On a late night bus to Santa Marta, AC blowing and American chick flick dubbed in Spanish on the TV, it’s finally time to relax and to reflect on the most colourful few days of my trip so far. But this blog post poses a challenge: Cartagena Des Indias appeals to too many senses to put into words. The vibrancy of its people, streets, shops, street stalls, bars and restaurants are the ingredients that in less than 2 days, put this destination amongst my favourite cities, alongside greats such as Barcelona, Melbourne and Edinburgh. The mixture of Caribbean Coast and European Influence provides a great canvas for tourism and for the first time in Colombia, I really felt like I was on vacation.
Ok so tourism isn’t always a backpackers favourite word, but for me, the tourists are what makes Cartagena work so hard to be as beautiful as it possibly can be. As much as I love heading off the beaten track, who doesn’t enjoy basking in the heat of a rich, walled city boasting boutique shops, fine dining and enough Speakeasys to ensure you’re drinking rooftop cocktails and dancing salsa well into the night? Cartagena is a romantic playground for wealthy holiday makers from The States, and European backpackers alike, and I for one could have strolled around in circles here for days.
Instead of giving you an hour by hour breakdown of our stay here, I figured it might be better to recommend a couple of our highlights… What to see, eat and drink whilst you’re here (NB. There is a lot of choice, and for the first time, I can safely say there isn’t anything I’d suggest avoiding). Cartagena seems to know quality, from street food to sushi, you won’t be disappointed dining in the restaurants of the Getsemaní area. So yeah, we splashed out a little in Cartagena but it was nice to shake off the scruffy traveller look and dress up a little to fit in with the cruise ship offloads for a few days! Plus, when I say splashing out, our most expensive meal set us back less than $20 USD – damn I love Colombian Pesos! Anyway here goes my list:
SEE: Everything! Because there isn’t actually many famous things to do in Cartagena, your job is to stroll around for hours and find them! Some local houses should be tourist attractions themselves when you see their front doors painted in pastel colours and draped with crawling flowers! We also did a street art tour and I’d highly recommend doing one in any city.
EAT: As usual I have no idea where to start with food! We ate Sushi at Peru Fusion where the biggest prawns battered in coconut were order of the day, and we also ate at De Silvio’s, where I had a Carbonara to rival all Carbonaras…Brave claim as I used to work at an Italian restaurant!
For lunch, we found a fresh and funky build your own salad spot called Gokela. After alcohol and too much street-food, a salad here is a God send and we went back every day. Inside it feels like you’re in a NY salad bar so it’s basically a healthy Subway and we loved it!
Last but not least, you have to try ice-cream here. La Paletteria was our favourite and some say the Gelato Pops here rival Italian Gelato (!!) We had ours dipped in chocolate that dries instantly – basically “make your own magnum”. They even have a dip that tastes like the inside of a Kinder Bueno… I’ll leave it to your imagination but it’s pretty damn great paired with a Mocha pop.
DRINK at El Baron: sit in the square, sup an Aperol Spritzer and enjoy people-watching in the centre of the old town under the light of the clock tower. This is the kinda bar readers of the Conde Nast Traveller will enjoy! Alternatively, if you want to party hard, Havana club is infamous, and the Media Luna rooftop party is a great spot to dance all night against the back drop of a city panorama… We couldn’t believe this place was a hostel!
SLEEP: We stayed in Mamallena Hostel which is less than $15USD per night and has everything you need, it’s in a prime location and is opposite Media Luna, a hostel that hosts a great rooftop party every Wednesday (this you HAVE to go to!) However, if hostels aren’t your thing, we did spend a while scoping out the upmarket boutique hotels within the walls such as the San Augustin, and if you have a cool couple hundred dollars a night to splash then I’d definitely splash it here… Girl can dream!
AVOID: There are only two no-goes in my Cartagena book, and interpret them as you will. The first is the beach and this one has a simple explanation. If you’re travelling, there’s no need to visit Cartagena Beach because there are less touristy, less packed, cleaner and more beautiful beaches to visit along the coast (hence why I’m enduring a 5 hour bus as I type!) but with Tyrona National Park and Playa Blanca likely to be on your itinerary, enjoy the city itself instead.
My second no go is slightly more complicated. The Mud Volcano trip is sure to be advertised in your hotel lobby and the posters would lull you into a sense of belief that the trip would be the ultimate fun experience. Jump inside an active volcano, bathe head to toe in the goodness of the clay, and return rejuvenated from the volcanic minerals. What could go wrong? You’ll sign up, and in no time, be on a sweaty non-airconned bus an hour out-of-town soon to endure an almost life threatening climb down a death-trap ladder, into a pool of teenage Colombian boys who will drag you into the ‘volcanic’ clay and begin to massage you in only your swimwear… Sound dodgy yet? Well it was and I’m not even convinced this is an actual Volcano! Ok, so being covered in the clay itself is maybe 5/10 fun. It feels weird and at first making war paint lines on your cheeks is entertaining, but after my travelling buddy Phillipa exclaimed she felt like she was back in the womb (bizarre simile but extraordinarily accurate considering the consistency of the mud) it was time to get out. We had to pay a local woman $2 USD to shower us (an unavoidable optional extra) and off we went back to Cartagena… Back to normality in our favourite walled city… I think we’ll make sure we stay inside the walls next time.
OD’d on humidity and ice-cream, it’s time to head up the coast for a slightly more relaxed part of our trip… But watch the space, we’ll be making sure we head back to Cartagena for one more cocktail before the trip is over!