Cartagena: a colourful Colombian gem

Colombia was never on my list of South American destinations but that all changed as I met other backpackers stressing their love for the country. They claimed the people were the friendliest they’d encountered, the food brilliant and the low cost of things a real bonus. So naturally I became curious to experience this for myself. I cancelled my flight home from Buenos Aires (sorry Argentina, I’ll visit you when it’s warmer) and booked a flight to Cartagena. I was seeking all the loveliness that other travellers had described, plus the warm weather.

I arrived at Cartagena airport and found the taxi rank located just outside. The heat hit me first. I had no idea just how hot it would be in Cartagena but it wasn’t long before I got the gist of the climate. Humid. Very, very humid. I was not about to complain, however, as a warmer climate was what I’d been searching for. I got in one of the numerous yellow taxis (it’s kind of like being in New York, they’re all yellow and they’re everywhere) and was delighted to get my first taste of Colombian culture. My driver was playing what I assumed was traditional Colombian music at a high volume and I was loving it. Using my limited Spanish, we had a brief chat before he dropped me off at the corner of Calle Media Luna. I walked with my huge backpack down the street whilst sweating absolute buckets, but I didn’t care because my surroundings were fantastic. Around me stood colourful, rustic buildings oozing with charm and history. I was excited to explore further after I’d checked in to Hostel Mamallena.

The streets of Cartagena’s old town are so beautiful that it becomes easy just to wander them for hours (if you can bear the humidity). This quickly became my favourite activity in the city and satisfied my craving for a new culture. There are countless artisans on the streets selling intricate handmade jewellery, gorgeous bags, shoes and much much more. I was a sucker for the anklets and couldn’t resist buying a monochrome bag with fringing that incidentally served me perfectly for the beach in weeks to come.

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Along with the artisans, people have set up stalls selling freshly squeezed limonada, cerveza and the traditional Colombian arepa made of ground maize or flour and pretty good served with cheese. But my favourite stalls had to be those providing fresh fruit. The mango is incredible! On my first night in the city I wandered into the walled city to Plaza de Bolivar and found an old lady selling fruit bowls of whatever I desired. I put my order in – sin banana, I despise them – and she pushed a plastic chair towards me for me to sit in whilst she cut the fruit up. She muttered Spanish to me as we sat and I didn’t understand a word, but smiled politely and thanked her when the fruit was ready. She told me her name was Mama Linda and she sits there every evening.

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After tucking in to my fruit, I wandered to a bar filled with Colombians and enjoyed my first taste of Club Colombia and Aguila, the latter being my favourite, and ended up dancing salsa with some people who’d spontaneously decided to get up and start moving. This is very, very normal in Colombia. Dancing really does run in their blood!

The old town of Cartagena is set up for tourists with numerous cafe’s, restaurants and souvenir shops. For that reason it can become tempting to want to spend, spend, spend and so I had to hold back. I enjoyed coffee and food in Prispri café where the staff are friendly and the decor very fresh.

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Gokela became a favourite eatery, offering fresh and healthy fast food such as make-your-own burritos, salads and wraps. Other than that, I tucked in a lot to the street meat which is extremely tasty, cheap and never made me sick.

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Cartagena was also where I enjoyed my first coffee from Juan Valdez Café which is basically the Colombian version of Starbucks. They’re everywhere in Colombia. The difference is that the coffee here is great and the pastries also pretty damn tasty; I’ve had many an iced coffee from here! The hot drinks have got to be better but I just couldn’t face them in the heat.

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From Cartagena, I enjoyed a few trips to Playa Blanca. For my first couple of times there (I stayed in Cartagena twice on my trip), I paid 50,000 pesos to get a collectivo service from the hostel. DO NOT DO THIS. It’s a complete rip off. You can get a public bus at a very cheap price to a place called Pasacaballo and from there pay another 10,000 for a moto taxi. And if you don’t fancy hopping on the back of a motorcycle with a stranger then you can also get a taxi for a bit extra. I did the first option with my friend on my second visit to Cartagena and the whole journey took about 70 minutes, so only about 30 more than the collectivo.

You can stay the night at Playa Blanca which I’d recommend because the beach is so beautiful and quiet early in the morning. You can rent a hammock at one of the many beach front hostels for roughly 15,000, or rent a room for an average of about 30,000. I slept in a hammock which was fine – I didn’t sleep brilliantly but it was a nice experience and I didn’t get attacked by mosquitoes. The beach itself, in my opinion, is gorgeous. In fact one of my favourites. The Caribbean sea is warm and clear and for that reason I was dipping in every half an hour. This was necessary anyway as it was so hot. For me, the downside to this beach was the number of people approaching my friend and I to buy things. Jewellery, massages, cocktails, trinkets were being pushed on us every ten minutes (not an exaggeration). I appreciate that for many of these people, their crafts are what they make a living from and it’s important for them to sell to tourists, but to be continuously hassled with a huge amount of persistency is understandably frustrating. Nevertheless, I still love this beach. And my highlight at Playa Blanca has to be the bioluminescent plankton tour we did. For 30,000, we were taken out on a boat after dark to an area of the sea where the plankton gather at night. After dark, the plankton glow when touched as a defence mechanism against predators. We got in the water with them and incredibly, they sparkled and glowed with any movement we made. I was mesmerised, although I feel slightly guilty knowing the effect is produced as a result of fear.

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Cartagena has got to be my favourite city in Colombia. There’s so much colour and character and I felt incredibly safe there. There may not be much to do in the city itself so I can understand it may not be a place where backpackers stay for long, but I was very content simply wandering and snapping away. I will definitely be returning in the future.

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