After dark, the city really comes alive. Too hot to be active during the day, the nightlife in Cartagena is robust with tourists and locals mingling in every square. Just follow the voices and music and you’ll find yourself being entertained by talented street performers or stumble upon a local bar where you can grab a cervasa and find the people of all ages salsa dancing. One of our favorite finds was the “Cuba 1940’s” bar where you can dangle you feet in a cool indoor pool while sipping Mojitos. Plaza de La Trinidad, in the Getsemani quarter, was steps from our hotel and swarming with people every night. Located in a working class neighborhood that is undergoing gentrification, and awash in expensive boutique hotels alongside hostels and modest local homes, a gathering of people from all walks of life occurs on the square. Grab some rum laced fruit punch from a street vendor and find a spot to sit and watch the show.
“Is it safe to go there?” is the first question people asked when we said we were going to Colombia. When answered in the affirmative the next question from our genuinely baffled acquaintances was, “Why would you want to go to Colombia?” As lifelong itinerants our incredulous response is always, “Why the heck wouldn’t you go?”
Truthfully, I’ve had dreams and eventual plans of going many places in South America, but Colombia was never really on the short list. Opportunity arose to finally visit the South American continent when, bored of the usual stateside venues for my continuing education, I searched for something a little more exotic and found a veterinary conference that was being held in Cartagena, Colombia. The sum of my pre-travel knowledge of Colombia came from occasional news reports of the long-standing guerilla war and drug trafficking and what I gleaned from “Romancing the Stone” (which I discovered later was actually filmed in Mexico). We ordered a few travel guides (which we didn’t really use as none are very good for Cartagena), did some googling and watched an old episode of Anthony Bourdains travels to Colombia. In all, we weren’t terribly prepared, and having no real preconceived notions about the country and its people turned out to be a good thing. Cartagena is a city for wandering and discovering, not for planning and schedules.
Cartagena is most of all a Spanish city. Like something out of a fairytale, its streets are graced with colorful colonial mansions dripping with bougainvilleas and grand old stone churches watch over every square. The old city is ringed by an imposing 7 mile long stone wall and the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a typical Spanish fort, served to protect the city from attack by land or sea. A port city settled and built by Spaniards in the 1500’s, Cartagena grew rich on the trading of gold and slaves. While the indigenous cultures were largely wiped out by the settlers and are a small minority today, the Palenqueras, those colorful ladies balancing bowls of fruit for sale on their heads, are descendants of escaped slaves and are a very visible reminder of the cities past.
Being a low lying equatorial city, it’s hot. So hot, the sweat starts streaming down your skin the moment you step outside into the tropical air. Part of that is because, though we grew up in humid swamp that is Florida, both of us are now cold-adapted mountain girls. The other reason, is that it’s just that stinking, crazy hot. As you wander the city, you find the heat is a little less brutal closer to the walls, with the inner areas harboring still, stagnant air. Tall buildings and narrow streets allow no trace of ocean breeze to pass. There is no relief from the heat until the afternoon wanes and the sun begins to set behind the city walls. It’s still hot, you’ll still sweat, and the ocean breezes are warm, but it’s far more comfortable than in the daytime. Sunset most often found us up on the walls of city, enjoying a cold cervesa from a street vendor and savoring the salty breeze.
To escape the heat of the city, a trip to one of the many island beaches is in order. Though it’s a coastal town bounded by the ocean, the beaches near the city tend to be avoided by tourists, for good reason. Within moments of stepping onto a local beach you will be bombarded with people trying to rent you a cabana, or sell you a massage, jewelry, or questionable food. It never lets up and makes a peaceful day enjoying the surf impossible. Good thing there are lots of private or semi-private options on the islands off the coast. The charming hosts at our hotel, Casa Lola, set us up with a day trip to the beach at Eco-hotel Isla del Sol on Isla Grande. A privately owned resort, you get a boat ride to the resort, a hearty lunch and a peaceful day in the sun and sand. We also arranged a day at the Beach Hostel on Tierra Bomba, the closest beach to the mainland, accessed via a short 10 minute boat ride. It’s a laid back, casual atmosphere and there are a few peddlers offering their wares, but not so many to become a nuisance. I imagine that it might get pretty busy on the weekends, but we were there on a quiet weekday and enjoyed the beach with just a few other people.
While there certainly are American tourists, most of the tourists we encountered were from South America which means, few of the locals speak English other than what few words are needed to sell you stuff. It also means there are no Starbucks or McDonalds and when you speak as little Spanish as we do, it makes ordering food and getting information an interesting challenge. Most often, we would find a restaurant or food stand, and we would point to something that looked potentially tasty and say “Uno, por favor” to order. Eating mystery pastries and empanadas worked out pretty well most of the time.
We hooked up with Cartagena Connections for their Street Food and Mercado Bazurto tours. The Mercado Bazurto is not on the agenda for your typical tourist, but it’s on our “don’t miss” list. A sprawling, dirty, bustling market, the Mercado Bazurto is an assault on the senses. Music is blasting from all corners as you navigate the maze. Sanitation is in short supply and the pungent sour odors of fish and meat, decaying vegetables, and piled trash are pervasive. Shopkeepers stalls are made from whatever materials could be cobbled together and roofed by old grain bags, netting and cardboard. The Mercado is the go to spot for locals to purchase just about anything you might need for your home or kitchen. Our guide, Jan, led us through the cacophony of sights and sounds and purchased some of the exotic tropical fruits and foods for us to sample. We shared a lunch of steamed plantain, deep fried fish and Aguapanela, a local drink made from sugar cane that tastes remarkably like Southern Sweet Tea. The intense heat of the day was made hotter by the blasts of heat coming from the cooking fires in that part of the market, but it was an experience not to be missed. We met up with Jan again later that afternoon for the Street Food tour, and got to try a variety of local foods along with learning a bit more about the layout and history of city. The arepas choclo were my favorite!
There is no shortage of things to do in Cartagena. Put on your shoes (and sun hat) and start wandering. Hungry? There are a myriad of restaurants and street foods to try. Want some culture? Several museums are located in the old city and are easy to find or book a tour to visit the village of Palenque (something I wish we had time to do). Hot? Head to the beaches. You don’t need to plan your time, just enjoy the city as it presents itself. In our wanderings, we encountered a fabulous parade of Colombian senior citizens, a neglected but beautiful cemetery (you need to wander a bit outside the city to find that one), and the warm, welcoming hospitality of people of Cartagena.
We are already dreaming of returning and expanding our travels beyond Cartagena. In the words of Anthony Bourdain, “It’s ludicrous that this place exists and everybody doesn’t want to live here.”
Katie and Marybeth
Some more photos from our adventure…