We arrived in Cartagena ready to be swooned by a charming coastal colonial town with cobble-stoned streets and colorful walls adorned with cascading flowers. Instead, we spent an unimpressive two days (plus an additional two shoulder half-days). We really wanted to like it… and we really didn’t. We’re sharing a bit about our experience so you can have an idea of what to expect and decide if it’s for you!
The many blogposts we read only boasted of the positives and failed to mention the negatives in my opinion. Learn from our mistakes and read on below for tips on what to do and what not to do to enjoy your stay in Cartagena. (For an honest opinion of how we feel about Cartagena, scroll to the bottom.)
- Do expect to feel sweaty and sticky the whole time you are there. Seriously, if you can accept this fact from the get-go, you’re well on your way to having a good time.
- Do book accommodations that have air conditioning. This is absolutely essential. Furthermore, ask if there is A/C in the common areas. Our room had A/C, but the common areas did not, which meant that we spent most of our time in our room.
- Do schedule your activities for early in the morning or after 6pm and make plans to be indoors from 11am to 5pm, preferable somewhere you can cool off. It can be the hotel pool (I know it’s not technically indoors) or your hotel’s common areas (if they’re air conditioned). Take a siesta during this time to be ready for Cartagena’s thriving nightlife.
- Do be prepared to either negotiate every price or accept that you will be overpaying. This might not be the case for hotels or restaurants with listed prices, but it is for everything else, including taxis.*
- Do be prepared to say, “No, gracias” constantly when you’re in any of the touristy areas — I’m not exaggerating. If you look like a tourist, street vendors will get in your way and put whatever they’re selling in your face, and taxis will always always honk at you like you’re a pretty girl in a short skirt regardless of your gender.
- Do empathize with the fact that tourism is the industry of Cartagena, at least in the parts you will be visiting. Street vendors, performers, and taxi-drivers make their living by selling you things. Having some empathy will help you enjoy your visit (or at least dislike it less).
- Do expect infrastructure to be rather lacking. This might be true in other places in Colombia, but in our experience, it was ever-present in Cartagena, while not so in other major cities. Tap water is not potable, though this isn’t true in all of Colombia. There are frequent big holes in the sidewalks, like big enough to step through so just be aware. And they are definitely challenged by inadequate drainage (you could see and smell sewage in many parts of Old Town, even though it hadn’t rained that day).
Tips on #4:
- Taxis in Cartagena do NOT have a meter. Before you hail a cab, make sure you know what is fair price. (You can check Uber and/or ask your hotel.) Before you enter a taxi, always ALWAYS negotiate the price.
- Ask multiple sources for a cost estimate. When you ask for a cost estimate, chances are there is a mark-up. We asked our taxi driver how much he would pay for a typical fried fish plate, and he said 40,000 Colombian pesos (COP), which is ridiculous. We found the same plate in a touristy part of town at a restaurant recommended by multiple blogs for 10,000 COP.
**Tips on #7: See our post on sustainable travel here.
Up until this point, I’ve tried to stay very positive, however, the following tips really do flow better with don’t.
- Don’t expect to be blown away by the food. Expect to over-pay for food that can be best described as mediocre. We read from multiple sources that Cartagena was a culinary capital. Aside from one lunch we had there (at La Cocina de Pepina, which did live up to the hype – or maybe it was just our more realistic expectations since this was the last meal we had there), we were not impressed. Then again, we hail from a culinary capital ourselves so maybe we’re just food-snobs. (Likely.)
- Don’t feel like you need to accept every offer or tip every street performer that tries to “befriend” you (a nicer way to say get in your way). Street performers in Cartagena will abut your cab or follow you and then expect a tip. Do not feel like you must tip them. I do not encourage this behavior.
- Don’t expect a beach vacation. Several blogs (and other tourists) strongly advise against going to the beaches in Cartagena. If you prefer to cool down in the ocean, book a flight or boat ride to one of Colombia’s many Caribbean islands.
So, should I go to Cartagena?
In our humble opinion, it can easily be skipped, as many of the draws of Cartagena can be found somewhere with more comfortable weather (and the weather in Cartagena is pretty much the same year-round) and for more decent prices. Somehow, we seem to be in the minority of recommendations seen online though, including Lonely Planet. Ultimately, the decision is up to you!