Cartagena: Queen of Colombia’s Caribbean coast

By Karlie Marrazzo

Cartagena de Indias, casually referred to as Cartagena, is the beauty queen of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Splashed with bright colours, Colonial architecture, kilometres of historic defence walls surrounding the city, and lively music wafting through the sultry Caribbean air, there’s something special about this magical city that has to be felt to be understood. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its “strategic location, this eminent example of the military architecture of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries was also one of the most important ports of the Caribbean,” Cartagena is Colombia’s second most popular city with visitors.

Avianca, the flag carrier airline of Colombia, offers over a dozen daily flights from Bogota to Cartagena. At the time of booking in early 2019, our round-trip flights cost a reasonable $240CAN per person. We opted to take the mid-morning 10 am flight to take us to our second stop on our Colombian trip. 90 minutes after takeoff in Bogota, we arrived in Cartagena. The Caribbean heat and humidity enveloped me as soon as I stepped off the plane; coming from a Northern city that is cloaked in winter six months of the year, I savour this experience, this moment, every time I am fortunate enough to feel it.

There are three neighbourhoods in Cartagena where visitors typically choose to stay; inside the walls of the Old Town, nearby hip and trendy Getsemani, or Bocagrande on the beach. While planning the trip, I quickly discovered that accommodation costs in the Old Town are excessive, and Bocagrande, on the beach and full of glitzy tourist hotels and high-rise condos, is too removed from the heart of the city. Getsemani would be our home in Cartagena for four nights. Only a 10-minute walk outside of the walls of the Old Town, Getsemani caters to the hipper, younger crowd while still retaining its local flavour. My cousin John and I easily caught a cab from the Rafael Núñez International Airport to Life is Good Hostel. Full of light, extremely clean, with some of the friendliest staff I’ve encountered, Life is Good was a total accommodation win. Featuring shared dorm rooms as well as private rooms, a rooftop lounge area complete with two jacuzzis, and a restaurant, I was supremely happy with my pick. After we dropped our bags off in our separate private rooms, we hit the pavement in search of a vegan restaurant for lunch that we had found online. The lunch ended up being my first disappointing meal of the trip, and the restaurant was sweltering in the midday heat, but the walk to get there was worth it.

Cartagena is not off-the-beaten-path by any stretch of the imagination, but staying in Getsemani felt like temporarily living in an up-and-coming, hip neighbourhood that is still on the upswing. As with other parts of Colombia, gorgeous murals and images cover almost every surface available. Pink flowers overflow from flower boxes and windowsills, tiny tables rest outside of cafes and restaurants, and everywhere, there is life.

After lunch we let ourselves wander, ending up on top of Las Murallas, the fortifying walls that have surrounded Cartagena’s Old Town since 1586. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky, heat penetrating our skin, with no shade to be found aside from the lookout points dotting the wall. A couple of small shops, which I later found out were part of the Las Bóvedas market, caught my eye, and I bought a small painted jaguar head from one of them. I was initially drawn to Cartagena by the promise of a chill time, taking things at a leisurely pace and not having a long checklist of sites to see and things to do. The rooftop of the hostel was calling my name, so I spent some time in the lounger, reading and basking in the sun.

For our first dinner in Cartagena, we let our feet guide us and ended up at an Italian restaurant called Di Silvia Trattoria, a 2-minute walk from our hotel down a narrow side street lined with beautiful artworks. It did feel a bit hilarious, as two Italian-Canadians, to be eating Italian food while we were exploring a new country, but sometimes the heart wants what it wants. The food – bruschetta, pizza and our newly discovered favourite beverage, lemonade with mint – was enjoyable and comforting. Seated indoors under an extremely high ceiling, we were still exposed to the energy of life outside as part of the roof was open to the elements and the doors were wide open. Great service and a relaxed, casual atmosphere made for a lovely experience.

Around the corner from the restaurant lies Plaza de la Santisima Trinidad, a small local square pulsating with life. Music blared from stereos and passing cars, street performers circulated through the crowd, putting on their best acts for a few pesos, while vendors sold street hot dogs, bags of popcorn, and other local specialities. People from all walks sat on benches and the steps of the church, chatting and watching life play out in front of them. John and I sat and absorbed the action for a little while before venturing over to the Old Town. To cross from Getsemani to the Old Town, one has to walk down a long promenade flanked by the Parque Centenario on one side, and the Muelle de los Pegasos, a waterfront pier dotted with fabulous pegasus monuments, on the other. Local couples hung out on the benches smooching and walked hand in hand down the promenade. A few guys offered us drugs but quickly moved on after we said no, gracias. The walk was well lit and I felt comfortable walking there with my male cousin, but probably would have walked with a little more purpose had I been on my own. Once you reach the Old Town side, the city walls and main gate are lit up with spotlights and the number of tourists increases tenfold (as do the numbers of drug slingers and, sadly, young prostitutes with their pimps lingering nearby). Our reason for visiting the Old Town that night was to find a cool rooftop bar, one of my favourite things to do when travelling. When we got there, we were told that the roof was closed that evening, so we made plans to return the following night.

Our first breakfast in Cartagena was a simple and delicious Colombian breakfast consisting of fried plantain and scrambled eggs with onion and tomato, alongside fresh watermelon. We fuelled up at the hostel’s restaurant before catching a taxi to Bocagrande. Cartagena is located on the Caribbean Sea, and Bocagrande, a wealthy neighbourhood home to high rises and tourist apartments, is right on the beach. Tourists typically day trip to the pristine, and busy, white sand beaches of the Islas del Rosario or Isla Grande. Since we were going to be spending the final three days of our trip on Isla Baru, we decided to opt-out of the day trip experience. Instead, we thought it would be interesting to check out this hyped-up city beach. The taxi ride from Getsemani to Bocagrande took 15 minutes. As soon as we stepped out of the car there were quite a few street vendors selling water and other knick-knacks, but they weren’t aggressive and we just walked on by.

Most tourist literature and travel blogs describe Bocagrande beach as a “glitzy, white-sand” hot spot, but when we were there it was quite empty, and the sand was, well, sand-coloured. The beach is quite long and wide, and the hard-packed sand was so hot it felt like what I imagine it would be like walking on the surface of the sun. There was no way I could touch it without my flip flops on. Mind you, we were there when the sun was high in the midday sky. There weren’t umbrellas and loungers on this beach, but rudimentary shelters made of tarps held up with sticks, with white plastic chairs underneath. We spend two and a half hours there, reading and alternating between half an hour under the tarp with 10 minutes max in the blazing heat of the sun. It was a fitting place to begin reading Love in the Time of Cholera by Colombia’s beloved Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I was more than content to spend the rest of the hot afternoon lounging on the hostel’s rooftop, working on my tan and completely relaxing. John spent the afternoon on a bike tour through the highlights of the city with a company appropriately called Free Bike Tours Cartagena. He came back with a huge smile on his face, raving about the awesome quality of the tour, fully and officially in love with Cartagena.

The highlight of our walk that evening from Getsemani back to the Old Town was definitely the young M.C. we encountered on the way. Likely around 11-years old, the picture of a rapper from head to toe in an oversized hat, baggy t-shirt and jeans, with a couple of chains thrown in for good measure, he was walking the streets with a boombox slung over his shoulder. I got exponentially more excited than a regular person probably would have, and as soon as he approached us I busted out my best moves right there on the sidewalk.

Once we arrived back in the Old Town, we hit up the rooftop bar at Alquimico, the bar we had tried to go to the night before. If there’s one thing I love and seek out, it’s rooftop bars. Three bars spread out over three levels, with luxe gorgeous décor inside and a modern tiki vibe on the rooftop, I instantly vibed with Alquimico. The roof had a mix of regular and long tables, a mix of chill downtempo beats and Latin music spilling from the speakers, string lights, and a neon “Quiero Amor” (I want love) sign behind the bar. All of the staff were wearing subdued Hawaiian shirts, and the drink menu was full of tropical cocktails. The drink I ordered was strong, and so tall that I had to sit up as straight as I could and stretch my neck out just to reach the top of the straw. From our seats on the rooftop of Alquimico, we noticed another rooftop bar across the way, the sparkling lights and plastic pink flamingos drawing us in. La Jugada is also spread over three levels, with a small rooftop bar area that has two levels of its own.  All of my favourite music was playing – classic hip hop, rap and Latin – and my mood was elevated. The one drink I ordered came in a coconut and may have been the strongest drink I’ve ever had. Before I knew it I was dancing all around our tiny stand up table and the fragment of space around it; there was no dance floor per se. My dancing must have been pretty great, because soon enough we were joined by three Brazilians. Although none of us could speak a common language, we were soon laughing and dancing together, and I even managed to find out their zodiac signs (Pisces, Aquarius and Aries, thank you) and befriend them on Instagram.

Not one to usually sleep in much on vacation, my eyes cracked open at around 10 am the next morning. I was pretty drunk when I went to bed the night before, even though I only had three drinks over the entire evening. What can I say, I’m a lightweight! I wanted to get some shopping done so I searched for markets in the area. Turns out Las Bóvedas (“the Vaults”), the one we stumbled upon on our first day in Cartagena, was the main tourist market in town. Set along one side of a building that was originally used as storage vaults, and then dungeons in the 19th century, the cells were eventually converted into the market stalls we see today. Rather than going along the wall on the outer edge, we walked through the Old Town to get there. The historic centre is very pretty, polished and well taken care of. The beauty and charm is undeniable, but it was a little too touristy for me. There is a good mix of tourists and locals in both spots, but I’m glad we stayed in Getsemani. The market was ok, but most of the stores were selling nearly identical things. I purchased a few regular souvenirs, postcards, earrings, and trinkets. By that point in the afternoon, the heat started to get to me and I became dizzy. After our great experiences with Selina in Bogotá, we figured we couldn’t go wrong for lunch there when we spotted it’s Cartagena counterpart not far from our hostel. Their restaurant is on the rooftop of the hostel, alongside a gorgeous pool surrounded by equally gorgeous people, but sadly the food didn’t compare to the Bogotá location.

Click here to read my post on Bogotá!

Our evening was low-key – dinner at Alquimico again because we just loved the vibe so much. We ambled through the Old Town, deciding whether or not we wanted to stay out or turn in early, which we did.

Friday was our last full day in Cartagena. I get slightly obsessive about sending postcards when I’m travelling, and this would be my last chance to find a post office before spending the last few days of the trip on a secluded Caribbean island. The map said the post office, inexplicably called “472”, was an 11-minute walk from the hostel. After significantly longer than that, we started to get a little frustrated and almost gave up the hunt. Miraculously, we turned a corner and saw it tucked away inside a little row of shops. At first, it may have seemed like a waste of time, but if we hadn’t gone on that walk, we likely wouldn’t have seen that little part of town.
With the postcard crisis finally solved, we headed back to the Old Town to check out the Modern Art Museum. Located in a two-storey, 17th-century building that was formerly part of the Royal Customs House, the museum specializes in Latin American art from the 1950s, alongside some more recent works. There was nobody, and I mean nobody, else inside when we arrived aside from the kind gentleman at the front desks. The small collection is beautifully curated and represented, some of the works hung on the backdrop of exposed brick walls.

Gabriel García Márquez, lovingly referred to as Gabo, the beloved Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author, lived in Cartagena for one short year in his early 20s, drawing significant inspiration for his magical realism style from the effortless charm, sultry beauty, and hidden secrets of the town. It was unclear to me whether the house he temporarily resided in was any type of museum to Gabo, but I wanted to find out. We ended up on one of the most picturesque and colourful streets we had seen yet, but Gabo’s former home on Calle Zerrezuela was not open to the public and there was nary even a plaque to commemorate him there. Perhaps this is because his sister still resides there. There is a mural on the building a few doors down, which should have been my clue to finding his former home. My hunt for Gabo’s house led me to Plaza de San Diego, an exceptionally pretty, small town square surrounded by vibrant buildings painted to match the flowers spilling from every window. Getting “lost” while travelling or simply wandering with no plan always seems to lead to the most special places and experiences. Under the arch of the main gates of the old city, there is a bookseller with a few wooden cases covered in used books. It was there that I picked up a Spanish edition of Relato de un náufrago by Marquez, the perfect Colombian souvenir for a bookworm like me.

Whether we like it or not, social media has become an integral part of how we travel, whether literally or virtually, and connect with people from around the world. In my pre-trip liking of Colombia photos on Instagram, I connected with a friend named Juan from Cartagena. That Friday night, John and I met up with him for dinner and drinks. The language barrier was fairly strong so we relied on Google Translate quite a bit. We went for dinner at a featureless/generic place facing Plaza de la Santisima Trinidad, the lively plaza we enjoyed on our first night in town. It didn’t fail to disappoint, just like almost every other restaurant located on a busy/touristy square around the world. Street performers, from “pretty good” to “wtf was that”, entertained the crowds, the people watching was excellent, and all of it took place under a clear sky alongside a pretty church. There are certainly worse things to experience for the price of a plate of soggy nachos. After a failed attempt to catch some salsa dancing (the bar we went to was dead and the music ear-shatteringly loud), we ended up back on the roof of La Jugada. The vibe and music were different; they were playing electronic music to start, which improved as the night went on. We chatted with a couple of fun American gals at the table next to us, made up stories about the people crowd and enjoyed the feeling of the warm Caribbean night breeze.

Our time in Cartagena was perfect for both of us and left us wanting more of the warmth and laid-back vibes that we had so quickly gotten used to. After one last breakfast on Saturday morning at Life is Good, we got into a van headed for a slice of Colombian paradise: Isla Baru.

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