Visiting Cartagena on a Backpacker’s Budget

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

A Guide to Visiting Cartagena on a Backpacker’s Budget - Travel Lush

Fly there:

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!

A Guide to Visiting Cartagena on a Backpacker’s Budget - Travel Lush
It’s pretty nice falling asleep to the sound of waves each night!

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.

A Guide to Visiting Cartagena on a Backpacker’s Budget - Travel Lush
Bocagrande and Laguito are full of high rises, which means there’s no shortage of nice apartments.

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.

A Guide to Visiting Cartagena on a Backpacker’s Budget - Travel Lush
There are tons of buses around town. I never waited more than two minutes for a bus.

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!

A Guide to Visiting Cartagena on a Backpacker’s Budget - Travel Lush
Fried goodness!
A Guide to Visiting Cartagena on a Backpacker’s Budget - Travel Lush
Cartagena has a wonderful selection of tropical fruits, most of which I’d never even heard of. I recommend trying the sweet and sour lulo!

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.

A Guide to Visiting Cartagena on a Backpacker’s Budget - Travel Lush
Things get exponentially more expensive once you walk behind these walls!

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.

A Guide to Visiting Cartagena on a Backpacker’s Budget - Travel Lush
My $9 was better spent elsewhere.  Plus, San Sebastián del Pastelillo was still a remarkable sight from outside!

Traveling to Cartagena?  Pin me for later!

Budget Travel Cartagena

What are your go-to ways to save money in touristy cities like Cartagena?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

35 thoughts on “Visiting Cartagena on a Backpacker’s Budget

  1. Good advice on how to live well on a budget – thanks! There’s a tendancy to think “i’m only going to be here once” and rush around trying to tick everything off your list but slow travel, being happy to pick and choose attractions and learning to live more like a local is very rewarding.

    1. Having the luxury of time is such a nice thing to have while traveling. I was definitely lucky that I could just stay in one place for awhile and not feel rushed. Typically I’m the type of person who likes to fit everything in. But since Cartagena was SO touristy, I really did feel like a lot of the attractions were just tourist traps. So I didn’t feel too guilty skipping over these things!

  2. That is amazing advice!
    I had this great idea to do the water sailing trip from Panama to Cartegena, and these tips will seriously help…And help me to get over my phobia of street food 😉

    1. I fantasized about doing the sailing trip from Cartagena to Panama. But I knew it just wasn’t going to be in the cards this time around. I’ve heard good things about it! You definitely HAVE to get over your fear of street food! Some of the best meals I’ve ever had have been from street vendors. And I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve even been sick from it!

  3. I love that you stayed for a month and rented an apt. That’s SO much better then a hostel. I’ve never thought that would be possible before but its wicked smart

    1. Renting an apartment worked out so well for us. I didn’t realize it would be so easy to find one there. But Bocagrande is super popular with Colombian tourists who typically rent apartments. And the fact that we paid the same rate as we would have for a dorm bed was crazy. I totally recommend it!

    2. I agree with Rebekah! Renting a place for yourself and staying longer it’s definitely a smart move, good to know :)

      1. I was so lucky that I was able to take my time. I know a lot of travelers don’t have that luxury. But if you are able to take your time and move slowly then Cartagena is the perfect city to settle down in for a couple weeks. Plus there’s the added perk of saving some money :)

  4. There are lots of great deals in this city! I loved staying just outside the wall and eating at the local places. I even went to a small, poor island that ended up being the highlight of my trip. Very doable.

    1. There are definitely tons of great deals in Cartagena. Walking around just outside of the walled city I saw quite a few affordable hostels and lots of cheap restaurants. I think all the prices go down the second you step foot outside of the old town. Which island did you visit? There is so much to do there. I feel like it didn’t do enough!

  5. Great tips! I hope one day we can rent an apartment longer term! I love that first photo, and of course the street food shots. I’m kinda obsessed with street food :)

    1. Thanks Katie! This is the first time I’ve rented an apartment and stayed in one place for an entire month. It was so cool because it really began to feel like home. Ha, I’m obsessed with street food too! I am seriously embarrassed to admit how many empanadas and arepas I ate while in Colombia. Street food rocks!

  6. Good and sound tips! I can apply it to other places too…:) Sounds like you had an awesome time…I like travelling slow too…I’m a slug! Hehe

  7. Great tips! I think is the local transport is good, one can save a lot of money. Also, accommodation is a big issue. Renting an apartment is a good option, which allows you longer stay as well.

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  9. Hey Justine,

    Great post :) Brings back awesome memories. We were in Cartagena around the same time. We spent $32 per day: http://lucidpractice.com/backpacking-cartagena-colombia-lucid-practice-travel-guide/ I think the extra $2 is from the water bottles that we apparently could have done without 😉

    Thanks for the great post & can’t wait to read more about your year in Indonesia. Will you be living in one spot for a year or bouncing around? Just got back from Bali but would love to explore more of Indo….

    With positive energy ~

    Paz

    1. Ah, I loved my time in Cartagena! I seems like it was so long ago now. Ha, yeah i was so surprised that you can actually drink the water in all the major Colombian cities. It made me feel much better not to have to spend the extra cash and waste all that plastic.

      Well, I’ve now been in Indonesia for 8 months. I can’t believe how quickly the time is going! I’m actually living in Jakarta and whenever I can I’m traveling around Indo and Southeast Asia. It’s been so amazing to be based here and be able to travel anywhere in SE Asia on a whim :) Bali is pretty amazing. I actually JUST bought a ticket to Bali last night. I leave for Bali and Flores next month. So excited :)

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