With an increased security situation following a 2016 peace agreement, Colombia is no longer just a destination for the very adventurous backpacker, but increasingly on the mainstream travel map. That’s especially the case for Cartagena, Colombia’s gem of a Caribbean colonial town that has long been its number one international destination.
Even with the upsurge in travel to Colombia and Cartagena, it can still be done on a backpacker budget though. Learn about the best way to visit Cartagena on a budget, including the best things to see, how to get around, and ideas for where to stay here.
Things to Do in Cartagena on a Budget
First things first, let’s talk about the things to see in Cartagena.
One of the great things about Cartagena is that the top thing to do without a doubt is just to spend some time strolling the lovely and picturesque streets of the colonial districts of San Diego and Matuna, collectively known as the Centro Histórico or Historic Center and also commonly referred to as the Walled City, and neighboring Getsemaní.
Getsemaní was home to the colonial artisan class and remained a largely working class neighborhood until the early 2000s. Today, it’s a mix of cafes, restaurants, hotels, hostels, and a few remaining local residents. There is some amazing street art, especially along the Callejón Angosto and surrounding streets.
While you can book walking tours of these historic areas, you can also explore them on your own for free. There are even some free Cartagena walking tours.
For those that are looking to learn more about these historic streets, the Palacio de la Inquisición, which doubles as a museum on the history of the city and the Spanish Inquisition, the Museo Naval del Caribe, the best done museum on the history of the city, and Museo del Oro, which features indigenous gold work, are well worth visits. The Gold Museum even has free entry.
The Castillo San Felipe is also worth the visit for those that enjoy history. This was the largest fort built on the South American mainland by the Spanish and was the site of a dramatic battle against a British Invasion force in 1741.
Finally, no trip to Cartagena is complete with out some time at the beach. It is located on the Caribbean coast and boasts year round warm weather, after all.
The truth is the beaches in Cartagena proper are ok, but not amazing. The better beaches are located outside the city on the nearby islands.
The well known Playa Blanca, located on the island of Barú about 90 minutes south of Cartagena, was long a backpackers paradise with little development, cheap prices, and an idyllic beach overlooking crystal clear waters. For this reason you’ll likely see it mentioned as a great spot for backpackers in Cartagena or enjoying the beaches in Cartagena on a budget.
However, this wonderful place has become a victim of its own success in more recent years. A bridge and paved road made it more accessible, and today it is often overcrowded. Therefore, it’s best avoided on weekends and during the busy high seasons around the new year, Easter, and midyear months.
Even those traveling to Cartagena on a budget should therefore consider splurging a bit for a trip to Colombia’s Rosario Islands. These coral islands located about 90 minutes away by boat are rugged and a bit pricier but absolutely gorgeous.
They also have fewer crowds and fewer pesky vendors than the beaches in town or Playa Blanca. While a private boat is the ideal way to do the islands if you can manage to get a group together, it can be hard to do that if you’re coming to Cartagena on a budget. However, there are some good Rosario Islands day tours, as well as some decently priced hotels that offer day passes, not to mention overnight stays.
Eating and Drinking in Cartagena on a Budget
There are some truly great restaurants, bars, and clubs in Cartagena. The best ones can be a tad pricey. However, there are some great options on a budget too.
For lunch, look for places that have almuerzos ejectutivos or corrientes. These usually have a meat, rice, salad, drink, and even soup for the equivalence of a few US dollars. For other reasonably priced options for sit-down meals, check out Espiritú Santo, La Mulata, Da Silvio, and the Terraza Municipal.
Street food can also be a great option for eating on a budget in Cartagena. You’ll definitely want to try an arepa de huevo, which is really more like an empanada stuffed with a fried egg and ground beef. They are sold at street stalls around town and make for a great breakfast, snack, dinner, or late night snack. You’ll find lots of great street food dinner options at stalls around the Plaza de la Trinidad in Getsemaní.
If you’re looking to enjoy some imbibing on a budget in Cartagena, road beers from the corner store in the Plaza de la Trinidad also make for a great option. This is a great spot to pregame or even spend the whole evening. There is also a great corner store with cheap beers next to the Plaza San Diego.
Finally, next to the posh and pricey Café del Mar, located atop the wall and Cartagena’s most popular spot for watching the sunset, you can hang out and buy road beers in the area known as “Cafe al Lado”. Here you can enjoy watching the sun go down over the Caribbean and even enjoy the music from the bar next door with a beer that costs a fraction of the price.
If you do want to go out bar hopping or clubbing in Cartagena, it’s worth keeping in mind that you will generally get a better deal if you can put together a group to buy a bottle rather than buying individual drinks. Many of the most popular nightclubs do also charge covers.
Where to Stay in Cartagena on a Budget
This can be tricky, because even though they are some of the most expensive areas, the historic districts of Cartagena are by far still the best areas to stay, even on a budget. The main reason for that is they offer easy walking to many of the city’s top attractions, restaurants, and nightlife, meaning you’ll save on transportation.
Therefore, looking for reasonably priced hotels or even AirBnBs in the Centro Histórico or Getsemaní is the way to go for most travelers. These areas are also where the best Cartagena hostels are located.
Outside the Walled City, the areas known as El Cabrero and Marbella offer much more affordable accommodations than the more touristy and well known Bocagrande district. El Cabrero, in particular, remains within easy walking distance of the Walled City, although it is best to taxi back here late at night.
Getting Around Cartagena on a Budget
Speaking of taxis, they are plentiful and easy to flag down. They are also relatively cheap. However, they have a bit of a reputation of trying to overcharge. Generally speaking you should spend between $8-15,000 pesos (approximately $2-4 USD) in the main tourist areas of Cartagena depending on distance and time of day. Always be sure to agree on price before entering the taxi.
If you’re traveling from Cartagena to elsewhere in Colombia, keep in mind the main bus terminal is quite far away from the historic center. If you’re going up the coast to destinations like Tayrona National Park, Palomino, Minca, or Santa Marta, consider booking transportation with the charter van services of Berlinas or Marsol. While pricier than the buses from the terminal, the difference often works out to be the same or even less once factoring in the cost of a taxi to the terminal.
Cartagena, Colombia on a Budget Conclusion
Now you have some great ideas of what to do and see in Cartagena, Colombia plus some practical tips for how to visit Cartagena on a budget. You will not be disappointed with the charming colonial atmosphere, the vibrant culture, and the gorgeous islands. Plus, you can still enjoy it all without breaking the budget.
About the Author
Adam McConnaughhay lived in Cartagena from 2011 to 2022. He writes about it and other destinations in Colombia at CartagenaExplorer.com.