I recently spent a week in Cartagena, Colombia. I had been planning the trip for a while, but had never been and didn’t know anybody, so it was quite an adventure! Now, there are a lot of awesome things to see there and I loved every minute. I will say though, I didn’t stop sweating for a single minute during my visit and I had to be careful to avoid the seedier parts of the city (as any city will have), especially at night. So if you go make sure your lodgings have AC, and you have a guide (could be simply a helpful hotel employee) who can tell you where you should and should not go.
Alright, disclaimer aside, Cartagena is a great city with a lot of historic things to see. Tons of statues, an old castle, old forts, a gold museum with more security than the banks. The food is great, from traditional food (iguana anyone, rice cooked in Coca Cola?) to nicer restaurants for that fancy anniversary dinner (diamond studded iguana?) you’ve been planning, but didn’t have the $200 a plate you would pay in the States (you can have it for about $20 in Cartagena).
The Old City
The Old City of Cartagena is breathtaking. The amount of awesome statues and monuments is well worth the visit on their own, but just the city itself if beautiful. It has kind of an old Italian vibe to it with the narrow streets and the colors. There are lots of artists showing their work, galleries and restaurants, and other fun things. It is very touristy so you don’t get the real authentic feel of Colombia, but it is an excellent place to buy souvenirs, eat some good food and meet lots of new people. I myself bought some earrings for my wife that were plated with pre-Colombian gold. If that doesn’t get me some brownie points I don’t know what will!
What is amazing about the city is the history of it. You can eat at restaurants on the walls, which are hundreds of years old, made of coral, and overlook the ocean. There are rows of ancient cannons that almost surely sunk invading ships and took lives back in the days of yore. When you stand there you can so vividly imagine the conversations and battles that took place right where you are standing as you breath in the salty, humid air. Read more about it.
The Gold Museum
Within the Old City is a little museum on the outskirts of the park. I didn’t even notice it until someone else pointed it out. It isn’t a sprawling place to visit by any means, but for those like myself who love history, it is a haven. There is an excellent selection of ancient artifacts from generations ago. A huge variety of statuettes, spearheads, gold chunks, tools and more. I wouldn’t plan on spending a whole day there, but it can take an hour or two to really go through. I would also suggest saving it for the hotter part of the day because it has air conditioning!
This is probably a given. If you are going to be in an oceanfront location like Cartagena, you need to visit the beaches. Just be careful because some of the locations, particularly the area in front of the Old City are not safe to swim. There are beaches for visitors to go that are much nicer. The time of year makes a difference as well, so make sure you check with some locals to root out the best place to swim!
Of course you want to check out the local restaurants. But I would say that it isn’t so much about one particular restaurant in terms of food. I ate at a handful of different places and most of the food was pretty much the same. However, my favorite place to hang my hat was a sort of outdoor grill at the corner of an intersection right in the middle of the city near the mall. It didn’t have any signs or anything pointing to the fact that it was even a place to eat. I just wandered in with some friends because we were hungry and saw people chomping down on some glorious looking hamburgers. As I said, it isn’t so much about the food, but Colombia is a social nation, and being social makes it a fun place to be! So finding a place like the nameless corner restaurant isn’t about flavors and themes, it’s about meeting new people in a lively atmosphere.
So when you are in Cartagena, I would recommend finding a place like that. An outdoor location with lots of people that seems hygienic enough that you won’t get ebola, and plan to spend some time hanging out and getting to know people. That is what really makes the trip come alive.
The Levitating Man
Alright, so I can’t promise this guy will always be there. I only saw him one time and I was legitimately baffled by him. This guy was in the Old City in one of the open plazas walking back and forth when I got there. He was stretching and wearing his hilarious outfit, when he suddenly just lifted his legs and floated there in mid-air! I have no idea how he does it. He wasn’t under a roof of anything, and was in an open space, so I have no idea, but if you happen to walk by him, buckle up.
I know, I know, of course the coffee is incredible in Colombia. But you have to understand, I am not a coffee drinker. I’ve lived in Latin America for over a decade, and have tried the coffee in about a dozen Latin American countries in both Central and South America, and am still not convinced. So for me to even notice the coffee, or take time to write about it, it has to be pretty stinking good. Colombian coffee is that stinking good. Aside from the fact that it is just well developed, most of the coffee you buy in Colombia comes with cinnamon mixed in, also sometimes ginger and other spices, so when you run it through your coffee wizard machine (whatever it’s called), you get coffee with a crazy mix of flavors that I’ve never tasted. I brought home several bags for my wife and find myself drinking as much as she is!
I loved this city. It was memorable and fun. If you want to go someplace a little different without breaking the bank, Cartagena is certainly a great option. From the States you can get plane tickets for under $500 right now, and you don’t need to apply for a visa (at the time of this article’s writing). I fully intend on returning to visit in the near future. I want to see more of Colombia!