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General Tips and Tricks from a Cartagena Resident

Safety Tips & Eating Tips

Carmen Restaurant

1. Be careful with your belongings!  Bring a few changes of dressier clothes for the evening but leave your jewelry and watches at home– don’t bring purses that don’t close or backpacks that can be easily opened from the back. 

2. Bring your driver’s license for verifying your credit cards, but never let the credit card leave your sight. 

3. The extra cost for white hotel taxis is usually worth it. Yellow taxis only take cash, don’t use meters and do not expect tips. 

4. Never accept “samples” or try to explain why you don’t want something. If you want something from a street vendor, negotiate vigorously. Ask your hotel for an official price list for beach vendor basics (soda, beer, umbrellas and chairs).

5. Be sure to try native cuisine such as arepas de huevo, arroz con coco, and patacones, Additionally, at the various beaches, there is fresh coconut water served in its shell, limonada de coco, and an amazing array of fresh fruit and fruit juices available. Also, Colombian beer is great. Be sure to ask for a michelada which is a beer cocktail made with a little lemon juice, served in a salt rimmed glass.

Staying Healthy

1. Bring sunscreen, insect repellant (there is Zika and Chikungunya in Cartagena so please be careful and protect yourself), and hats for the whole family. Cartagena is about 90 degrees Fahrenheit all year long and very sunny. The sand is often full of live sand dollars and other sharp objects, so we suggest you bring appropriate beach footwear such as flip-flops or water shoes. 

2. Water is considered potable in Cartagena (before it hits the pipes). However, we do recommend using bottled water to be safe. Also, in the islands and outside of Cartagena, we advise using bottled water. 

3. Food poisoning isn’t particularly common It doesn’t happen often but when it does remember that you can buy Pedialyte at pharmacies and there are pharmacies that deliver 24 hours.

When to Go

Cartagena neighborhood exploring

As the weather is fairly consistent year-round, Colombia is almost always an ideal destination. To save money try to avoid Colombian holiday periods which runs from late December to mid January, mid June to mid-July, and mid-October to the first two weeks of November (when the Cartagena annual festival coincides with the national beauty pageant week). Also, July and August and November can be stormy and rainy which can make for uncomfortable flights and boat trips to the islands.

Also, the November festival and New Year’s periods are packed–New Years during is particularly geared towards adults in Colombia and may not be the best option for younger kids (think Mardi Gras in New Orleans!). 

How to Get There

JetBlue has a great direct flight from New York. Avianca does as well, but is not very reliable; they are infamous for bumping, cancelling and changing direct flights to very inconvenient connections, with little warning and no compensation. Try to avoid connecting through Bogotá at all costs. Connections from New York are available on Spirit, Delta, and Latam as well.

Rafael Nunez Airport is surprisingly small, and generally does not have significant lines. An hour and half for domestic or two hours for international departures is usually fine.  It has old-style stairs to the planes instead of jetways and requires a short walk down the tarmac to get to the terminal– my kids thought that was very cool! Once in the terminal, if you need help with your bags, a tip of 10.000 to 20.000 pesos is generally expected from the baggage handlers.

While sometimes you will be able to pay in US dollars, I would try to avoid it. I recommend either exchanging a small amount as you leave the international terminal or entering the Domestic terminal and taking money out from the cash machines there. Usually the Green “SERVIBANCA” MACHINE is what I use. It takes my US cards.

Getting Around in Colombia

Cartagena street taxi

1. Taxis there are very small and won’t fit more than 2 people with 2 large suitcases. Be sure to use an authorized taxi from the airport. The rate to be paid should be the amount printed on the voucher. If you arrive on an international flight from the international exit there is a machine to your right, and when exiting from a domestic flight a window with an attendant will be immediately to your left. You will be asked for your destination to input or tell the attendant. You will be given a voucher, but don’t pay then. Wait until you arrive at your destination and pay the amount indicated on the voucher. Taxis do not expect tips.

2. Most hotels or reputable apartment owners will arrange a shuttle/ taxi service for you. These shuttles are generally larger than traditional taxis in Columbia (crossover SUVS) and will fit 5 people and a few small suitcases.I almost always arrange transportation with drivers that I know and trust.

3. Uber exists in Colombia but it is illegal since it is completely unregulated– it is hit or miss in terms of reliability and comfort. Also, you risk being pulled over by police and literally left in the street. Lyft does not operate in Colombia. There are a few yellow taxi Apps that are popular in Colombia for yellow taxis. TAPPSI, EASY TAXI and CABIFY.

4. There really isn’t a practical or advisable public transportation option in Cartagena (and there definitely isn’t one from the airport).

Donations and Volunteering

1. If you find that your suitcases are too small when it is time to pack for home, please consider donating gently used clothing, toys and school supplies. There are many worthy foundations in Cartagena.

2. If you are interested in actual volunteer work, there are many rewarding opportunities. FEM, an organization I currently work with, is an incubator for several worthy social impact enterprises such as Cartagena Insider tours and Café Stepping Stone. Domino Volunteers is an organization that can help you customize your volunteer experience depending on the amount of time and expertise you would like to volunteer.

Money Tips

1. Generally speaking, tips in Colombia are not as common as in the US. The restaurant by law must ask you if you would like to include a tip “servicio” You can say yes or no. It is 10% and there is no expectation that you leave more.  

2. When you use a credit card be prepared to show ID and DO NOT LET YOUR CREDIT CARD OUT OF YOUR SIGHT.  The waiters will bring you a DATAFONO and run your card through in front of you. Either ask for a handheld Datafono or accompany the waiter to the cash register.

In Case of Emergency

Police and Fire Department Emergencies: 123

Health Emergencies: 125

Fire Department: 119

Police Department: 112

Transit Emergencies: 127

Electric Service Damage: 115

Service Damage: 116

Gas Service Damage: 164

Women’s Hotline: 155

Road Safety: 767

Anti-Kidnapping: 165

Anti-Terrorism: 018000-919621

Center of Immediate Attention Crespo: 668-0869

Ambulance:  667-5244

Bocagrande Hospital (nearest ER 20 minutes away): 665-2318

Noise Control: 135

Tourist Information: 113

General Airport Information: 666-6610

Canadian Consulate in Cartagena: 57 5 665 5838

Canadian Embassy in Bogota: 57 (1) 657-9800

US Embassy Citizen Services Daytime: (57) 1 2752000

US Embassy Citizen Services After Hours: (57) 1 2754021

Colombian Immigration Assistance in Cartagena

Centro Facilitador de Servicios Migratorios: CARTAGENA

Calle 20 B # 29-18 | Barrio Pie de la Popa

Teléfono: [57] [5] 670-0555

Horario: 8:00 a.m. a 12:00 m. y de 2:00 p.m. 5:00 p.m. 

Cartagena, D.T. – Bolívar

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Clayton Steele

Clayton is a long time Cartagena and Colombia fanatic. She fell in love with the city in 2005 and immediately purchased a property where she and her children have spent many happy long and short vacations. For the past two years she has worked closely with Corporturismo, Cartagena’s government tourism agency, on Sustainable Tourism initiatives and recently joined FEM’s US based advisory team to promote social impact tourism start-ups and projects that empower disadvantaged communities in the region to aspire to a better future and promote sustainable tourism development. You can reach Clayton by DM on IG @cartagenavacays, follow her posts on family appropriate activities and places in Cartagena on her Facebook page @cartagenafamilyvacations or even book her property (and concierge services) on for an unforgettable, and family-oriented adventure in Cartagena.
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