8 Hours in Cartagena
Tell anyone you’re going to Colombia and you’ll find a repetitive theme in conversation: cocaine, cartels, and Pablo Escobar. Just the simple mention of the country conjures up vivid and violent images in the mind.
But so much has changed in Colombia in recent years. Cities have emerged as cultural meccas, slowly drawing in more and more international visitors each year, and perhaps none more so than Cartagena because of its colonial architecture, vibrant old town, walled fortress, and UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. It may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Colombia, but in Cartagena you’ll find art, rich history, warm people and, of course, some of the best coffee in the world.
So if you’re planning to visit one of the most beautiful cities in South America, read on below to find out what you can see and do in eight hours or less in magical Cartagena.
Wander the streets of Cartagena's Old Town
Colonial architecture, churches, monasteries, plazas, restaurants, cafes, blooming balconies – Cartagena’s Old Town is the true gem of the city. It wouldn’t be difficult to spend a full day strolling around the inner walled area, but it’s easy to see the main sites in a couple of hours.
The Old Town is best experienced on a self-paced leisurely walk (and in Cartagena’s humid heat you won’t be up for anything else anyways) where you can appreciate the architecture, street art, and local food vendors along the cobble-stoned roads. Don’t be afraid to leave the main, tourist-packed boulevards and explore the quieter side streets, as there are many interesting corners to be discovered and countless photo opportunities.
Walk Along Las Murallas
Surrounding the oldest part of town you'll find Las Murallas, thick walls built hundreds of years ago to protect Cartagena against enemies. With construction beginning near the end of the 16th century after an attack on the city by Francis Drake, the project took two centuries to complete due to repeated damage from storms and pirate attacks.
Along with the Old Town, UNESCO declared Las Murallas a World Heritage Site in 1984. Las Murallas remain as the most comprehensive fortification in all of South America and make Cartagena one of the best-preserved walled cities in the world.
Tip: Head to Las Murallas near the end of the day to catch the sun setting over the ocean. Don’t forget your camera!
Explore Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
With one of the best views of Cartagena, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is located on the 40 meter high San Lázaro hill and overlooks the surrounding land and sea. Although construction began in the mid-1600s, it was rebuilt and expanded numerous times over the years to become the greatest fortress Spain ever built in the Americas.
Info: The entrance fee is $10 USD. For a few extra dollars you can purchase an audio guide which explains the history of the castillo.
Tip: The majority of the castillo is in direct sunlight throughout the day so drink plenty of water, bring a hat, and wear sunscreen. If your schedule allows it, head here first thing in the morning to beat the crowds and enjoy the somewhat cooler morning temperatures.
Admire the views from Convento de La Popa
Perched atop the highest hill in Cartagena, La Popa monastery towers 150 meters above the city. Founded in 1607 by an Augustinian priest, the restored monastery contains a charming courtyard and cloister. Even if you choose not to tour the inside of La Popa, the panoramic views of Cartagena from the top of the hill are worth the drive up alone.
Info: While you could walk the zigzagging road up to La Popa, it's not advisable because of the intense humid heat. Taxis are aplenty and hiring one to go to La Popa is relatively cheap. Just be sure to let the driver know to wait at the top while you tour the monastery to secure a ride back into town.
Shop (or not) at Las Bóvedas
Las Bóvedas, or “the vaults”, was originally used to store munitions and provisions during the colonial era. Later, these vaults were transformed into jail cells to house prisoners. Although it doesn’t look like much from the outside, today Las Bóvedas is a busy marketplace where you’ll find all kinds of overpriced souvenirs and Colombian handicrafts.
Sure, this tourist trap isn't somewhere you need to spend a lot of time, but the building’s history is much more interesting than the wares sold inside and makes a brief visit worthwhile.
Info: Entry to Las Bóvedas is free. If you’re on an organized city tour, undoubtedly a stop here is included.
Savor a cup of Colombian Coffee
With the third highest coffee production in the world and a worthy reputation to match, coffee and Colombia go hand in hand. Don't miss out on experiencing some of the finest java in Cartagena, whether it's from one of the tinteros selling sweetened black coffee in plastic cups on the street or from Juan Valdez, the Colombian equivalent of Starbucks.