Have you ever met a really beautiful person that knows exactly how good they look? Most of people like that tend to be full of themselves which can be a turn off. Well, that analogy can describe my week in Cartagena, the flashy Colombian city on the country’s northern coast. Cartagena, Colombia’s most popular city, is mostly known for its colorful buildings and sunny beaches. As millions of people visit the city each year, it very much embraces its' popularity through high costs; something which is a turn off for a budget-minded traveler such as myself. Nevertheless, the city did provide me with a unique experience which I will share below.
Arriving in Cartagena- After my miserable 9 hour bus ride from Bogota to Medellín, I decided to take a more comfortable method and fly to Cartagena. Making my decision easier was the fact that a bus ride from Medellín to Cartagena would have taken over 15 hours and probably only cost $10 USD less. However, one thing that I didn’t count on was the fact that Medellín’s International Airport was actually 45 mins away in the town of Rionegro. Because of my lack of research and bad planning, I was forced to take an Uber which cost me 83K Colombian Pesos (COP) or $23 USD. While that amount is par for the course in the United States for airport transportation, it is extremely expensive by Colombian standards. To its credit, the airport was actually pretty modern and comfortable and I had no issues getting on my flight. 45 minutes after taking off, I was walking through the Cartagena airport domestic arrivals terminal. Surprisingly, I was able to request an Uber at the airport which meant I didn’t have to deal with the prospect of getting screwed over by the local cab drivers. Before I continue my story, I will point out that actually booked my hotel in Cartagena prior to arriving in Colombia. However, I changed it during my time in Medellín to one which was cheaper. Unfortunately, I would go onto learn that cheaper isn’t always better. After picking me up, the Uber driver asked me where I was going. I told him the name of the hotel, and I kid you not, he started laughing. He actually thought I was joking and I would go onto to understand why he would think that once I actually saw where the hotel was located. It turns out that the hotel was literally located in the slums of the city. The neighborhood had everything from garbage piled up in the streets to young girls openly selling themselves at stop lights. The hotel was by far the nicest place within a 4 mile radius. In fact, I was nervous walking from the car door to the hotel entrance with all of my valuables. With that being said, my seven night stay quickly turned into a one night stay (only because of the cancellation policy required that I pay for the first night). Fortunately, I was able to rebook my original hotel located in the city center for the rest of the week in which I was able to check-in into the following morning.
Castillo de San Felipe- Once I was settled into my new hotel, I decided to take a walk around the local area. I was immediately attracted to a fort in the distance which had a huge Colombian flag waving on top of it. After a 10 minute walk, I arrived at what was Castillo de San Felipe, a UNESCO Heritage site known for fortifying the Spanish defenses when Spain occupied the Bolivarian territories. It is considered to be a military marvel as it was never overrun by enemy forces despite numerous attempts. It was also strategically relevant because it was able to repel attacks from both land and sea. It costs 25k COP ($7.5 USD) to enter the park. In order to fully appreciate the park, I would also suggest going on a guided tour for 20k COP ($6.75 USD) if you speak Spanish or renting an English audio tour for 10k COP ($3.25 USD). I chose not to do a tour and just walked up to the top. The castle itself is very basic but the trail does provide excellent views of Cartagena as you walk toward the top. There are also vendors that sell various “authentic” souvenirs along the path. In the end, it was a good introduction to the city and I would recommend anyone that is passing through to check it out.
Walled City-As I said before, Cartagena is mostly known for its weather and access to the ocean. However, the city also has an enduring legacy of Spanish colonialism which is symbolized by the Walled City located in downtown (el Centro). The Walled City, which was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, was originally built as Spain’s response to Cartagena’s occupation and pillaging by British explorer Sir Francis Drake. Today, it serves as both Cartagena’s administrative center and main tourist attraction. The Walled City is similar to Antigua in Guatemala in that it is filled 5-star resorts, upscale restaurants, and historical museums. There are also “free” walking tours that are conducted from La Plaza de los Coches in both the mornings and afternoons. I took the tour myself and found it to be very informative in which the guide explained random fact such as Mrs. Colombia is chosen every year from the center of the city and that Cartagena is divided into six socio economic classes (level 1-6) with the Walled City being a mix of level 4-5. The walking tour was a little under 2 hours with the suggested tip (the tour guide actually tells you this) being 20k COP ($6 USD). Regardless of if you do the tour, you can definitely spend a few days exploring the ins-and-outs of the Walled City which provides plenty of good photo opportunities. The only downside is that vendors will constantly follow you selling everything from half-empty water bottles to Venezuelan rappers promoting copies of their mixtape, although this is pretty common behavior throughout the Cartagena.
Getsemaní-Technically, the Getsemaní neighborhood encompasses the part of downtown that isn’t confined in the Walled City; however, most will agree that the heart and soul of the neighborhood is confined into a 5 block radius. Once one of Cartagena’s poorest neighborhoods, it has developed into a trendy art deco haven filled with mural paintings and boutique coffee shops (think Manhattan’s So-ho neighborhood). After spending the day walking the area, I can say that I wasn’t terribly impressed from a tourist standpoint as I most saw hostels and travel agencies and, outside the aforementioned coffee shops, there really wasn’t a place to relax. However, in economic terms, the neighborhood provides much cheaper accommodation than either the Walled City or Bocagrande. If you are looking to experience the less touristy side of Cartagena (that is still relatively safe), then Getsemaní is probably your best bet.
Bocagrande/El Laguito- While there are much better beaches in Colombia, Cartagena is probably the most popular beach destination among international travelers which is why it would be irresponsible of me not to write about my experience at the city’s main beach, Bocagrande. Bocagrande is the most affluent part of the city and consists of high-rise condos and 5-star resorts. The local’s described the beach as a miniature version of South Beach in Miami, FL. As someone who lived in Miami for 5 years, I wasn’t looking forward to the experience. Nevertheless, on Friday I decided to check it out. While technically you can walk to it from both the Walled City and Getsemaní neighborhood, it would probably take over an hour. I decided to take the Cartagena’s centralized bus system, the TransCaribe, which was modelled after the Transmilenio system in Bogota. However, the TransCaribe system was less crowded and much more straightforward to navigate. I had to pay 4k COP ($1.25 USD) for a bus card plus put money on the card to cover the bus fare. It costs 2k COP (.60 USD) per ride. The buses pass every 5-10 minutes through El Centro and it took about another 10 minutes for me to get to the heart of the beach. Bocagrande has a very impressive skyline and provides for great picture opportunities. However, it is not a beach where you will be able to kick back and relax in peace. First, there really isn’t a spot on the beach that isn’t claimed by a beach chair vendor or restaurant. If you want to sit close to the water, you are going to have to rent a chair and umbrella. While most vendors will quote you for 25k COP ($7 USD), I was able to get a spot for 10k COP ($2.50 USD) without much effort. There are usually two rows of chairs, if you sit in the front you can see the ocean and keep an eye on your stuff while swimming but will get constantly hassled by vendors; whereas, if you sit in the back, your view will be obstructed (both ways) but will deal with less sales pitches. Either way, prepare to be hounded by vendors from massage ladies to ceviche carts. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you need to learn the phrases “No gracias” and “No lo quiero” (I don’t want it) if you plan on visiting Bocagrande. While the water was actually pretty warm, the constant traffic of vendors and the loud noise made it difficult for me to enjoy the experience. After about 3 hours, I walked to El Laguito, which is a separate neighborhood at the northern tip of the beaches. El Laguito is pretty nice and quiet, but its mostly a residential area and consists of a walking path around a lake. There really aren’t any areas for swimming once you leave Bocagrande. For me, I thought Bocagrande is a little overhyped based on my individual experience. While there are better beaches in the area, getting to them usually requires going through an expensive tour company.