This section is dedicated to take away all your "I wish someone had told me that before I went!" experiences. This way, you can spend less time settling in, and more time making new friends in your chosen hostel. We share our insider knowledge of tips, tricks and important things to look out for in Cartagena de Indias.
Cartagena (or called by its full name, Cartagena de Indias), is the fifth-largest city in Colombia with a population of nearly a million.
There is a distinct Afro-Caribbean feel to this northern city, different from other cities. Cartagena's tropical climate is hot and humid with rains in April and May and from October to December. Temperatures average over thirty degrees Celsius every day. This city must be included on every itinerary for backpacking Colombia.
In this guide we will walk you through all the basics you need to know before hitting the road. We have visited the city and had an amazing time.
Please note, the old town is also called the Walled City, and even Old City. It refers to the same part of the city.
Why you should visit Cartagena, Colombia
The moment you started planning your Colombia itinerary, you have started to see photos from this little pearl. Cartagena is an absolute must-visit. It is one of the most impressive and most beautiful cities in Latin America.
In a nutshell, here are 5 things you can expect:
- Gorgeous old town with its architecture
- Caribbean Culture
- Learn about Colombian history
- Great nightlife in Getsemani Area
- Access to islands in the area like Isla Grand and Isla Baru
You will learn so much about Colombian culture and understand its background much more in detail. You will learn more about the history, the colonization by the Spanish and how it affected the people until today. Cartagena's jewel is Cartajena Vieja, the Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As it's surrounded by high walls with colonial-style buildings by the Caribbean, walking through the gates feels like stepping into the scene of a pirate movie.
Buildings are painted bright colours, the narrow, cobbled streets are shared by cars and horse carts. It is very well looked after and arguably the nicest city in the whole of South America. There are street vendors selling jewelry and souvenirs and performance artists keeping visitors entertained. On warm days it is no problem to find a cafe for a cool refreshment or for some of Colombia's famous coffee.
Last but not least, from Cartagena you can kick-off your trip along the Colombian coastline.
There are many smaller villages as well as the big backpacker hot-spots and places to visit like Santa Marta, Tayrona Park, Minca, Taganga, Palomino, and finally Riohacha and La Guajira area in the North-East. It is very well connected. You can either take an Air-conditioned bus or a private car.
The bus is obviously much cheaper and they have a very frequent schedule. It is important to book your ticket in advance. Ask at your hostel reception for more information. They can help you wih this as most backpackers follow this itinerary.
How to choose Hostels in Cartagena Colombia
Most Cartagena Colombia hostels are located in either the old town or the Getsemani area of the city.
More hostels are opening their doors as the safety situation continues to improve in Colombia and tourists flock to the region. Our list here about Cartagena hostels always stays up to date automatically. It is very easy for you to pick your best choice for a hostel Cartegan Colombia without clicking through hundreds of sites.
There really is no need to view the best hotels in Cartagena old city, though you will also find hotels listed on this site.
So where to stay in Cartagena on a budget? I absolutely recommend keeping your eye on three major factors:
1. Best Location to choose
Where is the best place to stay in Cartagena Colombia?
The best hostel location in Cartagena is in the Old Town or in Getsemani. Bocagrande is nice, but nothing too special and you won't find many hostels here anyways. Personally, we actually love both the Old Town and Getsemani.
Here are each of their own advantages:
The Old Town is spectacular. And the hostels here are usually located within an impressive colonial building that sometimes looks like a movie. Really, you can score some beautiful boutique and luxury hostels here. So you can sleep in an architectural masterpiece and in one of the most beautiful cities of Latin America.
Some wonderful hostels to consider in the Old Town Cartagena Colombia are:
- The Clock Hostel Cartagena
- Republica Hostel Cartagena
- Be Lounge Cartagena - a hostel boutique style!
Getsemani on the other hand has all its flair and vibes. I absolutely recommend to come here for a night out, enjoy the live music at the streets, eat at terrace, dance salsa in the clubs.
Cool hostels in Getsemani include:
- Viajero Cartagena Hostel
- Media Luna Hostel
- Hostal Santo Domingo Vidal (quiet rest)
- Mystic House Hostal
- Tree House Hostel
- Hostel Mamallena (party)
- One Day Hostel Cartagena
2. Compare Prices
As said before, hostels in Cartagena are more expensive compared to the rest of Colombia. Then it is even more worth it to actually compare prices. On Hostelz.com we compare all hostel prices in Cartagena for you.
We compare prices on all the major booking sites.
Read all 7 reasons to find hostels with Hostelz.com here.
It is likely you can save a whopping $5 per night! You saved up a long time for your trip to Colombia, so stretch your money as far as it can go and use Hostelz.com every time for your hostel research.
You will find anything from absolute cheap hostels in Cartagena to luxury hostels.
Since it is a very touristic city, it offers a really wide range of budget accommodation. When comparing prices, check also the facilities of the hostel. Some places come with beautiful rooftop terraces and their own tours and activities. Other common inclusions are:
- Free breakfast - Life is Good Cartagena Hostel
- Swimming pool - Selina Cartagena
- Air conditioning (very helpful in such a hot climate!)
- Free WiFi
Most hostels in Cartagena de Indias offer both dorm rooms and private rooms. Always check reviews to make sure amenities listed are actually at the hostel.
Nightlife in Cartagena
A popular activity at night is to do a "Rumba in Chiva" tour. These are old, colourfully painted buses with benches where you bring alcohol and the chiva bus drives around Cartagena, a great way for people staying at hostels to mix with locals! This chiva bus takes you all around from the walled town to Bocagrande and Getsemani.
It is almost like a sightseeing bus, just with loud music, drinks in your hand and at night.
Cartagena has plenty of nightlife and is a destination for many Colombians. The areas of Getsemani and the modern Bocagrande are good for a night out.
The old town also has plenty of bars and places for nightlife. But prices are much higher than compared to Getsemani. Since you are reading this article and most likely considering to stay in a Cartagena hostel, I recommend hopping over to Getsemani for a fun night out. It is just a 5 minutes walk anyways from the walled town.
We recommend staying at Viajero Hostel Cartagena for a fun time.
Is Cartagena Colombia a safe and friendly place to travel solo?
Cartagena, and especially the touristic areas around Getsemani, the old town and Bocagrande are one of the safest areas in all of Colombia.
There is police all over the place, ensuring the safety of the people. It was one the cities we felt safest in the whole country.
Yet, there seems to be pickpockets and other smaller crimes occuring. Compared to other parts of Colombia, Cartagena is very safe. That being said, the general safety rules apply.
- Do not carry with you a big amount of cash.
- Leave your valuables at home in your hostel locker if you can.
- Do not walk dark streets at night.
Taxis are also very cheap and usually help to get from A to B without walking in any sketchy areas.
Read: Are Hostels Safe? 11 Tips for Hostel Travel
But again, in Cartagena you should be staying either in Getsemani or the Old Town. It is a safe 5 minutes walk with usually many people around. I do not really see the need to take a taxi, but keep in mind it would be a cheap option. Always ask the price before you enter and drive off.
Cool Things to do in Cartagena
Now that we have sorted out your hostel situation and the nightlife experience, what is there to see in Cartagena? I want to share a few of the activities I enjoyed.
Near Cartagena you will find the most authentic market, the Bazurto Market. Get lost in the labyrinth of food stands and enjoy traditional Colombian food and drinks. The market itself is both dirty and enthralling, and really not a luxury experience, but authentic as it can get. I recommend to go with at least another hostel mate, or even a group from your hostel. You can take a taxi and it is only a 10 minute ride. There is also the option of joining a Bazurto Market tour with a local tour guide. I recommend to come here in the morning, around 10am.
Mud-bath in a Volcano - Volcan de Totumo
For a rather unique experience, leave your hostel, pack your swim gear, and book a tour to the Volcan de Totumo. This is a bubbling volcano, where you bathe in the mud pool at the top. You will be covered from head to toe in mud before cleaning off in the lake.
Day Trip to Playa Blanca
As stated earlier, Cartagena is really not a beach destination. Sorry, it's not! The two most popular beaches and islands in the area are Playa Blance (the White Beach) and Isla Rosario. There are water taxis that bring tourists out to the beaches at Playa Blanca or Rosario, as the beaches in Cartagena are not clean. Not too far from the centre is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a magnificently preserved fortress built by the Spanish.
Day Trip or overnight-trip to Isla Rosario
The second option to chill at a beach near Cartagena is visiting Isla Rosario or Isla Grande. You can find a few hostels in Isla Rosario on Hostelz.com as well. The boat trip leaving from the main pier in Cartagena takes 1 hour and 30 minutes.
You can either come here for a day trip or stay overnight in any of the few hostels.
If you decide to stay, make sure you book beforehand. You cannot arrive and expect an empty bed or room for you. Space is very limited and most likely sold out. Plus, the accommodation will help you with your transport.
They can organize your boat transfer and tell you the price and schedule. Personally, I enjoyed staying 2 nights in Isla Rosario. You can dive in the area, visit the famous sunk airplane of Pablo Escobar and visit a half destroyed villa which belonged to Pablo Escobar as well; at least that is the legend here.
Just outside the city in the North of Cartagena you can enjoy great kite surfing. The best season for kitesurfing in Cartagena is from December to April. Many hostels can arrange this for you. You can rent the gear at a local school.
For the beginner, there is also the basic course. Colombia is a great place in general for kitesurfers. Along the coast there is many kitesurfing spots and throughout the country they practice kitesurfing at many beautiful lakes with almost perfect conditions.
Take endless photos
As you can imagine the Old Town in Cartagena is incredibly photogenic. The Old towns architecture really makes it feel like a time machine back to Seville in Spain in the 16th century. The tourists start to conquer the city by around 10am. For a touristic city, this is quite late.
After 10am, it will be impossible to take any photos without crowds.
I recommend to wake up a bit early and wander around at 8am. This way you can take beautiful photos with most likely not a single other person. The best spots to take photos in Cartagena are in the Old Town and Getsemani. The old town has its beautiful architecture and small squares. Getsemani, the backpacker district, has beautiful street art.
Watch the sunset
It is no surprise, Cartagena is located at the beach and the Caribbean sea. On top of that, the city faces the ocean to the west. This allows to watch beautiful sunsets and to see the sun "drop" in the ocean.
The best sunset spots are along the old wall in the old town. There are also a few bars on top of the wall. You have to come early though as seats will be taken quickly. In Bocagrande you can watch the sunset at the beach at one of the many beach bars. Always ask for the price beforehand. The beaches along Bocagrande are fun with all its music, street vendors and bars.
See the Bioluminescent Plankton - in season
You might wonder, what is this Bioluminescent Plankton?
It is a rare natural phenomenon that can only be seen in a few spots in the world.
Some plankton can glow in the dark. The word for this is "bioluminescence," which comes from "bio", meaning life, and "lumin" meaning light. You are swimming right within this Bioluminescent Plankton. In season, it feels and looks like you are swimming in stars.
However, it is not always season for this and does not happen every day. Some days the glowing is much stronger, others you cannot see anything at all. Before you join this tour, make sure it is a good day for this.
Otherwise it is a waste of time and money. You can either join a tour from Cartagena or in Isla Rosario.
Not-so-cool-things to Avoid in Cartagena
While Cartagena is one of the most beautiful cities in all Latin America, there are a few things that we did not enjoy. I think this is some good information to know beforehand to set your expectations right.
Old Town is pricey
Let us compare other destinations in Colombia to Cartagena. Compared with other coastal towns like Santa Marta and Palomino for instance, Cartagena is quite pricey. The old town really comes with a higher price tag.
Eating out without proper research where the locals dine, can be pricey. There are many luxury stores and boutique shops with beautiful products but again, a higher price tag.
Not the best budget destination
This makes Cartagena not really a budget-backpacker-friendly destination. Even the hostels are a bit more pricey compared to the rest of Colombia.
There are ways around this to find cheaper accommodation and restaurants. We will go into detail below.
Many street vendors and many cars
The city is gorgeous. But at some point, you might feel overwhelmed by all the cars driving along the narrow road and street vendors trying to sell you souvenirs every 10 meters. To be fair, it only gets annoying at around noon, the peak time. The good news is; the street vendors are not persistent at all.
Once you say no and decline, they will not bother you like we have experienced in other destinations.
Not really a beach destination
Sure, Cartagena is located on the Caribbean, but it is hardly a beautiful beach destination. The beach near the old town and in Bocagrande is dark sand and the waves are rough and unkind. With all the tall buildings of Bocagrande and the traffic, it is really not the best ambiance to kick back on the beach.
On the bright side, the beaches at Bocagrande are fun.
Locals come here with their music boxes to play loud, Caribbean music, dance, eat and drink. Also, from Cartagena you can take a day trip to Playa Blanca or Isla Rosario. This is where your Caribbean beach experience awaits.
The boats leave from the pier, near the main entrance of the old town. There are many street vendors selling tours and boat tickets.
However, I recommend asking at your hostel for some organized activities or tickets.
Budget Travel Tips for Cartagena
Do you enjoy a few gems and tricks to save money in Cartagena? Well, here you find our basic tips to save money in Cartagena.
Many restaurants in Cartagena offer a daily menu for lunch. This is usually a very good deal with drinks included, maybe even dessert. Dinner is much more expensive. If you are planning to eat at restaurants, then go for the daily menus during the week and move your dinner plans to the hostel.
Choose a hostel with events
Many hostels in Cartagena are super social and great for solo-travellers.
One way to decide which is a good hostel in Cartagena, you can check out their their events. Do they offer their own pub crawl, dinner nights, maybe game nights or walking tours?
This could really impact your overall experience and even save money. Some hostels even offer cooking classes. Tours and activities with hostels are usually much cheaper. Keep this in mind.
Look for local restaurants outside the old town
The first time we came to Cartagena we were surprised about the prices of restaurants. We were wondering: Where can you find cheap restaurants in Cartagena? Well, luckily there are actually options. You just have to do a bit of research.
Most likely, you won't find any cheap eats in the Walled City - except the daily menus. Same as many tourist places, the limited space in an area result in higher prices. You can find cheaper restaurants in Getsemani area. Again, we have found many restaurants in the Walled City with good prices for their daily menu.
Even cheaper than eating at a restaurant is street food. And same as basically any city and town in Colombia, you find endless options for street food. The most common one might be the Arepas, a traditional local dish. Cheap, tasty and filling. The perfect combination for a budget traveller.
Have a drink on the street in Getsemani
Same as restaurants, the bars in the walled city are priced higher. Here again strikes Getsemani and gets the extra points. You will find many bars and salsa clubs offering more affordable drinks like local beer and cocktails. The absolute cheapest option for having a drink might be getting a drink at the streets of Getsemani.
At night street vendors sell cold drinks. Just get a drink with your hostel mates and enjoy the squares, street art and and narrow streets of Getsemani.
This is our insider backpacking guide to Cartagena.
We hope it gives you a good insight on what you can expect and what you might want to avoid. There are many fantastic hostels, from boutique hostels to cheap and fun party hostels.
By now I hope you have learned what is the best place to stay in Cartagena on a budget. And how you can save your hard-earned money. Remember, here at Hostelz.com you can always compare hostel prices on all the major booking sites. This simple hack lets you save money and you can travel longer.
Good to know: In Spanish speaking countries you will find many hostales. Hostales in are budget accommodation, but not necessarily actual hostels. Make sure you pick the right type.
As always, we share our absolute insider knowledge. Please note that things may have changed over time. We do our best to keep this guide up to date. Help us by including your insider knowledge below!