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Cartagena on a Budget: How to Plan a Fun-Filled 4-Day Trip With Friends Without Breaking the Bank!

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

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Hey babes! I am back from my first-ever visit to Cartagena (one of South America’s most vibrant cities) and couldn’t be more excited to share what I saw and experienced in Colombia during a 4-day fun-filled girl’s trip vacation.

I intend for this travel guide to be a helpful one-stop-shop/know-before-you-go resource; especially for those looking to visit the area for the first time like I did.

If you find planning a trip to Colombia to be too overwhelming, I am here for you and would be more than happy to help, by taking the travel planning off your plate so you can enjoy preparing for the vacation and remain stress-free.

Cartagena Fast facts: Know before you go

💰 Currency: The official currency in Cartagena is the Colombia Peso (COP).

In the country’s main tourist destinations, such as Bogotá, Santa Marta, Barranquilla, Cali, Medellín, Cartagena, San Andrés, Pereira or Bucaramanga, you can pay for your purchases in cash, or with debit or credit cards.

Before using your debit or credit cards in Colombia, make sure you inquire if your bank is going to charge you a commission for withdrawals made abroad.

If you find yourself in Cartagena and in need of peso it is best to get the currency locally for the best conversion rate.

We pulled peso’s from an ATM inside of the shopping mall located inside of the ‘walled city’ and had no issues at all.

You can use this site to better understand the PESO / USD conversion rate.

🇨🇴 Language: Most Colombians speak Spanish and English has official status in the San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina Islands.

Contrary to other Latin American countries that I have visited, I found that in Cartagena some spoke and understood English but many did not, so it’s in one’s best interest to have a few Spanish phrases in your back pocket or the least a conversational understanding to avoid a significant language barrier during your trip.

When traveling, make the google translate app your best friend and refer to it when needed. You can also take a photo of a menu, sign, etc and the app can translate for you on the spot.

✈️ How do I get there:

Getting to Cartagena isn’t difficult at all. My friends and I came from two different states (FL & TX) in the US and had about a 4-hour flight max from our location to the next.

We flew Copa airlines as it was easiest when it came to flight avail. We had a layover in Panama departing and returning, but the connecting flight was only 45 mins to an hour tops.

By plane, be sure to fly into Rafael Núñez International Airport.

🚗 Getting around:

Just like the United States, Cartagena has taxis, Ubers, and public transit, however when visiting Colombia for tourism, especially for solo travelers or visiting for the first time I recommend using a private transfer service to avoid any harassment or hassle with taxis and any potential issues with Uber service while at the airport… an area with prominent potential for scams.

You can easily enter your travel dates and budget here to locate a private driver to pick you up when you land in Cartagena.

Safety Tips for Using Uber in Colombia

✅ Always take a picture of your Uber driver’s license plate.

Use Uber’s “share-ride” feature to share your trip with your emergency contacts in real-time.

✅ Ask your Uber driver for your name before getting in the car.

🌎 What are the entry requirements:

You can find the latest entry requirements here. The main one is, making sure your passport has at minimum 6 months before it expires.

☀️ When is the best time to visit:

December to March and June to September are generally considered the best months to visit Cartagena. but honestly, Colombia has great weather year-round with temps around the mid-80s. Keep in mind that June is the hottest month weather wise.

🚑 Insurance: It is always a good idea to protect your investment in travel. Whether you get sick, lose your phone, anything could happen during your vacation and having travel insurance gives you the peace of mind you need to have a safe and successful trip.

Where to stay in Cartagena

There are great hotel options in Cartagena, especially on the luxury side. Such as Casa San Augustin, Sofitel Baru in Casablance Beach and Sofitel legend in Santa Clara. All are 5 star properties with luxury amenities that American’s are accustomed to.

During our visit in the Spring we stayed at hotel Estelar in Cartagena.

This property put us less than 10 minutes driving from the dock (where we went for transport to and from the beach clubs), less than 6 minutes from local market places and shops and major tourist attractions like the “walled city”.

We didn’t have to sacrifice comfort or luxury for proximity convenience with Estelar Hotel. It is a 4-star property that offers breakfast, an infinity pool, and a lively rooftop bar with stunning views of Cartagena.

For a 4-night stay, our total for the hotel with the breakfast included package was less than $800USD.

** Not to mention when we used ride-share services like Uber, we never had a problem getting paired with someone, they are always in close distance from the hotel given its prime location!

Estelar’s rooftop bar is called Sky 51 placing you at the top of the hotel building, with great views. They have a live DJ to set the atmosphere and the crowd was mixed in age during our visit.

My only qualm is that I wish the rooftop menu presented more options.

Given its limits, we opted for their ceviche and “pepperoni sandwich” which was decent.

Things to do in Cartagena

Cartagena is filled with rich culture and history and there are tons of tours and excursions. My friends and I wanted to experience the area’s history while not missing out on the party potential and atmosphere.

With that, we spent one day in Palenque to learn about the incredible afro-latina culture there and another day we relaxed beachside at the immaculate Bora Bora beach club that puts you about an hour boat ride away from Cartagena proper.

You can enter your travel destination, dates and interest here and easily find other fun things to do during your next trip!

Visit the ‘Walls of Cartagena’

The ‘Walls of Cartagena’ or ‘the walled city’ was built for the defense of the city. The project lasted nearly two centuries and ended in 1796, constructed with the aim of defending the city from the continuous pirate attacks that it suffered.

This historical hotspot is surrounded by imposing stone walls that are complemented by fortifications and bastions, from which you can watch wonderful sunsets over the Colombian Caribbean.

Compared to other parts of Colombia, and even other neighborhoods in Cartagena, the ‘Walled City’ is known for its goods and services being on the pricier side.

Here is where you can easily find hotels, some of Colombia’s best restaurants and row after row of designer boutiques, and even a shopping mall (yes… you read that right lol)

I knew during our trip I wanted to learn more about the Palenque culture and people and I saw tons of videos and photos of other travelers sharing that they saw the “palenqueras” Black women in colorful dresses expertly balancing bowls of tropical fruit on their heads, they saw them within the ‘walled city.”

For a photo with the “palenqueras” we paid $5USD per person, there’s not a set price per say, as the women will often come up to you, ask if you want a photo and give you a price on the spot, a price that’s often negotiable.

We didn’t have a problem paying the rate that they asked because we knew that the majority of these women are doing this to make an honest living. Literally day in and day out they are at the ‘walled city’ seeking out those who want to post in a photo with them… more often with tourists. Out of respect for them and their means to survive it’s best that you not try and sneak a photo or anything.

The ATM that we used to get our currency converted was nearby, literally within walking distance, so if you don’t have peso or USD on hand, there are tons of ATMs in the area so you can have cash on hand to pay for a photo with a “palenqueras” or for any other goods or services within the ‘walled city’.

Be warned: the ‘walled city’ is known for welcoming tons of tourists which makes it an ideal place ‘hawkers’ hotspot – to be honest we weren’t in the ‘walled city’ for 5 minutes before a young child came up to us asking for money to buy food or a block walk later a mother carrying a child came up to us asking for money to buy pampers.

If you are not used to this type of experience I recommend avoiding it during your trip honestly, but if you are able to say no and carry on and not be easily influenced or impacted by the multi-levels of activity and calls for your attention then have at it.

Overall, I enjoyed seeing the ‘walled city’ and appreciate the variety of shops and dining and even rooftops. I advise you to pack your patience when going as a tourist visiting the area.

Visit the Sofia hotel rooftop

Address: Calle 32, de la Aduana, Cra. 45 #26c4, Cartagena, Cartagena de Indias, Bolívar, Colombia.

In the ‘Walled City’ there’s tons of rooftops to choose from. We had originally set our eyes on the Movich rooftop, but there was a private event happening the same night, so we went to Sofia hotel to check out their rooftop and it didn’t disappoint!

Located in Old Town Cartagena, the Sophia Hotel offers an incredible terrace to view the beauty of the city from above.

The Sophia Rooftop has a nice rooftop pool, loungers, and great bites and drinks. We got the shrimp ceviche and a cocktail for the evening.

The rooftop bar offers crafted signature cocktails as well as tropical and refreshing classics.

The food from the menu offers a nice selection of Caribbean-inspired bites.

The rooftop decor is modern and stylish, as you overlook the walled city as you witness the “old and new” in real time in Cartagena.

We were complete walk-ins on a Friday night to this rooftop and had no wait or delay in being seated, there was live music, the customer service was great and at the end of the night there were fireworks which was super cool and magical!

Nice vibes, affordably priced menu, would definitely recommend this to other tourists visiting as well.

Visit ‘Bora Bora’ Beach Club

There are tons of beach clubs to choose from in Cartagena. Some that are close to the Cartagena itself and others that have a bit of distance to travel but still so worth it!

For our trip we opted to relax at Bora Bora Beach Club, its a private beach club on the Rosario Islands and is known to throw a good party.

With a live DJ, food, drinks, everything you’d need for a relxing beach day is at your disposal.

The boat ride from Cartagena to Rosario is about 45 minutes to an hour.

We got the day pass with access to the VIP area, which I highly recommend if you like the idea of being next to the “party” with the DJ, better access to the beach, etc.

Our VIP package included

– Lunch

– Welcome drink

– Boat transport

** You pay extra for food and drinks outside of the package options. Such as breakfast, extra alcohol, deserts, etc.

Our VIP package came to a total of about $180USD for two people and with the extras (food / drinks) that we ordered when we were there it was another $100USD for the both of us.

We considered that a fair pricing scale as many know coming from America, a beach club in Miami or a rooftop in Vegas can cost you thousands easily.

When you purchase your package, you will be instructed to arrive to the Muelle de la Bodeguita dock/fishing pier by 7:30AM as the Bora Bora boat takes guests to the island promptly at 8AM.

You will be assigned boats based on the order of arrival. You will need to pay marine tax in cash (this is paid to the pier/dock directly, so it is not included in your VIP package purchase).

** Forewarning the boat ride is a speed boat, the Bora Bora team offers life vests for your protection and the waves can be choppy and if you are someone with limited swimming ability or a fear of large bodies of water keep all of this in mind before you book a day pass to Bora Bora as traveling to the island can only be done by water.

Visit Palenque for a cultural tour

My absolute favorite part of the trip has to be the tour of Palenque.

The tour company is local and family owned and operated and each tour visit directly supports the people of the community.

  • The tour package includes

  • Transportation (air conditioning vehicle)

  • Lunch

  • English-speaking tour guide

Duration: 6 hours approx. From 8:00 am to 3:00 pm approx

This village is still thriving today and is where many ancient African practices are still alive and well, including a language called ‘Bantú’, which is a mix of Spanish and Portuguese), the village still maintains its traditional music and dances, way of living, customs, traditional medicine, and spiritual beliefs.

The village is declared by UNESCO as a “world cultural heritage site” and is home to the first world boxing champion, Antonio Cervantes “Kid Pambele” and the first Afro-Colombian movie actor “Evaristo Marquez”, who made a movie with Marlon Brando in 1968 called La Quemada.

Palenque Colombia

The tour is a mix of walking and sightseeing from the air conditioned bus, where you will have the chance to see around the community of Palenque, visit a local home to interact with the natives, visit the school of music and arts to enjoy a performance by the students of a traditional dance style.

The tour guide was immensely knowledgeable about the village, its people, and its rich history. The village of Palenque is about 45 mins to an hour away from Cartagena proper.

During the tour, it was interesting to learn how the locals of Palenque were able to escape from their captors by being helped by their leader BENKOS BIOHO (who organized escapes just like Harriet Tubman did in the US) and to learn how African men were supported by African women who built maps and roads in their hair braiding to get oriented in the woods and make it to the village where they would make it to freedom.

Fascinating, right?!

Would I visit Colombia again?

Cartagena is a unique place in that, you can visit here with a couple hundred dollars and vacation lavishly given how the peso to dollar conversion works.

Just like with any other destination, there are targets for tourists and as shared above its best to exercise caution when visit Colombia to avoid any problems.

I appreciate the affordability of the destination, the various tour options to learn more about the country’s history, the nightlife, and the impressive dining.

By day 3 I noticed my Spanish getting better since I found myself needing to use the language more in the every day setting compared to the minimal use in the US.

This was definitely something I appreciate as well.


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