8 Things to do in Cartagena Outside the Walled City
March 20, 2019
Cartagena is an excellent introduction to Colombia. The city is breathtakingly beautiful. Known as the jewel of the Caribbean, the crumbling colorful colonial architecture paired with a tropical atmosphere is hard to beat. Add to that it’s relative ease when it comes to transportation, plenty of English speaking locals, and loads of westernized food options and you’ve got yourself a destination anyone can fall in love with.
The Walled City
Do a quick google of Cartagena and you’ll find a million things to do within the Walled City. So, what exactly is the Walled City??
The Walled City of Cartagena is the preserved and protected UNESCO World Heritage part of the city surrounded by a large fortress-like wall- called Las Muralles. Known then as Cartagena de Indias, this portion of the city was constructed during colonial times. Because of this, this is where you will find the more extravagant churches, impressive architecture, and the tourists. With those tourists have come sunglass vendors, street performers, westernized restaurants, and other typical tourist junk.
Unfortunately, we found out first hand that many of these tourists never leave the Walled City.
Which is really a big mistake.
Some feared it wasn’t safe outside the walls. Some simply didn’t know what was worth seeing outside them. Here are our recommendations for getting a taste of “the real” Cartagena.
8 Things to do in Cartagena Outside the Walled City
1. Explore the Streets of Getsemani
Getsemani is everything the Walled City used to be. Streets with character. Just as colorful as the historic part of the city, even more so, with the pennant flags flapping above your head. Enjoy the Street art, fruit vendors, and plenty of cheap local restaurants.
We primarily ate + slept in Getsemani. The accommodation and food are cheaper and the food is Colombian instead of international cuisine.
2. Salsa the Night Away
Even if you don’t know how to Salsa dance…it’s insanely fun to watch. And apparently, everyone in South America is a professional. Café Havana in Getsemani is generally packed and has live music. Another to check out is Donde Fidel.
3. Visit Plaza de la Trinidad for Sunset
Much like the central plaza in the Walled City, this pastel sunshine-colored church will crowd with people and performers a dusk. Unlike the central plaza however, locals will be joining in on the fun.
Children playing futbol, vendors selling cold beer out of styrofoam coolers, tasty street food carts, general drinking and dancing. This town-square is where the locals socialize and a great place to sit on the sidewalk and people-watch with an ice cold beer.
Have some small bills to tip the performers.
4. Mercado De Bazurto
For adventurous travelers only. This is my hands-down favorite place in Cartagena. Dirty, gritty, real. This is the place Anthony Bourdain would have plopped down at a colorful plastic table, dug into a pile of fried pig parts and drank a cold beer among Colombians.
A local market selling everything; dried herbs, fresh fruits and veggies, pig eyeballs, live animals, and washing machines. You name it. An outdoor maze of stalls covered with tarps (in an attempt to escape the Cartagena heat), that seems to stretch on forever. We were the only tourists in sight. And it didn’t go unnoticed. People were friendly, inquisitive, and solely Spanish speaking. Many saw our camera and posed with their wares in hopes we would snap a photo.
Not everyone here had good intentions however. This chaotic market is the perfect place to get yourself pick-pocketed or worse. Just don’t bring with you more than your willing to lose and exercise a certain amount of caution. If you speak no Spanish and are traveling solo, maybe consider skipping this rougher attraction.
Food all over Getsemani was generally good. These were some of our stand-out places.
Colombitalia for the best Arepas we had in Colombia. Just look for the line of hungry people crowding outside.
Check out La Mulata or La Cevicheria for the best ceviche in town.
The freshest fruit is everywhere!! Stop one of the many fruit vendors and ask for a sample of a fruit you don’t recognize.
Get a Jugo de Aqua (fruit blended with water) or a Jugo de Leche (with milk) at just about any restaurant. Lulo, Mangosteen, Guanabana, Nesquila (a fruit that tastes kinda like chocolate?) , Maracuya, Mora Mora, and others I had never heard of before.
My favorite coffee was from Beiyu. A small vegetarian cafe serving locally sourced coffee and fresh açai bowls (yet another fruit that grows locally).
6. An overnight stay on the San Bernardo Islands
Cartagena may be the “jewel” of the Carribean, but when it comes to pristine beaches it is seriously lacking. Luckily, there are no shortage of relaxing islands just a quick boat ride away.
The San Bernardo Islands are a more isolated and less touristy version of the much closer Rosario Islands. If any beach will do check out the Rosario, but if you want a little more privacy opt for the longer journey to the San Bernardo.
Casa en el Agua– This backpacker party hostel is an island itself. Surrounded by clear blue water and filled every night with young travelers, it’s the perfect paradise to let off some steam.
Isla Roots Hostel- This is a more laid back version of the house on the water. Just a 10 min kayak ride from Casa en el Agua and surrounded by the mangroves, it’s an beautiful place to hide away.
If you plan on staying at one of the hostels above arrange a 2-hour fast boat with the TranqItEasy boat service.
I highly recommend 2-nights if your itinerary allows it. This will give you plenty of time to relax, sunbathe, and partake in some of the other neat activities the island hostels have to offer. Such as
Exploring Santa Cruz del Isolte. The most densely populated island in world. Also an opportunity to swim with nurse sharks if you are feeling daring. (We were and lived to tell the tale.)
Sun-bathing on Tintipan and Macura Islands.
Kayaking through the mangrove forest. Such a serene and peaceful experience. A way to escape the party and feel one with nature again.
Take a Bioluminescent Plankton tour. Visit when they moon is at it’s smallest. Too bright and the tours don’t run.
7. Spot Three-Toed Sloths in Parque del Centenario
This unassuming park is more of a concrete pathway surrounded by some spindly trees and an outdoor library. But the animals that reside in the park are more of the allure.
Just wander through and look up. A family of sloths and several Iguana’s have made the tops of the trees their home.
8. Check out the Remnants of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Built by the Spanish (yes, colonial again), this fortress was in the prime position to defend against the land and sea. Now it offers great views of the surrounding city and tours for those interested in the history behind it.
9. And then go to the Walled City.
Please go to the Walled City while you’re in Cartagena. Even if it feels a little like a Disneyland version of what Cartagena used to be like…it is undeniably beautiful. Walk on top of the fortress walls and look out over the colorful town. Wake up early and wander when the vendors have just begun to filter into the streets.
There are some stunning churches, a neat snack market, and tons of interesting history. Grab yourself a freshly pressed lemonade from a street cart (because the Cartagena heat can be sweltering) and take some iconic photos of the colorful Palenqueras-the famous fruit ladies.