Things To Do In Cartagena Colombia- and What to Avoid

Cartagena is my favorite city in Colombia due to the variety of neighborhoods, things to do, and safety. You can relax on a luxury beach in the morning, have a historical tour in the afternoon, and drink with the locals without skipping a beat.

How can you not fall in love with Cartagena with so much to do? Here’s I”l break down all the amazing things you can do in this city so you, too, can have an amazing trip to Cartagena de Indias.

Note: I explored Cartagena booking my own tours etc. and after made affiliate connections. This article may contain affiliate links.

Historical Walking Tour of Cartagena De Indias

The charm of Cartagena lives in its living history and the best way to explore that is through a historic tour of the Old Town (aka Centro).

Old Town boasts churches and monasteries from the 16th century, tales of slavery and empathy, as well as a protective wall, bastions, and cannons used in battle. It is amazing all the tales that can be told in a 1-2 hour walk!

Here’s the link for the Free Walking Tour happens around 10a almost every day.

Insider info: Schedule your tour around golden hour (a lil before sunset) for amazing photos and cooler temps. This tour leaves at 4p for $12. Click here for the Golden Hour Tour.

Eat, Drink, and Enjoy Live Music From the Rooftops

Nothing beats a bird’s eye view of this stunning city. From views of the famous clock towner in Cartagena’s Old Town Centro to the lines of the cityscape, the rooftops of Cartagena cannot be missed.

I love this tour because it includes my favorite rooftop, Mirador, as well as includes drinks at an unbeatable price. You’ll also get a variety of views.

Private Swim in the Mud Volcano El Totumo

I didn’t know I could be buoyant and laugh like crazy in mud until I visited El Totumo. The nutrient rich mud bubbles up to the surface from the volcano in a mix of cooling and warming temperatures that is such a fun experience to “swim” in.

While you plop around in the mud trying to touch the bottom, move and laugh from pure ridiculousness, you can get a massage from a local who will rub the nutrient rich mud over your body for an excellent exfoliation. Your skin will feel amazing after.

There is a fun way and a not-so-fun way to experience El Totumo. So if you’ve read mixed reviews about the mud volcano experience, I’ve got you.

The best way to do El Totumo is to get a private car or Uber, and leave Cartagena around 8:15a so you are the first (and probably only) guests there. The personalization and intimacy takes the experience to a whole new level.

The workers at the mud volcano will attended to you one on one, you’ll get time and space to enjoy the mud however you want. I got a massage, went mud bubble chasing, and rolled like a pig making oinking sounds. I’d never have done that had I gone with a group of strangers!

Upon your arrival, you can pay for entrance there- about 20,000 COP. No need to have a guide from the city.

Most group tours depart Cartagena for El Totumo around 8:30a. If you want the private experience, the goal is to depart before them and not arrive too early where the locals aren’t set up yet.

We left at 8:30a in our private (and faster) vehicle and it was perfect. As we were changing back into our clothes, the group tours started to arrive and the experience immediately dampened.

Pricing for a group tour is around $30-40 vs the $25-50/ person for a private ride + the $15 for the mud volcano with massage and river cleaning.

Check out my what to avoid below for full details, but if rolling around in a mud volcano sounds like fun to you (sure did to me!) then this is one you should not miss.

Tour Getsemani Street Art

From the center of the historical slave trade in Cartagena to the heartbeat of the local community, Getsemani’s history is literally written on the walls.

Every turn had artist’s studios, murals, and rows of canvas paintings. As you walk along, look up and experience the different banners and flags waiving in the wind.

A tour of Gesteamni is a true 360 experience you cannot miss. I could not get enough of the vibrant street art of this neighborhood.

The best way to experience is with a local guide who can tell you the history and meaning of this remarkable place.

Here’s the free walking tour that is scheduled for that golden hour (perfect photo lighting)!

Tour Getsemani at Night

Getsemani is a completely different place at night. This neighborhood used to be overcrowded, so the community took to the streets to escape the crowded buildings.

That street life energy continues to today with restaurant seating in the streets, street performers in Plaza de la Trinidad, food carts, music, and more after hours. You almost wouldn’t recognize the streets from day to night especially around Plaza de la Trinidad.

A guided tour is a great way to catch all the details of this vibrant time!

There is some overlap of the history of Getsamani in the day and night tours by the very nature of it being the same neighborhood, but the evening tour focuses more on the evening energy, local vendors and traditional food not out in the daytime.

Aviario Nacional

If you’re an Audubon lover, the national aviary of Colombia, Aviary Nacional, is a must see! The aviary boasts 170 species of birds on 7 heatacres across three ecosystems.

Entry is $12 and you can explore the oneway walking path that takes about 1.5-2 hours to traverse. The aviary is on the inland portion of Badu peninsula, about a 50 min drive from Cartagena.

Eat and Drink with the Locals on the Streets in Getsemani

Sit with a drink in your hand after eating local arepas while the energy of Getsamani buzzes around you.

Now that you’ve got your bearings on the amazing nightlife of Getsamani, grab a bite and drink along the streets of Getsemani for great people watching and fun.

Local Drink Cart

My fave drink cart is Mojitosnl near El Mana restaurant on Carerra 10b. You know you’ve found it when you instinctively want to dance to the music and lights coming from the cart.

Drinks are an amazing 17,000 COP, fiercely strong, and they come around pouring more alcohol into your glass as you drink along the street at no extra charge.

Dance in the streets to the music playing from the cart while you watch them make you drinks or chat up a local vendor selling arts and crafts along the block. Once you settle in, you may find you don’t leave for the rest of the night.

Eat Stuffed Arepas

Colombitalia arepas on the corner of Calle 30 and Carerra 10 in Getsamani has large stuffed arepas at good prices. So many styles to choose from, too!

My favorite arepa is the Colombian style arepa. Grab a salsa bottle from the line of containers on the wall to the left to add more variety to each bite.

There’s also some great local food carts of kabob, grilled stuffed arepas, and burgers where Carerra 10 meets Plaza de la Trinidad if you’re looking for something other than an arepa.

Dance Salsa at the Famous Cafe Havana

Dance the night away at the world famous Cafe Havana! The moment I walked into this place, I was hooked. Such a fun and captivating environment.

Cafe Havana is on the corner of Calle 30 and Carerra in Getsamani and is unassuming when closed, but when it’s open Wednesday- Sunday, people are drawn to the energetic music and laughter heard through the open air windows.

Each night the house band plays live salsa music and the band dances along with the crowd for an energy packed night. This place starts getting crazy around 11:30/midnight- even on Sunday.

I’ve visited a few of the live salsa band clubs in Getsemani and I always return to Cafe Havana for a few reasons:

1. More energy! The staff, bartenders and band have a more lively energy than some of the other bands. The bartenders have smiles and are playful, and the band dances to the music.

2. More space to dance. While Cafe Havana may seem smaller than a traditional bar with open dance floor it still boasts one of the larger dance spaces in the area.

3. Cafe Havana wants you to have fun! Each night they have team members go around dancing with the crowd and teaching the basics steps. The band engages with the audience making the experience personal and intimate.

It’s impossible to be here more then 5 minutes and not be having a great time. Even the guys got in on the fun each time I went.

Cafe Havana has a 30,000 COP cover (around $8) and drink prices are standard for Cartagena. The club has its own line of liquor to try and you can buy a bottle to take home.

If you’re interested in a salsa club tour and lessons, this tour is a great deal and includes entry into Cafe Havana. Just stay later so you get the full Cafe Havana experience. 🙂

Enjoy Colombian Coffee at a Local Cafe

Colombia is renowned for its coffee farms and every coffee lover should enjoy a sip while relaxing at a local cafe.

My favorite latte in the city is poured at Abaco Libros y Cafe. This classic bookstore has a great line up of cafe drinks in an adorable library setting. Something about the ambiance and music here just whisks me away to another place while the latte flavors dance on my tastebuds.

A great place to relax and read a book, or have enjoyable conversation. This cafe is about unplugging. There is no wifi or outlets.

You can find Abaco Libros y Cafe on the corner of Calle de Don Sancho and Calle 36 in Old Town. Look for the cafe seating on the corner.

Ride in a Classic Horse Carriage in Old Town Centro

See this classic city in classic style from the back of your open air horse drawn carriage. Ride through the street of Cartagena’s Old Town taking in the colonial style buildings, historic walls and community squares.

I recommend taking in the sunset from a top the western wall then catch your carriage immediately after to watch the city fade into nighttime. A perfect romantic evening!

Each ride is 30 minutes for $20/ person and includes hotel pick up and you can reserve your time here.

Rosario Islands

The Rosario Islands are a must see day trip from Cartagena with the unique shapes, stunning beaches, and carribean blue waters.

Tours are a full day event departing in the morning and include a few island stops, lunch, and snorkeling. Don’ forget lots of sunblock, sunglasses and a hat. The sun here in Cartagena is no joke!

Tours do sell out (some people we met couldn’t join) so if there’s a certain date you’re interested in, book at least 24 hours in advance.

Party at Cholon

The Rosario Islands are the natural beauty of Cartagena’s waters and Cholon is the party island.

Boats line up bumper to bumper around the waist high waters of Cholon parting the day away. You can grab Pina coladas in a fresh cut pineapple, eat from a variety of street vendors, and dance the day away, or rent a jet ski, go banana boat riding, or rent a large inflatable floaty.

Book your tour at least a day ahead of time. They do sell out.

What To Avoid in Cartagena Colombia

I’m a big supporter of trying and exploring new things in each country I visit, but every now and then there are tours and sites just not worth the time or resources. There are three here in the Cartagena area that made that list for me.

Group Tour to El Totumo

As mentioned earlier, visiting El Totumo mud volcano has a fun way and a not-so-fun way. Group tours are the not-so-great way to experience the mud volcano.

When a bus load of people arrives and the mud is only large enough for about 2-3 people, participants end up waiting in the Colombian sun standing around waiting their turn while they bake in the sun.

Once you get your turn in the mud, you feel rushed and you have an audience of strangers watching you roll around. It can really damper the experience.

Alternatively, if the mud volcano is busy, they may fill the area with people. This crowding prevents visitors from lying flat and truly floating and from swimming in the mud.

Large group tours and busy hours = not so much fun at El Tutumo.

If El Totumo mud Volcano is on your list, grab a private car and visit before the group tours arrive.

I don’t want to hate on the group tours entirely. They can be a good value for the number of stops you make and may include meals.

For example, this group tour starts with the mud volcano, and also includes the pink salt marshes, lunch, and Ethno-Industrial museum- so it’s great value if you’re looking for a fun day. You can check out the group tour details here.

If you want to focus on a great experience at the mud volcano only- I recommend hiring a private car. If you want to sit back, take it easy and get in a few sights in one day, the group tour is the option for you.

Bioluminescent Bay Plankton

I definitely recommend swimming with bioluminescent plankton, it’s a lot of fun; I just recommend participating in it somewhere else in the world and not from Cartagena, Colombia.

I went to this experience out of Cartagena as it was included in one of my other tours. I am glad I did not pay separately for the experience.

We were in the bay during peak season and the plankton glow could not be seen a majority of the swimmer’s movements. There were times we could get it to flare up enough, but it was still underwhelming.

A majority of people on the tour, including people who went just for this experience, didn’t get into the water when they saw how dim the glow was. Very disappointing.

If you think of how sensitive cameras are to light compared to human eyes and you take a look at how soft the glow is in all the pictures from this bay- that’s how dim the lights are. Wish I had noticed before I waited 6 hours for this tour.

Baru’s Public Beach

Baru’s beach came as one of the top recommended things to do for me upon my arrival. The sunset view from here is nice. It is not amazing.

If you decide to visit Badu for the beach, ensure you have a reservation at a private beach club to have an enjoyable experience.

The public beach is a series of worn down and empty shacks so desperate for guests, they overcharge and are aggressive. We saw two local women fighting when a boat of tourists arrived and the fight continued on and off for an hour.

You can tell people no and they will start giving you a massage anyways or overcharge you for simple things, like $12 for a plate of french fries. It’s a level of desperate that was a bit frightening at times as opposed to a relaxing day at the beach.

We wandered for a while to find a decent place to eat as many places did not look suitable in terms of cleanliness and the bathrooms were even worse. I’d have preferred to have gone in the jungle.

There are many beautiful beaches in the area as alternatives where you will have a more enjoyable experience and can take in breathtaking scenery.

I strongly recommend taking a water taxi to Tierra Bomba Island, head to Rosario Islands or visit Bentida Beach.

Tierra Bomba island is quieter and cleaner then Baru. You will also find better beach clubs like Palmarito Beach with great views of Cartagena in the distance. (Palmarito is private with an entry charge- it includes a table and drink)

Alternatively, head to the Rosario Islands. One of the most pristine water scenes ever. There were large seashells on the shore!

Rosario Islands take a bit more planning to get a boat out to them where you can catch a boat to Tierra Bomba anytime.

Bentida Beach is also good. I did not make it there but doesn’t it look peaceful!

Things to do In Cartagena De Indias, Colombia

There you have it! Amazing things to keep you amazed and fall in love with this wondrous city during your trip and a few insider tips on what to avoid.

If you’re looking for additional information on Cartagena, Colombia check out our Cartagena page with links to additional resources or heave over to the Adventure On The Side YouTube channel.

I look forward to hearing about your stories in wonderful Cartagena, Colombia soon. Have a great trip!

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