Cartagena is a stimulating attack on the senses. The view of flower filled balconies perched high above the streets, the scent of fresh guava filled pastries looming on every corner, the sound of horse drawn carriages along the cobble-stoned pavement, and the tasty Colombian coffee served fresh from local street vendors will leave you begging for more. Each day I awoke from an incredible night’s sleep, stepped out onto my balcony, and thought, “there’s nothing like Cartagena under a bright sunny sky!”
In six short days, I would like to think I captured Cartagena full circle. Below is my personal guide on the ins and outs of the city.
Start Off With A Local Mentality
The more I travel, the more I find myself eager to blend in with the local community. After all, the best way to the heart of any city is to explore its everyday life. I rented an apartment via Airbnb in the El Laguito community. The neighborhood is beautiful – it’s the Miami of Cartagena, surrounded by plenty beautiful high rise apartments with magnificent views of the ocean. I stayed in the old El Conquistador building located next door to the Hilton – President Obama stayed here!
Visit the Fortress
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, otherwise known as San Felipe Castle, is an impressive fortress in the center of Cartagena. The castle is a great way to spend a few hours and take in the views of the Old City. I wandered around for over an hour exploring the grounds and frantically made my way through several dungeons that appeared very uninviting.
Be sure to check out the Monument of the Old Shoes located at the base of the Castle.
Linger, Linger, Linger
One of the best ways to see any city is by foot. Hop On Hop Off Cartagena offers a free walking tour through the Old City (must purchase a valid tour bus ticket). I highly recommend joining as it allows you to quickly understand how to navigate through the city.
Plaza Santa Domingo
Plaza de San Pedro Claver
Plaza los Coches
Plaza de Bolivar
Plaza de Bovedas: Great for shopping!
Plaza de la Aduana
Old City at Night
The Quintessential Experience
When I first entertained the idea of visiting Cartagena, I could not help but to instantly think of the flowered filled balconies. For me, this is quintessential Cartagena. I eagerly kept an eye out for them each day.
Most of my meals were prepared by local street vendors and I would be remiss not to mention how delicious they were. Even better, I never got sick as a result – go ahead and give it a try!
The Fruit Lady from Palenque
El Topo Restaurant
Cafe del Mar
Crepes & Waffles
Knight in Shinning Armor
Granted, horse and carriage rides are available throughout Central Park in New York City. However, the experience is amplified to new heights when you toss in a few additional elements: a Spanish speaking driver, cobble-stoned streets, and the romantically lit backdrop of the Old City!
A Day in Paradise
I was skeptical about adding Rosario Islands to my to do list while in Cartagena after hearing several disappointing stories. Thankfully, I did my own research. Please note that Rosario Island is not just one island; there are many to chose from and all significantly different.
After speaking with some locals, I decided on Isla del Encanto. The boat ride from the marina takes roughly an hour. Once you arrive on the island, you have the option to visit the aquarium, go snorkeling, test your luck at scuba diving, or simply lay on the beach and enjoy several pina coladas and some spa treatment.
Lunch is provided buffet style with many options to choose from – fish, beef, chicken, plantains, rice, and one free soft drink… eat away as you please!
There are changing rooms, a decent size pool, hammocks, free coffee, food and drinks for order (outside of the buffet lunch provided), ample beach chairs, and a lovely staff. Please note that there are several vendors on site (like everywhere in Cartagena) and they can become very annoying if you don’t nip it in the bud right away… in a polite manner of course!
Visit www.isladelencanto.com.co/ for more information.
Some Things Only Happen Once
I took a 45 minute bath in MUD! Call me crazy, but I thoroughly enjoyed being submerged into a “bottomless” volcano while receiving a soothing massage from the local mud man. Although a bit awkward at first, it becomes rather easy to warm up and get use to the feeling quickly.
A Night out in Getsemani
No trip to Cartagena is complete without a visit to Getsemani. There’s a great nightlife with ample bars, restaurants, and sidewalk cafes to choose from.
The highlight of my trip to Cartagena was my random, yet memorable encounter with Alex Rocha, a local tour guide and community activist. Alex was eager to have me experience the “other” side of Cartagena; the side less frequented by tourists. As a true traveler, always in search of an authentic experience, I gladly welcomed Alex’s invitation.
After getting the inside scoop on the sites of the Old City, Alex and I took a break in Getsemani to have a heart to heart talk about everything under the sun. We shared stories ranging from unfair work politics to various ways we can all make a difference in the world. One thing that stood out from our discussion was Alex’s dedication to the barrios where he grew up. Alex is the founder and driving force behind the Alex Rocha Youth Center, located in the San Francisco neighborhood of Cartagena. The youth center serves as a safe haven for children. With the help of his family and many volunteers around the world, Alex manages to keep most of the community’s youth off the streets by teaching them social skills, languages, music and arts, and different outlets in finding jobs in the tourism industry.
I was fortunate enough to visit the youth center that I spent a good portion of my afternoon learning about. The children in attendance were fully engaged. I also met Alex’s two daughters, Caroline and Karen, who greeted me with an amazing rendition of their favorite song, “Empire State of Mind.” Most importantly, I was able to interact with the local community, which reminded me so much of my parent’s hometown in Jamaica.
Despite the lack of fancy restaurants and pristine beaches, I can confidently say a night in San Francisco with Alex was the best addition to my Cartagena experience!
As the famous saying goes, “To travel is worth any cost or sacrifice.” Cartagena is not just a destination, but a new way of seeing things. Until next time, cheers to the Vagabonding Life!