All major Colombian carriers operate flights to and from Cartagena's Aeropuerto Internacional Rafael Núñez, 3km from the city, in Crespo. There are flights to Bogotá, Cali, Medellín, San Andrés and many other major cities with Avianca. Copa connects to Panama City, American Airlines to Miami and JetBlue Airways to New York. Air Canada Rouge has seasonal flights to Toronto.
The terminal has four ATMs, a casa de cambio (currency exchange; in domestic arrivals) and multiple car-hire agencies in the terminal building or immediately nearby.
The route to and from the airport is serviced by frequent local buses. There are also colectivos (COP$2000), as well as nicer air-conditioned shuttles called Metrocar, both of which depart from Monumento a la India Catalina in the Old Town. (For Metrocar, look for the green-signed buses.)
By taxi, there's a surcharge of COP$5000 on airport trips. It costs COP$10,000 to COP$15,000 from the center to the airport; coming from the airport, official taxis charge set amounts according to distance and time of day. Expect to pay between COP$10,000 and COP$15,000 to Getsemaní, San Diego and El Centro, but be sure to get a receipt from the dispatch office at the airport first, to ensure you know how much the journey should cost.
Sailboat is a great way to get to Panama and also a unique way to experience the San Blas Islands. Various boats leave Cartagena for Panama via the San Blas Archipelago and vice versa; the schedule is set a few months ahead and has boats departing almost every day in both directions. The trip normally takes five days and includes three days in San Blas for snorkeling and island-hopping. Trips cost around US$550 per person but can range from US$450 to US$650, as there are many factors involved.
Most boats arrive at the Panamanian ports of Porvenir, Puerto Lindo or Portobello. It's easy to connect to Panama City from all three.
The industry has been transformed in recent years by Blue Sailing, a Colombian-American-run agency that has sought to legalize what had been an unregulated business. Blue Sailing currently represents more than 22 boats and ensures that all have proper safety equipment for open-sea navigation. It monitors boats' locations and uses licensed captains. It's therefore highly recommended that you find your boat through Blue Sailing to ensure a safe and legal crossing.
Other agencies and hostels in Cartagena offer boat crossings, but do ask about safety equipment and the captain's license. Ideally, check online for reviews of the boat and crew before you commit to anything.
Different boats depart each week, even in low season; email an operator with your preferred departure dates and the staff will hook you up with a boat that best fits your needs. It's important to book ahead, especially December through March, as boats tend to book out weeks before departure.
The sailboat trip is a popular way to visit San Blas even for those who didn't originally plan to travel to Panama. A few airlines offer cheap flights back to Colombia from Panama City; try Wingo, Air Panama and Avianca.
For those passengers traveling with vehicles, various shipping companies offer container sharing or 'roll on, roll off' services between Cartagena and Colón (US$700 to US$1200, six to eight days including loading/unloading). Passengers can take the sailboat across to meet their vehicle. It's easy and inexpensive to reach Colón from Puerto Lindo or Portobello.
Visas are not generally required for stays of up to 90 days in Panama.
Beware of any con men attempting to lure you into 'amazing' Caribbean boat trips. Inquire at Blue Sailing or Casa Viena, both of which have a list of known and safe captains. It's also a good idea to head down to the yacht club, inspect the craft and meet your captain before you get on board – travelers have reported everything from crack-smoking crazies to incompetent sailors at the helm of some boats.
If you're heading to Barranquilla or Santa Marta, the easiest option is to leave from the Berlinastur Terminal, a short taxi ride from the Old Town. Air-conditioned minibuses depart from here every 20 minutes from 5am to 8pm, stopping first in Barranquilla (COP$20,000, two hours) and then in Santa Marta (COP$40,000, four hours).
An even better, but pricier, option for this route is the MarSol bus to Santa Marta (COP$50,000, three hours), Taganga (COP$52,000, three hours), PNN Tayrona (COP$67,000, four hours) and Palomino (COP$77,000, five hours). It picks you up from any hotel or hostel in Cartagena, skips Barranquilla entirely and then drops you at any hotel or hostel in Santa Marta or beyond. There are two buses a day; call a day ahead to reserve your seats.
For other destinations, including for cheaper tickets to Barranquilla and Santa Marta, you'll need to head to Cartagena's Terminal de Transportes de Cartagena. It's on the eastern outskirts of the city, far away from the center – give yourself 45 minutes to get there in all but the darkest hours.
Several bus companies serve Bogotá and Medellín throughout the day. Among them, Copetran (www.copetran.com) heads to Bogotá (from COP$110,000, 21 hours, six buses daily). Unitransco serves Barranquilla (COP$14,000, 2½ hours, hourly), with continuing services to Santa Marta (COP$35,000, four hours, hourly). There's also a 7:30am service to Mompós (COP$46,000, six hours, daily) and an hourly service to Montería (COP$40,000, five hours, daily). For Riohacha on La Guajira Peninsula, Expreso Brasilia and Rápido Ochoa both have hourly departures (COP$42,000, eight hours). The latter also has four daily departures to Medellín (COP$125,000, 13 hours).
On overland trips to Panama, take one of the hourly buses to Montería (COP$40,000, five hours), where you can switch to one of the hourly buses to Necocli (COP$25,000, 2½ hours) and Turbo (COP$35,000, 3½ hours). It's worth noting that if you don't leave Cartagena before 11am, you risk missing the last bus for Necocli/Turbo and will have to sleep in Montería. From both ports, you can take the boat to Capurganá the following morning, from where there are regular launches to Obaldia in Panama.
Buses to Playa Blanca (COP$1500, 70 minutes), for those who aren't keen to take the boat excursion there, leave throughout the day. Look for vehicles marked 'Pasocaballos' and tell the driver where you're headed so you can be let off.