Welcome to this wonderful coral-built town on the sparkling Colombian Caribbean coast, where paint-peeling cantinas serve up rum punches and cafés spill onto cobbled streets, where plazas are topped by handsome Spanish-style churches that date back hundreds of years, and blazing yellow domes cap the skyline. Yep, it’s unquestionably one of the jewels of the country, but is Cartagena safe?
Cue this guide. It will delve into the ins and outs of the city to reveal what sort of risks travelers can expect to face when they pass this way. It’s got info on the crime rates of Cartagena, the most common travel scams, and even some tips on how to stay safe while you’re exploring the UNESCO-listed fortresses and monuments of the enthralling city.
The good news is that the town is widely considered to be one of the safest destinations in the home of samba and coffee. It’s well-used to visitors, counting almost two million per year these days. However, it’s still a good idea to wise up on the risks that do await in this corner of South America before you jet over to top up the tan for yourself. Let’s get started…
Is Cartagena safe in 2023?
Cartagena is one of the most tourist-friendly places in all of Colombia. That means, generally speaking at least, that it’s pretty safe for globetrotters. To put it another way: An estimated two million people flock to the town every year to wonder at the sparkling beaches on the doorstep and rich colonial history between the historic walls; the vast majority of them encounter no problems whatsoever.
That said, let’s not forget that Cartagena is in Colombia. This is a country that’s been ravaged by drug wars and violent crimes. It was considered pretty much a no-go as recently as the 1990s. There seems to be some of that lingering like a cloud over Cartagena today, as travel stats website Numbeo lists the city as “high” on the overall crime scale.
The city has high homicide rates (about 22 in 100,000 of population) and high rates of robbery and theft. It hosts organized crime gangs on one end of the danger scale and is a hotbed of tourist scams at the other end. So, the overall message here is that yes, Cartagena is usually safe for travelers, but there are most certainly risks and it’s not the safest place to go in the world.
Organized crime and gang violence in Cartagena
Probably the number one worry for travelers heading to Cartagena and Colombia in general is the threat of gang violence. This is the country that gave the world Pablo Escobar, after all! The good news is that the era of cartels ruling the streets is all but over here. Cities like Medellin and Cali are now actually considered pretty safe and are even becoming surprising hubs for digital nomads.
Sadly, organized crime hasn’t totally gone away in Cartagena. There have even been recent increases in the most serious of crimes. Some reports reveal that there was an estimated 80 gangs in operation across the city as of 2013, with one news outlet reporting that said gangs were present even in the “popular areas of Cartagena” – the Walled City and Boca Grande, for example.
It’s a worrying trend that’s borne out by the homicide numbers. Murder rates have fluctuated here since 2008 but haven’t really seen a steady decreasing trend. In fact, they’ve sat at between 22-29 per 100,000 head of population since 2014, which is roughly in line with Mexico and other Central American countries, but still less than half of what it was in the most dangerous of cities in Colombia (Cali).
Dig a little deeper, though, and you do find that the vast majority of the violent crimes and murders in Cartagena take place away from the district of UGC1, which is the home of the main tourist areas. The upshot? It’s actually very uncommon to hear of visitors being caught up in cartel-related violence and the chances are you won’t even encounter anything to do with this darker side of the city.
Robberies, thefts, and scams in Cartagena
While it’s the FARC and gang violence that hits the headlines, those aren’t really the main worries for travelers to Cartagena. That dubious honor goes to the trio of petty theft, scams, and robberies. These are actually very common in this Colombian town and, here’s the kicker, international travelers are often the main target.
According to official stats, there were nearly 8,000 robberies in Cartagena in 2018. That’s a whopping increase from under 3,000 only a year before. On top of that, there’s evidence to show that thefts and scams are now taking place on a daily basis within the Walled City, so you’ll need to have your wits about you.
The most common tricks and scams used against travelers in Cartagena include:
- Money exchange scam – A classic. The money exchange scam happens when you need to convert your dollars or pounds into Colombian pesos. Either you’ll get a terrible rate, or there’s an even more incredible slight of hand where the money changer will recount your cash before your eyes while removing the bigger notes from the bottom of the pile!
- Unlicensed tour providers – Always check what’s included in the cost of a package to popular destinations around Cartagena. Boat outings to the idyllic sands of Playa Blanca and the Islas del Rosario might be sold as full-on snorkeling day trips, but customers are often left disappointed when they find out that they need to fork out more for certain activities on the way. The best way to avoid this is to book directly within the marina terminal and not from touts just outside the entrance.
- Sunbed salespeople – A well known scam on the urban beaches of Boca Grande is being sold a sunbed by a person who has actually got nada to do with the sunbed owners. They’ll rock up, ask you for cash, and be gone, never to be seen again. That leaves you out of pocket and the person who actually runs the sunbed enterprise asking for more dollar bills.
Pickpocketing is worth a special mention as perhaps the biggest worry inside the Walled City area of Cartagena. It happens frequently and the body-packed streets and atmospheric alleyways don’t help at all. We’d recommend using a money wallet and keeping a close eye on your belonging when you head out sightseeing in those parts.
Is Cartagena safe for solo travelers?
There are always more unique challenges for solo travelers, not just in Colombia but anywhere around the globe. We’d say that’s especially true of Cartagena, though, as the risk of becoming a victim of robberies and theft (probably the two most common dangers to tourists in these parts) increases significantly if you’re alone. It’s just that the perpetrators see an easier target and are more likely to go for it.
The best way around that is to look for a travel buddy to head down to the tropics with you. Or you can stay somewhere that lets you meet and mingle with other travelers in order to buddy up. There are some great places where the vibe should let you do just that. Check out the Casa Movida ($) hostel or the Viajero Hostel ($), both of which come highly rated and put you close to the wonderful historic sights of the old city.
What areas of Cartagena are safe to visit?
One of the most important things to know about when it comes to planning a safe trip to Cartagena is what part of the town is safe and what isn’t. It’s possible to walk from a relatively crime-free area to one that has considerably higher rates of theft and violent crime in just a matter of minutes here, so it’s always a good idea to have a handle on where you’re headed.
Here’s a look at the safer parts of the city:
- The Walled City – Also known as the Old Town, this is the 500-year-old core of the town and without question the best place to be based. It’s filled with colonial-era treasures and is usually packed with visitors. It’s generally got lower rates of violent crime than the worst parts of town but is high-risk for petty theft.
- Getsemani – The upcoming hipster district of Cartagena, Getsemani is wedged between the beach and the Walled City. It’s a fun place, with cracking coffee houses and edgier bars. The main risk here is crime at night, so steer clear after dark, folks.
- Bocagrade – The beach district of Cartagena curves all the way down the headland from the Walled City to Bocagrade. Its’s a happening strip of sand with lux hotels and apartment blocks to its back. If you stick to the shoreline bars, then this vibrant nightlife area is also lively after dark.
What areas should I avoid in Cartagena?
Just as there are certain places that are generally considered safe in Cartagena, so there are others that are probably best avoided. These are the spots that have the higher rates of crime and the worse tourist infrastructure. The good news is that they don’t usually offer all that much to sightseers and mainly sit on the outskirts and in the suburbs of town. They include:
- Sector La Magdalena – Located to the southwest of the main town, Sector La Magdalena is a bit of a sprawling residential quarter. It’s cut through by the main Calle 31a – the main roadway heading into the old town area.
- Olaya Herrera – A little further east than Sector La Magdalena, Olaya Herrera is one of the least affluent corners of the city. Again, there’s not all that much here to entertain the tourist.
- La Maria – The housing in La Maria is more like the barrios you get in larger cities. It’s not the safest area, especially after dark.
Is it safe to drink the water in Cartagena, Colombia?
The jury is still out on the safety of the water in Cartagena. We recommend only using bottled water in the city. While the official line is that the tap water is safe for human consumption, most travelers opt to avoid it. There are a few reasons for that, including the fact that El Nino runoff has been known to contaminate the potable supply during bouts of heavy rain, and that many of the older buildings have dated infrastructure and poor piping.
The other reason lots of people choose to avoid drinking the tap water in Colombia is because it’s often not the tastiest. Most buildings are served by a large water tank that’s on the roof. They are rarely cleaned properly and the supply is treated with lots of chlorine to make it fit for use in the home, which can add a chemically edge to it.
The good news is that bottled water is relatively cheap. A small bottle will usually set you back around 3,400 COL, or $0.60 USD, while a large one comes in for around just $1 a pop. They are sold at most corner shops in the Walled City and beyond and at most hotels.
Our top tips for staying safe in Cartagena
Okay, so Cartagena isn’t the safest place in the Americas, but it’s not the most dangerous, either. Over two million travelers head its way each year and we can totally see why you’d want to join them. If you do, be sure to follow these top tips on staying safe…
- Don’t flash expensive belongings – Don’t strut into the Walled City, or any other area for that matter, with a brand-new Nikon dangling from one arm and a gold chain around your neck. Flashing expensive stuff makes you an instant target for scammers and thieves, which is probably the main risk in the most touristy areas of the city.
- Avoid the riskiest parts of town – There’s no avoiding the heightened risk of robbery that comes with being in the Walled City. You simply have to see that part of Cartagena and the increased crime comes with the territory of being the town’s tourist hotspot. However, don’t be tempted to go to lesser-known parts of town, where there are increased rates of violent crimes and homicide. The eastern areas of the town are especially dangerous.
- Don’t resist if you do get robbed – Robbers in Cartagena and Colombia can be unpredictable and are often armed. If you are unlucky enough to become a victim, then it’s best to capitulate, give them what they’re after, and report it to the police later on.
- Stay away from illegal activities – Don’t be tempted to try drugs or buy counterfeit goods or engage in prostitution. All of that is illegal and will heighten the risk of something going bad on your trip to Cartagena.
- Never walk alone at night – Is Cartagena safe? Not so much at night! A good general rule to follow is to NEVER go out alone at night. Doing so will make you a more likely victim of thefts and even violent crimes.
Is Cartagena safe? Our conclusion
Is Cartagena safe? We’d say the answer is yes, but it’s not the safest place around. It’s still in Colombia, a country with high murder rates and crime stats more generally, and there have been worrying increases in the number of robberies and thefts, even in the main tourist parts of the city in recent years. Still, you have to remember that over two million people come here every year and most leave without a single problem at all.