I have had a random fascination with Cartagena ever since I watched Joan Wilder try to get to Cartagena with Jack Colton in search of treasure and to save her sister in Romancing the Stone. I realize I just admitted that to a lot of people, but it’s the truth. So when I decided to go to Colombia I knew I had to stop in Cartagena to see what all the fuss was about. It also helps that by now I had learned it was the most well preserved and beautiful colonial town in Colombia.
Every street in the Old Town of Cartagena could be on a postcard. It’s the kind of town where you just wander around all day trying to get lost – not very easy in such a tiny town – staring at the buildings, balconies, flowers, doors, streets, colors, and anything else in your surroundings, trying to take it all in. I had to tell myself to just stop trying to take pictures because they would never do it justice. How many pictures of adorable streets can you take? I could’ve documented the whole town.
The wall surrounding the Old Town is also great to walk along. It’s a unique perspective to see the city from about 2 or 3 stories up, sometimes above buildings and sometimes at the middle of them. The wall is so thick that it’s a hub of activity, from biking to running to sitting in openings enjoying the view of the ocean. At night people gather along the wall to watch the sunset. It’s amazing how sunset is such an activity while traveling. Everyone said you have to get to the wall in Cartagena for sunset, much like watching it from the hammock in Casa Elemento, the rocks in Cabo San Juan del Guia, the roof in Taganga, Monserrate in Bogota, the river in the Amazon, and Sugarloaf in Rio. It goes to show that even with abundant manmade attractions in the world, nature is still the main attraction.
I spent my first day in Cartagena doing just this – wandering the city, reading in shady Plaza Bolivar, watching the sunset with a beer on the wall. Then I woke up for my second day and wondered what I would do. The thing about Cartagena is that, as pretty as it is, it takes less than a day to see all you have to in the city. The rest of the time in Cartagena people go out of the city to beaches like Playa Blanca or the mud volcano. I opted not to do these, seeing how I’d just jumped around all week and knew that Medellin would be a costly next stop. So I spent my second day doing not much at all; some time in the hostel, a little more Old Town wandering, and hanging out in a popular square with some people from the hostel.
I am happy I went to Cartagena. It is worth a visit, but everyone had the same general consensus: it is a family vacation town. I think my sunset experience sums it up well: there is a restaurant that is on everyone’s must do lists for Cartagena, Cafe Del Mar, that is right on the wall and supposed to be the best place to watch sunset. I went there, but instead of going into the restaurant I joined the other budget-conscious people sitting on the wall just next door to the restaurant drinking a COP3,000 (US$1.50) Club Colombia beer from the guy with the cooler. The hotels and nice restaurants in the Old Town were beautiful, and if I had the funds to stay there and venture out to activities in the area it would be lovely. It’s just not the best backpacker town.
The one thing that does make it good for backpackers is the nightlife. I arrived on a Saturday afternoon and stayed at Hostel Mamallena on Calle Media Luna in Getsemani (which I definitely recommend; friendly staff, nice outdoor lounging area, A/C in the rooms at night, and a great location. Just watch out for the parrot, she bites.) This street is full of hostels and bars, and on a Saturday night it is the place to go out. We wandered down to the nearby Plaza Trinidad, where hoards of tourists and locals alike hang out at night, drinking and eating street food from the stands. We heard live salsa in the famous Cafe Havana and had tasty mojitos from an expat’s bar nearby. Everyone was out till after the bars closed enjoying the warm night.
The warm night because Cartagena is sweltering during the day. This coast was really wearing me down with the heat. It was time to get back into the mountains.