At the risk of sounding over-dramatic, Cartagena was an amazing, mystical, magical place, like nowhere I had ever been. It is located on the northern coast of Colombia and was an important Spanish port colony and is now a popular vacation spot for South American and international visitors, full of historic architecture and Caribbean rhythms. But it’s definitely not a tourist trap. Just like the rest of Colombia, it has many faces to it, all unique and interesting if you take the time to look closely.
We arrived there on a Friday evening, after spending the morning in Villa de Leyva, taking a collectivo to Tunja, then a bus to Bogota, then a cab to the Bogota airport. Bogota and Villa de Leyva were both cool and overcast, requiring jeans and jackets. When we disembarked at Cartagena airport into the muggy, stifling air, Andy turned to me and said, “Happy now?” Indeed I was…I love the heat, and I felt like the “vacation” part of our trip had arrived.
We cabbed to our hotel, Casa Claver, a boutique hotel of just six units, all suites, that had been built to be condo units just off of Plaza Claver in the heart of the historic Old City. The units were amazing: modern architecture, clean lines, a new kitchen, a living room and separate bedroom, and two wonderful bathrooms, plus a washer/dryer.
We set out to explore the city on a Friday night, and we struck by how different it was from Bogota. Perched on the Caribbean, Cartagena has the feel of a tropical island. It was hot and humid, with vacationers everywhere, wandering the narrow streets, taking in the balconies overflowing with flowers, listening to Cuban guitars and salsa and reggae, avoiding the many street vendors hawking their goods, checking out restaurant and bar menus. The atmosphere was fantastic.
That first night, we just wandered around the narrow streets, checked out the leafy plazas and parks, had arepas con queso from a street vendor for dinner, and walked along the old city wall, built by the Spanish to defend the colony.
On Saturday morning, we awoke early and set off to do some sightseeing.
Our breakfast was served to us in our suite each morning, something that we felt weird about at first but quickly became used to. We got fresh fruit, juice, coffee, and arepas con huevo (fried corn pancakes with an egg inside).
We visited Iglesia Conventa San Pedro Claver, a beautiful church, convent and museum with a gorgeous courtyard and plenty of interesting artifacts as well as modern art.
We also checked out the Palacio de la Inquisicion, a former outpost of the Spanish inquisition.
We wandered the streets and got a fresh coconut to drink: a million times better than Zico or any packaged coconut water. Later I also had a freshly-sliced mango from a street vendor; I wish I could get that in DC.
For lunch, we went to La Mulatta, recommended in the Lonely Planet guide. This was one of the best meals we had all week, and in one of the hippest venues. For just $5, we got seafood soup and a plate of white fish with seafood sauce, arroz con coco (coconut rice), salad, and plantain chips, plus a glass of limonade de coco (coconut lemonade). It was absolutely amazing.
We checked out the many plazas in the city and historic buildings; all were so beautiful and relaxing to just sit in and people-watch.
The heat and humidity were like nothing I had ever felt before, way worse than Florida; we were constantly sweating out oceans. I loved Plaza Bolivar, Plaza San Diego, and Plaza Fernandez.
We also went to the rooftop pool of our hotel. This was the best: sitting in the sun, checking out the historic skyline, and cooling off in the water.
Later that night, we wandered around the city, watching the sunset from the city wall, having drinks at some of the restaurants and bars atop the city wall, overlooking the Caribbean, and also buying arepas and cans of beer from the many street vendors, as we would do each night we had in the city. Vendors are constantly asking you to buy something in Cartagena, and the first night I found it jarring, but after that I got used to it and it just became part of the background noise.
I love the mystery and romanticism of the city. Like Bogota, it has a vaguely haunted air. It’s a city of many secrets and a difficult past, a city with a vibrant street culture and people with stories, so many stories to tell. I love that it wasn’t a Disneyfied or sanitized tourist city, that it was a city with crumbling buildings and sketchy corners, a city with a past and a city that isn’t perfect, but is romantic and enchanting and like nothing else.