There aren’t many places in the world with a level of history and culture as interesting as Cartagena de Indias. Today known more commonly as just Cartagena, Colombia’s gorgeous port city was founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, the city quickly became one of the bastions of Spanish occupation in the area.
The walled city that was designed to protect the Spanish occupying forces is still largely intact and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But while the historical city center is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region, it only constitutes a fraction of the rich variety of lifestyles that the neighborhoods in Cartagena have to offer.
If you’re a history buff looking to dig deep into Mesoamerica’s past, the heritage of the Spanish colonial forces and the countless indigenous groups that still remain are both etched into its walls and cobblestone streets.
But while Cartagena’s architecture is steeped in the past, there can be no doubt that this is a modern city that continues to blaze a path forward alongside their contemporaries throughout the world. Situated directly on the Caribbean, it’s also home to some truly stunning resorts, and the beaches buffered along the outer territory of the city are a great place to experience gorgeous sunsets.
In terms of culture, Cartagena de Indias is incredibly diverse. You’ll find some of the most cutting edge and well regarded restaurants in the world, but the city is also home to a wealth of local bars and restaurants that offer the opportunity to rub elbows with the local population.
Where you choose to stay in Cartagena can be a pretty major decision in terms of sheer pragmatism. This is a dense and bustling city, and while there are public transit options in place, the yellow taxis are the most efficient and popular way to get around. While they cost significantly less than in the United States, taxis can quickly eat away your budget if you’re trying to travel modestly.
The public transit system known as Transcaribe wasn’t introduced until 2016, and it’s often crowded and doesn’t provide thorough access to the entire city. That means that planting yourself somewhere accessible on foot or by short car ride is the most economically viable choice.
So if you plan to spend a decent amount of time visiting the historically important Centro district, you may want to consider choosing a neighborhood that’s within or near to the walled city (or otherwise carefully plan your excursions to make the most of your taxi fare).
Where to stay in Cartagena de Indias: best areas and neighborhoods
There’s a lot to do here, and picking the right place to stay in Cartagena can have a major impact on the quality of your time in Colombia. Below we outline some of the top areas in Cartagena to stay.
They cover a broad variety of different options, suitable for travelers with a wide variety of budgets and coming from a diverse range of budgets. Read on to learn more about where to stay in Cartagena.
“Centro” is a rather unostentatious name for the culturally dense historical neighborhood within Cartagena’s traditional walled city. This was once the heart of the city when it was still a heavily guarded Spanish settlement, and much of the traditional architecture here is still incredibly well preserved. The walls themselves stretch almost seven miles in length, and this is one of the most popular neighborhoods in Cartagena for tourists.
If you’re looking for the most authentic experience you can find, Cartagena may be a little too overridden with foreigners to appeal to you, but you’d be doing yourself a great disservice to not at least make a visit to the Centro district.
Historically important architecture dominates more than any of the other areas in Cartagena, with the Palace of the Inquisition and the San Pedro Claver Church standing out as two of the most prominent.
That said, there are a number of advantages to shacking up in the Centro district when you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Cartagena. Since it’s the major tourist hub of Cartagena, you can count on it to be more friendly to the needs of foreign travelers.
The locals here tend to be more fluent in English, and the Centro district is positively overflowing with luxury accommodations, fine dining, cafes, and bars. But even if you’re looking to stay in a mid-range hotel or set down your backpack in a local hostel, you should be able to find something within your budget.
Just keep in mind that you’ll likely be paying something of a premium for staying in such a crowded and popular neighborhood, and it may seem somewhat more artificial to more discerning travelers.
2. San Diego
If you want to have easy access to Cartagena’s historical district but you don’t want to get lost among the masses of tourists and the high-end luxury boutiques and hotels, you won’t find a better choice than San Diego.
Named after the city’s founder, San Diego is delightfully bohemian and laid back in terms of attitude. And while Centro is more rich with historical context, the neighborhood of San Diego still sits comfortably within the aging walls of the Old City, and it’s a great way to explore the beautiful and stately colonial architecture of the city without having to fight your way through the crowds.
If you’re looking to party and mix and mingle with the locals, San Diego is a great choice as well. This is the neighborhood where the nearby students from the art college of Bellas Artes come to kick back and relax, and it’s home to a lively selection of bars, restaurants, and cafes that far more accurately reflect the lived experience of modern Colombians than anything you’ll find in Centro.
The Plaza de San Diego is the biggest hub of activity in this neighborhood, and when you’re looking for a place to stay in Cartagena, you can’t do much better than a hostel in walking distance. It’s home to some of the city’s best restaurants, and the open air plaza is usually home to a whole circus of street performers and artists. Also worthy of note is the craft market of La Bovedas which is built within the confines of a former jail.
Travelers who have to carefully watch their budget, and who aren’t looking to throw themselves into the sometimes chaotic pace of Getsemaní and San Diego while staying in Cartagena will want to pay attention to Manga.
It’s one of the cheapest options as far as hotels and hostels are concerned, and it can provide some of the best cuisine you’ll find anywhere in the city without having to break the bank. Club de Pesca is a local landmark, and many regard it as the best place for seafood in the entirety of Cartagena. And despite its proximity to the coast, it’s largely overlooked by tourists to the city.
That lends it a notably laid back atmosphere, but it isn’t any less beautiful than other parts of Cartagena. Naturally, that makes it a great neighborhood to stay for couples looking for some more secluded romance and for families who don’t want to be stuck in the busy and commercial atmosphere of Centro.
There are some truly beautiful views of the harbor from Manga, and despite not being one of the sightseeing hubs of the city, it’s still home to a few notable landmarks. Church Santa Cruz de Manga and Cementerio Santa Cruz de Manga are both worth a visit, and you should be able to experience them without having to be crowded out by throngs of tourists.
If San Diego is known as the well weathered haven for the young, artistic, and hip, Getsemaní is quickly encroaching into that territory. A decade ago, few people would have suggested staying here. It was a major hub of crime and prostitution. But it’s slowly turned into a burgeoning neighborhood for hipsters and the coolest and most cutting edge residents of Cartagena de Indias.
While it’s a little rough around the edges, there’s a level of authentic Caribbean charm and honesty here that’s a delightful counterpoint to the sometimes staid and stuffy demeanor of the Centro district. It’s also brimming with affordable hostels and cheap hotels, but keep in mind that some of the areas of the Getsemaní neighborhood can still be a bit rough around the edges.
Getsemaní sits outside the traditional walled city, but it’s still home to some truly breathtaking architecture that evokes the days of Spanish rule. Here, aging colonial architecture are juxtaposed with modern graffiti and murals, and the streets are crowded with makeshift food carts slinging arepas.
The restaurants here tend to be more low key, cheaper, and humble, and the dance halls become packed once the sun goes down. If you want to see Getsemaní at its finest, take the time to visit Plaza Trinidad at night. There’s never a dull evening in the neighborhood’s raucous beating heart.
Located across the bay from Manga, Bocagrande has become a popular hub for families staying in the city on vacation. It’s a far cry from the historical authenticity of the neighborhoods inside and around the old wall. Instead, Bocagrande is dominated by towering skyscrapers, and the whole neighborhood is essentially one big, sprawling resort. T
his is where Cartagena’s richest and most well-heeled residents live, and you can expect to pay a significant premium for the honor of staying in the luxury resorts bordering the bay.
Bocagrande has long been a vacation destination for both Colombians and travelers from abroad, and the neighborhood has a half century of experience serving guests. The high density of luxury shopping outlets makes it a great choice for the fashion conscious, but it also offers some of the most expansive territory of beaches in the area.
You’ll also find a high population of casinos, restaurants, and bars. If you have some money to spare, Bocagrande will let you live the high life. But it’s obviously not going to be the neighborhood of choice for poorer travelers, backpackers, and those who are looking to throw themselves headfirst into the culture of the locals.
But if you’re on a budget and you have your mind set on the Bocagrande neighborhood, there are a few affordable hostels in the region. Just be sure to book your lodgings well in advance. Also be aware that the popularity of the region means that the beaches can become pretty crowded during peak tourist season.
Castillogrande may as well be an adjunct of the affluent neighborhood of Bocagrande. Covering just a mere sixteen blocks of seaside property, it’s connected directly to Bocagrande. This is where the city’s most wealthy residents make their home, and there’s little room here for anything other than sprawling mansions and massive towers.
This isn’t a neighborhood made for tourists, and accommodations are few and far between, but if you can manage to find a place, you’ve scored a ticket to the good life. Castillogrande’s beaches are significantly less crowded than those in Bocagrande, but residents are never too far from the high living of Bocagrande or the other major tourist districts of the city.
You’ll be hard pressed to find hotels located in Castillogrande proper, but plenty of locals rent out luxury apartments to travelers. This is a neighborhood where due diligence can bring you a long way, but it’s almost entirely off limits to more thrifty visitors and backpackers who are working on a shoestring budget.
The presence of an underwater wall right off the coast makes for calmer waters in the gulf around Castillogrande, but the presence of commercial vessels in the area means that the waters themselves aren’t all that appropriate to swimming (even if the beaches themselves are meticulously maintained).
If you’re staying in Bocagrande, Castillogrande is worth at least a visit for its prevalence of quality seafood restaurants and its pristine beaches.
7. La Boquilla
Rounding out the trifecta of luxury beachfront neighborhoods along the Caribbean coast is the small neighborhood of La Boquilla. While the region gets its name from the modest fishing village a few miles up the coast, there isn’t much in the way of humility in this neighborhood.
Instead, La Boquilla is one of the most popular neighborhoods for the young and wealthy among Colombia’s population. Less family friendly and somewhat less commercial than Bocagrande, La Boquilla draws Colombian vacationers from cities as far flung as Medellin, Cali, and Bogota.
The real appeal of La Boquilla’s beaches is how ideal they are for water sports. Wind and kite surfing are two of the most popular activities along the beach, but diving, jet-skiing, and fishing are also popular options.
La Boquilla is a beachfront neighborhood ideal for events. Sporting events, parties, and weddings are frequently held along the expansive beaches here, but you can expect to pay quite a bit for the opportunity.
A bit more isolated from the city proper, La Boquilla is also home to some natural beauty that you wouldn’t find in more urban areas. These include the “Tunnel of Love” and the Mangroves.
A number of opulent and spacious beach-front hotels are available in La Boquilla, but the pricing is about what you could expect from such an exclusive neighborhood.