If you are visiting Cartagena for the first time, planning your trip can get overwhelming. Perhaps the most important decision is where to book your accommodation. This guide describes the best areas to stay in Cartagena for first-time travellers to help you make the best decision.
Quite a few times, I have been asked what are the best areas to stay in Cartagena. I have also met a few travellers that made a wrong initial decision about their neighbourhood choice. So I decided to write this quick guide to answer all your possible questions about where you should base yourself during your stay in Cartagena, Colombia.
I have visited Cartagena twice and stayed in a few different districts. I took my time exploring the city so I could get a real feel of the city. I did not stay in Bocagrande as this is not really my scene, but I ventured into different parts of Cartagena for research reasons so that I can give you the best possible information and advice.
So where to stay in Cartagena for the first time?
Although there are quite a few different districts in Cartagena, there are three main areas that are most popular among travellers. Those are the Walled City (Centro Historico), Getsemani and Bocagrande. If you travel for the first time, I suggest you choose one of those three, for both safety and accessibility to sights and entertainment.
Your travel style will significantly determine your final choice. It will depend on whether you are looking for some leisure beach time, entertainment or some history and culture fix.
It’s worth noting that Cartagena is pretty expensive by Colombia standards, and this includes taxi rides. That’s another reason why staying close to the centre is the best option.
Although Cartagena doesn’t belong among my favourite places in Colombia, I really enjoyed strolling down its streets in the evening, whether it was within its historic walls or around Getsemani. And every time I went, I was delighted that I was located close to my hostel.
Although Cartagena is a safe city, I would also recommend staying around its central parts as this is where you will feel and be the safest.
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Is Cartagena Safe
Personally, I found Cartagena quite safe and felt comfortable walking around, even after dark.
As in most other countries, you should follow some safety rules, but if you are careful and stay in tourist areas, you should be as safe as anywhere else.
What irritated me most in Cartagena were the many pushy street vendors – I would say they were more persistent than in other parts of the country.
But you have to remember that many wealthy tourists arrive in Cartagena and many are only here for a few days’ vacation. When it comes to tourism, Cartagena is the place to do business and we can’t do anything about it.
But back to the topic of safety.
As long as you stay in the tourist areas, don’t venture into unknown territories after dark, watch your belongings and avoid getting drunk and losing control of your actions, you are safe in Cartagena.
So without further ado, here are the three main areas you could stay in Cartagena and all the reasons why you should or shouldn’t stay in each of them.
3 Best Areas to Stay in Cartagena for first-time Travellers
Centro Historico (The Walled City) - The best area to stay in Cartagena for historic sights and nightlife
Centro Historico is the oldest part of Cartagena, which was walled during colonial times with stone and masonry fortifications. Many of these fortifications remain in great condition, surrounding its colourful colonial streets.
It is an incredibly picturesque and colourful area in Cartagena. All the typical Cartagena postcard-like pictures originate from the streets of the historic centre. If you are a first time visitor, Centro Historico is one of the best areas to stay in Cartagena.
Many visitors say that there is not much to see in Cartagena apart from its historic centre so if you want to be close to all the action, historical sights and the biggest choice of various types of restaurants and bars – this is where you want to stay.
Cartagena Centro Historico is very touristy, though. It is not only full of visitors from all around the world but also filled with street sellers and shop owners trying to catch you and sell you their goods. Colourfully dressed ladies with baskets of fruit on their heads will encourage you to take photos with them (which is not free) and you will encounter endless offers from horse and carriage folks.
The streets get pretty busy in the evening, and if you are dreaming of peacefully sipping a beer in one of the outside bars – it will not happen. As I tried to enjoy my one beer, I also had around six different vendors trying to sell me anything from jewellery to paintings and some illegal substances.
There are some really lovely places to have a drink, dinner and possibly listen to live music where you won’t be bothered by outsiders and vendors. But this comes with a price.
Centro Historico is a lovely and charming part of Cartagena yet very touristy and pretty expensive.
Pros and Cons of staying in Cartagena Centro Historico:
- Centrally located
- Charming and colourful
- Compact and easy to walk around
- Great choice of hostels, hotels, bars and restaurants
- Good nightlife
- Busy and touristic
- Filled with street vendors
Where to stay in Cartagena Centro Historico:
For budget travellers, there are some really good hostels in Cartagena Centro Historico.
I stayed at Casa Movida and really liked it. The staff were very friendly, I liked the capsule-style dorms and the breakfast was pretty decent for a hostel breakfast. It is not the best place to meet other travellers as it’s lacking social common areas but for a few nights, it’s a great hostel. It’s very beautiful too!
If you are looking for a more comfortable stay, there are quite a few really good hotels and boutique hotels in Cartagena Centro Historico:
One of my favourite ways to discover a town on a budget is by joining a free walking tour whenever I first arrive. I can learn the history of the town, discover places that maybe I wouldn’t be able to find on my own and often meet other travellers in the process. If I have any burning questions about the location or safety – I always ask those questions to the tour guide. I highly recommend it!
Please note that those tours are free to join but given the tour often offers extreme value it is customary to leave a tip at the end of the tour. I always research what is the typical tip for a free walking tour in my current location.
Getsemani - Best area to stay in Cartagena for backpackers, art lovers and hippies at heart
Getsemani is definitely my favourite place to stay in Cartagena. It really tickles my hippy heart in all the right places.
As you walk in, you will find yourself amongst colourful streets painted in awesome graffiti art, quirky restaurants and much more affordable eateries in comparison to Centro Historico and Bocagrande.
The main square, Plaza de la Trinidad, fills with people in the afternoon and remains a centre of the action and a meetup place till late evening horse. Here you will get excellent street food, watch street artists and just hang around amongst other travellers and backpackers.
It was my favourite place in Cartagena to spend a chilled evening.
Getsemani has its distinctive bohemian feel to it, which I very much enjoyed.
There is plenty of hostels to choose from, and you will be within a 10-minute walk from Centro Historico and the marina, where all the island trips and tours start.
I would definitely recommend heading to Getsemani even if you decided to stay in a different part of Cartagena. You won’t regret it!
Pros and Cons of staying in Getsemani, Cartagena:
- Cheaper than Bocagrande and Centro Historico
- Has the great bohemian feel
- Very artistic and lively
- Many different accommodation options
- Great selection of restaurants, bars and street food
- Can get pretty busy and loud in the evenings
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Where to stay in Getsemani Cartagena:
Getsemani is packed full of amazing hostels and hotels. This is definitely my favourite area to stay in in Cartagena.
Santuario is a wonderful hostel with great dorms and a lovely garden and Casa Zahri Boutique Hostel is just stunning. It has a pool and capsule-style dorm too. Casa Del Pozo Boutique Hostel is also worth checking out, the list just goes on!
Bocagrande and El Laguito - Best area to stay in Cartagena for beach bums and vacationers
Bocagrande and El Laguito are two connected neighbourhoods located in the new part of Cartagena, which is often compared to Miami.
Bocagrande is the most popular beach in Cartagena and is filled with tourists and vendors alike at all times. Personally, I wouldn’t say I like the beaches in Cartagena. If you venture further into El Laguito you will find smaller and less turist polluted beaches. Yet the best beaches can be found outside of the city and on the surrounding islands.
Both Bocagrande and El Laguito are popular areas for typical vacationers seeking sea and sun. Given the most expensive hotels and resorts are located in this area, Bocagrande’s prices go through the roof. For Colombian standards, at least. There is an excellent choice of restaurants and bars, yet be prepared to pay a higher price.
On the plus side, Bocagrande is where you will find an excellent shopping centre if you need to stock up on new wardrobe pieces.
Out of the above two areas – El Laguito is definitely nicer due to the prettier beaches and slightly more chilled vibe.
I would say that if you are looking for a holiday resort, some chill time with cocktails by the pool in a good quality hotel – Bocagrande is the best area to stay in Cartagena for you.
Pros and Cons of staying in Bocagrande and El Laguito, Cartagena:
- Located at the front of the biggest beach in Cartagena
- Easy access to great bars, restaurants and shopping centre
- Has a bit of a luxurious feel
- Good infrastructure catered for tourists
- Very safe
- Very touristy
- Beaches are overcrowded and full of vendors (not the prettiest either)
- Not much of a ‘vibe’
Where to stay in Bocagrande and El Laguito, Cartagena:
You will not find any hostels in Bocagrande but no one comes to this area of Cartagena to stay in a hostel anyway.
Oz Hotel Luxury is an excellent midrange option.
Exploring more of Colombia?
Here you will find out what are the best areas to stay in Bogota.
This complete guide to Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas will prepare you for this exhilarating trip. If you are planning on visiting Tayrona Park – here you will find all the information you might need.
Other Areas in Cartagena Worth Considering
If you are still planning on getting off the beaten path and staying outside of the tourist areas, there are a few neighbourhoods you might want to consider.
Cabrero and Marbella are good choices if you want to stay near the beach but away from upscale Bocagrande. Both are within walking distance of the historic city walls and are a good compromise if you want to save money but still stay close to everything including the walled city and the airport.
I have found the beaches in this area to be nicer than those in Bocagrande, but also much more residential and therefore more affordable and peaceful.
Manga is close to the main tourist hubs and is a quiet residential area with some nice and inexpensive hotels.
However, do not expect a lot of action here. This area of Cartagena is ideal if you want to hide from the tourists, but still be within walking distance of lively Getsemani.
I have not stayed in Manga, so can not really comment on how safe it is.
Best day trips from Cartagena:
If you are staying in Cartagena for a few days you should definitely consider one of the awesome days trips. There is plenty to choose from but here are some of the best:
- San Basilio de Palenque has been declared a site of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. It was one of the first freed slave cities of the Americas and it is one of the best places to learn about the culture and history of Colombia. It is a city full of heritage, culture and traditions you will not see in Cartagena. This is one of the most recommended day trips from Cartagena!
- Isla Baru and Playa Blanca are one of the classic day tours from Cartagena. Although I personally recommend staying a night to experience the beach without the day trip tourists, if you are short on time, a Playa Blanca organised tour is also a great option.
- A speed boat tour to Rosario Islands is also a very popular day trip. You will find many vendors in Cartagena trying to sell you trip packages but if you would rather avoid it, you can book an organised Rosario Island tour online.
Final thoughts on Best Areas to Stay in Cartagena
In conclusion, if you are a backpacker or a traveller like me, I would wholeheartedly recommend Getsemani as a base in Cartagena. Centro Historico would follow shortly after that.
If you are looking to be located close to the beach, Bocagrande could be an option, but you will miss the authentic Cartagena vibe and spend much more money.
Saying that, the centre of Cartagena is pretty compact, so regardless of where you are going to end up staying, you will always be within walking distance of all the sights and attractions.
That’s all my friends! Those are the best areas in Cartagena for first-time travellers. In my opinion the least 🙂
If you disagree or have any comments, let me know in the comments below. It’s always helpful to hear other opinions! We all travel differently!
Few Important tips for first-time visitors to Cartagena
- The best way to get to know the city and get all the essential tips is to take part in a free walking tour. I do it every time I visit a town for the first time. It is also a great way to meet other travellers. The recommended tip for walking tour guides in Colombia is anything between 20.000 and 50.000 COP.
- There are few tourist traps you can fall victim to while in Cartagena. If you’d like to take photographs with colourfully dressed ladies carrying fruit baskets on their heads – be prepared to be asked for the tip (propina). Many items will be put in your hands. If you are not prepared to buy it, just politely refuse. The same goes for the massage offers on the beach. There is no such thing as a free sample.
- Always ask for the price upfront. The majority of the time, a gringo tax will be applied as a default. When I arrived at the Cartagena bus terminal, the first price I was given for a moto-taxi was 25.000 COP. As I refused, the price immediately went down to 15.000 COP. Many city taxis in Cartagena don’t use a meter – always check the price before the journey.
- It is customary to leave a 10% tip in restaurants across all of Colombia. You will be told it is voluntary, and of course, you can refuse, but given the low prices, I personally always leave a tip. The service in restaurants and bars in Colombia is great, the majority of the time and a little bit of gringo money can make a tone of difference to local’s livelihood.
- Cartagena is generally a safe city. I would not walk alone late in the evening outside of tourist areas, but I walked between Getsemani and Centro Historico many times after 8 pm and felt very safe.
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