Besides an awful sunburn that lasted for days, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Cartagena, Colombia. From the republican and colonial style architecture of the old town area, to the modern and sleek high rises of the northern shore neighborhood of Bocagrande, this city is extremely beautiful. I guess it’s no wonder why it is always chosen as Colombia’s most romantic city. While walking around the streets, the colors gleam in your face, the architecture brings you back to another time in history, and the music you hear through the local’s windows makes you want to dance. I’ve never really been big on the romance side… but I can see to what they are referring. And, wanting to live out my childhood fantasy of being a pirate since reading “Treasure Island” in 4th grade, I also really appreciate the romanticism that the city holds towards its old pirating days!
Cartagena is a city rich with the history of pirates, due to its coinciding history of also being rich in gold and silver. It was the first Spanish colony on the American continent, settled back in 1533. After centuries of plundering the area’s gold and silver, it is considered to be the city that is most associated with piracy in the world. This history lives on in the streets, the old stone fort, the city walls, and the spirit of the residents.
Arrival into Cartagena is limited due to there being no road or railroads connecting Panama and Colombia. However, for my trip, I flew in via Medellin. A one-way plane ticket from Medellin should cost you around $40 with the new budget airline, VivaColombia. If you’re feeling up for a 12 hour bus trip from Medellin to Cartagena, you can expect to pay around $45. Once at the airport, take a taxi to your destination. A taxi ride to the center of town “el centro” should cost you no more than $11. In addition, taxis are numerous and cheap throughout the city. Besides walking, I found them to be the best way to get around. Just be sure to negotiate your fares before you enter the cab, as there is no meter system.
There are a number of accommodations throughout the city, but most are centered in the walled colonial city and Bocagrande (the area with all of the new high rises). I stayed for 7 nights at Hostel Mamallena, in the colonial Old Town area. A private room will cost you just $25/night. The hostel was great for what I was looking for in my stay. I met a ton of other great travelers; backpackers, nomads, hobos, hippies, vacationers. The entire group of people was awesome, and made for a great experience. Best yet, was meeting an old, retired, philosophy teacher, with whom a group of us spent several hours one night, engaged in deep conversation over a few Aguila’s (a popular Colombian beer). I don’t remember the conversation, but I do remember how much fun we had wandering the streets, getting lost for hours. Yea, it was one of those kind of traveler nights.
Just a quick tip: A nice spot to hit up for lunch and/or dinner is on the corner of Calle de Guerrero and Media Luna. While Café Havana is nice for some great dancing and music at nighttime, located above is “I Balconi’s.” This Italian Pizzeria serves up good sized portions of Italian and Colombian cuisine for very pocket-friendly prices. It also serves a nice view, overlooking the activity below, from the balcony. The entrance is around the corner on Calle de Guerrero, behind Café Havana.
Getting around the city is fairly easy. The landscape is flat and is setup all along the coast. Taxis are a great way to get around for distance, but walking is by the far the best option in order to really get a feel for the city. The streets are well paved and maintained. They are also very clean, with beautiful architecture adorned in bright, vibrant colors on every corner.
An obvious and mandatory spot to check out is the old town area, which is set within the old city walls. The colonial style architecture is extremely beautiful. Enter through the main Clock Tower entrance, and get lost in any direction for hours. There is a lot to see, and each neighborhood makes for a nice stroll. Check out the small shops, peek through some of the windows of the homes, poke around inside the churches, and take a break at one of the many outdoor cafes.
The massive fort, Castillo de San Felipe, is another must-do activity while in Cartagena. This fort was constructed in 1657, and is largely still intact and in great condition. You can spend a large part of the day just wandering around, or getting a guided tour, through the maze of tunnels inside these coral walls. In 1984, this fortress, and the walled city, were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The walls around the city are great for strolling atop of and seeing great views that overlook the city and the Caribbean.
At nighttime, there are a number of great bars and clubs for letting loose and learning some Latin dance steps. Check out CrazySalsa; a great program offering introductory Salsa lessons every Friday and Saturday night for just $5. They do a great job with newbies, and make it a very fun experience.
If you’re feeling like you’ve had enough of the city, take a quick ride over to one of the beaches that adorn the coast. The farther away you go from the city, the cleaner and more beautiful the beaches seem to be. But short taxi rides can take you to beaches like Playa Hollywood, which has nice sand, a bar, restaurant, and calm waters. The only drawback about the beaches closer to town, is that there are a significant number of peddlers and vendors trying to sell you merchandise and food. And just as a word of caution, be careful with the oyster shuckers. These guys will give you a free oyster to taste, and then start cracking apart one after the next, handing them to you, while never telling you that these next ones are NOT gifts. They will then tell you that each one is $1-2 each. The oysters are mighty tasty, though, so enjoy a few!
Cartagena is the most visited city in Colombia by tourists, for good reason. It is a wonderfully historic place that still captures the spirit of its past. There are many side trips one can take, such as the mud volcano tour, or boat trips to various islands on the Caribbean. But none of these have the same effect as just wandering around the city and embracing its rich culture and its past. And with such friendly and open residents, it’s a comfortable stay. If you want to be friends with the locals, you can. If you want to ask where to find the best new local cuisine spots, you can. If you want to dance the night away with Latinas to the rhythms of salsa, you can. And best yet; if you want to live out your childhood fantasy of being a pirate, in a place formerly run a muck with pirates, you can.