4 Active Adventures in Cartagena de Indias7 min read
Going on vacation to a beach town doesn’t mean you have to be a beach bum.
In the colorful coastal city of Cartagena, Colombia, for instance, there are many active things to do in between soaking up the sun on Playa Blanca and scarfing down arepas from one of the many street vendors.
My husband and I visited Cartagena for the first time (our first trip to Colombia or even South America) a couple of weeks ago, and we spent an entire week in just this old colonial town, which has now become a thriving seaside city of 5-star resorts, boutique stores, upscale restaurants and rooftop bars.
At first, we were worried we may not find enough things to do for one week, but we managed to plan several activities that allowed us to absorb the history and culture firsthand while also working off all of the queso costeño. Here are four active adventures to check out in Cartagena that will enhance your understanding and appreciation of Colombia’s jewel city.
Walking Tour of the Old City and Getsamani
- Fitbit miles logged: 7.59
- Fitbit calories burned: 2,687
- Fitbit steps: 18,251
Cartagena’s Old Walled City and the colorful neighborhood of Getsamani, where the working class once lived, are by far the most popular areas to visit in this former Spanish colony. It was named Cartagena de Indias (or Cartagena of the Indies) to distinguish it from the city in Spain after which it was named.
The wall protected the riches that the Spanish had taken from the indigenous people of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, and defended it from the attacks of foreign entities and pirates.
We found that the best way to truly experience the city was by walking or biking the streets, although horse-drawn carriage tours were available. On foot you will pass by palanqueras, or Afro-Colombian women who sell tropical fruit along the street. By walking, you can gaze at the balconies overflowing with fountains of bougainvillea, and notice the elaborate doors of the homes, each adorned with an animal symbol on the door knocker. According to Jan Hubner, a tour guide with Cartagena Connections, the symbols on the doors represented what kind of family lived in the homes. For instance, marine animals represented merchants, lions represented military officials, and lizards represented royalty, Hubner said.
Walking through the city is easy: From the ocean views of Café del Mar at the west end of the old walled city to the lively cultural center of Ciudad Movil at the east end of Getsamani, it only takes 20-25 minutes by foot, so go ahead and take your time to weave back and forth through the streets at leisure, working from west to east to check out the boutique stores, churches, museums and restaurants.
You won’t want to miss the variety of colorful houses in Getsamani, either, each painted a different color because it was once required by the governing entities.
Snorkeling at the Rosario Islands
- Calorielab estimate: Roughly 200-240 calories burned
There are several smaller islands off the coast of Cartagena to which you can take day trips by boat. The Rosario Islands, so named because they resemble a string of rosary beads, are one of the most popular and beautiful day-trip destinations from Cartagena, and were recommended to us by several people (tour operators, our concierge, and even some taxi drivers).
We left the port of Cartagena at around 10 a.m. It took us about 45 minutes by boat to get from the port to the islands, and specifically, to the big island where the Gente Del Mar resort is located. Once you arrive, you can enjoy a frosty beverage, swim in the warm waters, or play beach volleyball to burn some calories from lunch.
We chose to rent snorkel gear and take a boat excursion about five minutes from the island to a recovering coral reef. When we got there, we found that almost all of the coral were dead, but the reef was still thriving with several varieties of colorful fish pecking at its porous branches.
With a lifejacket on, trying to stay with the group and swim in the right direction in these waters took a lot of effort, especially without fins, so I got my cardio exercise in for the day just by trying to swim through the currents.
It was worth it though. You can see plenty of vibrant fish in these shallow waters, and even small sharks if you’re lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you view it. We did not, and I considered myself lucky). We swam for about 45 minutes to one hour before we got back onto the boat and to the main island, where we had a traditional Colombian lunch that included coconut rice and fried plantains. Fried snapper is usually the main meal on these tours, but vegetarians can request pasta or mixed vegetables.
Mountain Biking in Tierrabomba
- Fitbit miles logged, including our salsa dancing night: 9.7 (Roughly 6 from biking)
- Fitbit calories burned: 3,382
- Fitbit steps: 23,331
The island of Tierrabomba, which means “land of bombs,” was a strategic position that allowed the Spanish to defend the riches they had collected and stored in Cartagena. Today, the island is inhabited by a population of about 9,000 people—mostly fishermen or the people who work for the wealthy business people who own lavish estates on this island.
We were greeted at our hotel by one of the founders of Bomba Bike Cartagena, Valerie Thuillier. She had all the gear we would need for the excursion, including the bikes, helmets, and backpacks filled with water bottles. We biked a short way to the beach behind our hotel, where a small boat collected and transported us to Tierrabomba. Then, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., escorted by guides on motorbikes and under the scorching rays of an unforgiving noon sun, we mountain biked through the uneven, dusty terrain of this island, past fishing villages, and to Bateria del Angel San Rafael and the Fuerte de San Fernando de Bocachica, so named because it protected the “small mouth” of the waterway that led to the bay by Cartagena.
From the battery, which is a lesser known or visited attraction today, soldiers used to launch bombs facing the land—a curious idea but necessary for Cartagena, because not all enemies would arrive by sea, Thuillier said. Eventually, invading ships would have to go around the island of Tierrabomba through the entryway by Bocachica, forced to pass by the defenses of the San Fernando fort. This was because an underwater wall had been built from Bocagrande on the mainland to the island of Tierrabomba, and the wall prevented ships from passing through the wider passage, lest they damage their ships’ hulls. Even today, the underwater wall forces cargo and cruise ships to enter the bay from the Bocachica side.
There were no shortcuts for us on the bikes either.
Biking through Tierrabomba was a challenge for me in the heat, especially along the bumpy dirt pathways. However, I am glad I experienced this adventure to learn more about the area’s history. The locals are direct descendants of the African slaves transported to Cartagena by the Spanish, and at lunchtime, when we had a traditional Colombian meal along the beach at the base of the hill where the battery is located, it was relaxing to watch young local children frolicking in the waves.
Dancing the Night Away
Seeing the youth so carefree on the beach that day inspired us to let loose, too.
On any given night in the bars and nightclubs of Cartagena, you will see people dancing to the beat of bongos and the tune of trumpets. Influenced by the indigenous people, Spanish colonizers, the Africans and the Cubans over centuries, Cartagena offers a fusion of different music and dance styles, with salsa and champeta being the most prevalent, according to Brayan Muñoz, a tour guide with Scarlet Macaw Trips.
Even in the open spaces such as Plaza de la Trinidad in Getsamani, people gather to chat, catch up, and occasionally a boom-box will start blaring music and a handful of people will start to break dance in the center.
We didn’t want to miss out on the fun.
On the same day we went mountain biking, I thought we would be exhausted after our exertions in the sun, but in fact, after a thorough shower and short repose at the hotel, we decided to take a salsa class in the evening, at Crazy Salsa. Dances classes here range from beginner (stepping back and forth in line or side to side to the music) to intermediate and advanced with turns. Group classes are typically offered from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. throughout the day on weekdays for about 25,000 to 30,000 pesos per person ($10-15). We took a very basic beginner class just so we would have something to do when we visited Donde Fidel and Café Havana later in the week.
Following our class, we felt confident enough to stop by Donde Fidel after dinner to try out our new moves, and it made for a memorable experience.
From walking to dancing, and from land to sea, you will find that you will hardly get bored exploring this vibrant Caribbean city. By choosing active adventures, you will be able to witness and experience the rich history and traditions that have shaped Cartagena’s society today.