We were warned by a friend of a friend in Brazil to avoid staying in Cartagena for longer then a few days.
We were told that it was too busy, that there wasn’t enough to see or do, and it was far too hot. Far too hot?! Considering that at the time we were sitting there sweating our lives away in the most humid place that either of us had ever been to (Bahia, Brazil), I couldn’t possibly imagine being any hotter. I wondered how could it be, that Cartagena, on the beautiful Caribbean coast of Colombia (which had already provided a few unexpected surprises during my travels), could be so poorly rated by a fellow Brit? But how could I ignore advice coming from someone who had chosen the beautiful Bahia as her home??
It didn’t take long for Josh and I to decide to ignore her advice. Afterall we had already booked our Airbnb accomodation for the entirety of our stay in Cartagena and the cancellation policy was quite harsh.
Also, Josh and I didn’t take her advice and shortcut our trip to Cartagena partly because we didn’t appreciate being preached to about where we should and shouldn’t go especially when we didn’t know this woman from Adam – we’d only just met. No. We would bare her “advice” in mind but we were going to travel the only way we know how: #slowtravel. We weren’t looking for a “quick Cartagena fix” we wanted to get to know Cartagena properly – it’s good bits and it’s bad.
Cartagena was only a 45 minute flight away from Medellin. My sister was booked on a seperate flight to Josh and I but had a hotel booked just 10 minutes away from our apartment. Being that I hadn’t done much if any research on Cartagena beforehand I didn’t know much about the area where our apartment was located – just that it was on the seafront, and was walking distance to the historical UNESCO world heritage site of Cartagena Old Town – with it’s iconic crumbling ancient walls that surrounded it’s secrets and beautiful Spanish colonial architecture within.
I’d heard that the city beaches of Cartagena were nothing to write home about but as our last apartment in Medellin had been in the middle of a busy city with a view of the majestic mountains but no beach I thought that it would be a nice contrast for us to have our next place on the beachfront with a view of the Caribbean sea and the sounds and smells that went along with it.
The first thing that hit me when we touched down in Cartagena was the heat. Nowhere near as humid as I was expecting but quite a few degrees hotter then Medellin, it was a welcome change of climate and I loved the fact that I could now see palm trees swaying gently in the breeze.
As expected, both the beach and our apartment wasn’t anything special, for starters our apartment was very small and though it clearly at one time had been quite stylish it seemed to be in a bit of a state of disrepair and lacked the comfort factor that our Medellin apartment provided. A decor update was way overdue! But it was in a great location being walking distance from the old town and in addition to us having a seaview, we also had access to a pool (which was very much appreciated in this heat) and 2 bikes to use that came along with the apartment rental.
Our new “bijoux” but centrally located seaview apartment in Cartagena
The wind coming off the ocean was so strong that we couldn’t leave the windows or sliding doors to our balcony open. The beach promenade was certainly not very inspiring – with cloudy, murky, grey-ish water, rough waves and a dark hard sand beach right next to a busy 4 lane road – I had no intention of luxuriating myself upon it. Despite this though, I was glad to be in this new place that was so very different from the place that we had just come from in so many ways. After unpacking and somewhat acclimatising to the intense heat of Cartagena in comparison to the fresh spring like feeling of Medellin, we met up with my sister and went in search for food and whatever else the city had to offer.
The first thing that I noticed when we started walking down the main road towards the walls of the old city was how dusty it was everywhere. Plumes of sand blew onto the road and into our faces, gathering at the pavements making it tricky to walk across without getting it into my sandals. Endless traffic went to and from at high speed, blasting out plumes of visible pollution into the air, and unlike the relatively calm and organised nature of Medellin, there was distinct sense of urgency and aggression in the air from these people – men yelled across the street at us, streets sellers pushed their unwanted drinks in our faces demanding that we buy them, people packed in like sardines on dusty old buses staring out the window at us, men wolf whistled, taxi’s slowed right down beeping at us and blocking us from crossing the road offering their services (which we did not need), and drivers in cars with blacked out windows heckled us. I did not understand a word that these people were saying but I felt the intention: we had already been identified as being non-Colombian.
For the very first time since arriving in Colombia I felt on edge. How could somewhere so close to Medellin feel so very different?
Cartagena was noisy. VERY noisy. And that was just on the highstreet – we hadn’t even made it to the ancient walls yet..
Soon we could see the towering walls in front of us, 4km long of intimidating looking stone built in 1796 after an attack on the fortress by Sir Francis Drake. Worn out and blackened by time it made a stark contrast to the clearly very modernised city life that went on behind it. We entered the city via one of the walls arches, being beeped by the local taxi drivers all the while.
An assault on the senses ensued as we began walking around the maze of streets within the city walls. Not pedestrianised as I had imagined it would be, the streets were very much alive, with lots of tourists (mostly Colombians) bustling around, coming out of cafe’s, restaurants and shops, loud salsa music blaring out of the bars, horses pulling along carriages with excited looking passengers coupled with a throng of local yellow taxi’s clogging up the roads doing their customary harassment by beeping their horns and yelling out of their windows, groups of young Colombian boys proceeding to follow us down the street free style rapping a song at us in exchange for a few peso’s, and lots and lots of street sellers bellowing in Spanish at anyone who cared to listen what they had for sale.
Amongst this, streets that were classically beautiful, if more then a little grubby with the distinct smell of drains, the Spanish Colonial Architecture that had earned this Caribbean city it’s UNESCO heritage status stood out. This was a place of extreme contrast, and though I had to adjust my breathing to reflect the fact that these streets didn’t smell like the colourful flowers that decorated them, I could feel that there was something very special going on here.
The following day we decided to follow the list of recommended places to see in Cartagena that had been given to us by our Airbnb host. Though we were not especially impressed with the standard of our accommodation (particularly when we compared it to the incredible penthouse apartment we’d just come from in Medellin), the list that our host had given us was very comprehensive, perhaps the most comprehensive recommendation we’d received by an Airbnb host!
So we took our time and walked around the city, stopping off at plaza’s, tiny cobbled streets filled with bijoux cafes, hidden restaurants, hotels and private mansions and all the while I was thinking what an enchanting place this was. There was such character in this city – beautiful architecture delighted me at every turn in the pastel and rainbow hued colours of the Caribbean, coupled with the sounds of a very busy Latin city, salsa music playing everywhere. My heart jumped when I saw all of the grand architecture decorated with eye wateringly beautiful flowers that cascaded down the intricately carved wooden doors and across the hanging balcony’s. For the people who lived here, perhaps this was nothing new to them, but for me, seeing these architectural marvels across the clear blue skies, feeling the history of the place with every step I took, seeing the people that represented this diverse Latin city, and hearing all of the incredible music that got my body moving, I felt that finally, I had really arrived in Colombia.
An oil painters dream
When I had been in Medellin I had felt that it was generally a very interesting, safe, modern city. Though I had heard many stories of how Medellin had been turned around from the days of the drug cartels that littered it’s past, I didn’t expect it to feel quite so grown up. Certainly, for one seeking a good life with reliably good weather, it was a hit. But for me, it was lacking something. Not quite so stark as Florianopolis was in it’s quest for being thoroughly European despite it being in culturally rich Brazil. But I had found the people there came as a bit of a surprise. Medellin felt to me like it was a little too well behaved to be a Colombian city. But here in Cartagena, finally I had found what it was I was searching for.
A riot of colour and noise everywhere, the Colombian people were the diverse mix of skin tones and ethnicities that I had imagined that they were, the city was a little rough around the edges, many of the buildings were faded and crumbling, many more a safety hazard boarded up and unloved, and the people were very aggressive, shouting at you from up close and far away, the men extremely sleazy, licking their lips at you as you walked by, whistling their lips irrespective of the fact that I was walking with Josh and slowing down in their cars to get a good look at my sister and I, taxi drivers annoying with their constantly honking horns, reggeaton and salsa music being blasted confidently from every other shop on the highstreet.
This was certainly no picnic. But despite all of this, Cartagena Old Town had an undeniable charm and old romance about it. It was dirty yes, but it was also very sensual, with secrets doors to secret places all over the city. Wrought iron gates led through to plant and flower filled courtyards with sunlight streaming down on it, against a backdrop of exposed brick and brightly coloured flowers. The icons of Colombia, the Afro Colombian women who sashayed down the street with bowls of fruit on their heads wearing colourful dresses in the colours of the Colombian Flag (women who are also known as Palenqueras) so beautiful and distinctive.
Learning how to balance a bowl of fruit on my head “Palenqueras” style!
A secret door leads to secret discoverys!
And then I came across La Serrezuela..
Is this the most beautiful shopping mall in South America?
Not really one to get excited about going clothes shopping (though I certainly do enjoy getting new things particularly if it’s through the convenience of online shopping), I initially thought that this incredible building in front of me was a hotel or something. But after spotting some people sitting in what looked like a fancy coffee shop, we ventured in to discover more.
Well, I was simply blown away when I realised that this stunning piece of architecture was not a high end hotel at all but infact a glamorous shopping mall. Originally a bull ring, this UNESCO heritage building had been built around the existing round bull ring structure to create a very unique building that included the circular ring in a spacious, light and airy marble filled shopping mall, complete with individually designed boutique shops over 3 floors – the ring part which was resplendent in dark wood included theatre style seating for special entertainment events, and on the roof top was bars and a restaurant section where you could get everything from Sushi to Peruvian to Steaks or French Bistro. In addition to this, the entire mall smelt incredible. Just being in there was a delight. Infact after having sushi at the amazing sushi restaurant on the top floor whilst overlooking the hustle and bustle of the city below I found it hard to remember having ever being in a mall quite this glamorous. From the outside it was beautiful but inside it was even better as you were able to get the detail and the sheer scale of this architectural marvel.
In my personal opinion La Serrezuela was the most beautiful shopping mall that I had ever seen. Sorry Westfield!
The very sophisticated shopping mall La Serrezuela in the heart of Cartagena Old Town
La Serrezuela at night
Minding my business in one of La Serrezuela’s many luxurious shops
On our list of recommendations we had been told about Cafe Del Mar: The ultimate chilled our bar located on top of the old city walls (which you could walk the length of with no restrictions). We were told to get there early for drinks so that we could catch the sunset.
Thankfully we made it just in time as the place was completely packed with tourists and locals alike, waiting patiently with cocktails in hand at the perfect place to watch the sunset and meet friends for drinks. We got talking to a couple from Peru who were on holiday in Colombia, on our table also a couple from Biarritz in France and people from other parts of Colombia, a real mix. The Pina Colada went perfectly with the chilled out vibes of the house music playing in the background whilst the Colombian flag fluttered in the wind against the backdrop of the Caribbean sea and a soul stirringly beautiful sunset.
Chilled Cartagena Nights at Cafe Del Mar
We found a great lunch stop the following day: Pezetarian, so named because it only served food for Pescatarians, which was fine by me! Being that we were by the sea, it seemed apt that we should eat seafood and the quality of the food was no less then what I had been experiencing in all of the restaurants in Cartagena so far. I don’t know why I had been worried about the quality of the food in Colombia but according to many blogs I had read about, the food wasn’t anything to write home about. But I had found that both here in Cartagena and in Medellin too, the food was infact very good. It certainly may be true that the Colombian food itself wasn’t anything that special, much like Brazilian cuisine it tended to be based around a few basic ingredients: corn, rice, fish and plantain, and it definitely wasn’t spicey but unlike what we had experienced in many of the Brazilian restaurants, the standard and the creativity of the dishes available was impressive. They had especially cottoned onto the fact that Peruvian cuisine is world class, and we were able to get Peruvian food pretty much everywhere.
I had booked a fancy restaurant for us to go to that evening. Candè had been recommended as the best place to get an authentic Colombian-Caribbean experience. From the reviews it sounded as though the food was pretty good but it was the incredible colonial Caribbean decor and live entertainment that I was especially interested in. We were greeted by hostesses wearing smart black dresses with matching headwraps in a glowing foyer with high ceilings, wicker chairs and hanging lanterns with checked black and white marble floors. I could already hear the music: Distinctly Caribbean with a reggae-calypso vibe. The staff, who rushed around carrying intricate looking plates of food in the maze like dining room, were very smartly dressed, the women in smart black and white outfits and matching shoes and the men wearing white shirts with kravats and matching suspender belts. Initially we were put in a back room (which was beautiful), but Josh asked us to be moved to the main dining room and then we were promptly taken to a table right at the front of the restaurant where there was a stage set up for the band who was due to come and play. Immediately I was impressed with the impeccable decor of this restaurant. The lighting was incredible, casting a warming glow from the abundance of lamps and hanging lights that littered the restaurant. Above us on the high ceiling we could see right through to a level above with intimate seating surrounding the colonial style white stone pillared structure.
In the middle of the room stood a centuries old tree with a commanding look bursting up and out of the rooftop, exotic plants scattered throughout giving the space a distinctly tropical feeling. After a short dance routine by a couple wearing traditional Caribbean clothing then came the band who were just brilliant. Playing a succession of very catchy salsa songs, they played along whilst food was served from the impeccably dressed staff. The restaurant had an immense amount of carefully crafted ambience and reminded me that I was definitely in the Caribbean now!
Lobster Bisque with a Caribbean Twist!
The Coronavirus is now very much a thing. Though it had initially been shrugged off as just media hype there have been so many cases of people catching, spreading (and being killed by) the virus both inside and outside of Asia now that it seems that finally governments have started to take notice. I had said a few weeks ago that it seemed as though the virus was everywhere accept for South America but now with the first case being announced in Brazil, this is a thing of the past. I am not especially alarmed but obviously I do not wish to catch it or have the inconvenience of being quarantined anywhere because of it. Our Caribbean cruise is still booked for the end of March and I have been getting regular updates from the cruise line as the situation changes (and it has been rapidly changing, in particular for Italian citizens who have been the worst hit in the whole of Europe). I do have a trip planned to Tuscany in August which I am mildly concerned about but for now I am much more concerned about my cruise not going ahead, or even worse being quarantined on the ship because of an outbreak. Now THAT would be bloody awful. Returning to the UK early is not something I wish to even consider and I certainly do not wish to be stuck in the UK for the foreseeable future when I return because of this virus business because that is not how I choose to spend my time!
I pimped my Brazilian Havaianas in Colombia 🙂
Getsemani Walking Tour
Getsemani (or Jetsetmani as it’s also affectionately known) is Cartagena’s Medellin. Once a poor neighbourhood and predominantly black as that’s where most of the descents of slaves could afford to build their homes, it is now very much Cartagena’s up and coming boho hang out, decorated with graffiti art on the crumbling walls which tell the story of the cities history on it’s artisan bakeries and boutique b&b scruffy but narrow art littered streets. This is where the real people of Colombia live, a stark contrast to the centre of town which is full of commercial businesses, shops and hotels, but that is changing.
Nowadays due to the gentrification of the area and tourism, a recent phenomena in this part of town, the people who previously lived here for generations are being pushed out: they can’t afford the rent. It is a sad but in some ways necessary evil for a city that wishes to attract new business and money but oftentimes forgets the people and culture that gives a place it’s unique appeal. Our guide explained a little more to us about the history of the city, including the slavery that built the historic buildings and walls that we now admire. Though of course I knew much of this history already hearing him say it came as a stark and sad reminder to me of all of the nations in the world who have benefited and enriched themselves through the blood, sweat and tears of Africa.
He also said something that I will never forget: that the reason why the Spaniards insisted on using African slaves as opposed to the Native Indians who were already here when they arrived was because they were strong. The native people died too easily or they ran off. What a curse hard work, strength and determination was in those days.
Getsemani felt very different from the old town, for starters there seemed to be much less tourism here and it was more residential but our guide assured us that despite the police presence that we could see currently occupying the main square due to a recent spike in drunkenness, drugs and prostitution in the area, it was very safe. Infact, he said, it was his favourite area to go on a night out and he recommended a few places for us to try. It was still very early so there wasn’t many people about but I was starting to see the rustic charm of this place. It was effortlessly cool. Soon we came upon a local fruit seller so we stopped to taste a strange looking fruit which looked like a giant edamame bean but tasted nothing like it. It was a little sweet and had a furry white texture – you were only meant to suck the juice from the bean and then throw it away. I hardly saw the point in the odd little fruit at all as it didn’t really taste of anything. Afterwards he took us to one of the local shops to try the local beer which was very refreshing in the intensity of the mid-day sun.
Fruits of the Caribbean
Then onto the point of our trip here: the art.
We hadn’t done the graffiti tour in Medellin partly because I had already learned much about the history of the city, including the developments of it’s more poorer parts of town: i.e the barrios. In addition, I personally had no desire to traipse about in the poor part of the city marvelling at what how much it had progressed simply due to the addition of a few new pieces of artwork. But Getsemani was different. Here in Jetsetmani, the whole story of Cartagena was told through the artwork, and indeed, this specific part of Colombia was the exact spot where the declaration of Cartagena’s independence from Spanish rule was announced so it held immense historic and cultural value to the whole of Colombia. I was really looking forward to seeing this story being told by way of the walls of Getsemani.
The first thing that struck me was the scale of the art. Some pieces were HUGE, taking up the entire side of a high-rise building in some cases, and always with a striking use of colour. Secondly, was the purposeful use of making black women the focal point. Street after street showcasing and celebrating the most beautiful visage of black women in this exotic Caribbean environment. I was simply speechless by the amount of detail, the use of techniques and colours to bring these pieces of artwork to life. And proud to see black women being honoured in this meaningful way. This was afterall, their neighourhood. They had been brought here to work, rear their families and been instrumental in making it the vibrant, diverse and colourful place it now was. Of course they should be celebrated!
I was getting giddy from all of the incredible artwork I was seeing in this small but mighty neighbourhood. It was absolutely fascinating to be able to get a little glimpse into this unique little place. On the way to leave Getsemani I popped into one of the art shops that was advertising it’s incredible artwork on the pavement outside where I came across a beautiful piece of art that I surely would have purchased if I had the room in my overflowing suitcase to host it! It was truly stunning. I had seen similar pieces being sold in Cartagena Old Town but nothing quite as arresting as this. The colours were perfect.
Our walking tour through Getsemani had definitely been an eye-opener. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from the tour but it was infinity better then my expectations.
Discovering the neighbourhood of Getsemani on a Walking Tour
Getsemani’s resident “sleepy” muse
The piece of art that stole my heart
My second fav
Look at the scale!
Horse Carriage Ride
One of the things that we were determined to do whilst in Cartagena was take one of their horse drawn carriage rides. We could see that they were being offered on the quaint little historic streets and it looked very appealing. The only thing was choosing a horse that looked like it was being looked after as I could think of nothing worse then taking pleasure from one of these beautiful animals transporting me around when he was malnourished or looked as if he was depressed. No, I’m not a horse whisperer and I can’t claim to understand “horse body language” all I knew was that if I felt uneasy when looking at the horse I did not want to ride on him – for instance I didn’t like it when they put blinkers over their eyes so that they could only see straight ahead and I also didn’t like it when the horses head was down as that indicated to me that they were not happy. I sometimes I wish that I weren’t so afraid of horses as I really do love them. I think that they are absolutely beautiful animals and I’d love to stroke one but I fear that it would buck me so I daren’t try, lol.
Eventually we did find one – a grey and white horse with a red leather halter and lead and his eye blinkers were minimal allowing him to see out of the side, also his head was all the way up – he even glanced at me as if to check who he was going to be transported. Unfortunately our leisurely ride through the streets of Cartagena how I had imagined it would be didn’t really materialise as the traffic was utterly horrendous. Yes, there was a horse traffic jam in the heart of town! Our driver eventually got out of the carriage and left us in the care of the horse (or the horse in the care of us who knows?) and he was gone ages! We guessed that he went to go and see what the hold up was but after waiting around 15 minutes we finally gave up. We didn’t have allnight afterall. We figured that the horse would simply wait until his owner got back but if you ever see a wild grey and white horse roaming the streets of Cartagena then you will know why! lol
We were overdue a night out so we decided to check out Alquimico, one of the rooftop bars that our Airbnb host had recommended to us. We were all dressed pretty casually as we were just passing by which I regretted once we got there and realised how people dressed to come to this really popular place! It was free and quick to get in though we had to queue to get onto the rooftop which seemed to be a bit of a hit. Unfortunately though the rooftop wasn’t much to write home about – there was nowhere to sit, it was packed full of GUYS (I know, makes a change doesn’t it?) and people were chain smoking. I was expecting it to be a great place to get some fresh air but it turned out to be too noisy as the large groups of guys (who surely must have been on some kind of stag do), were bloody noisy, and the air was certainly not fresh as people were smoking at all point of the rooftop and the smoke was starting to give me a headache.
So we went back downstairs where we stayed for awhile drinking cocktails in the beautifully designed building – which looked like it was once used for something very grand indeed. Cartagena was still revealing surprises at every turn!
Very cool decor in this grand old building which now houses the rooftop bar Alquimico
LOW LEVEL People
I don’t know what it is with these people (something in the water perhaps?) – that makes them so very aggressive. When Josh and I identified Colombia as a country where we wanted to spend an extended amount of time, it was other people’s description of how friendly the people were that had been a big highlight for us. We had no interest in going somewhere (like Italy for instance!), where people were unnecessarily unfriendly, judgemental or angry for no reason and thankfully we’d had nothing but good experiences so far in Thailand, Bali and Brazil and the people of Medellin, Colombia had been very nice also, but for some reason the people of Cartagena were very different. It wasn’t that they weren’t friendly (they were), they were just very, ah, aggressive!
To be sure, it’s mainly the men, and since I do not have the foggiest idea what on earth they are yelling out to me as I walked on by you could be forgiven for thinking that I got the wrong end of the stick. But I know vibes, I know intention and I sense that these people are simply low level. Colombians stare. I have come to get used to it. But unlike the (somewhat) polite but nosey behaviour exhibited by the Medellin residents when we were doing our walking tours, these guys do not wait to hear what’s been said, see what you’re doing or find out what you want, they just verbally accost you on sight.
For people who are perhaps not used to the very forward way that Latin Americans communicate this kind of agrressive behaviour could very easily be too much. Touts are annoying yes, but I’m not talking about street touts, I’m talking about regular people who you pass by on the street and despite them clearly seeing that we are tourists (or perhaps because we are tourists), they are desperate to get your attention and will talk about you as you pass, stare openly at you as you walk by, yell at you from across the road and if they are driving (taxi or resident alike), they will beep their horn and shout out of their cars relentlessly until they get your attention. And this is when Josh is right there! They simply do not care and they are shameless in their pursuit. It feels intimidating and is very unpleasant and this is in the old town, the place where we are told is the safest place for tourists to go!
What on earth do the guys outside the city walls do?!
But no doubt about it, it is infact the yellow taxi drivers who are the worst. You know, the guys who are supposed to represent this town and care for the many tourists that visit it? – oh yes them. Well they are bloody awful I tell you. AWFUL. There are taxi’s EVERYWHERE in this city – far too many in my honest opinion, perhaps that’s why they carry on in the despicable way that they do. And they roam the streets beeping their horn at you as if to beg YOU to use their service not the other way around (which by the way is pretty rubbish since for the most part they do not even know where they are going and overcharge if they can get away with it!). Then they slow down so much that you literally cannot cross the road. They have a habit of rolling down their windows and shouting out at you when you are not even looking for a bloody taxi – you are simply walking down the street TRYING IN EARNEST to enjoy the pleasant summers day in peace! And to make matters even worse, on the rare occasion that you actually do need a taxi (out of pure desperation I have to add), then they are nowhere to be seen!
They drive past you when you put your hand out for one (as is customary in literally every country that I have ever visited who have a city taxi service) and you can’t even see inside the car to see the drivers face or see if it’s free or not as the cars are completely blacked out front to back. Utterly ridiculous!
The slowing down whilst I’m trying to cross the road, blocking my pathway and almost causing an accident is definitely the worst thing about the taxi’s – it’s as if they are TRYING to piss you off. Oh and there are motortaxi’s too doing the same thing. Well congratulations guys, you will NEVER get a fare from me.
Soloio – part cafe part clothes shop
San Felipe Castle
We visited San Felipe Castle too which was pretty impressive with it’s gigantic stone fortress and hidden underground chambers but it was much less impressive then I thought that it would be. We managed to walk around the entire thing in less then an hour (dark and dingy underground tunnels included)
My sister is due to be leaving us in the next couple of days to go to her intended Caribbean island. She hasn’t booked anything yet but is considering going to Curacao since it’s pretty close and there seems to be more there to do then on the other ABC islands. Before she leaves we are all taking a trip to a PROPER BEACH (since Cartagena does have local beaches but they’re not all that), Playa Blanca, which is described as being the most beautiful beach in the whole of Cartagena. Oh joy!
San Felipe Castle
Colombian Coffee Culture at Cafe Quindio