A very old colonial city, world heritage site, and bustling cruise port, all of these describe Cartagena. This place was beautiful, blowing away all my expectations. The weirdest thing was that it felt like a totally different country! Colombia's Caribbean coast is heavily influenced (like much of the Caribbean by its larger African-Colombian population, descendants of slaves brought over by the Spanish colonizers. This and the hot and sweaty tropical climate have their clear effects on the food and culture, which is a lot more like what I'm used from Puerto Rico and Belize and quite different from Colombia's mountain culture. It's sweatier, grungier, more colorful, more pungent, basically more of an assault on the senses. All this in a centuries-old colonial city, which still retains it's old city walls that were originally constructed to protect from pirate attacks. The picture above was taken going through one of the main gates into the old city center. The poor dog here was a stray and was quite old and suffering from mange. It was sad; a super-humid, tropical climate is definitely not ideal for a nice, furry dog. I hope the poor old guy wasn't suffering too much.
Our first day there, I was still suffering the effects of food poisoning from the day before. Fortunately, I didn't have it too bad and was able to still wander. Missy wasn't so lucky; after struggling through the flight and cab ride to our hostel, she crashed in the room until after dinner and missed our first bit of wandering through the old city center. As you can see already, the old city is very well preserved, with a pleasant maze of twisting lanes and the colonial style buildings. So basically what I'm getting at is that this will be a pretty picture heavy post.
Cartagena is a popular cruise port, which kind of sucks. Like other cruise ports, much of the local economy relies on day-excursion tourists with very little to no idea of the place they are in, and many locals are set up to take advantage of this. However, this is a good place to pick up souvenirs. Just make sure that you avoid the grotesquely over-priced restaurants and shops, which are all aimed at sucking money from those day-tripping cruisers who are too ignorant to actually look around and try out the more local joints. I'm not knocking cruises here...they can be a lot of fun; I'm only knocking ignorant tourists, who don't take any steps to learn anything about a place they are visiting. This type of tourist just creates local prejudices against "wealthy foreigners", which just promotes the locals taking advantage of visitors.
Fortunately, because of the heavy dependence on tourism, Cartagena is one of the safest big cities in Colombia. We saw practically no military here, only the odd policeman, and we had no problems walking around after dark, even in the seedier Getsemani neighborhood we were staying in.
More sad too...there is definitely a drug problem in this area, but like I said, it was relatively safe, even at night.
Seedier yes, but I found the food options were better, and most definitely cheaper, in Getsemani than in Centro (city center). Here you can get a full out lunch of soup, fried plantains, coconut rice, tomato, and some big portion of meat (whether it be fresh fish, beef steak, beef tongue, tripe, various pork cuts, turtle, or chicken) and a nice juice for about $3.50. This killed me the first day, when I was still pretty nauseous...I could only get down about a quarter of my meal. The next few days though, I took full advantage. The breakfasts were particularly good there too...centered around eggs and most often pork and more delicious soup, with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in. There were some great street food options along Avenida Venezuela splitting Centro from the Matuna and Getsemani neighborhoods. I'd highly recommend eating here, just look for the places where there are lots of locals, and I guarantee you're going to get some great food for a hell of a price.
Stefan showing off his Panama Jack hat. This was one of the touristy things sold all over the place here. Definitely bargain when you deal with the vendors. Stefan was a little disappointed when he got home and realized that the hat didn't travel as well as advertised. The lower quality hats available on the streets aren't as capable of rolling up and folding like the more expensive (and more authentic) Panama Jack hats. I must say, cheap or not, he did look pretty smooth in it.
A couple was in the process of setting up for their wedding on this ship while we went by. That would be a pretty cool place to do it with the old city to one side, and the newer Bocagrande on the other.
I highly recommend going out at sunset (or sunrise) every day you are in Cartagena. The old colonial buildings with their pastel colors simply glow in the fading light.
Also, I'd recommend paying some exorbitant prices to enjoy a drink up on the old city walls at Cafe del Mar. You'll be paying similar prices to what you would pay in the US or Europe, but the setting is priceless, especially with some good friends for company.
We were in Cartagena for 4 days, and during our time there we took some day trips out to some local sights. The first of these was out to Playa Blanca (White Beach), which is about an hour or so away by water taxi. We decided to save some money by catching the boat where the locals do, near Cartagena's infamous Mercado Bazurto, a bustling market maze. A ton of local business takes place in Bazurto, and we saw some interesting things just along its periphery. Since we caught the boat down on the water side of the market (which is massive by the way..I'm not kidding about the maze...it's recommended that anyone not familiar with the layout, and brave enough to go in, get a guide...and even the guides get lost every once in a while!). Anyway, we didn't go in, but I was really tempted....oh well. After sitting on the boat for about an hour and a half waiting for it to fill, we started out. At this point, it was full to the gills with some other travelers making their way to Playa Blanca, a bunch of locals going elsewhere, and a ton of goods including a live rooster. The ride out was great except for the poor guy who got miserably seasick. The rooster seemed fine on the boat as it bounced, somewhat violently at times, on the waves. We got to the beach and we saw right away why it was so popular with visitors. It was perfect: those crystal turquoise blue waters with the dark patches of coral that the Caribbean is famous for, soft white sand, and no development but a series of thatch huts selling food and hammocks if you decide to spend the night (or the month...one of our fellow passengers was an author planning on staying at the beach until he finished his novel). Shortly after we got there, we realized no one had brought much money...so we couldn't really cut lose with lots of food and beer. It was fine though...we spent the day just lounging and swimming...enjoying the perfect scenery. Unfortunately, much like Natadola Beach from Fiji, the government and wealthy investors had finally caught on to the commercial potential of such a beautiful place, and they were in the process of buying up all the locals land for development of large resort hotels. LAME! Oh well...we got to see it in its more natural state and enjoy a day before the amazing hippy, free-spirited-rare-find, escape-to-a-practically-untouched-tropical-paradise vibe of the place is ruined forever. We arranged our ride back with some local construction guys who were working on a new thatch hut and had an awesome fast speed boat. We paid them the same as we paid the water taxi, and they seemed more than happy to have the bonus cash. The ride back was great...the weather perfect at the beach and then turning to cloud and rain as we got back to Cartagena. Our lift dropped us off at the marina, and we walked from there back to the hostel in the heavy, warm rain that reminded me of Florida. Overall, it was a great day! None of the pics here are from there.. I didn't bring my camera with me for fear of sand and water damage. However, I'll do my best to get some of Missy's pics and update this post with those.
Bocagrande... once a popular vacation destination and real-estate investment opportunity for many of Colombia's cocaine barons. Now an escape for Colombia's more legit entrepreneurs and politicians (though I'm sure some of those less-reputable guys are still around too). An interesting aspect of the area is the island of Tierrabomba just offshore, with its shantytown fishing village overlooking these opulent high-rises across the water. Another example of the extremes in wealth and the lack therof that were present in several places in Colombia.
Speaking of lack of wealth... another of our day trips took us outside of the city and up the coast to the fishing community of La Boquilla. These people were poor, and I think this was some of the closest to outright slum living that I've yet encountered. We came out to see the community and enjoy another day on the beach, where more thatched huts are set up and the food was supposed to be awesome. We ended up being let off by the local bus in the middle of town, and wandering for a while before a little boy guided us to the beach. On the beach we ran into a young couple with a beautiful baby girl. The father asked us if we wanted to take a canoe ride through the mangroves (another popular thing to do here) to the best hut/beach in the area. We talked it over, bargained a bit with the man to get a price we were willing to pay, and decided to go for it. Our new guide took us out to the canoe men (who he obviously had a prearranged deal with), promptly grabbed one of the canoes, and got us loaded in. Now these were straight up canoes, carved by hand out of local wood, and they are driven Venetian-style using a long pole to propel using the shallow bottom. It turned out our guide was going to college and on the weekends (it was a Sunday) he came back home to be with his wife and baby girl and to earn some extra cash ferrying tourists around the mangroves. He spoke no English, but we managed fine between Jack, Tiff, and I, and he gave us a great little tour through mangroves with names like "tunnel of love" and "fisherman's secret". The place he brought us out to was the poorest community we'd seen yet. These people relied on the sea and cash from people like us for their survival. We were brought out to the thatched huts, where the local chef whipped us up some fresh fish dishes with coconut rice, plantains, beans, fresh veggies, and served with that amazing homemade soup with just about everything in it. We also enjoyed some nice cool drinks. There were a few others enjoying this spot, but they were all Cartagena natives and were pleasantly surprised to see us gringos there enjoying the place. Apparently, this was a place that was popular with the locals but not so much with the tourists. Anyway, the food was delicious and the spot was quite relaxing. However, we learned an important thing that day...ALWAYS ESTABLISH THE PRICE BEFORE EATING! We ended up having to bargain hard after we ate to not get outright ripped off by the chef, who tried charging us ~US$15 per person for the food (the exact same dishes in Cartagena with drinks was no more than US$4). It took me outright giving him all the money I had to cover the meal (worked out to around US$10 each, which is very expensive there) and proclaiming that we were students and had no more other than the money to pay our guide and get us back to Cartagena, which was true! I was upset...I felt taken advantage of, but the more I look back...it was ~US$20 to take a great canoe ride through mangrove swamps, enjoy a relaxing few hours at a decent beach, and hang out with some people who are much, much poorer than I am and who honestly needed the money more. I was upset at the time because I felt used, but looking back...if we had just asked the prices before hand (which was a very valuable lesson...one I won't forget for future travel), we could have avoided the confusion. We were thrilled with our guide though, and we tipped him well. I hope he and his family are doing well...he was studying hotel management at college, and I wish him all the best so that his daughter can grow up beyond the clutching grasp of extreme poverty. Once again, I'm going to have to get pictures from Missy and update this post.
Our last morning in Cartagena, we just wandered around Getsemani some more to take in the beauty of the old city before catching the bus up the coast.
These guys were brilliant....just local street performers, but they were friendly out of character and put on a cool little show. There was a small group of these "black fishermen", and they just split up and setup throughout different parts of Centro. I enjoyed Cartagena; it is definitely a place I wouldn't mind returning to in the future...mostly to check in and see how places like La Boquilla and Tierrabomba have developed and to enjoy aimless wandering through the colonial charm of the old city's streets.