When you think of Colombia, you probably think of busy South American cities full of empanadas and beautiful fabrics (and maybe drugs – but let’s not get into that right now…). However, Cartagena is not a bustling metropolis, it’s more like a beach town. With a combination of hot weather, old forts, and tropical fruits, Cartagena is more like a Caribbean Island than a South American city. It’s a great break from the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires or Lima, and gives you a chance to just relax.
Arriving – December 24th, 2016
From the airport in Medellin, we took a quick plane ride to Cartagena. After landing, we could feel the heat and humidity right away – a big change from the other cities. Thankfully, the airport is really close to the city, so we hopped in the official taxi line-up and took a taxi to our AirBnb. Because it wasn’t a hotel, and was in a residential neighbourhood, our taxi driver had to ask a few people for directions, but we found it eventually. He was super nice and helped us carry all our heavy bags up the stairs. Eventually we found the neighbour who let us into the apartment – it was nice to be able to settle in.
The Airbnb was pretty good all around. We had a few complaints (like not enough toilet paper, crappy air-conditioning in one room, and no staple foods in the kitchen) but overall it was perfect for us. There was a nice balcony to sit out at night, a kitchen to make our own food (with a grocery store down the street and small shops on every corner), a large bed in our room, and two beds for my mom and sister in another room. There was decent WiFi for uploading pics, but I wouldn’t recommend walking home alone too late at night in that area…. Unfortunately, my sister doesn’t speak Spanish, and didn’t know about the official taxis when she arrived around 11pm that night from Canada, so she had a bad experience with the taxi. Thankfully, she was okay in the end and just lost a few bucks, and we were really happy that she made it safely to the AirBnb so we could all be together again (it had been 2 years since we were all last together).
Beaches + Boating
There’s a number of different options in terms of beaches. They’re not the most beautiful beaches in the world but they are good enough for a bit of sun, cocktails, and swimming. We checked out two beaches while we were there. The first one was in the city, so you can easily walk or take the local bus there. It’s called Boca Grande (Large mouth) but there are others as well. The primary complaints would be that you basically have to rent a chair/umbrella for the day (you can’t really just lay down your own blanket), and there will be lots of people trying to sell you stuff throughout the day (like souvenirs and cold drinks). The best thing is that the weather is really nice and the water temperature is perfect too. Make sure to bring sunscreen and hats, because it can get really hot during the middle of the day. Plus, you can get a cold can of beer for almost nothing.
Another beach we checked out was called Playa Blanca. You can either take a bus there or a boat. We scheduled a tour that included a bus and lunch to the beach, but they ended up taking us on the boat anyway. Once on the boat, you can visit many different islands for snorkeling and such, but we just wanted a relaxing beach day anyway. Basically, a lady came and picked us up from the hostel (and we had a receipt). She walked us to the pier and we had to pay a fee to get in. We waited with tons of other people in plastic chairs, and random guides came to call various names. After about an hour, they called our name, handed us a life jacket, and we squeezed into the boat. The ride to the beach was pretty nice and took maybe an hour.
Once we were on the beach we paid again for 4 chairs and an umbrella. The guy also wanted to bring us beers and things but it was cheaper to just get them from the random guys passing by with coolers. We did get him to bring us one cocktail and it was totally awful. The best thing we bought was hand-made piña coladas! An old man came by with a wheelbarrow through the sand. We flagged him down and he made the drinks right there in the wheelbarrow! He started off by coring a pineapple and then adding copious amounts of booze and ice. Not only was it a delicious drink, it was also a show and it was a lot of fun! Plus, the rum all soaks into the fruit so you have to eat it all after as well – totally worth the cost!
We had a few problems getting our lunch because the boat guy had taken the meal voucher but it all worked out in the end. Around 3pm we met back up with our boat and look the ride back gto Cartagena. Unfortunately, it was a lot less smooth waters at that point, and I thought we would get injured by the waves. The boat was bouncing of every wave and slamming back down. My mom thought we were going to capsize, but thankfully we made it back in one piece!
One of the most plentiful things you’ll find on the street are stalls of fruit. You can see freshly squeezed mandarin juice, at least 3 different types of mango, and lots of other tropical fruits which are popular to the region. Cartagena is also known for ladies dressed up in elaborate costumes selling the fruit. They’re happy to pose for a picture if you buy something or pay them, but they’ll get mad if you don’t. Apparently these ladies are from a specific town a few hours away, and came to Cartagena to sell fruit years ago during the slave days in order to escape poor economic conditions. For some reason, they love all the fruit to be acidic. So instead of just eating ripe sweet mango, they love unripened mango (still green and a bit crunchy), and they coat it in lemon juice and add salt. Not my favourite but definitely worth trying.
We decided to splurge and take a “street food” tour with La Mesa tours. It was a bit expensive but we really enjoyed it. The girl was super nice, spoke English well, and was a student at the local university. I don’t think it’s super busy, so we had a private tour with just the four of us and more than enough food to replace a meal. They brought us all over the city to try different foods like breads, juices, fruits, chocolate, fried street food, and a restaurant for some soup and fish dishes. If you don’t go on the tour, I highly recommend going to the chocolate store/museum anyway. They have tasting samples of tons of chocolates, and a free museum upstairs.
Cartagena is a city full of history. Any tour guide will tell you all about the hundreds of years hwere it was used as a fort, and then how the ancient walls kept invaders out while the people inside starved fighting for their cause. It also has a number of actual forts you can visit. We thought about going to one but it was a bit expensive, and we’re not really war history people so we decided against it. The old city within the walls is beautiful though, and we had a great time wandering around the little street full of old buildings. The old city wall also goes along the water on two sides, and it’s a great place to look out over the coastline.
Since my family is three girls, we love to shop! It’s one of our hobbies when we’re sad or happy, or really just any time. There’s a good combination of cheap street vendors and expensive boutiques. If you go in the “fast-fashion” stores (think Colombian style H+M), you’ll find a ridiculous amount of staff working (see photo below of at least 5 staff waiting in the front entrance for customers – most of them just singing and dancing along to music on some guys phone). There’s a huge range, and you can buy a hat for under $5, or a dress for over $80, depending what you’re in the mood for. In Cartagena, the name of the game is hats! They have tons of cute options to protect you from the sun. Everything from small, natural coloured, straw hats to large, floppy, colourful hats! We had lots of fun trying them on with our big heads which never fit into ladies hats properly, lol. Steve was bored out of his tree waiting for us, but at least there was always a cold drink and a sidewalk to be found!
So, if you ever go to Colombia, I highly recommend that you visit Cartagena. It’s good for a week or even a couple of days if you just want to relax in the Caribbean sun. It’s a great place to chill out, walk for miles around cute little streets, and not worry about making plans or schedules. It definitely has a “go with the flow” attitude, and we really enjoyed it!
Stay tuned later this week for my second Cartagena Blog: Christmas in the Old City of Cartagena, Colombia
Check out the rest of our Colombian Christmas Adventures, including:
- Only Have 6 Hours in La Paz, Bolivia? You’ll still have a blast!
- Feeling the Vibe in Medellin, Colombia
- New Years and Graffiti in Bogota, Colombia! (coming soon)
- Planning a Trip to Colombia? Here are my Top 10 Tips