streets). She was later told it was renowned as being the thieves Olympics! 

This was her story: 

“It happened at 2pm in Getsemani area. She was alone when she was sprayed in the eyes with soap. They reached into my bra to get my phone. Other people were trying to get into the pockets of my bag!

I yelled at him to stop and pushed him and ran away. He didn’t chase me.

Passers by and police and parade “officials” didn’t give a damn and just watched it happen to me”

Supposedly 7 out of 8 people in her hostel were also robbed! These are some of her recommendations:

  • Don’t take a phone or bank cards when you go out, just some cash. (I’d say take a burner/spare old phone)
  • Locals recommend putting any phone/money you must have in you underwear!
  • If you see anyone spraying cans of foam… stay away, as they try to blind you with it to steal things.
  • Wear long pants and shoes, despite the heat, as they throw little crackers on the ground that kind of sound like mini gunshots and can injure your legs.
  • Avoid crowds and narrow streets. The crowd can almost instantly appear before you know it.

It’s very scary to hear, but even worse if it happens to you! Be vigilant and avoid large crowds and narrow alleyways, especially if you are on your own. 

 

Things to do while in Cartagena 

Exploring the city walls

One of our favourite budget activities is to wander. Colombia isn’t known for getting off the beaten track. But actually the old town is quite easy and there are lots of people wandering along the city wall.  

The city walls have lots of entry & exit points throughout so you can hop on and off. There’s also lots of cannons and lookout points that you can lock your kids up into!! Ha ha

 

Sunset on the city walls

The city walls are a great place to watch the spectacular sunsets in Cartagena. Must your will tell you to go to cafe del mar. And it is a great spot with music and drinks. But actually, if you’re on a budget just grab a beer from the supermarket and find a spot somewhere along the wall.  It’s what everyone else does!

 

Walk along the waterfront to Bocagrande

We took another stroll, this time to Bocagrande from the old town. We realised it was only a short stroll along a busy main road, so we decided to walk.  We watched the pelicans in the bay as we headed towards the high rise of Bocagrande’s hotels and malls.

This is also where the city beaches are. It was a bank holiday and a weekend so the area was mobbed. But the beaches… meh! The brown waters and dirty beaches really didn’t appeal.  

By now we were getting quite hot and so we decided to jump into bocagrande mall to cool off – ah! Air conditioning!!! There are quite a few shops and a food hall at the top, which is where we stopped for a cheapish lunch!

Wander through the old town

More walking… except we actually went through the various streets & alleyways of Cartagena historic town.  There are lots of colourful colonial buildings. 

There are shops, boutiques and cafes tucked away and lots of pretty plaza’s to visit! We enjoyed strolling through the streets. I’m not sure we walked down the same street twice! 

Whilst in the old town we also visited the Teatro mall. It was another opportunity to cool off in a mall – phew! And it also has a nice theatre area with views across the city. 

You’ll find a few coffee shops and restaurants here, but they all appeared to be quite expensive! 

You’ll also find a market area near the naval museum which had lots of colourful souvenirs!

Visit Getsemani area

Just a few streets away is another ‘old town’ called Getsemani – the backpacker area.  It has lots of colour, hostels, cafes, bars and Street art.

We loved it! And is definitely a better option for accommodation than where we were staying. 

We stopped for a cooling drink in Holy Trinity Square. It had a nice ambience. 

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas 

It was our last full day and we decided to explore the fort of Castille de San Felipe. The entrance fee was COP 25,000 for adults, COP 10,500 for children up to 13. 

The area was well laid out, although not huge. My recommendation would be to head to the video room first. This was subtitled in English and have a good insight to how and why the fort was built! They aren’t too fond of the British – but it’s nice to hear a different perspective on history. 

After this we headed underground to find the secret tunnels. There’s a few you can visit, and the boys enjoyed wandered into the cooler, dark tunnels! From the outside the fort have a good 360 degree view of the city and surrounding areas. 

There’s a small souvenir shop inside and they sold ice lolly’s which were appreciated in this heat!

 

Beaches

As I mentioned, we planned to visit the beaches around this area, being in the Caribbean coast. But actually the ones around Bocagrande were murky brown and not very inviting. 

There are more picturesque beaches mentioned, but alas our research threw up reviews of overcrowding, harassed by obnoxious vendors. Plus there were several comments about dangerous boats! After our experience in Indonesia I was a little reluctant to go through that again so soon! 

If you do decide to take a tour, be very clear of what is included and what is to be paid upon arrival. A few reviews mention a tour package but upon arrival any activities were additional! Get information in writing! 

Playa Blanca – this can be reached by road or boat. It’s the one place we seriously considered – until we read more and more negative reviews! Theft being another word mentioned! 

Supposedly you can’t just put your towel down on the beach as there are wooden huts everywhere with not much ‘white sand’ left. Also, there are lots of jet skis and water sports so not quite the peaceful place we envisaged. 

If you do decide to rent a bed we read reviews that the price you agreed is not the ‘final’ total. 

If you’re still keen to you then we found that Mamallena shuttle is advertised as one of the cheapest! But even at COP 200,000 (£45) for a family of 4, that was the last straw. Our Caribbean beach trip would have up wait!

Others mentioned were: 

Punta arena – situated on the island of Isla de tierra bomba. There are boats which leave the Marina each morning. Instead of a day trip, it’s suggested that an overnight stay night be better

Rosario Islands – sadly comments of trash, dead coral and too many vendors with non stop hassle put us off this area. The trip is only an hour away, but the beauty sounds like it may have been lost. The government needs to get control of this! 

 

Conclusion

Whilst Cartagena benefits from being a fairly commercial and tourist area – it’s not without its struggles. Be vigilant at all times and only take the bare minimum out with you. 

Don’t pencil in too much beach time, as it’s not the place to really enjoy them! So if you want to cool off and you can afford it – is probably better to have a pool!  Or if you can afford it, maybe stay on Isla de tierra bomba to enjoy the beaches away from the harassing street vendors. 

The old town and it’s streets, the culture and of course the delicious colombian coffee were fabulous. I’d say only sirens a few days here. We spent 5 nights and that was a couple of days too long. 

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