Since we left the States in July, the longest we have stayed in any one city has been 11 days. Until Cartagena, that is. We planned to stay in Cartagena for a week. One month later we finally decided it was time to leave this lovely city on the Colombian coast. Folks have asked us what it was about Cartagena that sucked us in. We didn’t really do a whole lot of the things on the typical Must See Attractions List in Cartagena. In fact, one American couple we met asked us what they should make sure to do while in Cartagena and we didn’t really have much of an answer. Sure, there are museums and historical tours. There is an old monastery and a Spanish fort. But for us Cartagena is one of those great walking around cities that draws you in the more you explore it. As Jaime put it, the historic section of Cartagena feels like the Charleston of Colombia.
The historic part of Cartagena is called the walled city because well, it’s surrounded by walls that were fortified with cannons to defend against invaders. The architecture is Spanish Colonial style with balconies overlooking the many plazas. The city has a laid back vibe as most coastal towns do, but the music really makes this place shine. Music is blasting everywhere in Cartagena. You can’t go five feet without hearing some Salsa or Reggaeton from the houses and storefronts.
Other than just walking around in the walled city, one of our favorite things to do was to take in the sunset from the wall. You buy a Club Colombia beer for a dollar from one of the many vendors on the wall and then grab a perch for one of the best views in town.
It’s perfectly legal to drink alcohol on the streets in Colombia so you notice that many of the locals prefer to just grab a bottle of Medellin rum or Aguardiente and hang out in the plazas. That was one of our other go-to activities as you get some great people watching. Our favorite spot was Plaza Trinidad in an area called Getsemani which is just outside of the walled city. It has become sort of a backpacker destination because of the cheap eats and affordable accommodations. On the weekends the street performers are out in force. There were some dance troupes, a fire juggler, hula hoop ‘artists’ and tumblers. But my favorite was the Colombian Michael Jackson. He did a great rendition of Billy Jean.
One of the other things we loved about Cartagena was that we got to experience three different areas of town. We stayed in the walled city for a night which was great but not exactly budget friendly. Then we moved to an Airbnb apartment in a neighborhood called Torrices outside of the walled city. There we could see how people in Cartagena really live. Mototaxis kicking up dirt, kids playing soccer in the street, men drinking beer on the terraces – a little gritty, but in a good way. There were very few gringos in this part of town which was pretty cool. The place we stayed at was great but it didn’t have air conditioning and Cartagena is extremely hot and humid. Living in Portland for four years made us hot weather wimps and we about died in that apartment it was so hot. So, we decided to go to the opposite end of the spectrum and get a place with AC on the beach in Cartagena.
Bocagrande (big mouth in Spanish) is the modern, South Beachy type area of Cartagena – minus the beautiful beaches which you will not find in Cartagena. You have a lot of condos and high rises and some upscale shopping malls. We got an Airbnb in an area called El Laguito in Bocagrande and basically camped out there for three weeks. After moving from place to place all over Peru it was really nice to have a place where we could just relax and not have to pack up the backpack for a while. We cooked a lot of meals there and sat on our balcony overlooking the laguito. I even managed to pull off Swedish meatballs in that kitchen. With minimal kitchen utensils it took about 3 hours but dang it was good.
Here are a few more photos from our time in Cartagena:
So why did we love Cartagena so much? It was the food – we ate so much delicious ceviche and fried whole fish, it was the beautiful city, it was the people, but most of all it was just the laid back vibe. Of all the places we have been thus far, Cartagena is one where we said, “We’ll be back here someday.”