Quite a few times, I have been asked what are the best neighbourhoods to stay in Cartagena. I have also met 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 two different areas. I took my time exploring the city so I could get the real feel of the city. I did not stay in Bocagrande as this is not 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.
There are three main districts in the tourist part of Cartagena, and your travel style will significantly determine your choice. Depending on whether you are looking for some leisure beach time or some history and culture fix, you will either stay in Bocagrande, Centro Historico or Getsemani, with the last one being my favourite.
Although Cartagena is a big city and there are many areas you can stay in, most visitors ponder over the main three – Centro Historico, Bocagrande and Getsemani. If you are a first-time visitor, I definitely recommend staying closer to the centre and all the attractions.
What’s more, Cartagena is pretty expensive for Colombian 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 to 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.
So without further ado, here are three main districts you could stay in Cartagena and all the reasons why you should or shouldn’t stay in each of them.
Centro Historico - The best area to stay in Cartagena for historic sights
Centro Historico is the oldest part of Cartagena, which was walled in during colonial times by stone and masonry fortifications. Many of these fortifications remain in great condition, surrounding its colourful colonial streets.
It is incredibly picturesque and colourful. 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 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 the 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
- Busy and touristic
- Filled with street vendors
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 Boagrande.
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.
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 streetfood
- Can get pretty busy and in the evenings
Bocagrande and El Laguito - Best area to stay in Cartagena for beach bums and fancy 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 beaches in Cartagena. If you venture further into the El Laguito you will find smaller and less turist polluted beaches. Yet the best beaches can be found just outside of the city.
Both Bocagrande and El Laguito are popular areas for typical vacationers seeking sea and sun. Given the most expensive hotels are located in this area, Bocagrande’s prices go to 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.
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
- Very safe
- Very touristy
- Beaches are overcrowded and full of vendors (not the prettiest either)
- Not much of a ‘vibe’
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 many 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 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 10% tip in restaurants across all of Colombia. You will be told it is voluntary, and of course, you can refuse, but given 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.
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.
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