South America has quickly become one of my favorite continents to visit due to its liveliness and color. My visit to Cartagena was no different. From the moment we landed, we were immersed in the culture. The area was bustling with people, street vendors and markets were ready to accommodate your every request, the sun was shining, and music was playing everywhere. That is my kind of vibe! Although it is great to stay in the heart of the city the full time, below are sites within and outside of the city to make the most of your trip:
1. Tour Colombian City
There is such a rich amount of history in Cartagena. This is heavily influenced by the location being a main port for trade between Spain and its overseas empire, the Spanish culture in general, slavery, religious ties, and its strong military background. As you walk the streets, you can feel the history through the art and graffiti. When you think graffiti, you may think illegal tagging, but it is true art here. I was mesmerized by the murals on the walls and the stories they told. The area has developed significantly within the last decade, which has greatly increased tourism and global attention. If you are looking for a great tour guide, look up Freddy Paz on Facebook. He was so knowledgeable, patient, and well known in the community.
2. Visit Convento de la Popa
Behold, the highest point of Cartagena! La Popa Hill is on a 150m-high hill boasting, as you can imagine, an incredible view of the entire city. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared to an Augustinian monk and instructed him to build a monastery at the tallest point in Cartagena. Whether true or not, I’m glad it’s there! It is a great location to take pictures and read more about the history of the area. There is also a charming flower-filled courtyard that I could sit in for hours!
3. Dive into the Totumo Mud Volcano
Get ready to get muddy! I’d seen the pictures, but actually going to a mud volcano is a one of a kind experience! El Totumo is a bottomless, active mud volcano located near sea level in northern Colombia. It supposedly has many healing properties that will leave you feeling light and refreshed afterwards. It’s a heavy tourist location so I’d suggest taking a tour rather than taking a cab.
A few things to remember before diving in:
Bring an old swimsuit– I did not, which prevented me from getting in. I kick myself when I think about how I should’ve prepared properly for this.
Bring cash– There will be workers everywhere that will give you a massage, rinse you off, hold your camera, watch your shoes, etc. They all expect 1 peso for each service they provide.
Be prepared to get close!- It gets pretty packed in there so expect to rub shoulders with whomever you came with and strangers!
Go Early- Lines will begin to form around 10:30/11am. Try to get in and out before then or you’ll be baking in the hot sun for a while.
After you climb out of the mud, you will be able to wash off (with help if you’d like) in a nearby lagoon.
4. Visit and dine in Galerazamba
This little town is located about 10 minutes away from the volcano and is where many of the employees’ work. We first stopped at the Etnoindustrial museum, which is dedicated to the indigenous history. It is located seaside and has a peaceful beach. We also dined here, eating fresh fish, rice, and salad. You have the option of ordering chicken or vegetarian if you don’t like/eat fish or can’t deal with eating a fish with the head still on . After dining, us ladies danced with an instructor, which ended up being quite the workout! It was fun to experience how their subtle movements can make for powerful dancing.
5. Walk in the Pink Sea (El Salar de Galerazamba)
This was one of my favorite parts of the trip. During certain times of the year, the water at this location turns pink due to the salinity in the water. We were lucky enough to visit at the perfect time of year when the pink was nice and vibrant. Most don’t know the level of salt in the water is just a few points behind the dead sea, which means no wildlife swimming throughout. It was amazing to see the large salt rocks washing ashore. This was definitely one of those moments where I was so thankful to be able to travel and see all of the beauties of the world.
Side note: The three activities above can be combined into a single tour. That is the best bargain and a great way to meet strangers. If you’re looking for a suggestion, book through Book Back Packers. They were great!
6. Relax at Baru island
Baru Island is a nice beach once you get past all the tourist traps- and there are many! I would encourage you to just keep walking until you find a nice quiet space. Otherwise you will be surrounded by vendors the whole time. We used Book Back Packers again for this which covered our transportation from Cartagena (about an hour) and provided us with a private space and lunch. It was a really nice experience if you can get past someone coming up to you to sell you something- not as bad as the public space, but still a bit interrupting. Don’t be surprised if someone (or multiple people) touch you to give you an idea of what their massage will feel like. This is something that you can’t quite get away from in Colombia. Outside of this, the beach has clear water, nice sand, and offers excursions!
7. Take a night cruise with a 4 course dinner
The night cruise was a great way to cap off our final night in Cartagena. Our cruise was about 3 hours and included a four-course dinner and a bottle of wine while sailing across the sea and viewing the beautiful evening sites. It was such a great way to connect and reflect with the group while eating delicious food. There are many cruise ship options you can find that are both during the day and at night. From researching, you can’t go wrong with any of them!
8. Find a way to give back
You will find many beautiful areas to visit, great restaurants to try, and history to explore, but Cartagena is a very, very poor area. You may get a bit turned off by the number of people who approach you trying to sell something when you are trying to have a peaceful time. As frustrating as this might be, try to overcome it by remembering that while we are enjoying the beauty of their land, they are trying to provide for their families. You can find opportunities to serve the community if you’d like or you can do simple things like tipping beyond what you normally would (our dollar goes far there) and giving money to the performers on the street. Often, we watch their entertainment and forget they are doing this as a profession. This is something I am going to remember everywhere I go!
I’d like to give a quick kudos to The Flight Life group, who coordinated the entire trip. You can find additional information about Cartagena and the many trips they have coming up here . Whether you want to go on an organized group trip or with a small group of friends, these suggestions will hopefully make your trip a spectacular one!