When I arrived in Colombia I was pretty nervous that I wouldn’t be able to live quite as frugally as I had in Southeast Asia. My goal was to travel on $40 a day. But I had major doubts that I would be able to float myself on a backpacker’s budget. After spending a couple weeks in Bogotá and Medellín, I was elated that I had actually managed to come in under budget. However, as I prepared for my month-long stint in Cartagena, I knew this Caribbean city was going to be a much different beast. But as someone who gets way too much satisfaction out of of finding deals, saving money, and sticking to a budget I was most definitely up for the challenge!
Any budget traveler who is familiar with Colombia knows that Cartagena is expensive compared to the rest of the country. It’s the Ko Phi Phi of Thailand, the Boracay of the Philippines, the Bali of Indonesia. It’s the place you have to go – it might possibly be the highlight of your trip – but it’s also the place that can easily blow your budget out of the water.
I spent just shy of one month in Cartagena. And during my time in this Caribbean wonderland I was able to live on $30 a day. After spending so much time in the city I compiled a list of tips to help other budget travelers save big during their trip to Cartagena.
A Guide to Visiting Cartagena on a Backpacker’s Budget
As budget travelers we’ve trained ourselves to endure long bus rides instead of flying. Usually taking a bus is substantially cheaper and for most backpackers it’s the only option. This isn’t necessarily the case in Colombia, where long-distance buses are ridiculously overpriced. For example, the 13-hour journey from Medellín to Cartagena costs roughly $70 USD. However, I was able to fly from Medellín to Cartagena for $64 through Avianca. My advice is to regularly check for deals on Avianca, EasyFly and VivaColombia. There are some great bargains to be found. And it might actually be a cheaper – and infinitely quicker – alternative to a very long bus ride!
Rent an apartment:
If you’re staying in Cartagena for more than three days consider renting an apartment, especially if you’re traveling in a group. I rented a two-bedroom apartment right on the ocean.
Not only was it an incredible value, but I was also able to save money by doing laundry, cooking meals and making cocktails at home. I rented the apartment for one month, which set me back $950. I initially thought this was way too pricey. But when you break it down the apartment ended up costing my boyfriend and I $16 a day (per person) – that’s equivalent to the price of a dorm bed in the old town! For that price I’d much rather have my own private apartment. Plus, it’s not a bad price to pay when you have a view like this!
It might help to know that most rental apartments are located in the areas of Bocagrande and Laguito, which are a few kilometers down the beach from the old town. There are rental agencies everywhere there and you literally can’t walk down the street without being asked if you’d like an apartamento. I actually enjoyed staying in this area because it’s closer to the beach and it has a much more authentic vibe than the old town.
Take local transport and taxis:
Getting around Cartagena is downright cheap. Local buses cost a flat fee of 1700 pesos (less than $1) and are a great option for solo travelers. They run frequently and are simple to use – just flag one down, take a seat, and an attendant will come collect your money. For me, it was a cheap way to get from my apartment in Bocagrande to the old town.
Taking taxis is also inexpensive – the same route will cost 5000 pesos in a cab. It’s important to note that taxis in Cartagena do not have meters or fixed prices. You need to be aware of costs before you get into a cab. It should cost no more than 5000 pesos to get around the main tourist area. Just hand the driver a 5000 peso bill like you’ve done it a thousand times before and walk away – there should be no complaints.
Drink the tap water:
I know. It’s counterintuitive to think you can drink the tap water in Latin America. But I drank nothing but tap water in Cartagena and I had zero problems. I’m living proof that the water is perfectly safe in all of Colombia’s major cities. It tastes great and it’s free – so take advantage. Water bottles can cost anywhere from $1-2 in the store, depending on the size. The bigger the bottle the better the value. Given the insane heat of Cartagena, I was pretty much guzzling water throughout the day. So refilling my water bottle from the tap not only saved me money but it was a relief to not contribute obscene amounts of plastic bottles to the local landfill.
Eat street food and self-cater:
Colombia has some awesome street food! You can totally snack your way through the day eating from food carts. Cartagena is famous for its arepas de huevo (a cornmeal patty stuffed with a fried egg). They’re delicious and they only cost 2000 pesos ($1 USD). You can basically get empandas (hot pastries) and arepas stuffed with anything from chicken to cheese to sausage. They’re addicting. Seriously. You can also find ceviche, tropical fruit drinks, tinto (sugary instant coffee), fresh fruit, sausage, oysters and much more from street vendors – all costing 1000-2000 pesos!
Groceries, veggies and fruit are very reasonably priced in Cartagena. Even if you can’t rent an apartment, try to choose a hostel that has a communal kitchen. At least you’ll be able to cook some meals for yourself.
Eating in restaurants in Cartagena is painfully expensive for budget travelers. The old town is tourist central, which means prices are extremely inflated. A burger or a margherita pizza can run you a whopping $15. It’s totally possible to find cheap eats, you just have to look harder. My recommendation is to stay away from the major tourist hubs of El Centro and San Diego (inside the walled city). Instead go to Getsemaní or, better yet, Bocagrande for cheaper, more local food. However, a set meal of fish, rice, plantains and drink will still run you roughly $7-10.
Pick and choose attractions:
I suffered from a serious case of sticker shock when I arrived in Cartagena. In Bogotá, entrance fees for museums and historic monuments were incredibly affordable (and sometimes even free!), but similar attractions were crazily overpriced in Cartagena. Here are a couple examples:
The Lonely Planet recommends the Palacio de la Inquisiciόn as its “Top Pick.” However, the museum is quite small and most descriptions are in Spanish, so some travelers might consider the $9 entry fee to be a bit of a ripoff. The Spanish fort of San Sebastián del Pastelillo also costs $9 to enter. Considering the entry fee only buys you a quick walk around the fort, I decided to admire it from afar. So if you’re on a strict budget, it might pay off to pick and choose which activities you’d like to experience the most. Note: The Lonely Planet was a bit off when it came to costs of attractions in Cartagena. It’s safe to assume that everything will be a few dollars more than the prices quoted in the book.
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What are your go-to ways to save money in touristy cities like Cartagena?