Cartagena was the first place we visited on Colombia’s beautiful Caribbean coast. We were lucky enough to have to spend 5 nights here and grew to absolutely love this quaint pretty city. Here are our 5 favourite things about Cartagena:
1. Walking around the old walled city
The tourist hub of Cartagena is the old walled city – a colonial center filled with cobbled streets, Bougainvillea, street sellers, restaurants, art work and lots of colour to catch your attention. Walking around here is an absolute delight. Although, we would suggest a calm evening stroll as the heat of the day can be quite tiring. If walking around lovely little streets gets too intensive, you can always rest in one of the many green leafy squares for a piece of fresh fruit or a tinto.
Some of the best things about the old city are all the colourful street produce…
2. Evenings in Getsemani
If we have to say one negative thing about the old city – and only if we have to – it would be that it is hard to walk around quietly without being hounded enthusiastically by hat (or insert any other tourist item here) sellers. This is why we were pleased to be staying outside the old city in (what I call) the more Bohemian part of Cartagena, Gethsemani. We stayed in a lovely hotel, Hotel Patio de Getsemani which we would thoroughly recommend. Our favourite thing to do in the evening was to stroll up to the square at Parroquia de la Santisima Trinidad – you can find it on Calle 29 between Carrera 10 and 10b. Here you could buy a variety of street food and cheap beer (remember to ask the shop for some ‘vasos‘) and then just find a seat in the square, relax and make friends.
4. The mud volcano
When I first heard that ‘visiting a mud volcano’ was a thing to do in Cartagena I was sceptical. As I was told, there is a volcano about an hour outside Cartagena. It is volcano like in shape but not in that it is about to spew hot lava on you. In fact, in place of hot lava there is mud – to be more specific, a pit of mud that is 2.5 km deep! And, for fun, Colombians take tourists there to climb into the mud. Anyway, I put away all my scepticism and decided to try it out and to just relax and go with whatever happened. Good thing I did. This is a really silly and strange thing to do but if you put that out your mind then it is a lot of fun.
It is fair to say that the volcano is well set up for tourism. When you arrive there is a man who will take your camera from you and follow you around photographing your experience (and saving your camera from the mud). When you get in the mud, there are people waiting to give you a massage. Then, when you have had your fill of the mud and go down to the fresh water lake to clean yourself, there are some very efficient ladies that will help you get the mud off you and your clothes. (I have never known people to be able to get swimming costumes off a group of strangers in a public place that quickly.) None of these services are compulsory (3000 COP per person per service) but you need to be made of strong stuff to be able to say no and, really, they all are part of the fun so should not be missed out.
5. The beaches of Bocagrande
Cartagena’s beaches are found in the area known as Bocagrande – a long hot walk or a short cheap taxi ride (6000 COP) from the old city. There seem to be many mixed reactions to the beaches in Cartagena. It is true that they are definitely not the quietest or the cleanest beaches you will find on Colombia’s coastline but their chaotic nature definitely brings its own charm.
Each beach is lined with cabanas that you can hire to sit in the shade. (The fee of these cabanas depends a lot on your face and your attitude but we found them to be between 8000 COP and 15000 COP.) From then, you may as well be sitting in a busy market. As frequently as every 30 seconds (we know because we timed it) you will be passed by salesman selling hats, sunglasses, coconut sweets, massages, fresh fruit salad, oysters, sarongs, crabs, lunch, beer, juice, toy aeroplanes… …. …. While some people find this annoying, it can also be very useful. You can stay sitting on your chair and every time you need anything there is someone walking passed to sell it to you. Very convenient. Just make sure that, before you go, you practice your stern (but friendly) ‘no’ and work out an exit strategy if a massage lady decides to give you a not-so-free sample while you are napping in the shade.
3. The weather
We had spent the majority of our time in South America about 2500m so, while we still had many hot and sunny days, the evenings would generally cool down (in some places they were just downright cold). We stepped off the plane in Cartagena and knew that we had finally arrived somewhere where we would not need those alpaca wool leg warmers we had bought (this is Em writing by the way).
In Cartagena the sun always shines and the temperature hovers around 30 degrees day and night – bliss. Just remember, especially if you are only travelling with hand luggage, that you will be showering and changing many times during the day and will need to include a lot for ‘laundry’ in your budget.