Ask me where is my favorite travel destinations and you’ll get a short list. Very short. Toward the top, I will blather on and on, and nonstop talk about my mega crush on Cartagena. Images of Cartagena’s UNESCO-crowned walled city teased me for years; now, the smells and sounds of Getsemani’s Plaza de la Trinidad beckon my return. Cartagena is quickly becoming an attractive vacation destination, and I have every confidence this beautiful colonial city is going to quickly transform in the midst of its tourism boom. Blink, and you might miss the remnants of a locale that can truly give you respite from your bustling life.
I discovered a staggeringly cheap air ticket to Cartagena, one night. In an insomnia-induced hallucinogenic decision, I booked a flight for the very first day my vacation allowance reset with my employer. Most people thought I finally proved mental instability, but one lady friend, a fellow adventurer, invited herself along. THAT is what I call a good girlfriend.
Vanessa doesn’t ask me WHY I decided to go to Colombia, alone, with less than optimal Spanish speaking capabilities. She doesn’t immediately conjure images of FARC rebels and circa 1980’s drug lords. None of that nonsense; the woman books the same flight and proceeds to peruse Airbnb accommodations with me. Just like that, I had a travel buddy!
Colombia rightfully earned negative travel advisories and news coverage in decades past. Today is a different time. It’s time for anyone seeking an attainable travel budget that promises delivery of superb, vibrant, culture to savor to put Cartagena on the travel list. Cartagena blends Caribbean and Latin flair with ease. Vanessa and I agreed, between the various destinations we’ve each traveled to as solo female travelers, few places felt as safe and welcoming as Cartagena.
What to Know:
The language: If you haven’t put your high school or college Spanish to use in a while, start practicing. Cartagena is quickly becoming a travel darling, but most residents and service providers only speak Spanish. It is possible to get by without knowledge of Spanish, but your visit will be more comfortable if you can at least navigate basic Spanish communication.
Cabs: ALWAYS negotiate your fare to your destination before getting in the cab. This advice was given to us by the immigration and customs officer in the airport. He happened upon us trying to navigate the cabs on his break and he walked us through negotiation transport to our apartment. He advised us to always negotiate before starting the trip.
On the note of transportation from the airport… If you are staying in the Old City (El Centro, San Diego, and Getsemani), there is a standard fee of COP $10,000 (it was about UDS $3.30 in September 2015).
Health and Safety: Good news! Cartagena is not in the malarial zone. As with any sub-tropical travel region, you should exercise caution with what you consume. Water in our apartment was potable. We ate and drank water and fresh produce without any issue. As far as safety goes, we were out in the streets of Getsemani and Old City late in the night every night and had no issues, at all. Be wise and you should be fine.
What to Do:
Playa Blanca and Islas del Rosario: A trip to Cartagena must include at least one day on the playa. We saw the public beaches in Boca Grande. While they were filled with locals, for the “beach” experience we wanted, it was necessary for us to make the excursion. Popular tour packages and day trips to the turquoise waters of Islas del Rosario and Playa Blanca are available aplenty through hotels, hostels, and even by walking to the docks. We negotiated a private boat on the docks to Playa Blanca for the day. On the next day, being so happy with our previous beach day, we took a tour boat back to Playa Blanca.
The private boat was a better value because we were on our own agenda and schedule. More importantly, by taking our own boat we were able to access a part of the beach that is much less congested with the tourism and beach hawkers. Having the experience of the tour boat and the private boat, the private boat experience more than made up for the slightly extra cost. Check out my post where I go into the comparisons in more details and share with you my lessons learned. 🙂
Champeta and Salsa Dancing: Get your dancing shoes and swishy skirt because the salsa clubs in Getsemani are going to bring you thumping music and competent partners who will whirl you and twirl you around that dance floor. If you’re not the type to ‘don dancing shoes, that’s ok! There is still opportunity to sit back, sip mojitos, and tap your toes while you watch and listen. Cafe Havana is rightfully legendary. Bazurto Social Club will fill up with locals and tourists, alike. When the band started playing champeta music… I didn’t know I could swivel quickly. And, I broke my shoe….
Volcan de lodo el Totumo: “El Totumo” is a mud volcano about an hour outside of Cartagena. Day trips can be booked through hotels and hostels, and you can climb inside the volcano where you float in a mud pool, get a massage, and then are bathed in a nearby lagoon. While we were initially interested in experiencing the opportunities to become mud beauties, we opted for an additional day at the beach. I mention this excursion, though, because it is supposedly a “not to be missed” experience. Which, we missed….
Castillo de San Felipe: Castillo de San Felipe is a world heritage site and a remarkably well preserved fortress. Cartagena was an important Spanish fort and subject to numerous pirate attacks (think of all the precious metals and jewels for which South America is known). The entire city was surrounded by a formidable wall and a series of fortresses were built to fortify the city’s defenses. Castillo de San Felipe is the most imposing – and impressive – of all. Castillo de San Felipe provides what are possibly the best views of the city as it is built upon a hill and is several stories high, itself.
Take note a midday trip to the fortress is going to be a menace to your hair and dress as you will look as if you finished a summertime marathon in Phoenix. We literally were dabbing ourselves with “sweat rags” we purchased from a street vendor. We were red faced, panting, and literal hot messes. But, hey, it was our first day. We chalked it up to part of Cartagena initiation.
Getsemani Street Art: El Centro, San Diego, and Getsemani are the three neighborhoods that comprise the original part of Cartagena. Whereas El Centro and San Diego were the livable neighborhoods, Getsemani was the original slave quarters. Getsemani is going through its own gentrification and renaissance. Not too long ago, this neighborhood was seedy and shady. Now, it is compared to SoHo for its hip, up-and-coming scene. Getsemani boasts street art and murals to compete with any mega metropolitan street scene. The streets are crooked and narrow. Murals and various street art are bright, bold, often politically infused, and explosive.
Walk the Old City: Cartagena is easily walkable, within the walls, and is a beautiful city for walking. Old City, El Centro and San Diego, provides you with alley after alley of bougainvillea laced balconies and intricately handled doors in every punchy Pantone color. A stroll through Old City brings you closer to that lost colonial beauty from the ages of former Spanish rule. Here, you fully appreciate why Gabriel Garcia Marquez loved his adopted city. You may even spot a parrot or two.
Now, how about you? Have you been to Cartagena lately? What have I missed? Are you heading there and have questions? Comment below and let me know!