This is our 4th visit to Cartagena, with prior stops when we sailed Norwegian Cruise Line in 07, 08, & 09. We’ve done all of the major tours offered in the past, so we’re using this first stop as a leg-stretching break off the ship – long enough to take a few photos to post.
The city was one of the first sanctuaries of freed African slaves in the Americas and is currently populated by an ethnic mix representative of Colombia's own variety. I’ll get to some safety & other recommendations in a minute.
Cartagena, located on Colombia's northern coast and facing the Caribbean Sea, is the most visited city in the country by tourists. It gets extremely crowded in the December holidays and the holy week, when schools are out and most Colombians take their vacations. The city has basically two main parts where tourists go: the walled colonial city ("ciudad amurallada"), which is truly amazing and has many fancy restaurants, clubs and hotels; and a long strip of hotel towers and condos fronting onto the beach, known as Bocagrande. It is also nice to visit the exclusive neighborhood of Castillogrande, filled with recently built condos, places to jog, and a quiet beach to soak up some sun. The farther inland you travel, the more poverty you see – we’ve been as far as 120 miles from the port, and sadly, living standards deteriorate quite rapidly and along with that, your safety. A natural concern if planning a trip to Cartagena is safety. This should be a concern no matter where you travel in the world, but if heading to Colombia, it can be of particular concern and for good reason. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, Colombia’s drug cartel resulted in an extremely high crime rate and heavy danger to locals and tourists alike. Today, that danger still exists. Stay in the city and try not to wander to the less inhabited areas or outside the city to smaller towns. Because Cartagena is a large city, local folks say there are enough people around to ensure you a certain level of safety. But wander away, and you could be asking for trouble. To their credit, they’re trying to establish themselves as a desirable tourist destination and frankly, each time we come here we can see progress. Stick close to the busy areas, take advantage of useful information offered by locals, and keep your eyes open. Finally, two things to be aware of: there are tons of accidents in Colombia. Be careful when crossing streets and be watchful of cars and other vehicles at all times. Also be prepared for potential swindling (or efforts toward swindling) and protect yourself from that by not even engaging in conversation with a swindler (use your traveler know-how, good old-fashioned intuition or overt knowledge here to determine who is a swindler and who is not). Swindlers are much more commonplace here than anywhere in Mexico – though nothing compares with our experiences in India or Egypt.
Many cruise lines stop here prior to passage through the Panama Canal along with other western Caribbean itineraries – so chances are, if you sail west, you’ll stop here at some point.