Two weeks in to my three-month stay in Cartagena, the depth of this coastal Caribbean city is already beginning to take shape before my eyes. Upon first look, Cartagena is a collection of colorful streets and balconies dripping with flowers, palenqueras balancing baskets of fruit on their head, horse-drawn carriages controlling the pace of traffic through town, and rare salty breezes only felt from the crumbling wall skirting the whole scene. Cartagena is a looker, but what I’m beginning to realize is that what lay behind the pretty surface is what really makes this city by the sea a gem.
This is why Cartagena will really hook you:
1. The locals know how to enjoy life.
“Don’t worry, be happy” must be the unspoken law of the land in Cartagena. The locals inherently know how to relax and enjoy life as it comes. Every evening, the streets become stoop parties and the plazas fill with food carts and street performers while the corner stores (locally known as tiendas) transform into pop-up bars. There’s champeta and reggae floating on the breeze and laughter and smiles everywhere you look.
2. Music is literally the lifeblood of this place.
Step into any salsa bar and you’ll very quickly realize that music is what’s coursing through the veins of Cartagena and its people. The locals feel the music in their every bone and express it in a variety of mesmerizing and sultry eight-count steps. From bars no bigger than a walk-in closet to multi-story discos, no place is off limits once the music starts playing.
3. It’s a melting pot of culture, past and present.
One of the most unique and intriguing aspects of Cartagena that I’ve come to appreciate and adore is its depth of culture. In one day, you can brush shoulders with the indigenous Arauco tribe, witness an elaborate African drum and dance performance, and sit down for coffee and a French crepe or coconut rice, fried plantains, and grilled fish. On Sunday’s the churches fill with the Catholic devoted and by nightfall salsa bars pulse with contagious latin beats.
I know that there is far more to Cartagena than what I’ve listed here and it’s my mission to discover what else makes this steamy coastal city tick. Thankfully, there are months, not days, left to dive deeper. Stay tuned.
Amber Dunlap is a freelance travel writer currently calling Cartagena, Colombia home, originally from Washington D.C. Besides putting pen to paper in a cozy coffee shop, her favorite thing to do is purchase one-way tickets to South American destinations for the sole purpose of getting to know a city inside and out. So far, Arequipa, Cusco, and Cartagena have had her full attention while Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Medellin are contenders for her next deep dive. Follow her nomad lifestyle and adventures on Instagram @amber_dun and at her blog at amberdunlapblog.wordpress.com