Destinations, The Americas
Experiencing Cartagena Like a Local
By Jason Flores
Reminiscent of the Caribbean, Cartagena stands firmly, surrounded by the lively street chatter and vibrant colors that have delighted and enchanted visitors for centuries. The city, nestled between the Caribbean Sea, historical walls, and impenetrable tropical heat, offers something special for every kind of traveler – authenticity.
After landing in Cartagena with my girlfriend, we set off to the center of the city to check into our centrally located Airbnb. For those of you unfamiliar, Airbnb is a wonderful way to explore a new city. The platform connects eager travelers with amazing hosts — you can choose to rent an entire apartment like we did, or stay in a private room with your host on site.
What was so great about this apartment was that in addition to it being a loft (two stories plus a rooftop & dipping pool), it was also centrally located. Outside of our American mannerisms, when we stepped outside, an average person couldn’t tell that we were just visitors. There were no doormen outside of our apartment, no taxi stand or hawkers waiting for us to exit the lobby. We felt like we were truly immersing ourselves in the culture.
On the evening of our first day, our internet went out. After sending a quick text to our Airbnb host, Monica, she set up a time to swing by the next day. When she arrived, we were surprised to see that she brought her entire family for us to meet. We spent hours chatting about Cartagena, her favorite restaurants and the best sights to see.
After her family left, we put on our explorer hats and headed to the hipster area of Cartagena, Getsamani. There, we explored rooftop restaurants like Malagana with their amazing limonada de coco (coconut lemonade), ate their artisanally crafted fish tacos and peeked across the street to happy conversations next door.
Getsemani, a once abandoned neighborhood, is now Cartagena’s coolest, most invigorating barrio and is located right outside the walls of the historic Old City. Wandering around, we remembered the history-filled conversation with Monica. She mentioned that decades ago, locals started selling their homes in the Old City to move to neighborhoods like Getsemani. It’s why you find a refreshing familial vibe. Locals spend the evenings with their front doors wide open, inviting the breeze — and perhaps new visitors, into their homes.
Getting lost amid the Spanish colonial architecture, dance halls, graffiti art, signs of activism, vendors, public poets and boutique hotels and hostels, we quickly learned that wherever we intended to go, we’d happily end up elsewhere. It was the beautiful conundrum that was Cartagena.
Perhaps the most inspiring experience came as we were wrapping up our extended weekend trip. In the hopes of escaping Cartagena’s relentless heat, we opted for a day trip to Islas de Rosario, an archipelago off the coast of Colombia. To do this, we needed to find boat tickets. And rather than head to the entrance of the Old City and chat with hawkers who we were sure would rip us off, we took Monica’s advice and headed to a local hotel, where we met Andreas.
I’ve developed this somewhat odd ritual of getting a haircut in almost every country I visit. And in this case, I really needed one. So after booking our island day trip, I asked Andreas where he cuts his hair.
“My brother cuts it. I’m happy to call him for you.”
And with that, Andreas’ younger brother, Luis, made a 90 minute journey to our Airbnb in Cartagena. I must say, the haircut was in my top five haircuts of all time.
Because Spanish is my first language, I was able to communicate with Luis like he was an old friend. Luis didn’t speak a lick of English, so interaction between the three of us meant that I was doing the bulk of the translation between him and my girlfriend. But it was alright. I was amazed at how easy it was to really dig into the culture by just trying to get to know the people.
While he was cutting my hair, we listened to music he created; and he even rapped for us. We invited him to grab a bite to eat at our favorite local restaurant, Malagana. But after arriving to closed doors, we simply wandered through the neighborhood in search of other amazing restaurants. We ended up at Demente, a small tapas restaurant featuring dishes with Spanish and Cartagenian ingredients. The restored space was equipped with a retractable roof for dining under the stars.
It was there that we learned about a medical condition that Luis had that could’ve killed him, the history of Cartagena and how much he thought his parents would love us. It was an incredible experience.
The next day, we boarded a boat to paradise. An hour away from Cartagena, Islas de Rosario are considered a marvel of nature. I was consistently blown away by the natural landscape and the crystal clear water that glamorously made way for coral and the rest of the beautiful world beneath the surface.
We spent the day relaxing, snorkeling and learning more about the main island; it’s home to over 1200 local Colombians! It was the first time that I had been able to soak it all in. Here we were, relaxing on an island in the middle of the ocean. A few days earlier, we landed in Cartagena with no itinerary, but somehow were able to make the most of our experience by being open to new connections.
And in part, that’s why travel is so special. By introducing us to her family on the first day, Monica, our Airbnb host, was able to set the tone for our entire Colombian experience. We heard her talk about Cartagena with such pride. Even though she had worked in other countries — she chose to come back to her native town because of it’s vibrancy and the people.
We spent our last night in Cartagena walking a few miles with Luis so that I could play basketball and catch a glimpse of open-air Capoeira. And then he did something unforgettable. After we played a couple games of basketball, he took us to the home of his close friend, Fabian, a traveling photographer who was visiting his parents. In my opinion, one of the greatest honors is to be invited into someone’s home. It’s a symbol of deep trust and can often be the start of great relationships.
What I will remember most about my experience in Cartagena isn’t the food, or the colonial buildings, or the weather, or the islands. I’ll always remember the way we were received by the people. Everyone I met treated me like a brother — and I owe that in part to our host, who first set the example by introducing us to her family and the spirit of Colombia.
I'm an engineer who spends my days dreaming of my next escape.