Backpacking Cartagena in Colombia holds a special place in my heart. Not only is it a beautiful city filled with beautiful people, but it is also a backpacker’s dream. It’s cheap, easy to get around, and offers delicious food and plenty of things to do.
Top activities when backpacking in Cartagena
Unfortunately, many people choose to skip it because of the bad reputation Colombia had back in the day- but please don’t!
Here are just a few of the things to do in Cartagena that should put this coastal gem at the top of your backpacking list. Grab your backpacking essentials and you’re good to go.
1. Explore Cartagena’s history
Cartagena sits on the coast of the Caribbean Sea, and the historic district is entirely walled in.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, it was one of the most important ports in the West Indies and was fortified accordingly. Today, you can explore the old city in all its colourful glory, walking down streets dotted with beautifully carved balconies, and a stunning array of flowers.
Watch the sunset over turquoise waters from the top of the wall, either bringing your own drinks or splurging on a delicious mojito from the Cafe del Mar. If you wish to check out the bar, make sure you go early—it’s a hot spot for those backpacking Cartagena and is often reserved well in advance, especially on weekends.
2. Visit the Islas del Rosario
The Rosario Islands, or Islas Del Rosario, make up an archipelago off the coast of Cartagena, which also happens to be one of Colombia’s national parks.
It is possible to stay on the islands, and there are various backpacking accommodations in Cartagena that are all eco-friendly, though the amenities available depends on your budget.
Check out Casa en El Agua (House on the Water), which is its own island, complete with all the backpacking tours and activities you could ever need for a good time. Thankfully, if you don’t have the time (or if wifi is uber-important to you), you can easily do a day trip over from Cartagena. Most trips give you the option to snorkel or scuba dive, and all include lunch and a visit to one of many private beaches.
3. Go Salsa dancing in Cartagena
There is a heavy Cuban influence in Cartagena, due to the history of trade between the two countries. Lucky for us, this means lots of Cuban food, cocktails, and dancing.
Whether you prefer to be in the centre of the action or simply want to enjoy a good show, salsa dancing in Cartagena is not to be missed.
Check out clubs Donde Fidel and Cafe Havana to see the professionals on the floor, with live music and plenty of rum to go with them – it’s heaven for backpacking in Cartagena.
You could even pick up a pair of Salsa dancing shoes ready for your trip!
4. Enjoy the restaurants
If you love food as much as I do, you’ll be in heaven in Cartagena. There is an abundance of fresh seafood (including ceviche from the famous La Cevicheria), and street vendors serve up all different kinds of local fare and fresh-squeezed juice.
Try maracuja (passionfruit) or guava, and pair it with a Colombian arepa stuffed full of cheese and meat. During lunchtime you will see local women selling home-cooked plated lunches to workers, often for as low as $1.50 for meat, rice, beans, and a drink. There are many tapas restaurants that are great for going out in groups, and open-air markets that offer a wide selection of cheap eats.
You’ll also come across plenty of affordable street vendor tours, which will introduce you to a whole host of different local foods available around the city! If you feel like treating yourself, try one of the rooftop bars that offer a look over the city and harbour.
5. Tour the street art
Not far from the walled city is the Getsemani district, which is home to some incredible graffiti and street art.
Take a walking tour to learn some of the political and social meanings behind the art you see.
Every February Getsemani hosts the Aerosol Street Art Festival, drawing in visitors from countries like Brazil, Mexico, Peru, alongside Colombians from other big cities. In contrast to the colonial feel of the old city, Getsemani is decidedly more bohemian, and a perfect place to spend the day wandering around when backpacking Cartagena.
Check out the I Love Colombia Travel Guide to learn the ins and outs of everything going on in Cartagena.
6. Go shopping
A few designers from Cartagena have recently gone Insta-famous with their purses and brightly coloured clothing appearing all over social media.
If you’re looking for something other than exploring and hiking in Cartagena, the streets of the city are full of boutiques selling jewellery, handbags, and pieces of clothing that tend to look more like art.
You’ll also see many people all along the wall selling their own homemade earrings, rings, and artwork. A lot of them are refugees from Venezuela and love to see backpackers supporting their work. Make sure to stop and take a look as you explore the city!
7. Take language lessons in Cartagena
Immerse yourself in Latin culture and try your hand at some Spanish lessons in Cartagena.
Many schools offer immersion-type courses that include salsa lessons and tours around the city – you make even find yourself doing a hike in Cartagena.
Spend the morning practising your Spanish theory, then do a couple of hours of dance in the afternoon. In the evening tag along with the group and try out your new skills at local bars and restaurants. It’s a great way to learn some new skills, meet new people, and get out and about in Colombia- particularly if you are travelling alone!
8. Visit Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Wander through the battlements and underground passageways that make up the legendary Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.
Taking almost a century and a half to build, it’s worth the short walk it takes to get from the walled city to this architectural feat.
The castle is a particularly great visit for photographs, offering fantastic views from every direction. Back in the day, the Caribbean Sea was rife with pirates, so the castle was built to help defend the city.
How to stay fit while backpacking
When travelling it’s easy to lose motivation and give in to the many temptations along the way. Instead, try to embrace all the opportunities that allow you to mix adventure with physical activity.
Just because you aren’t going to the gym, doesn’t mean you can’t get in a great workout! Get out there and walk, hike, bike, kayak, climb, or whatever you feel like doing. To stay fit while travelling, all you need to do is get outside, get involved, and have fun while doing it.
Searching in a hurry?
- Explore Cartagena’s history
- Visit the Islas del Rosario
- Go Salsa dancing in Cartagena
- Enjoy the restaurants
- Tour the street art
- Go shopping
- Take language lessons in Cartagena
- Visit Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas