9 Free Things to Do in Medellin – Medellin, Colombia

We kind of fell in love with the second largest city in Colombia because of the perfect weather and the Texas-sized attitude of the local Paisas. In a previous post, we explained why we love Medellin and also acknowledged that the city is not exactly jam-packed with tourist attractions. There are, however, a variety of things that travelers can do and see for free (or damn close)–from art to dead people to butterflies. Here are our nine favorite free things to do in Medellin. After all, nothing makes a travel budget go further than free.

Free things to do in Medellin, Colombia

Real City Tours: Pablo Alvarez-Correa, 28, was born in Medellin. He trained as an engineer and traveled extensively before returning to the city where he started Real City Tours in 2013. Since then he’s been running an increasingly popular four-hour free walking tour of Medellin twice daily Monday to Friday. The all-English tour is peppered with Pablo’s entertaining explanations of complicated elements of Colombian history and illuminating personal stories which bring historic and modern Medellin to life. Please tip as generously as you can.

Real Medellin Tours

Pablo Alvarez-Correa, founder and tour leader of the free Real City Tours of Medellin.

San Pedro Cemetery Museum: Not every cemetery is also a museum. Then again, not every cemetery holds the history of a city like Medellin’s San Pedro Cemetery Museum. Founded in 1842 as a cemetery for the elite, it grew over the years. In 1970 it was opened up for use by the general public and in 1997 it was designated as a museum, in part to protect the final resting place of some of the most important figures in Medellin politics, journalism, the arts and business including three former Colombian presidents.

The vast cemetery is free to enter (open 8am to 2pm) and features some lovely carving and statues, but its real value is as a one-stop-shop of the city’s history as told through the dead. To really understand that side of the cemetery you need a guide. We were guided by David Graaf who was working for Palenque Tours.

David showed us some of the most famous graves in the cemetery, explained some of the statues and said that the cemetery is open on full moon nights when it hosts bohemian gatherings of students and artists. We noted a grave dating back to 1875, then it was time for more recent history.


Medellin’s San Pedro Cemetery Museum is free to enter and full of city history.

In the 1980s and 1990s drug traffickers terrorized citizens of Medellin with random and brutal acts of violence that killed cartel members, police officers, politicians and innocent bystanders. As the drug business boomed so did the burial business.

Pablo Escobar’s grave is not in the San Pedro cemetery, but some of his victims and associates are. One of the most memorable examples is mausoleum #17 marked Lilia. Here a mother has buried six of her sons. All of them were hit men (called sicarios) for Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. All of them were killed violently. The glass-fronted Munoz Mosquera mausoleum is lovingly arranged like a living room with a chandelier, side tables and an open bible. A radio used to be hooked up to an illegal electrical connection so it could play her sons’ favorite music (ranchera). Loudly.

An ironic factoid: Pablo Escobar allegedly got his criminal start by stealing marble gravestones.

Though the bad old Escobar days are in the past, gangs still exist in Medellin and the San Pedro Cemetery can be a dangerous place when gang members are being buried due to a combination of heavy drinking by mourners and the occasional attack by rival gang members. This explains why visitors to San Pedro Cemetery are wanded for weapons before being let in.

San Pedro Cemetery Museum

San Pedro Cemetery Museum in Medellin, Colombia.

Plaza Botero: When an art world heavy hitter famous for enormous bronze statues is born in your city, well, you better make some space for his work. Plaza Botero in central Medellin is a huge, free, public outdoor space jam-packed with the 23 sculptures by native son Fernando Botero.

Plaza Botero Medellin Museum of Antioquia

Fine examples of bronze sculptures by Medellin-born artist Fernando Botero in Plaza Botero.

Botero sculptures - Plaza Botero Medellin

Sculptures by Medellin-born artist Fernando Botero make Plaza Botero a favorite (and free) place to hang out.

Medellin Metro: Residents of Medellin are proud of their metro system and they should be. It’s clean, civilized, safe, efficient and nearly free at just 2,000 COP (about US$0.70 per ride anywhere the lines go including the metrocables (see below). Construction of a new tram system called the Tranvia is being finished now and will service even more parts of the city. Two new metrocable lines are in the works too.

Medellin Metro

Clean, efficient and nearly free, Medellin’s Metro system is a winner in the city.

Encicla Medellin: Even cheaper than the metro is the Encicla network of city bikes at automated stands offering bikes that are free to use for up to an hour even for foreigners. Just register on the Inscribite section of the website by submitting a copy of your passport and you’re good to go. New stands of bikes and new bike paths are opening in Medellin all the time.

Escolaras de Comuna 13: In 2011 escalators that travel from the valley up through a poor community known as Comuna 13 were inaugurated in an attempt to ease the commute for more than 12,000 residents, reduce crime and beautify the run down and often dangerous area. Escolaras de Comuna 13, which were built in six sections, replaced 350 steep, dilapidated stairs that residents used to have to navigate to get up and down the hillside.

Escolaras de Comuna 13 Medellin, Colombia

Medellin’s Escolaras de Comuna 13 take residents and travelers up into a hillside community above the city for free.

About 1,000 riders a day use the free escalators and they’re mostly locals though travelers are welcome to make the journey too. Young local caretakers are stationed along the way armed with uniforms, walkie talkies and information about the escalators and the community. We talked to Jose for a while and he told us that crime in the area has gone down because of the increased traffic and attention the escalators brought to the community. Most of the walls around the escalators have been painted in bright and creative murals with names like “The Wait”, “New Horizons” and “The Lovers” by local artists.

You may be told that the escolaras are not safe, however, we spent more than an hour traveling on them, taking photos and talking to Jose and we never felt threatened.

Comuna 13 escalators - Medellin, Colombia

Murals with names like “The Wait”, “New Horizons” and “The Lovers” were commissioned from local artists to brighten up Medellin’s free Escolaras de Comuna 13.

Botanical Garden of Medellin: This is a true haven in the city. Opened in the late 19th century but expanded to more or less what you see today in 1972, the five acre Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden of Medellin is home to thousands of species of plants and flowers and is totally free for anyone who want to enjoy the open-air orchid house, a butterfly house, a cactus garden and peaceful paths and picnic areas right in the middle of the city. There’s also a very nice cafe with outdoor seating.

Butterfly Botanical garden Medellin, Colombia

Inside the butterfly house in the totally free Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden in Medellin.

Medellin Metrocable: In 2004 the city of Medellin inaugurated a system of aerial cable cars (like a ski lift without the snow) to provide transportation for residents of some of the poor communities that cover the hillsides around Medellin. The Medellin Metrocable, considered to be the first cable-propelled transit system in South America, also provides an exciting sight seeing ride with steep ascents and descents, spectacular views of the city below and an illuminating progression from developed city up into under developed areas and it’s free to ride up through the comunas if you’ve already purchased a Metro ticket.

Right now there are two Metrocable lines (J & K) that service several comunas. A third line (L) continues beyond the K line to Parque Arvi. The total length of the three Metrocable lines is 5.8 miles (9.3 km) Two new lines that are being constructed now will ultimately connect with the new Tranvia train line in the city.

Medellin Metrocable Linea J

Take the Metrocable (free with your 70 cent Metro ticket) for the best views down on the city of Medellin.

Up above the comunas tickets are required to travel on the L line (4,600 COP or about US$1.50 each way) which climbs even more steeply over forested hillsides and small farms. Your final destination is Parque Arvi, a large mountaintop protected area that is free to enter and features free geared mountain bike rental (including helmets) through the Enciclia network that we already mentioned, hiking trails, picnic areas, babbling brooks, a handful of restaurants and even a small farmer’s market in front of the Metrocable station at the top of the line.

Check out our time-lapse video, below, of the 24 minute 4.1 mile (6.6 km) ride up to Parque Arvi.

Medellin Museum of Modern Art:  Entry is based on a donation system at the Medellin Museum of Modern Art which is really just two loft-like rooms which house rotating shows. The installations we saw were interesting enough and the museum store is your best bet for souvenirs.

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Yeehaw – Medellin, Colombia

Travel to Antioquia province and you will soon see that it is the Texas of Colombia: sprawling, gritty, uncouth, proud and generally bigger, badder and better than the rest of the country (in its own not-to-humble opinion). Medellin, the capital of Antioquia, is all of those things times 10. Yeehaw!

View of Medellin Colombia

The city of Medellin, Colombia fills the Aburra Valley in Antioquia province.

How Antioquia and Medellin got that way

Like Texas, the people of Antioquia excel at raising cattle and crops and they’re savvy businessmen as well. One theory that we heard repeatedly says that you can blame the Spanish Inquisition for that.

During the Inquisition, Jews in the Spanish world (including Latin America) were faced with an unacceptable choice: convert or die. Jews in Colombia headed for the hills and many of them ended up in the (then) nearly inaccessible valleys of Antioquia where their business acumen (yes, it’s a stereotype) mingled with the agricultural skills of local campesinos.

Today the inhabitants of Antioquia and Medellin call themselves Paisas. You’ve all seen a Paisa. His name is Juan Valdez and even though Señor Valdez is a stereotypical fictional character created to sell Colombian coffee, you see dudes who look just like him in Medellin and all around Antioquia all the time.

Piasa Don Aristedes Medellin Santa Ana

Paisa Don Aristedes.

Colombians who live in the big, cosmopolitan capital of Bogota tend to deride Paisas as hicks (though they envy and sort of fear their business acumen). Us? We think Paisas give Medellin the feel of a country town that’s grown huge but is still just a country town at heart. You really do get the sense that if the modern amenities of Medellin disappeared tomorrow and the place reverted to its campesino roots few locals would mind and some would consider it an improvement. And we love that.

Leave your Medellin misconceptions at home

Yes, yes, yes. Not so long ago Medellin held the dubious honor of being the “murder capital of the world” (a distinction now held by San Pedro Sula, Honduras) thanks to narco terrorists like Pablo Escobar (who was killed in 1993) and other jokers including guerillas and paramilitary groups whose calling cards were random acts of violence which nearly crippled the country.

Grave of Pablo Escobar Medellin

Pablo Escobar’s grave in a cemetery in Medellin.

Over the past decade or so, violence across Colombia has been consistently falling including in Medellin where murder rates in the city dropped 34% in the first quarter of 2014. According to Insight Crime, a non-profit which monitors the threat of organized crime activity to citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean, Colombia is on track to have its least violent year in three decades.

The US State Department continues to warn about violence in Colombia and, like all cities, Medellin still has a crime problem. For example, while murder rates continue to drop, robbery is proving harder reduce. When he arrived in Medellin to shoot scenes for yet another Escobar-related movie (a film called “Mena”) actor Tom Cruise reportedly arrived with 12 body guards.

However, we’ve spent more than 16 months in Colombia – more than six months of that in Medellin – and we’ve only had one brush with crime or violence and that did not occur in Medellin but in a far-flung area near a known red zone (areas which the Colombian government concedes are under the control of FARC or other guerilla groups) where we were caught in the middle of a skirmish between FARC rebels and Colombian soldiers (more on that later).

So, pack your common sense but leave your misconceptions about Medellin at home.

Medellin vendor selling Chontaduro palm fruit

Vendor selling chontaduro palm fruit in central Medellin.

Modern Medellin

We’re not buying all the blind cheer leading by city officials who keep going on and on and on about things like the city’s 2013 ranking as “City of the Year” by the Wall Street Journal. Instead, we put our stock in our own experiences in the city. Here are a few illuminating observations.

Medellin (pronounced Med-uh-jheen) is the second largest city in Colombia with a population of nearly four million all living in the center of the large Aburra valley in the Central Andes which is about 35 miles (60 km) long 6 miles (10 km) wide at its widest. This means the city has the crowds and traffic, noise and pollution that comes with a population that big. There’s also a noticeable population of homeless people, stray dogs and other big city scourges that feel normal to New Yorkers like us.

On a more charming note, Medellin is teeming with vintage Renault Masters and we’re sort of loving their tiny, boxy, indestructible utilitarianism.

Medellin has an amazingly clean, cheap and efficient metro system. City officials spent months training locals about how to ride and respect the system before it was unveiled in 1995 and its cleanliness and civility put the New York City subway system to shame (admittedly, it carries a fraction of the passengers each day, but still).

Medellin Meto Linea B

Medellin’s Metro System is a point of pride and a clean, safe, efficient and cheap way to get around the city.

At one point we saw metro cars plastered with public service posters warning women to check out their doctor’s credentials before getting plastic surgery, which is a huge business in Medellin including boob and butt augmentations that some women seek out to get what’s been called the “Narco Beauty”.

Medellin Metrocable linea J

Medellin’s Metrocable serves the thousands of people who live in under-developed comunas on the hillsides around Medellin.

Medellin is located in a steep-walled valley with the city occupying the valley floor and the foothills and impoverished comunas creeping up and up and up the hillsides. Those poor neighborhoods have not necessarily benefited from city improvements like the metro system (which only operates in the valley) and that whole “City of the Year” thing, but the government has instituted some programs designed to improve life for comuna dwellers including an aerial tram system called the Metrocable that makes it much easier to get to and from the city and a library program that has built modern, book-filled structures in various comunas.

Biblioteca Espana Metrocable Medellin

Those ominous looking dark building is the Biblioteca Espana, one of a dozen or so libraries built in under-developed comunas that cover the hillsides around Medellin.

They call Medellin the city of eternal spring and that is one hyperbolic claim we can agree with. The city sits at an altitude of about  5,000 feet (1,525 meters) and the mountains that surrounded it rise to more than 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). This creates weather so temperate and predictable (basically a high of 80 and a low of 65 every single day) that very, very few homes have heating or air-conditioning or even fans. It’s simply not needed.

At least half of the city’s sidewalks have special ridged strips down the center leading to nubbed concrete at the corners. These are guides for the blind. They are also awesome.

There’s not much to do in Medellin, but come anyway

Medellin isn’t brimming with tourist attractions. There are no mind-blowing hotels (thought there are plenty of hostels, mid range guesthouses like 61Prado and a few hotels that manage boutique or business class status and the hotel game might be upped now that Donald Trump has spent almost US$90 million for a hotel in Medellin). We can count the truly memorable Medellin restaurants on one hand (looking at you Carmen, Humo BBQ & Grill, Bonuar and El Cielo). However, we love the city and we think you will too.

Here’s a short list of some things to do and see in Medellin including craft beer, flower parades, interactive science, art and extreme eating. And stay tuned for our upcoming post about totally FREE things to do in Medellin.

By far the city’s biggest claim to fame is its annual Flower Festival which happens around August every year and celebrates Antioquia’s flower growing heritage, proud Paisa culture and general love of a good party. We’ve been in Medellin for two consecutive Flower Festivals and you can check out the flowers, tradition, parades and controversies in this series of Flower Festival posts.

Medellin Flower Parade

Part of the splendor of the annual Flower Festival in Medellin.

Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero was born in Medellin and his art still flavors the city though the artist hasn’t lived full-time in Colombia in years. Botero donated hundreds of works of art from his personal collection, including pieces by modern masters as well as his own sculptures and paintings, to the excellent Museo de Antioquia in central Medellin (10,000 COP or about US$3.50).

Botero paintings Museum of Antioquia Medellin

Paintings by Medellin native Fernando Botero in the excellent Museo de Antioquia.

In front of the museum is Botero Plaza which is filled with the artist’s enormous, proportionately exaggerated bronze sculptures. The plaza is a free public space and the museum is well worth the entry fee both for the art collection and the chance to check out the building itself.

Plaza Botero Sculptures Medellin

Botero bronze sculptures fill Botero Plaza in front of the Museo de Antioquia.

Parque Explora (15,000 COP or about US$5) opened in 2007 and is a massive interactive science center particularly interesting to kids and geeks of all ages. There’s an aquarium (the largest in Latin America), principles of science exhibits that demonstrate ideas like gravity and perspective and rotating special exhibits with themes like “Water”.

Parque Explorer Medellin illusion

Us taking part in one of the interactive science exhibits at Parque Explora in Medellin.

If you really want to piss off the locals, go on one of the many Pablo Escobar tours of the city that take in attractions like his grave, the building where he was killed on the roof in 1992, etc. Before you book anything, learn more about the thorny issue of Escobar tourism in this award-winning piece we did for RoadsAndKingdoms.com.

ApostleBrewery tour Medellin

Craft beer at Apostle Brewery in Medellin, just one of a growing number of local microbreweries.

In recent years Medellin has seen a surge in craft brew making and craft brew drinking. Three local breweries also offer brewery tours and a variety of special party nights. Get the details about the craft brew scene in Medellin in this piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com.

For the less fancy, there’s this option: Drinking beers in front of small tiendas which double as neighborhood bars, is a commonplace throughout Colombia. However, Medellin seems to do it best with interesting places to sit among locals and enjoy a cheap Pilsner or Aguilla beer every few blocks in the city.We found some of these spots, generally with large TVs, to be some of the best places to hang out and watch beloved local futbol teams Atlético Nacional (which just turned down a buyout offer from Donald Trump) and Independiente Medellín on game days (Wednesdays and Sundays).

Independiente Medellin Madonna mosaic Estadio Metro

Medellin’s passion for futbol (aka soccer) runs deep. This mosaic, found at the Estadio (Stadium) Metro stop depicts Madonna dressed in the colors of one of the two rival teams in the city. She’s even holding a soccer ball.

Medellin has an active nightlife scene with bars and clubs centered in several areas of the city, most famously around Parque Lleras. If you wander La Setenta (Calle 70th between the Estadio and Laureles neighborhoods) on a Saturday night you’re in for some great people watching as the city gears up to party and Paisas from all walks of life spill into the streets from a wide array of clubs, bars and restaurants.

We do not recommend that you partake in the seedy, sketchy side of the nightlife scene in Medellin. Prostitution is legal in Colombia but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t incarnations of it that are downright reprehensible.

Just like in Texas, Paisas love their meat and you really shouldn’t leave Medellin without trying the local dish. Called Bandeja Paisa, it’s a vegetarian’s nightmare and a heart surgeon’s dream. Check it out in this previous post we did, all about our first Bandeja Paisa.

Bandeja Paisa Medellin dish

Yes, this is ONE serving of Bandeja Paisa featuring beans, chicharon (fried meaty pork skin) morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo, a fried egg, an arepa and a slice of avacado.

Bandeja Paisa is best washed down with a shot or two of Aguardiente Antioqueño, the local version of Colombia’s beloved aguardiente which is a distilled cane spirit spiked with anise. Every region of the country has their own version of the stuff. Here’s what happened the first time we tried aguardiente.


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Photo Essay: Colorful Colonial Buildings in Cartagena, Colombia

This post is part 7 of 7 in the series Cartagena Travel Guide

We’ve traveled to more than our share of world-class preserved Colonial cities, including Antigua, Guatemala and the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Both are gorgeous, but both are handily outdone by the beauty and ambiance of the restored Colonial architecture in the petite, walkable historic center of Cartagena, Colombia. Everywhere you look in this UNESCO World Heritage Site city, which was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century, you see fabulous color, playful details (the door knockers are amazing, for example) and living history. Here are some of our favorite examples of colorful Colonial buildings in Cartagena.

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IMG_5837_CartagenaIMG_5762_Cartagena IMG_0760_Cartagena IMG_5781_Cartagena IMG_5904_Cartagena IMG_5925_Cartagena IMG_6058_Cartagena IMG_6091_Cartagena IMG_6109_Cartagena IMG_6758_Cartagena IMG_0749_Cartagena IMG_5706_Cartagena IMG_5836_Cartagena IMG_5872_Cartagena IMG_5894_Cartagena IMG_6124_Cartagena

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Photo Essay: The Heart of Street Art – Cartagena, Colombia

This post is part 6 of 7 in the series Cartagena Travel Guide

The street art tradition is alive and well in Cartagena, Colombia where works by modern graffitti and street art legends from Colombia and around the world, including Dj Lu – Juegasiempre, Lik Me, Fin DAC, Yurika MDC, M.R. Love and DEXS, mingle with historic Colonial architecture in this UNESCO World Heritage Site city. The city’s Getsemani neighborhood is the heart of Cartagena’s street art, particularly on Calle de la Sierpe which was the site of 2010’s Pedro Romero Vive Aqui (Pedro Romero Lives Here) street art project. Some of the original work from that project still exists and new pieces are added all the time. The following shots are some of our favorite examples of street art in Cartagena, taken during different visits to the city over the past year. Enjoy.

fin DAC street art Getsemani Cartagena de indias Colombia DJ Lu - Juegasiempre street mural Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Pedro Romero street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Dexs street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia fin DAC street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Pedro Romero street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia M.R. Love street mural Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Pedro Romero street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Yurika MDC street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Lik Me hola street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Street mural Getsemani Cartagena Colombia street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia Pedro Romero street art Getsemani Cartagena Colombia


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Photo Essay: The Knockers of Cartagena, Colombia

This post is part 5 of 7 in the series Cartagena Travel Guide

The restored Colonial center of Cartagena, Colombia was not made a UNESCO World Heritage Site solely on the merits of its knockers, but they didn’t hurt. Here are a few of our favorite knockers of Cartagena: over-sized, whimsical and artistic.

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Cartagena Travel Guide: 13 Top Things To Do in Colombia’s Sexiest City – Cartagena, Colombia

This post is part 4 of 7 in the series Cartagena Travel Guide

The the main thing to do in Cartagena is simply gawk at the city’s beauty. We’ve visited plenty of lovingly restored Colonial towns in Latin America, but Cartagena is even more beautiful than stunners like Antigua, Guatemala or the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. Cartagena not only expects to be stared at, it deserves it with a languid Caribbean vibe, intense history and gorgeous restored Colonial architecture in the city’s historic center (which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984). After more than a month in Cartagena, here are our 13 top things to do besides wander the Colonial streets (and one thing to avoid).

Torre del Reloj Cartagena, Colombia

El Torre del Reloj, or the Clock Tower, marks a major entrance into the walled city of Cartagena, Colombia.

Things to do in Cartagena

The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (San Felipe de Barajas Fort), in the nearby Getsemani neighborhood, is the most robust fort the Spanish ever built and it still looks impenetrable. Construction began in 1536 and it was expanded in the mid 1600s. It’s been impressively restored and its stony bulk still dominates San Lázaro hill. Bring a flashlight since visitors are allowed into some of the interior corridors and tunnels which can be dark. There’s little shade so try to arrive when the fort opens at 8 am to beat the heat and avoid weekends if you can. That’s when Colombians can enter the fort for free and the place gets packed.

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas - Cartagena, Colombia

The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (San Felipe de Barajas Fort) in Cartagena.

Cartagena’s Museum of Modern Art, on Plaza de San Pedro Claver, is small and we honestly weren’t expecting much. However, the two-story facility turned out to be home to a nice collection mostly by Colombian artists including Enrique Grau.

Church San Pedro Claver Plaza Cartagena

Lovely San Pedro Claver Plaza in Cartagena.

If you’re into torture devices, visit the Palacio de la Inquisición (Inquisition Palace) just off Plaza Bolivar is where you can see art, artifacts and bona fide torture devices used during the Spanish Inquisition. The building also has a small window from which inquisitors would shout out death sentences for those who didn’t pass their religious scrutiny.

Palacio de la Inquisición Museum torture Cartagena

Just a few of the bona fide torture devices used by Spanish inquisitors, on display in the Palace of the Inquisition Museum in Cartagana.

Colombia’s only Nobel prize winner, writer Gabriel García Márquez, was inspired by Cartagena and lived in the city off and on until his death in 2014. Many of the author’s most famous works, including Love in the Time of Cholera, The General in His Labyrinth, and Love and Other Demons, were set in the city.Those who want to get a bit more Gabo, as the author was called, can book the self-guided Gabo’s Cartagena audio walking tour (US$17 including an audio guide in five languages, including English, and a printed route map). True García Márquez fans will want to take part in the three-hour guided Route of Garcia Marquez tour which takes in 37 sites in historic central Cartagena, all of which are directly linked to scenes and characters from the author’s work and life (US$145 for one person, US$20 per person after that; participants must have read the books mentioned above).

sculpture Cartagena, Colombia

A local relaxes with some playful outdoor sculpture in the historic center of Cartagena.

We happily spent four days wandering the streets of Getsemani on our own, soaking in the bohemian vibe and the street art. However, there are a number of innovative and illuminating tours of the neighborhood available like the three-hour Explore Getsemani Tour (US$35 per person including bilingual guides) which includes lots of neighborhood history, drop-ins with locals, visits to shops and art studios, cocktails on Plaza Trinidad and a donation to a local charity built into your tour fee.

wedding Plaza Trinidad Getsemani Cartagena

The church in Plaza Trinidad in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena is a popular spot for wedding and for wedding photography.

Even non-photographers will be tempted to grab a camera in photogenic Cartagena. Perfect those travel snaps on the four-hour Foto Tour (US$80 per person for groups of 2-6 people) during which Colombian professional photographer Joaquín Sarmiento (he’s shot for Reuters, the New York Times and Colombia’s El Tiempo, Semana and El Espectador publications) leads participants through the city dispensing technical photography tips and practical advice.

From the Cartagena Music Festival to the star-studded International Film Festival to the Hay Festival which celebrates all forms of creativity, Cartagena plays host to a nearly year-round calendar of annual festivals.

Carribean cartagena Colombia

You’ll have to buy some fruit before the costumed street vendors in Cartagena will let you take their picture.

Best on a budget

Though soccer is the undisputed sporting king in Latin America, Colombians on the Caribbean coast also love baseball and every Sunday Avenida El Pedregal in the Getsemani neighborhood is closed to traffic and transformed into a makeshift diamond for women’s softball teams. Find a perch on the centuries-old Spanish-built wall that runs along this street and you’ve got the best seat in the stadium.

Womens softball league Cartagena Colombia

Sunday softball in the streets of the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena.

The Zenú Gold Museum on Plaza Bolivar is home to a collection of more than 500 pieces of exquisitely crafted gold jewelry and iconography made by the Zenú people who flourished in Colombia from the 16th century. Amazingly, the museum is free.

 Zenu Gold Museum, Plaza Bolivar Cartagena

Hundreds of intricate gold artifacts are on display in the (free) Zenú Gold Museum in Cartagena.

Normally visitors have to pay a fee if they want to go inside the massive Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. However, during noon time mass the doors are open and all are welcomed in for free. Inside, there’s a gilded altar and massive carved doors and it’s certainly worth a visit.

interior  Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria cartagena

Inside the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in Cartagena.

To protect the city from pirates and other attackers, the Spanish built massive walls around Cartagena. Developed and expanded over 200 years, the city was eventually completely enclosed by more than six miles (11 km) of walls and fortresses. Much of these walls still exist, particularly along the side of the city that fronts the Caribbean. There are access points that let you climb to the top of the walls and walk along their wide expanse, which is particularly pleasant near sunset when the temperature starts to cool and the sky is spectacular.

City walls Cartagena Colombia

Walking the Spanish-built walls that encircle Cartagena.

Worthy Splurge

The beaches around Cartagena on mainland Colombia are nothing to write home about but there are plenty of options for day trips to nearby islands where the beaches are spectacular. Colombia Direct offers day trips in speed boats or yachts with catered lunches (from sandwiches to more gourmet fare) that get you to the protected Rosario Islands archipelago, about 60 miles (100 km) off the mainland, and back in style. Island picnics start at about US$35 per person plus the cost of the fully staffed and equipped boat of your choice.

View of historic Cartagena from city walls

A view of historic Cartagena from on top of the Spanish built walls that surround the city.


Though conditions for the horses that pull carriages through the historic center of Cartagena have improved in recent years following accusations of widespread neglect, there’s still little regulation. You’ll see more of the city on foot anyway and also have the freedom to duck into a chic shop or grab a cocktail or a paletta as you ramble.

For clued-in, up-to-the-minute information about hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs and events in Cartagena, check out Ti Cartagena.

To get the full Cartagena Travel Guide, check out our top hotels in Cartagena and our top places to eat and drink in Cartagena.

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