Colombia has a dodgy reputation due to drug cartels and related violent crime, but a lot has changed since the days of Pablo Escobar. The country is doing everything possible to make its beautiful homeland travel-friendly, but does that mean Cartagena is safe for tourists?
Cartagena is one of Colombia’s best places to live, thanks to its vibrant culture, charming cobblestone streets, and lustrous Caribbean beaches. A holiday here is nothing short of paradise, and there are plenty of reasons why it’s growing into a popular tourist hotspot.
No matter how gorgeous this city is, you’ll need to be prepared for possible dangers. Every foreign journey needs to keep your best interests at heart, so this guide will ensure you’re well protected.
Why Visit Cartagena?
Cartagena has an enthralling gold mine of culture, deep history, and natural beauty — making it a must-visit for tourists seeking a unique and enriching getaway.
The city’s historic Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has divine colonial architecture, charming cobblestone streets, and lively plazas. You can immerse yourself in iconic landmarks like the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and the Museum of Cartagena de Indias.
Furthermore, the Caribbean coastline is made of tropical dreams. Think of stunning beaches, where azure waters and golden sands ease you into tranquility. Cartagena’s culinary scene is equally exciting, fusing flavors from Caribbean, Spanish, and African influences.
All things considered, Cartagena offers an adventurous, wholesome atmosphere that makes every tourist feel welcome and eager to explore its charms.
Is Cartagena Dangerous?
You’ll find that answers vary on this question, but Cartagena is generally a medium-risk travel destination. It is neither the most secure nor the most hazardous, but it is definitely safe enough to visit. It is also considered one of the safer cities in Colombia.
Your main worry would be petty theft or a slightly aggressive local at a street vendor. These worries are a standard tourist problem, just like in cities such as Marrakech, Morocco.
Sadly, violent crime is rife in Colombia, and there’s no doubt that those problems are reflected in Cartagena, albeit partially. However, the well-traveled routes have minimal cases of violent instances happening to visitors and police patrol the area. Your holiday will likely be problem-free if you follow safety protocols and avoid impoverished and high-crime areas.
Dangerous Areas in Cartagena
Chambacú is near the Mall Plaza shopping mall and the popular tourist spot Castillo San Felipe. While it may offer travelers an authentic local experience, it has a higher crime rate than other districts, which causes some safety concerns. The area has a high level of poverty, and this means that some of the locals resort to crime.
It is best to steer clear of Chambacú to avoid potential danger. If you must pass through, you should keep your valuable items hidden and lock your vehicle when driving. Never go through Chambacú at night.
South of San Felipe de Barajas
It is advisable to steer clear of the southern zones of Cartagena. As a reference point, the San Felipe de Barajas fortress can help distinguish between the less affluent neighborhoods, known for higher crime rates, and the safer and more popular tourist destinations.
Not all impoverished zones mean that the area is crime-ridden per se, but it’s best to avoid them altogether. Again, you should hide your belongings and lock your car when passing by. Sticking to the popular travel routes will ensure you have far fewer chances of an unpleasant experience.
Is it Safe to Live in Cartagena?
Colombia’s tourist safety is far better than it is for locals. In Cartagena, the crime index is 54.88, meaning that those who live there need to worry about high and increasing chances of being mugged, robbed, or assaulted.
The upper-class districts are subject to less violent crimes due to better policing, but the poorer areas aren’t as fortunate. The Colombian drug scene is a significant contributor to organized crime. There are around 36 gangs in Cartagena, and the city falls part of a drug trafficking route to the south of the port city.
If you are an expat looking for where the grass is greener, the safer areas will bring you a better safety standard.
Safe Areas in Cartagena
Centro is the historic heart of the city. It is the travel hub and close to almost all the tourist amenities. Here, you’ll find remnants of Spanish colonial history within the iconic walled Old Town. This area is generally considered safe for tourists, especially in the busier areas.
The bustling streets are adorned with colorful facades, art galleries, boutique shops, and vibrant street markets. If you’re seeking an authentic Colombian experience, Centro is the perfect place to be.
Getsemaní has gained popularity over the years for its artsy, bohemian charm. Since it is well-traveled, it is one of the safer areas. The streets are adorned with colorful murals, and the neighborhood is known for its lively atmosphere, local markets, and an array of trendy bars and restaurants.
Tourists are drawn to Getsemaní for its cultural events, live music, and the opportunity to experience the city’s creative spirit. It’s the perfect place for budget accommodation and a popular backpacker destination.
Bocagrande is an upper-class part of Cartagena, offering top-notch safety and luxurious accommodation. Travelers are drawn to Bocagrande for its string of beautiful beaches, ideal for sunbathing and water activities.
The nearby commercial district brings you both a local and international shopping experience. Bocagrande’s diverse culinary scene has a range of dining options, from high-end restaurants to local eateries serving Colombian dishes like mojarra and empanadas.
While it may not have the same historical charm as the Old Town, its modern attractions, beachfront allure, and lively atmosphere make it an ideal destination if you’re seeking a mix of relaxation, entertainment, and contemporary Colombian culture.
Warnings & Dangers in Cartagena
Cartagena is an absolute travel gem, but sadly, there are still risks when visiting. Pickpocketing and bag snatching are the top concerns regarding danger. But they can be avoided by not displaying signs of wealth and keeping your belongings secure.
More violent crimes like armed mugging and assault are possible, but security patrols occur on the well-traveled routes, making this less likely. As night falls, it is the most dangerous time in Cartagena, and staying in is your best option. If you are to go out, you should never walk around after dark, guard your drinks, and choose reliable transport.
Overall Travel Risk (5/10)
Overall, you’ll likely have a problem-free holiday in Cartagena, especially in the tourist hotspots. Although Cartagena is medium-risk, not many travelers have any horror stories to tell. As long as you’re cautious and aware of what dangers may lurk, you should be A-okay.
Petty and violent crime, pushy street vendors, pretend police and scammy taxi drivers are the primary hazardous run-ins. Once you know how to handle them, you should be able to get by unscathed.
On a side note, Cartagena does face political unrest, so if you notice any protests, stay away. You should not interact at all, including taking photos and videos. It’s advised to research local news before visiting to understand the political climate.
Petty crime is common in Cartagena, and you’ll need to keep an eye on your belongings. Always keep your valuables hidden and locked away, hold your bag close to your body when walking, and lock your hotel room and car at all times.
Violent crime happens mostly at night, and you should preferably avoid going out after dark, especially alone. If you are to spend a night out, never walk, and have reliable transport ready when you leave an establishment. If you are held up in a mugging, it’s best to give up your belongings to avoid being harmed.
Since Cartagena has a high poverty rate, locals do as much as they can to rake in some cash, especially when they spot a tourist. Street vendors can become aggressive when pushing a sale, and you must be firm with them.
For the most part, don’t express interest in something a vendor sells until you’re ready to buy. This will make your shopping experience a whole lot more pleasant.
Note that people offering to take a photo expect payment afterward. Beach chairs and umbrellas are also to be rented and are not free. Another thing worth mentioning is that if someone offers you directions, they’ll likely try to recommend you to visit somewhere to earn a commission.
Although it’s not as common as it used to be, there are people out in Cartagena who pretend to be police officers. They will dress as one, approach you, and demand to see your money to verify whether it’s counterfeit. They then take the money, saying it’s fake, and leave.
No actual police officer will ask you this, and you should deny their request and walk away. Never agree to anyone seeking to verify your money. If it does seem serious, request that you go to the police station.
Taxi services in Cartagena use a taxi meter to calculate your fare. Sometimes, the driver is dishonest and says it doesn’t work, or they lie about the amount and end up overcharging you. It’s best to avoid taking marked taxis.
Ride-hailing apps like Uber work in Cartagena, and it is a more reliable way to get around as the fare is pre-confirmed. You can also ask your hotel for a reliable taxi service if you prefer.
Tips for Staying Safe in Cartagena
Now that you know the main safety hazards, these top tips will add to your protection during your stay in Cartagena:
- Be careful at ATMs: Only use them in the daytime, and scan the area to ensure no one is lingering to avoid being mugged.
- Don’t be flashy: Wearing expensive jewelry and watches makes you more of a target for theft.
- Negotiate prices beforehand: taxis, street vendors, and beach vendors like to surcharge, and an agreed price mitigates an unpleasant surprise.
- Don’t drink the tap water: Water quality is poor in Colombia, and drinking it will likely make you sick.
- Keep your phone hidden: Many thieves are waiting for the opportunity to snatch it from you, so only use it when necessary.
Is Cartagena Safe? | Frequently Asked Questions
Before heading to this splendid city, these frequent queries will clue you up on some other travel considerations.
Is Cartagena Safe for Solo Female Travelers?
Since Cartagena is only a medium-risk destination, solo female travel is safe enough. Traveling the city on your own is a ton of fun, but in order to keep your well-being in check, you should exercise cautious behavior. You should always keep your belongings close and secure to avoid theft.
Solo women must use reliable transport and stick to tourist areas like Old City and Bocagrande. Going out alone at night is not advisable. Women should also note that being catcalled is common.
Is It Safe in Cartagena at Night?
Some say it’s safe to go out in Cartagena at night, but it puts your safety at risk. Drink spiking and armed muggings are some of the concerns at play. If you go in a group, you should have no issues. As long as you guard your drinks, don’t walk around in the streets, and use reliable transport, you should be just fine.
Is Cartagena Cheap or Expensive?
The US dollar is strong against the Colombian peso, which makes a holiday there super affordable. However, Cartagena is the most expensive city in Colombia. If you travel in peak season between December and March, you will pay more for accommodation and activities. The best time to visit when it’s more affordable is in May or September.
Is It Worth Going to Cartagena, Colombia?
Yes! Cartagena is genuinely magnificent and promises an experience like no other. It is a vibrant place with unique charm, thanks to its well-preserved colonial architecture, historic sites, rich culture, and beautiful beaches. A holiday here would be jam-packed with various activities, from exploring local markets to live music at trendy bars.