The sun dives down into the Caribbean after a long, hot day at the office. The ocean breeze rolls in and tickles over-cooked tourists right through their sundresses and white linen pants. Horse hooves clap down on the cobblestone as they pull colorful carriages through the narrow streets. The courageous and strong find their way to the sunset view at Cafe del Mar (below). The weak and fragile get picked off by hard-selling street vendors pushing fresh fruit, jewelry or Botero replicas. Locals look down in amusement from their flower-covered balconies. It’s 6:30pm in Cartagena and it doesn’t get much better than this.
When you first arrive at the bus terminal in Cartagena (Cartagena de Indias) you wouldn’t think that the last statement was possible. Cartagena is the economic center of the Caribbean region and the fifth largest urban area in Colombia. It’s home to almost a million people and the majority don’t live life like I just described. At first glance you can easily breakup Cartagena into 3 general categories. One, the beautiful old central historical district (downtown). Two, the Miami-like high-rises and beach front hotels that stretch for miles in Bocagrande. And three, poverty and the popular (working class) which is everywhere else. From the bus terminal to Getsemani out to Bocachica, it’s the real side of Cartagena that the street vendors won’t sell you paintings of and the fortified walls just help draw the lines.
Finding a hostel in the heart of the city proved to be a difficult challenge as holiday festivals brought in an abundance of tourists. Places were either over-booked, over-priced or under-suspicion, so we ended up flexing the budget a bit on an incredible boutique hotel in the perfect location. The Hotel Don Pedro de Heredia cost us $180,000 COP (About $95 US) per night, which included pool, internet and free breakfast from their rooftop terrace. The original cost of the hotel was $208,000 COP per night but we asked if they had any ‘promotions’ for us to stay 3 nights and they knocked off $28,000 per night! The other option was a cheap private-room hostel for $140,000 COP a night… nothing included, so it was well-worth the extra cash. Especially since Don Pedro de Heredia was the one who founded the city!
Like most tourist-focused cities, Cartagena can get very expensive, so with the budget shifted towards lodging, we kept a tight eye on other expenses to keep us afloat. There was an amazing pizza & pasta place (fittingly named Pizza & Pasta) 2 blocks from our hotel that served up nightly specials for under $20,000 COP ($12 USD) and then we walked down to the “Portal de los Dulces” for dessert, followed by some cocktails at the pricey but cool, throw-back salsa, Cuban and reggae bar Quiebra-Canto
Our days were spent dodging the heat while enjoying the walkable city center. On day 1 we explored old town and then took the sweaty trek down to the crowded beaches in Bocagrande. While it may resemble Miami from a distance the beaches don’t stack up to those on the Florida coast and constant flow of salesman distract you from relaxation. On day 2 we learned our lesson and headed out to the beautiful (less-crowded) white-sand beaches of Playa Blanca and snorkeled around the Isles del Rosario. And on day 3 we took a speed tour around Castillo San Felipe de Barajas (Castle of San Felipe de Barajas) before we had to catch our bus back to Medellin.
All-in-all I love Cartagena for it’s rich heritage and cool happy-hour vibe. The walls that were once built to keep out the English, French and Pirates are now used to keep high-rise developers from Bocagrande and common Cartagena citizens from surrounding neighborhoods at bay. If you can zone out the peddlers and focus on the architecture, history and evening ambiance it’s an amazing city.