What to Do in Cartagena, Colombia in One Day in Port

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Charleston, South Carolina and the entire east coast were getting slammed from winter storm Grayson. Our Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity voyage was supposed to originate in Charleston for a Panama Canal cruise. Due to severe weather, embarkation was moved south to Fort Lauderdale. 

Key West was our first port of call and then onto Cartagena, Colombia. Unfortunately, the storm caught up with the ship. For two straight days, we rocked and rolled our way to South America. 

Despite gale force wind, torrential rain and rough seas, we arrived on time into Cartagena, a fortressed 16th century Spanish city. This was my first visit to Cartagena and I knew little about this tropical city. 

All I remembered was that it used to be a dangerous place to visit. And parts of the movie, “Romancing the Stone” was filmed here. 

Cartagena Colombia outdoor market
I was dazzled by all the colors in Cartagena, from clothing to house paint.

What to Do in Colorful and Crowded Cartagena

Our first glimpse of Cartagena was a skyline of shoulder-to-shoulder gleaming white high-rise buildings that curved along the waterfront. Kind of like a sky-high picket fence. Not exactly your typical-looking Caribbean port.

If you’ve read any of my city guides, you know I’m not a big fan of a ship’s group shore excursions. I much prefer to wander around a city, stopping for lunch or a drink in-between window shopping and mindless meandering. But not here. 

I’m not advocating for women to wander the streets of any foreign city alone. Even though I’m not a fan of group excursions, I will take a shore tour if I don’t feel comfortable or if I want to visit an out of the way point of interest. So I signed up for Crystal’s city tour.

Cartagena Colombia skyline
Cartagena’s skyline, in the Bocagrande neighborhood, was totally not what I expected.  

Crystal Serenity docked in the bland and dusty industrial area. The city furnished shuttle service for the 900-ft distance to the cruise terminal. Little did I know but the cruise terminal would be the quirky highlight of my day in Cartagena.

Downtown Cartagena, Colombia.
View of the city and the old wall from the motor coach.

Cartagena was loud and crowded. Despite the heat, people were chatting on the streets, buying cold drinks and wonderful-smelling street food. 

Read next:  My Crystal Serenity Panama Canal Cruise Review

motor coaches at cruise pier in Cartagena, Colombia
Tip: Want the least crowded tour bus? Walk to the last one in line.

As are most highlights tours, ours was a bus ride through a very crowded city. Car horns honked and men carefully guided their donkey carts laden with beautiful fruit, across the streets.

Insider Tip #1:

On city highlight tours, survey the buses to be used and look for the one with the least passengers. Usually this is the last bus in the row, as most people tend to board the buses that are closest to the ship. My bus had 12 passengers. Perfect.

Read More:How to Choose Your Panama Canal Cruise

Take a City Tour of Cartagena

So, for things to do in Cartagena, Colombia, I’d recommend all of these for a cruise day in port, whether with Crystal Cruises or Carnival Cruise Line.

eight hours in Cartagena Colombia

First stop was the Rafael Nunez House and Museum. He was elected president of Colombia in 1880 and again in 1884. This led to the creation of a new Constitution for Columbia, signed in the office in his home. Interesting to see and we only spent about 25 minutes there.

Old City of Cartagena
Walking through shops in the Old City of Cartagena.

Back on the bus. Next, was shopping time in the historic part of town. We entered the old city with 20 minutes to shop. As the bus lumbered past each colorful archway that housed tourist shops, we were told that we should visit Shop #3, our drop-off and pickup location. So who’s cousin owned that shop, I wondered.

After another short bus ride, we had about 40-minute to walk through the old town…but no time to stop in a cafe or shop at the nice boutiques. A few historical points, a few minutes at a Catholic mass and then back on the bus again.

old wall in Cartagena
Enjoying a cold drink on the rooftop with the Fortress in the background. It was hot outside!

Cartagena Cocktail Time

The rooftop of the Art Lifestyle Hotel, across from San Filipe Fortress (Romancing the Stone was partly filmed inside the wall) was a welcome relief from the tropical heat. Up to the 3rd floor rooftop restaurant and terrace for a frothy lemonade and coconut milk drink, a few photos. Soon, we were on our way back to the ship, in time for a late lunch.

That was it for the four-hour shore excursion.

We were in port until all aboard at 8:30pm. With time to kill, at about 4:30, just before sunset, I walked the short distance from Crystal Serenity to the cruise terminal, past rows and rows of stacked cargo containers and three Colombian Navy ships. The perfect setting for an NCIS Cartagena episode, should the show add another location.

At the terminal, I followed the signs to the bird sanctuary. It was a hilarious cacophony of squawking and screeching by dozens of free-flying, rainbow-colored macaws. As I wandered the elevated wooden path, I found two anteaters rolling about in the sand and little monkeys scampering past, looking for fruit.

A few souvenirs from the handicrafts and jewelry shop, and I headed back to the ship. That was it for my day in Cartagena. But it was a new and interesting experience and I’d definitely want to return. Sometimes it takes that first visit to a distant port to learn what to do and then return.

What I Didn’t Do That I Wish I Did…

The Best Shore Excursion in Cartagena

There was an evening shore excursion with a capacity of 19 people. For $209, a bus transported everyone to the old city for a walking tour after dark. This included a cocktail on a hotel rooftop capped off with a multi-course Colombian dinner at an upscale restaurant called, Carmen. Brilliant. And I didn’t do it.

Apparently, this was THE shore excursion not to be missed. Who knew? Cartagena comes alive at night with vibrant music and colorful lights and everyone outdoors having fun. 

Insider Tip #2:

If I’m ever again on a Crystal Cruises Panama Canal cruise with a stop in Cartagena, I will dish out the $209 for any nightlife dinner experience. No matter what cruise ship I’m on, if there’s anything that resembles the nightlife tour, I’m buying it.

Next time I take a Panama Canal or any cruise that includes Cartagena, I’m going to plan my shore excursions well in advance. This is too cool of a place to miss out on some really excellent experiences.

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  1. we went to Cartagena and took a night tour – my partner got smacked by a horse and 5 months later still has the scar to prove it – other than that we enjoyed the port

  2. Hi Regan,
    Thank you for reading my Cartagena article. I would go back there without hesitation. As in any city, always be cautious, leave valuables on the ship. If Princess docks in the same industrial port, you’ll need a ride to get to the city center. Maybe Princess offers just a bus drop-off and pick up back to the ship, for those who have the same intent as you. Walking Old City and Fortress are really a great intro to this amazing cosmopolitan city. I had no idea. I’m sure there will be other guests on your ship that you could “tag” along with, until you get your bearings. Same goes for Panama City, if your ship stops there, too.

    There may even be a local guide (I think it’s called GetAGuide.com or LocalGuides.com. They don’t charge for the tour but make their money in tips.

    Have a wonderful cruise! It’s definitely in my list of top 5 cruise itineraries. Thank you again for reading my article and taking the time for your question.

    Especially if your husband can speak Spanish, that’s a big plus. Find a nice restaurant, too, and enjoy the local food.

  3. Thank you for a good overview of Cartagena. My husband and I will be doing a Panama Canal cruise in October and I’m trying to plan in advance! I wonder if you think walking the Old City by ourselves would be doable (he is fluent in Spanish)? None of the excursions from Princess are really striking me- I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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