If you’re planning a trip to Cartagena and you’ve spent some time researching the best things to do, there are a couple of things you already know you can expect: perfectly preserved history, palm-fringed plazas, fantastic food and sun-soaked streets. The queen of the Caribbean has many attractions in its sprawling, centuries-old center, but what about the experiences that lie off the beaten track? Cartagena is full of surprises – you just have to know where to find them.
Travel restrictions are still changing constantly, so be sure to research these places or activities before planning your trip, and check out Colombia’s COVID-19 guide for updated travel information.
Here are the top hidden gems in Cartagena, shared with us by the locals who call the city home.
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Instituto Geográfico Agustín Codazzi
There’s no lack of busy squares surrounded by popular stores and restaurants, but Cartagena has plenty to see further afield. Stroll past the famous plazas in the Old Town to uncover secret passages leading between tiny craft stores and balconies dripping with bougainvillea. Get an Instagram moment away from the bustle at the Geographic Institute, an architectural wonder covered in tropical flowers and one of Cartagena’s best-kept secrets. Admire the building, snap a few photos, and visit the nearby art vendors to see a 100% authentic version of the colorful Colombian aesthetic.
Calle de la Sierpe
Much of the Colombian art you see on a trip in Cartagena won’t be on canvases, but on walls. Seek out some of the street art tucked away down hidden alleys that few visitors even know exist. One of these streets is gritty, grungy Calle de la Sierpe, whose walls are plastered in colorful but powerful political imagery. Between the murals sit houses painted in bright red, yellow and orange, adding another dimension of color and quirk. You’ll feel like you’re in a living museum.
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Ábaco Libros y Café
Blink and you might miss this bookstore-cross-coffee-shop in the heart of the walled Old Town. Ábaco Libros y Café is one of the top hidden gems in Cartagena because it feels like something from a fairytale. Duck inside this cozy nook, where floor-to-ceiling bookshelves hide all sorts of local treasures. Pick a book to flip through and grab a steaming cup of Colombian coffee, then sit down at one of the rustic wooden tables to spend a relaxed few hours exactly as a laid-back local would.
The Palace of the Inquisition
The Palace of the Inquisition is one of the city’s most perfect examples of Spanish colonial architecture. Constructed in 1770, today the Palace is a popular spot for locals to relax under the shade of the trees. But the building’s beauty belies its dark history: This Baroque masterpiece was once the torture palace of the Spanish Inquisition, and the palm tree-lined courtyard leads to a secret prison and torture chambers. Today, many of the torture devices are still on display in the museum. It’s a chilling snapshot of the past that can be uncomfortable to bear witness to, but it’s well worth the visit to learn more about Cartagena’s history.
The door knockers
Stroll through the streets lined with relics of Cartagena’s colonial history, and you’ll notice plenty of historic features, from cobbled lanes to brightly-painted homes that are hundreds of years old. But one particular element stands out (if you know to look for them): The detailed door knockers of Cartagena. These hidden gems of Cartagena are so small, you might not notice them at all. But pay attention to the colorful colonial buildings and you’ll notice opulent ornamental door knockers, each more intricate than the last. Centuries ago, these door knockers symbolized a homeowner’s social status. Today, they’re a gorgeous piece left over from the past.
One of Cartagena’s best hidden gems is a mud bath with a difference. About 45 minutes out of the crowded city center lies Totumo Volcano, one of the world’s smallest volcanoes. Legend has it Totumo once spat fire and lava, until a priest sprinkled holy water into its glowing mouth, transforming it into what it is today: a mud bath! That’s right – Totumo is a mud volcano, and Cartagena locals love taking the trip out to bathe in its (supposedly) healing mud. If you’re not afraid to get down and dirty, pack your swimsuit and board a bus to the thick gray mud, where you can join locals splashing and floating in the cavernous crater, then wash off in the nearby lagoon. Who doesn’t love a good spa day?
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Cartagena Choco Museo
Ever wanted to craft your own chocolate? Of course you have. And in that case, head to Cartagena’s Choco Museo, the only chocolate museum in Colombia. Book a workshop that lets you make chocolate from bean to bar while learning about the history of cocoa in South America. You’ll get to taste traditional cocoa drinks, try plenty of samples, and produce your very own bar of chocolate. Can you think of a sweeter way to spend a couple of hours?
Who says you only have to travel on foot or by car? Take a water taxi to Tierrabomba Island just a few miles off the coast of Cartagena! Locals make the 15-minute (yes, it really is that close) trip to the white sands and thatched umbrellas of Tierrabomba regularly for a day spent lounging in the sun, eating freshly-caught seafood and swimming in the crystal-blue waters. You can see the full city skyline right here from the island, so be sure to take your camera along for a fantastic photo opportunity.
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