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Our bus rolled and rumbled along twisting streets past run-down barrios as the bus driver introduced us to Cartagena.
“Today is a day of protests,” he said, nonchalantly. “The people are not happy with the government and corruption. Don’t worry, the protests will not be near us as we are walking in the old town city.”
As I stepped off the tour bus in the heart of Cartagena’s old town, a wave of volcanic hot South American air and megaphone chanting sent me reeling.
Our guide was right – the protests weren’t actually within the walls of Cartagena’s walled old town, they were right outside in the Parque Centenario. Right where we abandoned the bus and set out on foot to explore the old town.
Colombia is not for the faint of heart. Literally.
That said, Cartagena’s old town is still one of my most enjoyable memories from my 10-day Panama Canal Princess Cruise. The assault of smell and heat and color around every corner was invigorating, and the Old Town is small enough to easily explore on one’s own. It’s one of the few ports we visited where I felt perfectly comfortable exploring without a guide, despite Colombia’s international reputation.
A Note on the History of Old Town Cartagena
Having studied the pre-Columbian and Colonial Americas in college, a city like Cartagena is a gold mine of cultural contrasts. It’s easy, when presented with colorful walls, overflowing flower boxes, and street vendors in beautiful dresses, to forget that the indigenous peoples of Colombia were pushed out by Europeans – and that most of what you are seeing is a preservation of oppression and genocide rather than a reflection of ‘true’ Colombian culture.
This is not to say you shouldn’t appreciate, document, and share your experiences in Cartagena. I simply want to remind you that in everything you see in the ‘Old’ Town, you’re seeing a Western adaptation to and subjugation of what was in this area in the first half of the last millennium. If you’re interested in diving deeper into Colombian history, be sure to include a stop at the Museo Historico de Cartagena de Indias on your walking tour.
An Easy, Self-Guided Walking Tour Route in Cartagena
If you’re up for a little adventure, I recommend setting out to explore Cartagena on your own. Armed with “no, gracias” as needed when street vendors aggressively display their wares, you can get off the beaten track and see the city on quieter streets.
Enter through La Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower Gate)
Mounted in the stone walls that separate the Old Town from the Parque Centenario and modern Cartagena, this beautiful yellow gate gives you the first impression of colonialism’s impact on Cartagena.
Enjoy a Panoramic View of the City from Street Level in the Plaza de La Aduana
Once you’ve entered the Old Town, turn left and walk 300m to the Plaza de La Aduana. This large paved plaza shows you a range of architectural styles and buildings and is a great ‘base’ from which to orient yourself within Old Town. At this point, most of the Old Town is West and North of the Plaza.
Wander the Streets and Avenues en route to the Old Town Walls
Cartagena is, roughly speaking, a grid system of calles (running east to west) and carreras (running north to south). It’s pretty easy to set out and explore a few different streets while walking around. To get to the Old Town walls, walk 200m along Carrera 5 north from the Plaza de La Aduana to Calle 35. Turn left and walk 350m to the Baluarte de Santo Domingo (Bulwark of Saint Dominic). There, you can climb up on the walls to look out over the Caribbean Sea. You can also turn around and look over Cartagena since you’re at roughly roof level from atop the Baluarte.
Descend and Wander in Search of Lunch
If you have any misconceptions about food in Cartagena, prepare to have them demolished. Over ceviche and plantain chips in El Pulpito, I marveled at how funky and hip the city was – once you step off the streets and into the businesses and restaurants. Though Old Town is the most touristy part of Cartagena, it’s also got plenty of hidden spots to enjoy a sample of life in the city.
To get to El Pulpito from Baluarte de Santo Domingo, walk 350m east along Calle 36.
Escape the Sun at the Museo Historico de Cartagenas Indias
This historic museum is a must see when visiting Cartagena, located on Calle 33 and Carrera 3a near the Plaza de la Proclamación. Inside, you can find exhibits about the indigenous Colombians as well as the Colonialists who built the building (among almost all others in the area).
Afterward, step out into the Plaza de Bolívar/Plaza de la Proclamación and grab a shaved ice from a local vendor. You can watch street performers, browse souvenir trinkets, and sit on park bench to watch Cartagena locals go about their business.
Set Out in Search of Colorful Walls & Flower Boxes
It’s hard to give a specific walking tour itinerary; depending on the amount of time you have and how far you want to walk, you can easily explore the whole Old Town in a single day.
No matter what, set out and just walk along the streets. Many of Cartagena’s buildings are famously colorful, making for a perfect photo opportunity:
Many houses and buildings also have beautiful flower boxes on upper terraces and balconies, much like in New Orleans. It’s hard – between the colorful houses and colorful flowers – to not get distracted and spend the afternoon snapping pics.
End at the Santuario San Pedro Claver
Most tour groups and guides will meet at the Santuario San Pedro Claver because it is one of the notable landmarks in Old Town Cartagena. If you have set out on your own as part of a cruise, be sure to meet here as it’s probably where your bus pick up will be. You’ll also have a last-minute opportunity to purchase souvenirs, as the street vendors descend whenever they notice tourists and tour groups in the area.
Logistics of a Self-Guided Walking Tour in Cartagena
How long should you take to explore Old Town Cartagena? You can easily spend 2-3 hours doing a short walking tour exploring Cartagena as part of a port day. If you have the whole day, it’s possible to just spend it in the Old Town with its historic buildings, museums, and chur.
Are there public facilities? For the most part, no, there are no water fountains or public restrooms. It’s best to bring your own bottled water. Use the restroom before/after you walk around – or during lunch if you eat at a restaurant in the Old Town.
Do you need cash? Yes. Cash is the only way to pay street vendors for delicious things like shave ice and arepas. Same for souvenirs from street vendors. There is an ATM in the Plaza de La Aduana… and it has air conditioning!
Is Cartagena safe? For the most part, yes. As with all popular tourist areas, there’s always a chance of pickpockets; Keep your objects in a closed (latched/zippered) bag. For the most part, you shouldn’t have any problems if you are polite, respectful, and out in normal business/daylight hours.
My shore excursion exploring Colonial Cartagena on my own was part of a 10-day Panama Canal cruise with Princess Cruises. As part of my partnership, I am sharing this (and other) stories about my experience in the Caribbean. You can see more on the Princess Cruises website, and book your trip here.