Visit Cartagena Colombia old City

Vibrant Cartagena Colombia Vacation By The Caribbean Sea! (2023)

The Colombian colonial city of Cartagena, with its beautiful walled-in old city, squares, cafes, bars, and buzzing life, probably will not take long to seduce you!

There are very few reasons why not, and lots of reasons why you should take a Cartagena Colombia vacation!

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Cartagena Columbia Vacation!

Stunning sunset over Cartagena Colombia
Stunning sunset over Cartagena Colombia

South American country Colombia is a lot more than dubious drug cartels and trafficking, for which the country has had unfortunate fame for decades.

The country is also known for its world-class coffee beans, exquisite emeralds, a stern party culture (especially in Cali, where the salsa dancing is fierce), and exotic fruits!

Along the northern coastline of the Caribbean Sea lies the beautiful colonial town of Cartagena, super popular among travelers because of its Caribbean beaches, old colonial town, and vibrant nightlife.

I traveled here right after a five-day trek to The Lost City in the Colombian Amazone, after a good night’s sleep and ready for city life again!

Leaving northern Santa Marta in the morning hours, with the help of Google Maps and screenshots in the streets of Santa Marta, I found my way to the long-distance bus that was heading towards the south and Cartagena. Lucky!! 

After about 6 hours of chilling on the bus toward new Columbian adventures, it is my turn to experience Cartagena. 

Modern Day Cartagena

Modern-day Cartagena is a beautiful town with an incredibly charming walled-in Old City. I was super-fast smitten after I found the hostel, could dump my backpack, and had cooled down a little.

Because a Cartagena Columbia vacation is HOT!   

The population of modern Cartagena is just over one million, making it the second-largest city in this region of Columbia.

In colonial times, the Spanish ran this city for almost three whole centuries.

One of the most important seaports for all kinds of world trade was here, including the horrible slave trade.

There are lots and lots of details in architecture, art, fortress structures, and museums that tell the tales of the historic importance Cartagena had in the growing connection with the old and the new world centuries ago.

And if you feel like exploring the area outside the old city walls as well, there are a variety of fun and interesting day trips from Cartagena you can embark on!

Cartagena today depends heavily on the tourist industry, maritime, and petrochemical industries (if that interests you).

Inside the Old City walls in Cartagena

Long-Haul Bus from Santa Marta To Cartagena

Columbia is a large country; we are not talking about short bus rides or a few hours here and there.

The bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta is five’ish hours, and that is a short bus ride for Colombia or South America in general.

Aircondition, snacks and old-fashioned entertainment like a book makes the whole trip a breeze, so if you are into roadtrips and staring out of windows traveling, you will love this!

TRAVEL TIP: You can book a bus ticket for this distance (or other distances) online on Busbud for a budget option starting at $10, or at Pinbus starting at $40, boasting a luxury ride.

Arriving in Cartagena Old City

The colonial architecture will blow you away on your Cartagena Colombia vacation!

Getting off just outside the Old City of Cartagena, I have directions from the hostel where I am going, a rather short distance, it seems, so I decided to load up my backpack and walk. 

Of course, old cities with walls and narrow streets are not the easiest to navigate. I end up doing a scenic and very hot detour before I finally find (with a lot of help from the locals and bad Spanish) my destination.

Temperature and humidity in Cartagena are no less intense than in Santa Marta, but once inside the hostel, there is a nice chill and a wonderfully calm atmosphere!

Exploring Cartagena

When I had caught my breath the first day, I headed out into the city searching for dance schools and Spanish schools after a quick online research (these are “my thing” for this journey!

Just down the street, I find the Crazy Salsa dancing school, where it is easy to sign up for dancing lessons. Perfect!

Five minutes in the other direction, there is a renounced Spanish school as well, and after a quick chat, I sign up for lessons for the week.

The old city is incredibly charming, although visiting in the middle of summer as I did makes for a super hot experience!

If you can deal with the heat (or decide to visit during the shoulder seasons), exploring this historic place with plazas and stunning architecture, shops, museums, restaurants, and bars is a journey both in time, food, and music.

And you don’t need to travel far away from the city walls to be able to lounge on stunning beaches around Cartagena, so when visiting, you can easily get the best of both city life and amazing white sands!

Cartagena Must-See Places!

Top Hostels In Cartagena

I stayed at the AMAZING Republica Hostel In The Middle Of The Old City Of Cartagena

I booked Republica Hostel in Cartagena through Hostelworld based on their reviews (and the photos), and it really is a gem. Classic architecture with high ceilings, beautiful ambiance, and large clean rooms and bathrooms. 

If you are a solo traveler, staying in a hostel can be a nice budget friendly and social way to live on your Cartagena Colombia vacation. And don't worry, if you don't love dorms, there are private rooms as well!
Staying in a hostel can be a great option for solo travelers

The little pool in the inner part of the courtyard is amazing, especially at night between the stone walls with little holes in it with lights.

Right next to the pool is a bar area and lots of café-like tables to hang around for socializing if you want. Online or offline, as the common area also provides fast wifi.

The Republica Hostel is a peaceful oasis in the center of the Old City of Cartagena, and it almost brings more of a hotel feeling to me.

I also stayed in a dorm here (single rooms are also available), as the beds are built almost as tiny little studios! 

You can take refuge in them with a shelf and light charger for your phone and room for your bags. It feels private, although it is shared, and works very well, I think.

Also read: Solo Trip Planning |How To LOVE Traveling Solo!

For your Cartagena Colombia vacation you will want to make sure you have a nice place to wind down in the afternoon. The city is HOT, and busy. Staying in a place with a pool is a really good advice, FYI.
Evening chill by the Republica pool the bar is just to my right

I was going to stay for only a few days but ended up here for the whole week!

Mind you; this is not a hostel for couples looking for a quiet romantic time. It is very sociable; there is music and life in the common areas and bar and pool zone.  

In the reviews, some people are not impressed, complaining about evening music and noise, so just be aware of this.

Strolling the streets of the Old City in Cartagena Colombia, you find these small plazas with incredible architecture and greenery!
Exploring the streets and plazas of Cartagena

Other Great Places To Stay Cartagena

If hostels are not really your thing, there is no need to panic – Cartagena has it all, hotels and accommodation in all forms and price ranges.

If you prefer a quiet and more intimate atmosphere, somewhat upscale and with great service, try one of the amazing Boutique Hotels in Cartagena!

Old Cartagena Is A UNESCO World Heritage Site

For more than 275 years, like Cuba, Cartagena was under Spanish rule.

Until June 1810, when the Royal Commissioner and the Cartagena City Council banished the Spanish Governor Francisco de Montes.

De Montes was suspected of sympathizing with the French emperor and the French occupation forces which overthrew the king.

Finally, in November of that year, a Declaration of Independence was signed proclaiming “a free state, sovereign and independent of all domination and servitude to any power on Earth.

In 1984 Cartagena’s colonial walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Also read: Best Ways To Learn Spanish (And Why Not Learn Spanish In Cuba?)

Decorations in the bars of Cartagena are interesting, I met this "guy" wearing a gas mask and all prepared for bad things while the guests are having a cocktail!
Decorations in the bars of Cartagena are interesting

A Little History Of Cartagena De Indias

Cartagena, which was known in the colonial era as Cartagena de Indias, is both a city and a major port on the northern coast of Colombia in the Caribbean Coast Region. 

The city was founded in 1533, but settlements by indigenous people date back to 4000 BC.

Under a contract with Queen Joanna of Castile, the Spanish commander (explorer and conquistador) Pedro de Heredia entered the Bay of Cartagena with three ships in 1533. A lighter, 150 men, and 22 horses, according to historic notes, on 14 January. 

After doing some exploring (and war’ring) Cartagena was founded on 1 June 1533 by Heredia in the former location of the indigenous Caribbean Calamarí village. 

Don't miss the nightlife on your Cartagena Colombia vacation, even if you are not the clubbing type - there are lots going on in the city at night! Here is the Old Clock Tower Gate.
The Cartagena Clock Tower Gate at night

The town was named after the port city of Cartagena in Murcia, southeast Spain.

During the Spanish colonial period, Cartagena had a super-important role in the administration and expansion of the Spanish empire and was a center of political and economic activity. 

The super-strategic naval location made it the main port for trade between Spain and its overseas empire, which at the time also included Cuba. 

The Creation Of Cartagena Historic Center

There are a myriad of little plazas and places in the Old City of Cartagena with incredible history and ambiance!
Have lunch or a break in historic circumstances

During the colonial era, Cartagena was also a key port for the export of Peruvian silver to Spain AND for the import of enslaved Africans under the so-called asiento system.

Because of the city’s strategic maritime location, Cartagena has been attacked many times over the centuries. 

After several devastating attacks and pillages from enemies of the Spanish empire, the walled city and fortresses were finally built to protect it from naval attacks.

The construction began in 1586, and a beautiful job they did. 

Walking around the Old City today it is spectacular; buildings and details on facades and doors and windows and street design all are like pieces of art. 

For your Cartagena Colombia vacation, make sure you spend some time strolling the streets in the old city, and notice all the details around you!
Pieces of art are scattered around the old city

The Spanish Inquisition

Do you remember anything about the Spanish Inquisition from your history lessons at school? 

Here is a short brush-up, it was a large and very violent movement within the Catholic church. The Spanish part started in Spain in the 15th Century, and its sole mission was to remove heresy from society. 

Now, heresy means “the belief in faiths or opinions that differ from the generally accepted belief of society”. And the crimes the Inquisition saw fit to address in this term included those of blasphemy, bigamy, and of course – witchcraft. 

In Cartagena, the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established In 1610, and the Palace of the Inquisition was completed in 1770 (yes, they had their own palace). 

A total of 767 persons were sentenced in Cartagena by the Inquisition. The horrible punishments range from fines, wearing a Sanbenito (a piece of clothing showing everyone that you were punished), life imprisonment, or death. 

The Inquisition was particularly famous for being creative in developing new and painful torture techniques to make people confess (or die denying) their crimes. 

The system was not abolished until its independence in 1811, when Cartagena was the first Columbian city to declare independence from The Spanish Empire. 

The Incredibly Sad Caribbean Slave Trade History

The first slaves were brought to Cartagena by Heredia, a guy who was an explorer, a conqueror, and the founder of Cartagena. 

They were brought to work as “macheteros”, which was the term for people clearing the underbrush in the jungle. 

As the slave trade grew, by the 17th Century, Cartagena had become an important New World slave market, and Europeans began to bring slaves from Africa.

Like Cuba, Cartagena Was Run By The Spanish Empire For Centuries

Spain was the only European power that could not establish factories in Africa to purchase slaves (slave factories were a thing back then). 

Therefore the Spanish empire relied on the asiento system, awarding merchants from other countries the license to trade slaves to their overseas territories. Cartagena was an important port for this business for Spain. 

The slave history of Cartagena has caught the interest of UNESCO, which has a project here called The Slavery Rout in Cartagena de Indias. This is a dark but important part of the history of the world, and you can read more about it HERE if you like. 

FAQ’s Cartagena Colombia

Is Cartagena Colombia Worth Visiting?

The Old Clock Tower Gate in Cartagena Colombia
The historic Clock Tower Gate in Cartagena

Cartagena is, at least, the Old City, quite the little gem with well-kept old houses, flowers everywhere, squares, and beautiful little spaces throughout the city. It is hustling and bustling with life, people, and tourists alike. 

Modern architecture is not very prominent in the city picture, most of the buildings are built in the old colonial style, with bright colors and all the houses seem to be decorated with flowers wherever it is possible.

In the evenings, there are lots of bars, restaurants, and clubs around where you can dance and party as much as your heart desires.

Also, there are lots of rooftop terraces where you can go dancing for hours after dark if you want to – and I hope you do!

There are a myriad of super nice cafes, restaurants and also bars scattered around Cartagena, both inside and outside the old city.
There are lots of amazing cafes and restaurants in Cartagena

Staying in a hostel is very good for socializing if you are traveling alone. There is always someone to talk to, go on adventures with, or go out for dinner and dancing. 

Friendships somehow form quickly when you are in travel and adventure mode. People are easygoing and always looking for a good time.

So yes, from my point of view, Cartagena, Colombia, is well worth your time and money! So much history and vibrant city life, including nightlife, restaurants, and bars. Ans close to stunning beaches!

Wrap-Up Cartagena Colombia Vacation!

Although not a very big city, the population is just under a million; Cartagena de Indias in Colombia is an amazingly charming city!

With lots of beautiful architecture and history and a stunning historic center within the old walled city, and funnily, there are flowers everywhere in Cartagena!

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