This past spring my 16 year old daughter and I explored Cartagena, Colombia. Cartagena is a beautiful seaside walled city filled with life, color and history on the Caribbean coast of Colombia – see Colombia with an O for our Things to Know Before You Go guide. It was a great place to spend a few days getting lost among the cobblestone streets, taking in the clip clop of the horses and admiring the rich colors of the buildings, people and treasures around you. But don’t stop there. Cartagena has a few other adventures in store that should not be missed. Below we review an amazing full day bike tour and a day trip to the Rosario Islands. Also see Culinary Cartagena for more about the amazing food.
My favorite way to get to know a new place is by starting the trip off with a bike tour. It’s a great way to cover a lot of ground, and by making it your first activity, you know what you want to get back to on foot in the coming days. We started our visit in Cartagena with Gerardo Nieto’s Manzanillo del Mar full day and 20 mile bike tour – it was a great workout and the best bike tour I have ever been on! A native Cartagenero filmmaker and bike aficionado, Gerardo gave us a very unique view of Cartagena.
We showed up at 9am at Gerardo’s beautiful apartment in Castillogrande (take a cab there) and were met with a fantastic view and lively story of the history of this incredible city. Soon after, we set off on our bikes through Bocagrande and back to the walled city for a bit more history. Gerardo is extremely well versed on all things Cartagena both past and present and we found his stories very entertaining. While crossing through the walled city we took a few small detours so Gerardo could round out his story of the history of the city with visuals. He showed us all his favorite places along the way. We then set off along a 4 lane highway among the brightly colored buses and bustling traffic for the beaches of Manzanillo del Mar. While there are no official bike lanes, drivers are generally respectful of bikers. Note that Cartagena weather is super hot and the sun is strong. Drink lots of water and wear sunscreen!
After riding for a bit on the highway, we turned off to ride along the shore of the fishing village of La Boquilla. Here’s where we got a real sense for what life is like for Colombian impoverished. The beaches are lined with extremely humble surroundings, some homes with no windows or doors, and several palm thatched huts or “restaurants” all empty and waiting for the locals to drive their cars right up to the sand for the fresh catch of the day. There are countless docile but mangy dogs resting in whatever tiny spots of shade they could find.
At this point in the ride we were hot and tired, so the timing was great when we came upon a break in the beach. Gerardo led us to a little ecotourist spot, where we were served coconut water from freshly picked coconuts and given a canoe tour in the mangroves.
Refreshed and back on the bikes, I was grateful for my thicker mountain bike tires as we rode another 30 minutes through bumpy off roading bike trails to a perfect little seaside shack. Nestled in here, among the locals, we were served an excellent traditional lunch of fried fish, coconut rice, plantains and Colombian soda.
With full bellies, and a welcome tailwind, we started off on our journey back to the walled city. It was an easy ride, aside from the last part which required us to negotiate a fair amount of car and bus traffic. We finished the tour back in the city with a refreshing drink of what Gerardo said was the best orange juice in the city. After 20 plus miles of biking in the Cartagena heat, we all agreed!
Pro tip: For the slightly less adventurous option, consider Gerardo’s film tour of the city. The ride takes place mostly inside the walls and is a great insiders view of film in Cartagena.
Another must do adventure in Cartagena is a trip to the archipelago of the Rosario Islands. About an hour away by boat, there are more than 20 islands to visit and since Cartagena is so reliant on tourism for income, you will find each one describing a paradise just a boat ride away. I caution you to be careful, however as many travelers report trips that turned out to have hidden costs, bad service, terrible crowds, and hawking vendors. In fact, just a quick look at some of the reviews of these trips is enough to make anyone say forget it, its not worth the risk. I did a ton of research and booked two other trips before we settled on the recommendation of Gerardo from Bike Tours GN to go to Isla del Pirata. While I am sure there are other island trips with a lovely experience we were not one bit disappointed with our excursion, One of the smallest islands in the archipelago, Isla del Pirata is a gorgeous spot to spend a day (or an overnight – as it is a hotel- well not so much a hotel as an island with 5 or 6 huts scattered about where you can lay your head).
You meet your boat at the dock early (around 9am) for the 45 minute boat ride to the island. When you arrive you are greeted with a magical paradise of beautiful turquoise waters on an excluded private spot with very few people. The staff greets you with fresh fruit and coffee and will walk you through the parameters for the day. Pro tip: While the tour advertises English and Spanish speaking guides, the entire thing was conducted in Spanish. Brush up on your language skills! There is an option to snorkel and/or paddleboard for an additional cost. Also, there is an excursion available to an aquarium on a nearby island if you aren’t happy with lounging on the beach for a few hours. Finally, a beautiful and traditional caribbean lunch of fish and coconut rice is included in the visit, and there is a bar where snacks and drinks are available for purchase. Aside from an occasional attendant asking if you want a drink, or some locally made jewelry, you are left to enjoy a peaceful day.
The boat heads back to the city at 3pm – if you have chosen not to spend the night – and due to the winds and the tides, the ride is quite an adventure! One passenger described it as a 45minute water flume ride and that was pretty accurate.
Want more adventures in Cartagena? Consider the following:
A Small Group Sunset Paddleboard Experience – Paddleboard into the setting sun around Cartagena Bay with your LED lit paddleboard allowing you to see below you and in front of you. All while enjoying the sunset and glowing city lights.
Have a few more days? Consider an excursion to Minca – 5 hours from Cartagena and only 45 minutes from Santa Marta, this tiny town is a mecca for people looking to escape the city and find some adventure. Enjoy this post from Practical Wanderlust for all you need to know about Minca.