I'll try to provide as much practical advice as possible here, mainly geared toward travelers like us: outdoorsy urbanites interested in doing things low-budget, mainly to have more genuine experience (we’re willing to splurge on things like faster transportation and good food). Note that the prices I list are in approximate U.S. dollars.
Overall, it was a great experience, highlighted by our trip to Tayrona National Park. We spent only 3 nights in Cartagena, but felt that was enough. We definitely missed out, though, by not being there on a Friday or Saturday night, when places like Café Havana are open and the town is probably hopping.
- As you’ll read elsewhere, being fairly fluent in Spanish will make your trip a lot easier, since very few people speak English (most tourists are also Spanish-speaking).
- The money is pretty easy to navigate – you’ll mainly be dealing with bills (1000=$.50 approx; 2000=$1; 5000=$2.75; 10000=$5.50; 20000=$11; 50000=$27).
- Some ATMs are only linked to local banks, but there are plenty of others that work with U.S. cards (at those ones, instructions are bi-lingual). You might want to map a few (Bancolombia, Banco Union Colombiano, Davivienda) near where you’re staying.
- It’s easy to walk to, from, and around the old walled town and Getsemani, and we felt safe wherever we went. Comfortable shoes are advisable.
- You can pick up a passable map of the city from a kiosk outside the main clocktower gate (Puerta del Reloj?) heading into the old town. It lists streets by their names, rather than the numbers you’ll find on Google maps. It’s helpful to cross-reference.
- You’ll need to show your passport a lot (e.g., when checking into hotels and even booking a bus ticket!)
- We drank tap water the whole time, with no problem.
Chiva bus tour:
We tried one of the 4-hour “chiva” bus tours (approx. $25), which depart around 2/2:30pm daily from Bocagrande. I thought it was extremely worthwhile, because of how much ground it covered, for all the info we got from the guide, and for its relaxed (yet efficient) pace. Admission to the sights is included in the price.
For us, the highlight of the tour was San Felipe fort (Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas), which was fascinating from an engineering standpoint, and for its role in the city’s history. If you go here on your own, I recommend hiring a guide to explain everything.
The tour also goes to Convento de la Popa, which is atop a hill overlooking the city. It’s small, and I didn’t find it (or the 360-degree view) all that exciting. But it’s one sight that might be difficult to do on your own: The steep, winding road leading up to it is lined with shanties, and there are reports of muggings. (I guess you could hire a cab, but you’d probably want to make sure it waits for you for a return trip. You probably don’t need more than ½ hour to view the convent and enjoy the rear patio.)
The chiva tour ends in the old walled city, so you don’t have to worry about ending up back in charmless Bocagrande.
If you’re interested in doing a chiva tour, I suggest researching how to book one. We took a cab to Bocagrande (Av San Martin and Calle 4), thinking we could just get on a bus, but that’s apparently not the way it works. We were able to get on one, but only after haggling with some random guy in an official-looking vest and not being sure if we were getting scammed (apparently the guy was legit! He walkie-talkied for the bi-lingual tour bus to come pick us up).
We enjoyed just walking around and experiencing the city, more so than visiting some of the “official” sights. Meandering though the streets and atop the wall (Las Murallas), checking out the squares (each so different from one another!), and poking our heads into various churches whose doors were open at dusk were especially nice. We also liked sampling some of the street offerings, such as limeade ($1 or $2), freshly-opened coconuts, and coffee (<$1). At night, you can’t beat hanging out with the locals in the neighborhood square (see Lodging/Getsemani).
Some of the official sights didn’t float my boat much. The Inquisition museum (Palacio de la Inquisicion) was marginally worthwhile, but limited. I didn’t get much out of the Museo del Oro, either, but perhaps there was more to it than what we saw – it was getting late and they were letting people in for free, so maybe some parts were already closed. Las Bovedas, which sounded cool in the guidebook (former dungeons made into shops), were crappy tourist stores of no interest whatsoever.
We didn’t have time to go to Islas de Rosario, opting to spend our beach time in Tayrona instead (see below). But our friends went there and loved it. Lonely Planet has good advice on how to arrange a trip.
There are a lot of budget lodging options within a few blocks’ radius of Café Havana in Getsemani.
We stayed at the ultra-cheap Hotel Familiar on Carrera 10 (aka Guerrero), approx $25 for a double with a private bathroom. The place feels third-world, but the people running it couldn’t have been nicer and it was clean -- shabbiness aside. BTW, Hotel Familiar ONLY accepts reservations by phone (there’s some sham website charging a $5 to book) and they ONLY speak Spanish. If it’s not high season, you could try your luck and just show up to check it out first – it won’t suit everybody’s taste (e.g., on the third day, we had to forage for toilet paper, and the cold-water shower is basically a hose – no problem for us). You might also inquire about staying in one of the upstairs rooms -- we didn’t get a chance to see them, but our friends stayed there and liked it.
If you want a more typical/communal hostel experience, the Media Luna Hostel* looked like a magical wonderland by comparison, with its small pool and nightly activities (*there are several places with a similar name.. pretty sure this is the one we saw). This place also has an English-speaking staff who can help you arrange the various tours (you don’t have to be staying there).
We stayed one night at Hostal Casa Baluarte (Calle Media Luna No 10-81, $57 for an air-conditioned, albeit windowless, room), where the rooms were comfortable and hotel-like, but tiny (e.g., we are not big people, but we could barely turn around in the bathroom!).
The best part about staying in Getsemani was enjoying evenings in its neighborhood square, located in front of the yellow church (Iglesia La Trinidad) at the corner of Carrera 10 (del Guerrero) and Calle 29 (la Sierpe). You can bring a bottle of wine or beers or whatever from the deli, and there are some interesting food carts there. A policeman keeps watch over the goings-on. It’s also interesting to walk around the streets behind the square, where locals spill out from their homes onto the sidewalks.
I think we missed out on some of the better eats, largely because a lot of places on our list weren’t open while we were there.
We hunted down La Cevicheria, which was highlighted in Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” show, but it was a huge disappointment! The ceviche was not nearly as good as what I’ve tasted elsewhere, and it was fairly pricey. Still, it wasn’t “bad,” and a pleasant enough place to sit.
In Getsemani, we had a great selection of snacks and drinks in the casual rooftop space of Malagana Café & Bar (Tripita y Media 31-55). Highly recommended!
We had a straightforward, typical Colombian lunch at Restaurante la Casa de Socorro (Calle Larga No. 8B-112; I think Larga on Google maps is Calle 25). Menu was bi-lingual.
For breakfast, there’s an adorable juice bar/café across the street from Hostal Casa Baluarte called Locombia. There are also bakeries here and there, or you could hunt down one of the women selling cups of chopped fruit ($1 or $2). For a heartier breakfast, Gato Negro looked like it had substantial offerings. There are plenty of other offerings on Calle Media Luna, especially if you walk with the flow of traffic.
TAYRONA NATIONAL PARK
Perhaps the highlight of our trip was a 2-night excursion to Tayrona, which has great hiking and beautiful scenery – well worth the 5-6 hour Marsol bus trip (approx. $30) from Cartagena. However, if you don’t like hiking and camping, this probably isn’t for you (unless you’re staying in the ecohabs at Canaveral).
The bus/van to Tayrona leaves Cartagena at 5am and picks you up at your hostel. If you speak Spanish, you can probably call Marsol directly to make arrangements; otherwise, any of the big hostels or tiny travel-booking offices near Café Havana in Getsemani can help. We had a very good experience with Marsol, but I believe there are also other operators in case they have no room. There are bathroom stops along the way.
Most importantly, bring plenty of cash for inside the park -- you can’t even use your credit card to enter ($20). You’ll need to show your passport at the gate. Also, bring sturdy hiking shoes, sunscreen, a small luggage lock, your bathing suit, soap and a towel, and a sleeping sheet/cocoon or big sarong for extra warmth while sleeping. (Bug spray is probably a good idea -- we didn’t notice any mosquitoes, etc., but they may be worse at other times of year.)
Pay the friggin’ $1 ($2000 COP) to take the van down the paved road to the start of the trails in the park! You’ll be hiking enough inside. It takes 2 hours or more to hike to the furthest/most desirable section of the park (Cabo San Juan), which has the only swimmable beaches.
At the trail head, there are caballeros on the left where you can rent horses. (You can also rent them when you’re leaving wherever you end up in the park.)
Very soon after entering the park is the section that has the ecohabs you’ve probably read about (Canaveral?). This area seems to be for the spa crowd (white-uniformed workers, etc.), and you can’t swim there. Note that there aren’t any ecohabs further in the park – your options become limited to hammocks, tents, and I think there are a few cabins.
As you walk deeper into the park, you’ll come across other little “villages.” Most have an open-air restaurant of some kind where you can stop for a snack. If you want to get to the lovely Cabo San Juan (El Cabo San Juan del Guía) – which is the section I’d recommend -- just keep walking until you see the hammock hut perched atop boulders on the beach.
You can hike either through the jungle (on the horse path) or by the beach -- each has its charms. Hiking as close to the beach as possible on the way in may give you the best overview of the different sections of the park, but the sun can be brutal (we took the jungle route on the way in, beach route on the way out). The signage on the paths isn’t very good, so look for the garbage cans that typically mark “major intersections.” (Please, people, carry out your own trash!)
The lodging options in Cabo San Juan are hammocks “up,” hammocks “down,” and tents (you can bring your own tent or hammock, too). Hammocks “up” are the ones in the hut perched atop the beach (looks magical, but it gets chilly up there!). Hammocks “down” are in the main area, with easy access to the toilets, etc. The tents come with air mattresses, and were pretty comfortable. I don’t remember the prices, but I think everything was between $5-$15/pp. Bigger groups can rent the “cabana” on the second floor of the “hammocks up” hut.
In addition to a restaurant, concession stand (with beer), and lockers, Cabo San Juan has a communal shower room, outhouse-style flush toilets, and an outdoor sink.
The beaches around Cabo San Juan are the only ones that are safe for swimming, and they’re lovely. Apparently, there’s a snorkel tour you can go on (I brought my mask and snorkel but didn’t see anything of interest on my own).
I’ve read reviews complaining that food/water is really expensive in the park and to bring your own, but I thought the prices were perfectly reasonable. For dinner, there was some kind of rice/shrimp dish that was especially good. We didn’t buy water – we filled up our water bottles at the outdoor sink (not sure if this was allowed or not). If you drink, you might want to bring a flask of something to add to your fruit juice.
One highlight of our trip to Tayona was a hike to El Pueblito, the archeological remains of a lost city (a great option if you don’t have time for the more famous multi-day trek to Ciudad Perdida). The trail leaves right from Cabo San Juan (keep to your left.. don’t hug the beach). It’s marked “moderate difficulty,” which I think is an understatement -- you have to scramble up some big boulders and navigate some steep inclines, but it was so worth it. Hiking poles or a walking stick will help. I think the round trip took us 4 hours or so. Keep your eyes peeled for monkeys!
During the day, some guy set up a table near the beach and I think was arranging boat trips to Taganga or possibly Santa Marta. This could be an option if you don’t want to hike out.
When we left the park, there were cabs at the entrance and we opted to take one (approx. $35) to Santa Marta to catch the Marsol bus back to Cartagena. I’m SO GLAD we did it this way instead of taking the cheap collectivo, which is what we’d originally planned. The trip between Tayrona and Santa Marta is probably about an hour, and there are many tolls and military checkpoints along the way.
Another option is to arrange to meet the Marsol van at the entrance to the park – I think it leaves there at 3/3:30pm. But if you can get to Santa Marta, you can catch an earlier one and get back to Cartagena sooner. I forget the address of the Marsol office where you can wait for the bus.
I’m glad we decided against spending a night in Santa Marta or Taganga. A fellow traveler in the park told us that Taganga was kinda a tourist trap for hippie backpackers, and that several groups of people she knew had been mugged there. Santa Marta was big, and lacked the charm of Cartagena. Our second night was far better spent inside the park.