Where do I even begin when talking about a place like Cartagena, Colombia?
I arrived at Rafael Núñez International Airport at around 1 PM CST after a chilly morning trying to get to LaGuardia on time for my 6 AM Delta flight (thank goodness for Pre-check). As I walked off the plane at my destination (after a short layover in Atlanta), I was met with a virtual wall of moisture in the form of a fine mist of water hovering in the air.
A coastal city near the equator, the humidity in Cartagena was off the charts, but not unpleasant and sticky, unlike New York City during the summer months. The consistent gentle ocean breeze keeps the air from becoming stagnant, and whatever dry skin issues I was dealing with in New York quickly disappeared as I made my way to the customs entrance at the airport.
Getting through immigration and customs was a chore; it always is no matter what when you travel internationally. Long lines and clearly disinterested workers make for a burdensome experience every time.
I finally got through the line and exchanged my funds, that’s when the REAL pimping began, starting with a seemingly friendly porter who took my luggage literally five feet and wanted a tip. I gave him a few dollars, but be warned. Insist on taking your own luggage to the cab.
The cab driver and I settled on a price (extraordinarily reasonable) and I was off to my home for the next 2.5 days; the Hotel Intercontinental in the Bocagrande section of Cartagena. I talk more about my hotel experience here, but needless to say, it was the right choice for a luxury and creature comfort monster like me. The trip down the coast really made an impression on me. It’s one thing to go to Miami and see this, but to be in a foreign country where beach = life, smartphones aren’t prominent, and kids are genuinely having fun running around was refreshing.
After I settled into my home base, I immediately set out to La Ciudad Amurallada (lit. The Walled City) alternatively referred to as La Ciudad Viejo (The Old City). My goal was to get a few Cuban cigars since they were legal in Colombia. The city was about a 10-minute ride from my hotel, and the scenery, again, was outstanding. After I reached the city, the real money pimping began because the merchants can spot a tourist a mile away. If you pull out your camera, they are instantly on you trying to sell you second hand futbol (soccer) jerseys, snacks, small knick-knacks, and in some cases cocaine. The popular Hostels in Cartagena are not far from the walled city, so the large concentration of vendors and taxis is understandable.
During my walk around the city, I came across a curious guy named Lopez. He was apparently from the Bronx originally, but moved down to Cartagena for some unknown reason several years ago. It was good to have someone who understood the area and knew English, but he was also very much a hustler. He helped me find the cigar store I’d been looking for, La Cava del Puro, and waited around to help with my purchase. He then tried to get me to do a riding tour of the city, which I would have taken him up on, but since I was simply getting acclimated to the city, I decided against it. He was a nice enough guy, but in the end, a bit shady.
I departed company with Lopez after some time, and walked around the city taking pictures as clouds began to gather threatening rain. I really liked the old world architecture that the Colombian government has left somewhat intact.
As night approached, I decided to head over to the Getsemani neighborhood where the Media Luna Hostel is located for their weekly Wednesday night party. I got lost on the way over there, and was able to witness a taste of the “real” Cartagena. I walked through an alley and saw right into the living rooms of several residences, and smelled what could only be chicken boiling in a pot with various seasonings. That strangely reminded me of my late grandmother’s cooking. As I walked a bit nervously through the back streets, I saw some amazing wall art, but as I was traveling alone and didn’t want any unnecessary attention, I didn’t take any pictures of it, but you can find photos of this art with a simple Google search. I finally arrived at the Hostel, but the rain finally came and canceled those plans, so I headed home.
I didn’t really know how to hail a cab at first, so it took me some time to get back to my hotel. I was both terrified and exhilarated at this development, but after some misfires, I finally headed back.
The second day I decided to stay close to the hotel and explore the surrounding Bocagrande neighborhood. It is an up-and-coming area, and will likely be a hot tourist destination in the coming years with all of the construction taking place.
I went to a grocery store in the area, Carulla Castillogrande, to pick up a few things; this served as the best excuse to leave my super-comfortable hotel bed. Seeing familiar items in a foreign supermarket is always interesting. I discovered a sinfully decadent chocolate/hazelnut and milk concoction that you won’t find in the United States. In the end, all I bought was some juice and fruit snacks; nothing but the essentials, of course.
Later in the day, I headed over to the beach as it was right across from the hotel. Not five minutes after I got there, a woman walked up to me offering a massage. Apparently this isn’t uncommon, but it was absolutely strange to me even though I saw others indulging. Other than that small annoyance, the beach was a great place to unwind for a few hours.
That evening I ordered room service. I only mention this because of how inexpensive it all was. What I ordered amounted to almost 70,000 Colombian pesos only for it to show up as $27 on my credit card statement. I knew the exchange rate between the dollar and peso was crazy, but to see it in writing still caught me off guard in a good way.
I arose and went to breakfast pretty early for the free breakfast buffet which was way beyond a normal continental breakfast. I talk more about it in my review of the hotel.
After breakfast, I took a taxi to the walled city again, and walked around, including on the actual wall this time, taking pictures of various locations before I decided to go to the Palace of the Inquisition (Palacio de la Inquisición), which is also the Cartagena history museum (Museo Histórico de Cartagena). You can read about my visit and my thoughts here.
I saw Lopez again, and I maintain that he’s a friendly guy, but again tried once more to get me to pay for a tour somewhere. I’ll have to look him up next time I visit since it’s almost guaranteed I’ll run into him when I go.
I walked around the old city square for a while, and haggled with a street merchant for some souvenirs for friends and family back home. I didn’t really understand him, but I eventually made my wanted purchases. After this, I sat down for some coffee and a sandwich at Pris Pri, a hole in the wall cafe in the heart of old town.
After my a short lunch break, I hopped in a taxi, and met the first driver who didn’t know where my hotel was. I eventually was able to tell him where it was, but I really need to get my Spanish speaking skills back up to snuff before I go back.
All told, it was a great, relaxing trip. I will be back.