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Cartagena is well known as Colombia’s premier destination. The city’s lovely colonial atmosphere and historic charm pairs perfectly with the beautiful Caribbean beaches in the nearby islands. There is also a vibrant culture and fun nightlife.

Even being such a well known tourist town, there are some hidden gems in Cartagena that many travelers miss. Here you can learn about some of Cartagena’s hidden gems plus some great lesser-known restaurants and bars.

Visit the City’s Best but Lesser Known Museum

Cartagena’s city walls, one of the few examples of a near complete colonial city wall left anywhere, and well known Castillo San Felipe Fortress are among its most well known landmarks and testaments to the city’s fascinating history.

There is a city historical museum in the Palacio de la Inquisición, which doubles as a museum on the Spanish Inquisition and was, in fact, the home of the inquisition in the colony.

However, you can actually learn more about the city’s history at the lesser-known Museo Naval del Caribe, which is more off the beaten path in Cartagena.

Museo Naval de Caribe - a hidden gem in Cartagena

Museo Naval de Caribe

Here, you’ll find some terrific dioramas of the various attacks on the city like those by Francis Drake and Edward Vernon. They show the day by day events and also give lots of context on the city’s fortifications.

On the second floor of the museum, you can also learn more about Cartagena’s incredibly important role in Colombian independence. Finally, there are some interesting exhibits on Colombia’s modern navy, including its little known role in the Korean War. It’s a great place to learn more about the city’s history and is the best done museum in the city.

Visit the Lesser Known Fortifications in Bocachica

Going to the Naval Museum will give you a better understanding of the geography and how the city’s defenses worked in tandem. If you want to get an even better understanding and see some unique forts, head out to the entrance to the bay at Bocachica on the island of Tierra Bomba.

There are three forts here, two of them rebuilt after Vernon’s destruction of them in 1741. These are the Castillo San Fernando and the Fort San José, which created a crossfire through the narrow entrance to the bay. A third fort, Angel San Rafael was built on a nearby hill to protect the land approaches and prevent a siege of the forts as Vernon had done.

The City Walls of Cartagena

The City Walls of Cartagena

These forts were never attacked, and they have been very well preserved. They are also free to enter.

However, they are a bit difficult to reach. You can get boats to the nearby town from the main port near the Clocktower in Cartagena. The mock pirate boat La Fantastica also offers a tour that stops here, or you could plan for a day pass at the terrific nearby Blue Apple Beach Club and walk over the the forts. To see the inside of San José, you do have to hire a boat to take you across.

Stay at the Lovely Bungalows at IslaBela in the Rosario Islands

The beaches in the city of Cartagena proper are good but tend to be overrun with tourists and vendors. The beautiful Playa Blanca, once a Cartagena hidden gem in its own right, has suffered the same fate in recent years.

That means the best places to go to the beach off the beaten path in Cartagena are in the Rosario Islands. There are some great Rosario Islands resorts and day trips. Lots of people like to rent private boats and head to party spot Cholón, while others like to do a day pass at the popular and fun Bora Bora Beach Club.

Isla Bela in Rosario Islands

IslaBela in Rosario Islands

However, if you’re looking for a bit more relaxed atmosphere, check out IslaBela Eco-Hotel. It’s located on the smaller Isleta island and has one of the best beach areas in the islands.

It also has a small handful of terrific bungalows for staying the night. They are also actually owned by natives of the island who have a profit share with the hotel, meaning they have a fairly sustainable model that also benefits the local islanders more than most of the other hotels in the islands.

Those on a tighter budget may also want to consider Secreto Hostel as a lesser known and more budget friendly place to stay in the islands.

Hang Out at Playa Azul in Town

If you don’t have the time or budget, or you just want some extra beach time at a beach in town, skip the crowded beaches in Bocagrande.

On the north end of town, just past the airport, you’ll find a beach known as Playa Azul. This is just before the larger area known as La Boquilla. While the beach doesn’t compare to those in the islands, its ok and is more off the beaten path in Cartagena, which makes it much less crowded.

Visit the Colombian National Aviary

Located on the island of Barú, not far from Playa Blanca, the Colombian National Aviary, or Aviario Nacional, is definitely a hidden gem in Cartagena. It’s very well done, and has some rare birds, including a harpy eagle and a family of condors.

It’s a bit difficult to get out here on your own, so it’s best to either hire a taxi for the day or to go with a tour. It’s also best to go early before it gets too hot when the birds will be more active.

Visit the Abaco Bookstore

Located in a charming historic building in the heart of Cartagena’s Walled City, the Abaco Bookstore is another unique hidden gem in Cartagena. There are plenty of great books here on Colombia and Cartagena, including a selection in English. They also sell some neat artwork and artisan crafts made by local artists.

Inside the Walled city in Cartagena

Inside the Walled city in Cartagena

You can also enjoy a coffee or drink here. It’s a neat and unique place to at least stop in and browse.

Tour the Mangroves in La Boquilla

North of the Playa Azul is the town of La Boquilla, nestled between the Caribbean and the mangrove swamps. This was a traditional fishing community, and there are some neat tours you can do here that take you out on canoe rides through the mangrove forests that look like little tunnels before opening up to big lagoons.

Some tours also include fishing, drum or dancing lessons, and even cooking lessons. It’s a unique thing to do in Cartagena off the beaten path. You can organize tours here through Ecotours Boquilla.

Sample an Arepa de Huevo from Donde Magola

Trying an arepa de huevo is obligatory in Cartagena. This snack that originates from the Caribbean coast makes for a good breakfast, afternoon snack, late night munchie, or even dinner on the go. It’s more similar to an empanada than a traditional arepa, round and fried to a golden crisp.

You’ll find street stalls all over the Walled City selling the traditional arepa de huevo, filled with ground beef and an egg. However, at Donde Magola, located near the Exito San Diego supermarket just inside the Walled City, you can find all sorts of neat variations. Instead of the ground beef, you can get it with chorizo, chicharrón, or even shrimp.

Get Some Ceviche at La Laguna Azul

Cartagena has plenty of terrific seafood, including ceviche. You’ve probably heard of La Cevichería, made famous after Anthony Bourdain’s visit and a mainstay in recommendations for the best Cartagena restaurants.

Another lesser known place to enjoy some great ceviche in Cartagena is La Laguna Azul. A tiny, unassuming, hole in the wall located at the entrance of the Centro Comercial Getsemaní, there are some terrific and unique takes on ceviche here.

Grab one of the small handful of little outdoor tables and a ice cold beer from the little store next door and enjoy this Cartagena hidden gem that is frequented more by locals than tourists.

Try a Craft Beer at Beer Lovers

Colombia has a growing craft beer scene. While in Bogotá, you’ll find lots of little brew pubs, Cartagena has more limited options.

Street Art in the Getsemani district of Cartagena

Street Art in the Getsemani district of Cartagena

The best place to try some Colombian craft beer in Cartagena is Beer Lovers, which has a solid bar in Getsemaní, a popular area full of neat cafés, bars, and restaurants. You’ll find both beers originating in Colombia and elsewhere here on their rotating taps.

Pretend You’re Jay Gatsby at Prohibition

There are a lot of terrific Cartagena bars and clubs. Perhaps the most unique is Prohibition, located on the bottom floor of Townhouse Boutique Hotel. Their upstairs rooftop bar is actually very popular and has great drinks.

However, the downstairs is a hidden gem in Cartagena and has a neat vibe for enjoying a cocktail or three. Beautiful, 1920s style sofas, frequent live jazz music, and even a burlesque show make it a place unlike anywhere else in Cartagena to enjoy a drink.

Or Salsa with the Locals at Quiebra Canto

If you’re looking for a more traditional Cartagena night out, you’ll probably be thinking of getting your dance on at a salsa club. The famous Café Havana, which Hillary Clinton once visited, is a popular place to do so. However, it tends to be crowded and is expensive.

Another good but lesser-known spot is Quiebra Canto, just a block and a half away. It is located on the 2nd floor directly across from the clocktower and tends to draw more of a local crowd than a tourist one. It’s a neat place to get a slightly more local vibe than many of the other popular nightclubs in town.

Cartagena Hidden Gems Conclusion

Now, you know about 12 hidden gems in Cartagena that are a bit off the tourist-beaten path and make great additions to a visit.

If you are someone who loves to travel as much as I do, you’ll be familiar with the traditional advice on how to travel inexpensively. Hostels, couch surfing, camping… and eating nothing but buttered pasta for weeks on end. What if I told you that there is an easier way to travel the world, save money, and have a memorable once-in-a-lifetime experience? Imagine summiting Machu Picchu, getting a tan on the beaches of Lima, or dancing in Rio. Worldpackers makes finding volunteer work while backpacking South America more accessible than ever!

Volunteer in South America via a Reputable Agency

If volunteer work in South America sounds like something you want to do, it’s best to do it via a reputable agency. An agency will help screen volunteer programs and hosts in South America to make sure you have support every step of the way.

Finding a Host on Worldpackers

Worldpackers is a service that connects travellers with volunteer work in South America and around the world. Travellers and hosts use the service to find each other, and each provides an integral part of the exchange.

The hosts will offer a place to stay. Perhaps a hostel, camp, family home, farm, or NGO to a traveller in exchange for hours worked or volunteered on the property. A traveller works on the property a set number of hours per week in exchange for free accommodation, and sometimes other perks such as free food, free bike rentals, free tours… the list is endless!

How to build your Worldpackers profile

To begin on Worldpackers as a traveller, all you need to do is sign up, pay a yearly membership, USD $49.99 and begin searching for your dream volunteer program in South America. You can apply to as many experiences you like. If a host thinks that you’ll be a good fit, you’ll be pre-approved. All that’s left to do is book your flight and pack!

The Worldpackers interface is extremely intuitive and easy to use. You can search experiences by destination, purpose of the trip, availability, skills you offer, style of travel, hours of collaboration, trip length, additional benefits and more. That makes searching through their thousands of experiences easy and manageable. You can also read all reviews from other Worldpackers who have lived that experience, so you have the peace of mind that you’re making the right choice in applying. 

The site also offers hundreds of articles, videos and courses about how to stand out as a volunteer. You can earn badges and certificates for your profile which will make you a more desirable candidate and can increase your chances of being selected by the hosts you want! 

Long Term Volunteer Work in South America

Most Worldpackers volunteer trips in South America require the volunteers to stay between 2-4 weeks. However, you will find a huge variety of minimum time commitments on the site. 

The benefits of long-term travel are plenty. Connecting to a location, immersing yourself in a different culture, contributing to a local community and making lifelong connections are just a few of the highlights past Worldpackers shared in their reviews. 

There is also value in establishing a home base with a volunteer program when you are backpacking South America. When travelling and living out of a backpack for long periods of time, it can be a great reset to feel at home for a while. 

Your hosts and fellow travellers can become a family away from home and they can be a great resource for planning for your next destinations. 

Volunteer Trips In South America

Let’s look at some current volunteer opportunities for those backpacking South America. 

There are over 1500 volunteer positions available in South America at the time of writing this article. Some require as short of a time commitment of only one week! I’m happy to highlight just a few opportunities available this spring & summer.

Volunteer at the reception of a hostel in Bogotá, Colombia

This position is looking for a warm and friendly individual to work behind the counter greeting guests at their hostel. As a volunteer, you’d work 32 hours a week. You would also be asked to give a hand in the kitchen. 

Aside from a free bed, this experience also offers you free breakfast each morning, use of their kitchen, bikes at your disposal and discounts on drinks. This hostel has achieved top host status, meaning that they have consistently received great reviews from travellers who have lived this experience. 

Past Worldpackers have said this experience excels in helping them immerse themselves in the culture, meet locals, develop social awareness, and meet other international travellers. 

Explore more volunteer work in Colombia

Share your knowledge in Catuama, Brazil

Share your knowledge and experience on skills that you have developed or learned.

Do you have a special skill or talent? Why not bring yourself to Brazil to teach in a hostel! Whether it be teaching a sport, organizing events, or running a craft workshop – this experience may be for you!

This host is asking Worldpackers to stay at least 15 days. In exchange you get 3 days off per week, pickup, and transport to the hostel when you arrive, access to the kitchen and discounts on accommodation for your stay in other hostels as you continue with your travels.   

Other Worldpackers recommend this experience for getting in touch with nature, learning about sustainability and developing greater environmental awareness. 

Explore more volunteer work in Brazil

Volunteer at our Zoo in the Peruvian Andes Valley, Lima Peru

Join us as a Zoo volunteer! Work alongside skilled veterinarians and staff, at our local Zoo in the Peruvian Andes. As a volunteer, you will learn about each species and support by feeding animals, spending time/sharing loving energy with animals, helping veterinarians administer medications, cleaning, gardening, and maintaining the atmosphere for the animals.

If cost isn’t a limiting factor during your travel, there are even more opportunities available to you. This experience, and a select few others, may charge an additional fee. For instance, are you an animal lover? While backpacking South America, you could volunteer at a local zoo, helping to care for animals. 

This position only requires 3 hours of work each weekday, which frees up the rest of your time to explore this beautiful country! This position also provides breakfast and lunch each day. 

They accept couples as well as single volunteers, so if you are travelling with a partner or friend, they are welcome too. 

Those who have volunteered here say this experience was great for meeting locals, immersing in the local culture, and getting in touch with nature. 

Explore more volunteer work in Peru

Community Manager & Web Programmer in Cordoba, Argentina

If you’re looking for volunteer work in South America that would also look great on your resume, why not consider helping out as a community manager and web programmer during your backpacking trip?

 We are looking for a creative person who has knowledge in digital marketing, social networks and can also help us advertise the hostel organically and using digital ads.”

For anyone with tech skills to spare, this position could be not only fun, but also a great career opportunity to bolster your resume. 

This stunning hostel in Argentina is seeking a talented person to run their social media accounts, and the minimum time requirement is only one week.

You would work 32 hours a week which leaves plenty of time for exploring and spending time with your new friends from around the world.

Explore more volunteer work in Argentina

Multiply and cultivate ornamental plants in Chile

“We reproduce and research ornamental plants, especially the native ones… We’re 5 km away from the touristic city of Valdivia, close to national parks and other attractions. Come help us with different activities in our vivero.”

If you’ve got a green thumb and would love to be surrounded by nature while backpacking South America, why not volunteer in beautiful Chile on a working farm? You’d work farming, gardening, and helping with general labour around the property. 

This experience includes all meals, free laundry, and 2 days off a week. You can also use the on-site bicycles to get into town on your days off.

Explore more volunteer work in Chile


In conclusion, you don’t have to pay a ton of money to travel around the world or have unique experiences. Worldpackers is an incredible resource for backpackers, budget travellers, or those searching for enriching volunteer programs in South America. 

Their site’s search functions make it so easy to find the best volunteer work when backpacking South America. Regardless of your unique travel itinerary, I cannot recommend Worldpackers enough.