Cartagena is undoubtedly the current the crown jewel of Colombian tourism.
Cartagena owes much its status to “El Centro Historico”, the magnificently preserved colonial heart of the city, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Filled with eye catching colonial architecture, a full and vibrant color palate, and scores of bars and restaurants Cartagena’s center thrums with a savory salsa infused vibe.
To the southwest of the center, along a thin strip of beach, stand the whitewashed high rise hotels of Boca Grande. To the south and the east lays Getsemani, which caters to backpackers and budget travelers, and which will likely be your home if you are traveling to Cartagena on a budget.
The rest of Cartagena is a rusty, screeching, dirty, concrete laden mess, much like most South American cities seem to be. There isn’t much to see or do, and a visitor that is new to the region and has no previous knowledge of what to expect from the South America urban environment might find themselves quickly overwhelmed.
El Centro Historico is where it’s at, but be warned, it boasts some of the highest prices in all of South America. A backpacker or budget traveler in Colombia needs to prepare themselves accordingly to avoid the inevitable dismay that comes with being asked to pay a hundred dollars for a completely overpriced bed and breakfast or $20.00 for a sushi roll.
However, do not despair, we can show you how to traverse Cartagena on a budget, as long as dorms, hostels with kitchens, and local food are options you are willing to consider.
After all is said and done, it is possible for backpackers and budget travelers in Colombia to visit Cartagena for as little as $25 per day/per person.
Cartagena on a Budget
Be prepared to stay outside of El Centro when traveling on a budget in Cartagena. Unless you possess magical powers it will be impossible to find anything even remotely inexpensive in the colonial neighborhood. During high season, which spans the months of December and January those traveling on a strict budget will need to be satisfied with a dorm bed, even outside of El Centro. Those traveling in groups might be able to find an apartment to rent on the outskirts of the city for a bargain price, but we recommend visiting Cartagena during non-peak season. You are much more likely to find budget options in March than you will around the Holidays, and you might even be able to haggle the price down for longer stays.
We spent two weeks in Cartagena and found good prices in several establishments in the neighborhood of Getsemani, which is a short walk from El Centro. This will be your hub for further exploration of the city.
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Budget Hotels in Cartagena
We can recommend two hotels in Cartagena which we stayed in and very much enjoyed. Both have what can be considered “budget” prices, even if the word budget means something else in Cartagena than it does in most of the rest of Latin America. A word of warning for people who don’t like taking cold showers – hot water is nearly impossible to find in Cartagena and most of northern Colombia. There is little need for it, however, as the region is pretty hot year round, and you should not expect your hotel or hostel to have a hot water shower.
Situated a short walk away from El Centro Historico, the Getsemani Patio Hotel is probably the best budget hotel in Cartagena. Boasting a fantastic colorful rooftop (complete with a small plunge pool), clean and spacious rooms, a friendly staff, and complimentary breakfast we highly recommend this gem of a hotel. The street the hotel is located on is not the most wonderful one in Cartagena, but we found it to be safe, even if it looks slightly dodgy. We stayed here for a total of five nights while visiting the city and we were unable to find a better option for the same price. Save yourself a hassle and book your budget stay in Cartagena at the Getsemani Patio.
- Private Room for Two (including breakfast) – 100,000 – 150,000 Pesos ($40.80 – $61.20)
- High Season – Private Room for Two (including breakfast) – 180,000 – 250,000 Pesos ($73.50 – $102.00)
Located right around the corner from the Patio, this hotel is a great second option. Run by an extremely helpful and friendly owner, Patricia, the Pedregal is clean, safe, and comfortable. Patricia speaks English very well and can help you arrange all sorts of activities or transportation. We spent some time getting to know her during our three day stay here and feel very comfortable recommending her and her hotel to our readers.
If you are looking for mid-range accommodation found inside the walled El Centro Historico in Cartagena, we reckon Casa del Curato should be your top choice. It’s centrally located right in the heart of the Old City, has clean rooms, and a friendly staff. It’s hard to find a friendlier budget option as far as hotels go in the center, making Casa del Curato one of the best hotels in Cartagena for those traveling on mid-range budget.
Hostels in Cartagena
A nice bar, clean A/C dorms, private rooms with or without air-con, an outdoor dining area, and offering a slew of activities and tours, Mamallena is a great hostel option in Cartagena. Located on a lively street in the Getsemani district the hostel has some of the cheapest prices you will find on dorms and such in the city (especially when compared to the hostel across the street). They offer daily shuttles to Playa Blanca, mud bath excursions, and a ton of other activities. Check them out!
Apartments in Cartagena
You can find a variety of different apartments or rooms for rent on AirBnB, but quite frankly we found the prices on there to be absolutely absurd. Certainly not an affordable option. The owner of the Patio de Getsemani hotel has a house with two apartments for rent at a decent price, however it is located about 15 minutes by car from the center. We would recommend it for a group of people who have their own rental car, or for people interested in staying in Cartagena for an extended period of time. The owner is willing to haggle for stays over a week long, so make sure to take advantage of that.
You can also try using CompartoApto to find people looking to rent out rooms, or those hunting for roommates.
It is possible to eat, and eat well, in Cartagena year round if you are willing to explore street food or local dining options. Those traveling and wanting a bit of Western or Asian food will find themselves paying premium prices on such fare. Thankfully there are loads of local Colombian eateries, know as “comida corriente”, which can serve up a full meal along with soup and a fruit juice for under $5.00 a plate. These “plato del dia” meals typically include a meat option, rice, beans, fried plantain, a small salad, and whatever soup of the day is available. They making traveling on a budget in Cartagena a much more realistic proposition. We ate mostly at these places and found that many of them had a vegetarian option, which was basically the same meal with eggs instead of meat.
Bars span from cheap to horridly overpriced depending on where you decide to drink. Open containers are common practice in Cartagena, and you can buy yourself a cheap beer and walk around the Center enjoying your cold beverage. In El Centro Historico expect to pay a minimum of 5,000 pesos ($2.00) for a beer at a bar, with some establishments charging up to double that amount for a simple bottle of local cerveza.
- Potatoes (2 kilogram) – 5,200 Pesos ($2.10)
- Garlic (2 heads) – 1,340 Pesos ($0.55)
- Granny Smith Apple (1 kilogram) – 6,400 Pesos ($2.60)
- Banana (1 kilogram) – 1,600 Pesos ($0.65)
- Pineapple (1 kilogram) – 2,600 Pesos ($1.05)
- 6 pack Aguila Local Beer in Supermarket – 10,300 Pesos ($4.20)
- 12 pack Tecate Mexican Beer – 23,000 Pesos ($9.40)
- Peanuts (400 gram bag) – 6,2000 Pesos ($2.50)
- Gatorade (50 ml) – 2,400 Pesos ($1.00)
- Water (5 liter bottle) – 5,060 Pesos ($2.05)
- Beer at a Bar – 5,000 – 10,000 Pesos ($2.00 – $4.00)
- Box of Coco Krispy Cereal (320 grams) – 8,850 Pesos ($3.60)
- Baguette with Cheese (300 grams) – 4,350 Pesos ($1.75)
- Fresh Brown Bread (440 grams) – 3,410 Pesos ($1.40)
- Avocado (1 kilogram) – 4,030 Pesos ($1.65)
- Tomato (1 kilogram) – 3,570 Pesos ($1.45)
- Dry black beans (500 grams) – 3,000 Pesos ($1.20)
- Spaghetti (500 grams) – 4,650 Pesos ($1.90)
- Olive Oil (500 ml) – 6,880 Pesos ($2.80)
- White Rice (1000 gram bag) – 1,640 Pesos ($0.65)
Walking around outside of the center can be a bit of an adventure, as the streets tend to be narrow in places and drives just don’t seem to give a fuck about pedestrians. Be careful when doing so. At night make sure that you take a taxi to get to wherever you are going if you are outside of the center. Negotiate a price before getting into the taxi, and only take yellow taxi cars, never a private unmarked car.
Another reason to take a taxi late at night (even you only have to go five or six blocks) is the policia. You are as likely to get harassed and shaken down by the Police here as you are by a random mugger, so don’t trust cops who roll up on you at night. If they try to search you politely refuse at first. If you speak Spanish make sure to let them know that, as you will likely get less grief. If the police insist on searching you keep an eye out for any loose cash they take out of your pockets, or offer to empty your pockets yourself. Male police are not allowed to frisk a female, so if you are a woman and a male cop touches you make sure to protest loudly. We got robbed by four police during our second week in Cartagena, which really soured our view of the city, sad to say.
Cartagena has a bus station with buses going up the Coast to Barranquilla and Santa Marta, and buses going to locations south, such as Medellin. You can also book a minivan for transport to Barranquilla and Santa Marta.
- Taxi from the Airport to Center or Getsemani – 10,000 – 24,000 Pesos ($4.10 – $9.80)
- Bus to Santa Marta – 40,000 – 50,000 Pesos one way ($16.30 – $20.40)
- Bus to Baranquilla – 25,000 Pesos one way ($10.20)
- Transportation to Playa Blanca – 35,000 – 50,000 Pesos round trip ($14.30 – $20.40)
- Transportation to Mud Volcano – 35,000 – 45,000 Pesos round trip ($14.30 $18.35)
San Blas Island Tour
Cartagena a hub for bats sailing to Panama. You can take the new ‘Ferryexpress’ ferry for about $125 from Cartagena to Colon [Update Novemeber 2015 – It seems this ferry has been discontinued for the time being] or a book the trip of a lifetime and get full blown tour of the gorgeous San Blas islands over the course of five days via sailboat. Prices for the San Blas trip vary based on boat and captain. Expect to pay anywhere from $500.00 – $600.00 per person. The best place to get further information about the San Blas tours is at Mamallena Tour & Travel, conveniently located at the, you guessed it, Mamallena Hostel.
Expenses for activities you might want to partake in should not be factored into your daily budget. This becomes overly complicated. An easier way of going about things is to calculate your minimum daily expense and then set aside all left over funds you care to spend into an “activities” pool. Thus on a day when we went to the movies, to Playa Blanca, or had a few extra drinks in the evening we did not consider ourselves over budget even though we spent a bit more, we just subtracted it out of the “activities” pool.
Cartagena is pricey. There is no denying that. However, with proper planning, restricting your visit to months that don’t fall into high season, eating local food, and moderating your drinking you can get by just fine on a limited budget. Will you enjoy the city more if you are willing to splurge a bit? Sure, but it’s not something you HAVE to do. You can certainly explore Cartagena’s famed historical center and get your fill of the ambiance on a small budget.
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