The city of Cartagena was founded in 1533 by the Spanish and was an important access point to the northern area of South America.
Due to its proximity to the Caribbean, Cartagena was a popular pirate destination. It was ransacked a number of times over the next two centuries, finally culminating in the completion of a walled city.
Construction began at the end of the 16th century and the wall was finally finished in 1796. Interestingly, the Spanish rule only lasted 25 more years!
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, the walled area of Cartagena is the main attraction to the city. Overall, Cartagena is the 5th largest city in Colombia with a population of about 1 million. However, most tourists (including me) only venture around or inside of the confines of the wall.
Once inside the wall, visitors are welcomed by hordes of venders attempting to sell just about anything. In all of my travels, the salespeople of Cartagena might be the most aggressive and overbearing I’ve ever witnessed.
Quite honestly, the amount of haggling in Cartagena is a huge put off. It can be difficult to enjoy beautiful colonial architecture when you’re being asked to buy a selfie stick every 25 seconds!
However, the streets are quite beautiful!
The city has a distinct European vibe, kind of reminding me of Split, Croatia. Inside of the wall takes about 2 full hours to walk around. The area is much larger than I had anticipated and I’d advise on bringing some sunscreen, as the Cartagena sun is no joke!
Directly outside of the walled area is a nice area to explore, although it can appear to be a bit sketchy at times.
Once outside of the wall, you’re able to walk freely without getting hassled – something that is virtually impossible once you step foot through the gates.
Also, across the bridge (about a 5 minute walk from the wall) is the castle San Felipe de Barajas.
Construction of this castle started in 1536 and was significantly improved in the late 17th century.
While I’m sure it was impressive, the $25,000 peso ($12 cdn) entrance fee and swarms of venders were enough to turn me away.
How to get to Cartagena:
A 14-16 hour bus is required from Medellin and Bogota, Colombia, or you can grab a 1 hour return flight for $100-150 cdn. Cartagena is located about 3 hours from Santa Marta, Colombia. Make sure you get a direct bus, as some of them stop in Barranquilla and can take up to 6 hours! My direct shuttle bus cost $44,000 pesos (including pick up and drop off from my hostel) and the non direct local bus cost $30,000 pesos but took about 3-hours longer. Also, be aware that the main bus station in Cartagena is about a 30-minute drive outside of the city for some reason.
I spent two days in Cartagena and was not overly impressed. The constant haggling and crowds of tourists did not appeal to me and this is really not my type of preferred destination. I think one day is enough time to see the main sites, as outside of the walled city and the castle, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Cartagena.
One positive aspect I can take from Cartagena is that it is very walkable. No matter what level of physical fitness you’re in, the old town can be fully explored in just a few hours. AND, outside of the annoying venders, Cartagena really is a charming and interesting city!
So, despite my misgivings, hopefully you’ll have a chance to check out Cartagena at some point. Just don’t stay for too long. There are way better spots to check out in Colombia!