So a few years ago now, I spent one whole month based in Cartagena, Colombia and loved it so much! And now I have had such a great time taking a trip down memory lane to write this post. Here's some of my 'best of' moments.
A walking tour
I was super lucky and hadn't even made it into my hotel room when a friendly woman asked if I was travelling solo and invited me to dinner! She was a US expat living in Medellin, visiting Cartagena for the long weekend and knew her way around, so I just followed along obediently. The next day when I had to venture out on my own I found the streets confusing as they change names at every block. It was at that point I decided it would be wise to book a walking tour. Which I did. And it was definitely one of my better decisions there. A well-known local guide, Henry, met me at the old city wall at our appointed time and off we went. Not entirely true. He was late. And apologetic at least. At any rate, he knew his way around the Ciudad Amurallada (walled city with a fortress) and it is definitely one of those places you need to walk around to soak up all it's charm. And I spent much time in the days ahead doing so, trust. Again, I was super lucky and Henry and I hit it off smashingly and so not only did I book him for a different tour but we became friends and he introduced me to the nightlife and helped me out of jam I had later on regarding accommodations. Just another reason why I always try to book local guides. They often become my friends
Catching the sunset at Cafe del Mar
This is one of my classic moves. I make a point of trying to catch at least one sunset in my destinations. Often it will be many! This cafe/restaurant is located on the sea wall facing the west side. Here you'll find possibly the best view of the sunset in the city but of course that will be accompanied by expensive food and drinks. I heard the food was sub-par so I didn't bother with that but I did have a mojito. Wasn't fabulous but did the trick! The sun starts to go down about 5:30 pm every day but you will need to go early to save a spot. The brilliant flashes of colour are very worth the time! Budget alternative: grab a cold beverage from a nearby bodega and park yourself further down the way on a free section of the wall.
A mud bath in an active volcano
Yes you read that right! An active volcano! I think this is like a rite of passage. So my school friends and I booked a weekend tour and hopped in a minivan to make our way out to the site. Once you arrive you will change into your swimsuit. Pro tip: the mud stains so don't wear your new bikini! Then you will climb up and then climb down a rickety ladder to get to the mud. In you go! Pro tip #2: don't dunk your head, especially your face as you will have no way to wipe the mud off. After a period of time you will have to climb back up the rickety ladder to be subjected to an involuntary groping as someone wipes the thick mud off of you with their hands. Then you will make your way down a path to a lake where you will attempt to get all the remaining mud off. And to cap off the experience a cold beer to cancel out any of the supposed benefits of the mud detox! Warning, you will be harassed for tips for any additional services the locals can pawn off on you. Not my favourite part. Hmmm. When re-reading this is doesn't sound like a fabulous experience. But. Rite of passage. Yes. This.
Hanging out with the locals in a town square
As with many places in Latin America, you will find town squares to be popular places to hang out in Cartagena. Here you can find no less than 10! My favourite was Plaza de Bolivar, around the corner from my Spanish school. Every morning before class I would park myself on a bench and soak up the local culture. Little carts are pushed through bearing tinto (small cups of very strong coffee). Friends gather on park benches. After seeing I was a regular fixture the Costenos (locals) began to greet and chat with me. I should say try to chat with me as my Spanish was not strong and Costenos speak fast and loose!
Runner up: Plaza de Trinidad in the Getsemani neighbour is hopping on Sunday nights if you're looking for a laid back party vibe and some excellent street food!
Chilling at the beaches of course
And there is no shortage of choice of this in Cartagena. Often after class we would jump on a bus and head down to Bocagrande (like a little Miami) to get some beach time in. If you want to be pestered constantly by hawkers pick a beachfront location by the hotels. If you want a more chill situation follow the locals to their beach of choice.You can also venture farther to La Boquilla, a fishing village on the outskirts of Cartagena. Not necessarily the most beautiful, but has my vote for the most character. This is the beach most favoured by locals and a great place to come and kick back with a cold beer and eat some delicious fresh fish. I also did a private tour with my guy Henry, taking us out via boat to the mangroves and small islands where some locals make their home. It was on one of those that I had probably the best fish I have ever had in my life complemented with my favourite arroz con coco (coconut rice)! My mouth is watering just thinking about it now.
Must do: Take a boat out to Baru island to spend the day (or overnight if you wish) on Playa Blanca. One of Colombia's most beautiful beaches, no doubt! Unfortunately the hawkers are incorrigible. One literally tapped me on the shoulder when I was lying on the beach with my eyes closed. He later suggested that if I gave him money he would leave me alone. I did and it was worth it!
Party on a Chiva!
This is one of the most ridiculously Colombian things ever! And the most ridiculously fun! For my 'I'm returning home' party, I asked my friends from school to partake in this with me. Colorful buses with flashing lights and blaring Vallenato music drive you around the city to various stops. Did I forget to mention the open bar? Oh yes, there's that! Your final destination is a larger club where you can dance the night away. We had an absolute blast!
Salsa dancing at Cafe Havana!
While Cali, Colombia is truly the place to go if you love Salsa dancing, there are a number of bars in Cartagena where you can kick up your heels. Or in my case, watch others kick up theirs. My friend Henry met me at Cafe Havana on my last night. Since Havana is one of my favourite places in the world, I was bound to love this place anyhow. But it was a winner on it's own accord. Live music, mix of locals, expats and some tourist, and perfectly mixed cocktails. And of course watching the dancing is pure enjoyment.
Buying fruit from Las Palenqueras
Las Palenqueras are probably the most iconic characters you will see. Around the town squares and other spots throughout the old city, you will find these vibrant women in their colourful garb often balancing bowls of fruit on their heads! You can purchase the fresh fruit from them and they will often cut it up in front of you while engaging in some banter. Beyond the vibrant facade are sadly ties to a past of slavery. Whilst free now, they do work to preserve their African history and culture.
Eat, eat and eat some more!
The food scene in Cartagena alone is reason enough to visit. I've mentioned the fresh fish already. But I must also mention the ceviche. From ceviche found in some more sophisticated Peruvian restaurants to Anthony Bourdain's pick, La Cevicheria for traditional Colombian style ceviche, this is a must try dish! I briefly touched on the street food above, of which there are many options. From the carts selling Arepa de Huevo (arepas filled with eggs) and other varieties, to the Argentina empanada stand in Getsemani that was my go to as I prefer baked to fried, to street meat options to fresh juice, to patacones, there is something for everyone. One of my most favourite things (I might have had a lot of those here!) was the pratos executivos. Which basically are a set lunch offered by many different restaurants. Menus of the day will typically be posted and are often multi-course, including soup and sometimes even a sweet dessert ending. As my Spanish classes ended at lunch time I tried a number of different places and made repeat visits to several. I could write a whole long post on the food alone so I will wrap this up now by saying there are also a number of upscale dining options. From Peruvian to Italian to Colombian traditional to Spanish (one of at which I received private cooking lessons!) you can often dine al fresco or by candlelight. This is a city of romance after all!
So there you have it, some of the highlights of my time in Cartagena. But there were many more memorable experiences and moments. I've been debating returning to Colombia this winter and with this personal refresher it's seeming like even more of a wise choice. We shall see...Cartagena