Cartagena is a popular tourist destination in Colombia with many cruise ships passing through and attractions. While Colombia is often seen as ‘unsafe’, Cartagena might be one of the safest places in the country. So if you’re wondering “is it safe to travel to Cartagena”, you might be surprised!
This guide is a deep dive into the types of crime to look out for, how to get around, entry and exit requirements, where to stay, the best food spots and of course, safety tips.
Why Visit Cartagena?
Cartagena, Colombia is a great place to visit for travellers who want to experience the best of South America’s Caribbean coast. The historic city is known for its colonial architecture, lively street vendors, street food, live music and tropical climate.
It’s a walled city and the historical centre of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can enjoy coffee shops, restaurants and luxury hotels in this part of the city. It’s generally safe to walk around the Walled City during the day but avoid remote areas at night.
In recent years, Cartagena has become a popular destination for travellers from around the world. However, as with any major city in Latin America or even the United States, it’s important to exercise caution while you’re there.
Things to do in Cartagena, Colombia
If you’re planning a trip to Cartagena, there are many things you can do in and around the city during your stay!
Here’s what I’d recommend if you have at least a few days:
Take a Free Walking Tour
Free walking tours are one of the best ways to get to know a city. You’ll feel more comfortable being shown around by a local who can provide information regarding the history and culture of Cartagena while answering any questions you have about safety. They’ll tell you what areas are generally safe and which to avoid completely.
Explore the Old City
Start your trip in the Old City! Walk around the colourful streets and check out some of the historic landmarks. It’s best to wander in the early morning or evening when it’s not so hot and humid.
Visit the Beaches
Make the most of the Caribbean Sea! Cartagena has many beautiful beaches nearby that you can take advantage of. More on this later!
Being a large tourist hub, there are many different shops around Cartagena. From luxury shopping malls to street vendors that sell handmade crafts, there’s something for everyone.
Crime Rate in Cartagena
Cartagena has a moderate crime index of 55.78, with the main worries in the city being robbed/mugged, armed robbery and corruption and bribery. When it comes to walking alone during the day, Cartagena is rated at 58.72 (moderately safe) and walking alone at night got a score of 43.86 (also moderately safe).
Of course, these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. As someone who’s been to Cartagena, I wouldn’t recommend walking alone at night unless it’s on a well-lit and busy street. Even then, you should exercise caution and keep an eye on all of your items in case of pickpocketing.
Type of Crime in Cartagena
While the city is generally safe for visitors, everyone should be aware of the potential for both violent and petty crime.
There are also armed groups such as the National Liberation Army that exist mostly in remote areas of the country. With that being said, you should pay attention to see if there’s a travel advisory and look out for any warnings issued by the Colombian government.
Cartagena Safety Tips
Although Cartagena isn’t known as the safest destination, I personally felt safer there than in most other parts of Colombia. I spent a lot of time in Medellin and a few days in Santa Marta, Minca and Costeno Beach and other than Minca, Cartagena felt the safest.
If you’re planning for your first time in Cartagena you should be aware of a few different safety tips.
Have Multiple Cards
For U.S. citizens, or those travelling from Europe and other developed nations, it’s a good idea to have both credit cards and debit cards on hand. There is often a lot of petty theft in touristy areas so I’d recommend taking one card out and leaving the rest at your hotel as a precaution.
A friend I met in Medellin told me about her experience getting robbed in Cartagena and I thought it would be helpful to share!
*Her story has been edited for length*
I was in a neighbourhood called Getsemani which is super touristy and busy. We went to the ‘main’ little narrow street, sat at one of those outdoor tables and ordered some beers and a hookah. I purposely hung my tote bag on my chair, towards the wall, not the street. Then at some point, the street got busy with dancers, tourists and locals passing by.
When I was about to leave, I noticed that my bag wasn’t there anymore. I immediately contacted the local police officers but they couldn’t do much since it was pretty late. They told me to contact them again in the morning but the way they said it made it seem like they didn’t care.
I went back the next day I was able to see camera footage from local shops’ cameras and saw that it was a local couple that stood behind me. They staged a fake argument as the guy kept reaching for the girl’s arm and at some point it wasn’t her arm but my tote bag.
My friend ended up losing her credit and debit cards and didn’t have much cash on her to last until she received a new card from home. So take this story as a warning to stay on top of your personal items when you’re out in public!
Stay in Touristy Areas
While I’m usually all for exploring lesser-known parts of a country, in Colombia, it’s safest to stay in the tourist areas. This is because there is a visible police presence and many other visitors around so it’s less likely you’ll find yourself in a sticky situation. The Old Town is typically considered a safe area with well-lit streets and many people around.
If you plan on travelling to rural areas of Cartagena, you should be aware of the potential to encounter drug dealers and witness other criminal activity. This is especially important for female travelers, as women are often targeted when alone.
Don’t Walk Alone at Night
As soon as you’re off a busy street in the centre of town, it’s not safe to walk around alone at night. Use a taxi or Uber to get around at night to avoid an unsafe situation.
Be Aware of Your Surroundings
Armed robberies and drug cartels in some parts of Cartagena are a concern so it’s best to be aware of your surroundings. I’d also suggest researching the area you’ll be staying so you have a good idea of whether or not it’s safe.
Brush Up on Your Spanish
I know that discovering not many people speak English (even in touristy parts) of Colombia was a rude awakening for me. As someone who doesn’t know much Spanish, it made it much harder to get around as a solo traveller. I’d recommend learning some Spanish before you go because then you can ask locals questions, get safety tips from others and feeling like you can communicate will give you a better sense of security.
Only Use Licensed Taxis/Ubers
If you’re taking a bus from a different part of Colombia to get to Cartagena, you’ll experience a herd of taxi drivers trying to get you into their cab. This also happens at the airport and sometimes they’re not licensed. If you can, always get an Uber because they’re registered and you can pay through the app instead of needing cash or having a disagreement regarding the cost.
Be Careful at ATMs
There are many cash points and ATMs throughout Cartagena but be careful when withdrawing cash. Always go during the day and with a friend/partner if you can. If you’re going alone, look around to make sure there aren’t sketchy people waiting around the corner to rob you. Head back to your hostel or hotel to keep most of your money there afterward instead of walking around with a bundle of cash!
Don’t Take Your Phone Out
I wouldn’t feel comfortable walking around Cartagena with my phone out. Anyone can snatch it right out of your hands, even in touristy areas. If you want to take a photo or video be aware of who’s around and take the shot quickly.
Don’t Share Too Much on Social Media
It’s fun to share where you’re travelling with friends and family but don’t share the exact details on social media. For example, if you’re eating at a restaurant, wait to share the location on Instagram and only do so when you’re not there anymore. Don’t share your future travel plans on social media either because you never know who might be watching and trying to find you. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
Keep an Eye on Your Drinks
When out for drinks at bars or clubs in Cartagena, keep a close eye on your drinks at all times. It’s not uncommon that people will try to spike your drink and that could lead to sexual assault. I’d suggest not drinking too much when you’re travelling (especially solo) so that you can avoid these kinds of situations. With that being said, you shouldn’t be scared to go out in Cartagena – just be aware of what can happen and only go for a few drinks.
Plan With Google Maps
I always download ‘offline maps’ on Google Maps before I arrive at a new destination. This will allow you to see driving directions to your hotel/hostel from the airport or bus station so you can ensure you’re being brought to the right destination.
Ignore Catcalls/People on the Street
Unfortunately, Cartagena is known to be pretty bad with harassment on the streets. Whether that’s catcalling or people trying to convince you to eat at their restaurant or sell you something, you’re going to have to face that in Cartagena. I always recommend ignoring these people entirely because otherwise, they might follow you down the street. Avoid eye contact is possible and just go about your way! This can be especially bad around the beaches in Cartagena so that’s something to keep in mind.
Cartagena has a hot and tropical climate so it’s important to stay hydrated. Bring a filtered bottle with you or buy bottled water to avoid getting sick. The tap water in Colombia is generally safe to drink but it’s not recommended for tourists that aren’t used to the water.
Getting to Cartagena
The most popular method of getting to Cartagena is by air travel. If you’re travelling from another part of Colombia, there are many direct flights that will make getting to Cartagena easy!
You can also get to Cartagena by ground transit such as buses or private drivers. I personally travelled by bus from Santa Marta to Cartagena but it wasn’t a great experience. What should’ve been about a 5-hour journey, ended up being close to 10 hours because of traffic that had us stopped for hours on a highway. Just something to keep in mind if you choose to travel by bus!
Entry and Exit Requirements
There are more entry and exit requirements for Colombia than most countries I’ve visited. You should be aware of these details before you go:
- Passport – You need a valid passport to enter Colombia. Your passport should be valid for at least 6 months from the date of entry. If not, you’ll be denied entry.
- Tourist Visa – Many countries can enter Colombia without a tourist visa if they’re only planning on staying for 90 days (Canada, US, Australia, European countries). However, this depends on the passport you have and if you’re planning on staying more than 90 days you’ll need to apply for Colombia’s Working Holiday Visa or another longer-stay visa.
- Onward Travel – You’ll be asked for a return ticket or a ticket to your next destination so that they aren’t worried you’ll overstay your visa. If you’re a digital nomad like myself, this can be tricky as I don’t usually plan my travels. The best option is to book a cheap bus out of the country to show or buy a ticket directly through an Airline such as Air Canada that has a 24-hour cancellation policy. Just don’t forget to cancel the flight as soon as you arrive or you could be out hundreds!
- Check Mig Form – You’ll have to fill out a Check Mig form before you can board your flight. They’ll ask to see if when you land in Colombia.
- Yellow Fever Vaccine – Certain areas of Colombia require a yellow fever vaccine, such as Santa Marta. Check with a doctor to see if you need one before you go!
- COVID-19 Vaccination/PCR Test – As of January 2023, you’ll be asked to show COVID-19 vaccines or a negative PCR test to enter Colombia. Check the most recent requirements to ensure you have the right information.
- Check Mig Form – Again, you’ll need to fill out this form for immigration before you leave! I’d suggest doing it from your hostel/hotel before heading to the airport so you’re not rushed to complete it.
- Onward Travel – Don’t make the mistake I did when leaving Colombia and going to Costa Rica without onward travel out of Costa Rica! I had to book a random bus I didn’t end up taking for $45.
Transportation in Caratgena
The easiest way to get around Cartagena is by taxi or Uber. I stuck to Uber because I felt safer doing that as a solo traveller. Taxi drivers in Colombia are also known to be a bit sketchy so I’ve avoided them entirely during my stay.
Uber is also affordable and much cheaper than it is in North America so it’s the best option!
Where to Stay in Cartagena
When looking for the best place to stay in Cartagena de Indias, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip!
Choose a Safe Area
You can’t always rely on ‘common sense’ in Cartagena. Stick to safest areas, especially if you’re travelling alone or with young children. The old city is considered fairly safe for accommodation!
You’ll also want to stay near the historic old city if you have a chance. Look for hotels and accommodations located within the walled city, as this will give you easy access to all the sights and sounds of the beautiful and vibrant area.
Book a Good Hotel Room
Once you’ve selected the right area to stay, you need to find a hostel or hotel room that will fit your needs. I always consider amenities and prices and stayed at Casa Del Poso Hostel when I was in Cartagena for a night. It’s a great option if you’re there for a short stay on a budget, as dorm rooms cost around $10/night.
Consider Emergency Services
Do your research when it comes to the availability of emergency services. Map out nearby hospitals, police stations in more, just in case you need it!
Where to Eat in Cartagena
There are many great bars, restaurants and cafes to choose from in Cartagena. Here are a few you should add to your list before you visit:
- Peru Fusion
- El Portón de San Sebastián
- Masaki Sushi Wok
- Mr. Cool Gelato – Can’t go wrong with Gelato if you ask me
- El Bololó Bowls del Caribe – Had a great falafel bowl here and would definitely recommend it!
- La Cevicheria
- Cade Del Mar – Watch the sunset here
- Epoca Espresso Bar
- Abucus Libros y Cafe
- La Casa del Sacoro
Beaches Near Cartagena
Cartagena is a beach destination, with many different beaches nearby. Here are a few to add your list!
This beach is located on Isla Barú which is a quick boat ride from Cartagena. It’s known as one of the best beaches in the area with soft white sand and clear water with lush palm trees. There are many beach bars nearby as well and water activities such as snorkelling or jet skiing.
Bocagrande is the best beach close to the city. It’s just a quick drive from the historic center of Cartagena and has golden sand and shallow water. The promenade is riddled with shops and restaurants.
You need to experience the islands off the coast of Cartagena during your trip! Rosario Islands are a group of 27 small islands and are part of the Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park. You’ll find some incredible beaches with scuba diving and snorkelling opportunities. Playa Blanca is one of the beaches on these islands but also check out Playa Azul and Playa Linda!
Take a short boat ride to Tierra Bomba Island and you’ll find Punta Arean, a secluded and tranquil beach that’s in the middle of lush greenery. It’s a quiet spot to sunbathe, take in breathtaking views and chill out for the day with a good book.
Playa de la Boquilla
This is the perfect place for you if you’re after a unique beach experience! It’s a fishing village just a quick drive from Cartagena with an authentic Colombian vibe and offers a glimpse of the life of a traditional, local fisherman. You’ll find many colourful boats and can swim in the shallow waters.
Have you booked travel insurance for your trip? If you’re questioning, is it safe to travel to Cartagena, you should make sure you’re covered in case something doesn’t go as planned! I’ve been using SafetyWing for travel medical insurance for over a year now and recommend using them for short trips or full-time travel (like I do).
So, is it safe to travel to Cartagena?
Is it safe to travel to Cartagena?
That’s a tough question, as there are many different aspects to keep in mind. I’d say it’s moderately safe as I felt safe but didn’t spend much time there.
My top tip for anyone visiting would be to think of Cartagena like most other major cities and always be aware of your surroundings. Don’t take valuables out with you and travel with others if you can. If not, stay in public areas and research the activities you might want to do beforehand so you know what you’re getting yourselves into!
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