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We chose to spend our Christmas on the road in Cartagena. Historically it was once one of most important ports in all of Latin America now it’s a thriving tourist and backpacker hotspot.
Christmas in Cartagena began after flying in from Panama City and heading directly to the edgy backpacker neighbourhood of Getsemani, I fell in love with Cartagena instantly.
We spent our days lazily strolling Calle Media Luna, walking the ancient walls and soaking up the blistering heat on the many beaches surrounding the area.Cartagena is as vibrant as any Colombian city and the perfect place to enjoy the Christmas Holidays.
Arriving in Cartagena
Arriving in Colombia’s coastal city of Cartagena put the final chapter on our Central America exploration.
We regrettably skipped doing the popular trip to the San Blas islands and flew from Panama City to Cartagena. We had a strict time scale to stick to during the Christmas period. As we had a pre-booked flight to Cartagena which left us no time for the San Blas trip.
Where is Cartagena?
Cartagena is located in the very north of Colombia on the beautiful Caribbean coast. A popular beach destination with the beaches of Cartagena, the tropical climates of Colombia attract backpackers and tourists year round.
It was previous known as Cartagena de Indias and is almost always pronounced wrong by non-Spanish speaking tourists.
Where to stay in Cartagena
We arrived in Cartagena and headed to a hostel we had booked via hostelworld. We booked it from Panama in a panic that we wouldn’t have a bed during the busy Christmas period.
There are two key areas tourists like to stay in Cartagena and during this Christmas period this is no different. The favourites are Getsemani and The Walled City, which is the old town.
The quirky neighbourhood of Getsemani is the go to place in Cartagena for backpackers. The streets are filled with budget eateries, street food shacks, bargain bars and convenient stores. Along with plenty of budget accommodations.
We stayed in this area initially and I’d wholeheartedly recommend Hostal Getsemani. It’s quiet, clean and in the perfect location for backpackers. So if you are hoping to explore both the Getsemani area and The Walled City check this one out.
You’ll find Hostal Getsemani just off the main backpacker location of Calle Media Luna. The hostel is homely and has a nice family feel, because all the workers are friends that live and work in the hostel.
Other hostels worth checking out in this area include;
- Hostel Mamallena
- Mi Llave Hostels
The Walled City
If you want to stay within the old city walls of Cartagena your options are endless, but expect to pay something a little more to be here. As mentioned we were lucky enough to stay in the beautiful Bantu Hotel.
Hotel Bantu is an incredible boutique hotel within the beauty of the Walled City and well known among hotels in Cartagena. I’d certainly check it out for anyone hoping to spend Christmas in Cartagena or the festive period.
Within The Walled City, you’ll find a range of other well known hotels such as the Hilton and Intercontinental. But if you are wanting a truly authentic experience, Getsemani is where it’s at.
Things to do in Getsemani
For me one the best thing to do in Cartagena is enjoying the neighbourhood of Getsemani with it’s public spaces, quaint streets and lively street art.
Getsemani is all about the street food and cocktails. Colombia really is a budget backpackers paradise and the endless selection of new cuisine and cheap drinks keep the budget travellers coming.
The street food available in Getsemani range from whole Italian pizza or slices by the dollar. Or meat and steak on a stick topped with chilli sauce and a well cooked potato.
You’ll no doubt smell the delicious cuisine before you see it. Most nights the streets and bars are busy with tourists having a drink or grabbing a snack.
All of street food in Getsemani will set you back roughly COP 2000 which is less than $1. Very budget friendly.
There are a range of bars with outdoor seating that play loud Colombian and Latin music throughout the night. Backpackers and locals drink and dance in under streetlamps.
There are some truly incredible photo opportunities in Getsemani as the majority of streets are colourful and vibrant with plenty of florals and balconies. Cartagena is actually famed for it’s incredible scenery and the balconies always make it to Instagram.
Getsemani, Cartagena Safety
You can do almost anything in Cartagena regardless of the area you are in. Getsemani brings the party vibe to all backpackers and most spend their days exploring this neighbourhood and trying out the cuisine available.
The dangers often associated with travel in Colombia cross most peoples minds when researching or planning a trip to Cartagena.
Although dangers are ever present in any country you visit Colombia always felt particularly safe to me. Always be vigilant and keep your possessions safe and out of reach.
The tourist areas of Cartagena are fun and always busy, but dangers could be lurking. However, don’t let a countries reputation put you off visiting.
Colombia is a vibrant and happy country with incredible cultural values along with a turbulent history. But like any country Colombia’s history only makes it stronger and more compelling.
Other things to do in Cartagena
The Walled City, the Bocagrande and Cartagena Market are just some of the areas of note you might want to consider checking out before you arrive in Cartagena.
The Bocagrande has a grey sandy beach usually filled with locals enjoying the many restaurants and activities on the beach. This area of Cartagena is just outside of the Walled City.
You will find restaurants and a shopping mall in this area along with plenty of supermarkets and pharmacies. We often took the bus along the Bocagrande and stopped off at the supermarket for supplies after a long day at the beach.
The City Walls
Naturally, no trip to Cartagena would be complete without exploring the Walled City. I recommend to do this both by day and by night. I actually preferred the old city at night.
Palm trees line the sunlit streets outside the Walled City and most tourists spend their time in one of the many terraces or outside or by the main boat dock situated just outside the walls.
Horse and carts allow tourists to take tours of the main sights within the Walled City, but it’s much better to get lost on foot. The Walled City of Cartagena is filled with shops, bars, restaurants and some truly incredible architecture.
If you are a budding photographer you’ll probably already be aware of the great photos just waiting to be taken inside the walls of Cartagenas old town.
The Walled City of Cartagena is breathtaking, the architecture and culture sweeps through the small streets and it’s easy to get lost in exploration of the many small streets and plazas.
Each narrow street has its own special charm featuring balconies, flowers and salsa. Donde Fidel’s world famous salsa bar is not to be missed in Cartagena’s Walled City and a must see!
Don’t sit outside with the other tourists grab an Aguila and pull up a perch by the bar and watch the locals salsa the night away. If you can dance then good on you, if you can’t then prepare to dance anyway. The vibe is exactly right and you couldn’t really feel any more in South America if you tried.
The beaches of Cartagena
The beaches of Cartagena are another of the great things to do in Cartagena. Bocagrande is the more modern and less attractive area of Cartagena vs. the historic centre.
Isla Baru, is a must do is a trip for most visitors to Cartagena at Christmas. Its very popular for most tourists and many locals will try to sell you or recommend you a trip.
Isla Baru is home to the other main beach of Cartagena called Playa Blanca. It’s worth a day trip for the experience as the scenery is stunning but the beach during Christmas time is generally packed and if you don’t like crowds or being reminded you are a tourist you may want to skip it.
Locals will aim to sell you a boat trip but Playa Blanca is perfectly accessible by taxi or shuttle busses that leave from Calle Media Luna.
Spending Christmas in Cartagena
Cartagena Christmas time
A Christmas in Colombia for us was one consisting of Baileys by the rooftop pool of the Bantu Hotel. Christmas Day as the festivities echoed the rooftops around us as others enjoyed the fun and sun.
Although not typically Colombian we had family visiting us during our Cartagena Christmas as Jamie’s family arrived the day before Christmas eve.
We set our sights on a restaurant for our Christmas dinner. No turkey on the menu for us just Thai/Indonesian food in a perfectly located Cafe San Pedo in The Walled City.
I would recommend Cafe San Pedro, it is one of the most popular restaurants within the city walls. The restaurant Cafe San Pedro overlooks the famous Monasterio de San Pedro. Many special services are held here during the festive period and the church welcomes all.
The festive period
During the Christmas period Cartagena comes alive with a religious pulse of welcoming charm. Spirits are high and cheer is wide, people are all about celebration which makes Christmas in Cartagena really unforgettable. This is all evident in even the most unlikely of streets in the most unlikely of neighbourhoods.
Besides the festivities and the copious amounts fairy lights that line the main streets of Cartagena. The Walled City is a beautiful city to spend Christmas.
Christmas in Cartagena means family and friends, you can see this from the families dressed in their best all white outfits.
Christmas in Cartagena means ‘Feliz Navidad’ covering every imaginable surface, wall and shop window. Our Cartagena experience was filled with kindness and friendly locals filled with traditional music and merriness.
Spending Christmas in Cartagena is festive without being tacky which means you don’t feel tacky about being overly festive.