Where do I even begin when talking about a place like Cartagena, Colombia?
ARRIVING IN THAT CARTAGENA HEAT
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 Global Entry with the Pre-check benefit). As I walked off the plane (after a short layover in Atlanta), I was met with a wall of moisture in the form of a fine mist hovering in the air.
A coastal city near the equator, the humidity in Cartagena was off the charts, but not super unpleasant and sticky. Unlike New York City’s clay oven sweltering dewiness , the consistent ocean breeze keeps the air from becoming stagnant. Whatever dry skin issues I was dealing with in New York quickly disappeared along with my stress.
ON CUSTOMS AND PUSHY BAG HANDLERS
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. 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 driver and I settled on a reasonable price and I was off to my home for the long weekend. I stayed at the Hotel Intercontinental in the Bocagrande section of Cartagena. It was the right choice for a luxury and creature comfort person like me.
The relaxing drive down the coast really made an impression. To be in a foreign country where beach = life was refreshing. I felt my body relax instantly.
THE WALLED CITY
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. Second hand futbol jerseys, snacks, small knick-knacks, and in some cases cocaine are on the table. The popular Hostels in Cartagena are close to the walled city, so the large concentration of vendors is somewhat 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 knew the area and spoke English, but he was also 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. After that, he then tried to get me to do a riding tour of the city, which seemed enticing. However, I wanted to walk around on my own a bit, so I decided against it. Lopez was a nice enough guy, but a bit shady.
I departed company with Lopez and walked around the city taking pictures as clouds began to gather threatening rain.
PARTY TIME OR?…
As night approached, I decided to head over to the Getsemani neighborhood. The Media Luna Hostel has a weekly Wednesday night party I was interested in. I got lost on the way there, and was able to witness a taste of the “real” Cartagena.
Walking through an alley I saw right into the living rooms of several residences. I caught a whiff of what could only be chicken boiling in a pot with various seasonings. That strangely familiar scent reminded me of my late grandmother’s cooking. As I walked cautiously through the back streets, I saw some amazing wall art. Since I was traveling alone I didn’t want any unnecessary attention so I didn’t take any pictures. However, you can find photos of it with a simple Google search.
I finally made my way to the Hostel, but heavy rain canceled that plan. Disappointed, I decided to catch a cab back to the hotel. Cabs weren’t stopping at first, so it took me longer than I’d like to admit to get back to my hotel. After some misfires, I finally got one.
AND ON THE SECOND DAY, HE RESTED
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 being a highly rated IHG property I pretty much expected.
After breakfast, I took a taxi to the walled city again, and walked around, 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).
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.
BACK TO REALITY
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 short trip. I will be back.