Cartagena, the pearl of the Colombian Caribbean

When thinking about the Caribbean sea, the first things that come to our mind are crystal clear waters, sun, and pirates raiding the coastal towns. This last part has of course changed, but you can still immerse yourself in that period by visiting Cartagena de Indias in Colombia.

Cartagena was founded by the Spanish in 1533, and it quickly became one of the main harbors of the empire. Its wealth attracted the attention of pirates and corsairs, that attacked the city repeatedly over the years. After several pillages, and a month long occupation by Francis Drake, the city was fortified. A wall was erected, both around the center and underwater, in front of the shore. These walls are still there today and encircle a fantastic, and UNESCO world heritage, historical city center.

Fun fact: The city was named Cartagena after the city in Spain as the coastal shape where the two cities are built is very similar. To differentiate the two, the full name of the Colombian one is: Cartagena de Indias.

Cartagena city center

The historical city center begs for you to get lost in it. Once passed through one of the old doors, you’ll feel like in the colonial era. The rich, colorful houses with big balconies and cobblestone streets are perfect for a lazy stroll. You just have to look around and enjoy the view. This part is small enough to be explored entirely by walking.

House Cartagena
One of the many, many beautiful houses of the historical city center of Cartagena.

One thing that might catch your eyes while exploring the old town are the big and beautiful wooden door. Almost all of them are decorated with big metal nails, some of them are completely covered. These nails were a symbol of wealth, given the high price of the metal in colonial times. Their sole purpose was to brag with the rest of the upper class!

Door Cartagena
The higher the number of nails on the door, the richer the family. The people leaving here clearly did not have money problem.

Be sure to get up on the wall as well. From there you can see the skyline of the Bocagrande neighborhood, often compared to Miami by the locals. Note that it is the best place to enjoy an amazing sunset. You can either choose to sit at a bar or to find a more private place to share the moment with someone special. For example, close to the Merced bulwark, you can find some windows in the wall, where a couple fits perfectly. In case you want to go there, be sure to arrive early, they fill up pretty quickly!

walls Cartagena
One of the cannons that fought the pirates off, along the wall surrounding the city center. In the distance, the Bocagrande skyline.

If you want to have some more information about the city and the buildings, you could join a free tour. We used this kind of service before, and we found that they are the best way to discover a city. Of course it’s not completely free but you just pay with a tip at the end of the tour. The good thing is that the guides are locals that always have some nice stories to share.


The Getsemani neighborhood extends just outside the walls. It is the hip part of Cartagena, filled with bars where to take a beer in the hot Colombian nights. Its streets are also full of colorful murals, a perfect place for the street art lovers that we are. After the expensive city center, here you can also find where to eat for a fair price.

Getsemani streetart
One of the many colorful graffiti in the Getsemani neighborhood.

Islas del Rosario

Not far from Cartagena you can find the Rosario archipelago. They host one of the most important coral reef of Colombia. You can decide either to spend some nights there or visit the biggest island, Isla Grande, on a day-trip.

The day-trip does not leave much time on the island but it’s obviously much cheaper. You can buy a round-trip ticket directly at the harbor. Be sure to ask every detail about the trip: what is included (a lunch for example), and on which beach you are going to stay. We picked the wrong beach and not only did it take longer to arrive, but also we were one of the first to leave. From what we saw, the beaches of the Cocotera and the Playa libre might be the best choices. Don’t be late for the return, the captains of the boats do not always wait for everybody.

isla grande
One of the beautiful beaches of Isla Grande.

Once there, the only thing you have to do is enjoy the sun, snorkel, and swim in the warm water.

Diving in Cartagena

The best way to observe the corals and the underwater life is of course to dive. Whether it is your first dive or you are already experienced, you can trust the service of Diving Planet Cartagena. We spent half a day with them, starting with two dives and finishing with a nice lunch. All of this was done around the Isla Grande, which also made the wait between the dives amazing!

boat isla grande
Blue sky, calm, clear water… Beautiful day for a dive!

We had only dived in Peru and the Galapagos before, which made this one our first in the Caribbean sea. The conditions were radically different: the water was extremely warm, the visibility was amazing, and there was almost no current. We didn’t see big animals, like manta rays or sea lions, but instead we saw hundreds of smaller ones, hiding and living among the corals. Another really fantastic experience!

diving coral
Our skill as underwater photographer are still not at the maximum, but we are improving.

We were glad to dive with Diving Planet as this dive center helps to preserve the environment. They are in fact active not only in the underwater cleaning, but also in helping the corals’ reproduction, in saving fishes close to extinction, in hunting invasive species, and many more activities. They also try to raise awareness about the coral bleaching, that leads to their eventual death. We saw quite some bleached out corals in our trip, mostly related to climate change and the abnormally high sea temperature. 

Diving Planet is also one of the first diving centers in Colombia that has a program dedicated to introducing people with handicaps to the underwater life. This way people that, for example, lost their legs or the sight, can feel themselves floating in the water, like there was no gravity. 

Although Cartagena was really hot (one of the warmest places we’ve been) we really enjoyed walking around the city and discover its history. It is a place you should not miss when visiting Colombia.

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