Many of us are skeptics when it comes to venturing off to Colombia. From frequent chatter of drug cartels to exaggerated stereotypes, the country’s history has been plagued and labeled with violence. Rest assured, Colombia has come a long way since then. There’s a reason the Huffington Post coined it as the “happiest country” in 2013.
The city of Cartagena is a stimulating attack on the senses. The view of flower filled balconies perched high above the streets, the scent of fresh guava filled pastries looming on every corner, and the sound of horse drawn carriages along the cobble-stoned pavement will elevate your travel experience to new heights. Each day I awoke from an incredible night’s sleep, stepped onto my balcony, and thought, “There’s nothing like Cartagena under a bright sunny sky!”
Here are some of my tips to capture the true essence of Cartagena in a just a few days!
Start Off With A Local Mentality
The best way to the heart of any city is to explore its everyday life. I rented an apartment via AirBnB in the El Laguito community. The neighborhood is beautiful and often called the “Miami of Cartagena”. I stayed in the old El Conquistador building located next door to the Hilton. This is an excellent and cost effective way to reside in Cartagena.
Visit the Fortress
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, otherwise known as San Felipe Castle, is an impressive fortress in the city of Cartagena. The castle is a great way to spend a few hours and take in the magnificent views of the Old City.
Linger, Linger, Linger
One of the best ways to see any city is by foot. Hop On Hop Off Cartagena offers a free walking tour through the Old City (must purchase a valid tour bus ticket). I highly recommend joining as it allows you to quickly understand how to navigate through the city.
The Quintessential Experience
When I first entertained the idea of visiting Cartagena, I could not help but to instantly think of the flower filled balconies. For me, this is quintessential Cartagena. Keep an eye out for them each day.
Horse & Carriage
A Spanish speaking driver, cobbled-stoned streets, and the romantically lit backdrop of the Old City makes this a must do!
Escape From The City
Isla del Encanto, located on Rosario Island, is a perfect escape from the city and the best way to be lazy in a civilized manner. Once you arrive on the island you have the option to visit the aquarium, go snorkeling, test your luck at scuba diving or simply lay on the beach and enjoy several rounds of Pina Coladas and some spa treatment. Lunch is provided buffet style with many options to choose from – fish, beef, chicken, plantains, rice, and one free soft drink… eat away as you please!
Take a 45 minute bath in MUD in a “bottomless” volcano while receiving a soothing massage from the local mud man. Need I say more?
Traveler or Tourist?
The highlight of my visit to Cartagena was my random, yet memorable encounter with Alex Rocha, a local tour guide and community activist. Alex was eager to have me experience the “other” side of Cartagena. The side that is less visited by tourists. As a true traveler, always in search of an authentic experience, I gladly welcomed Alex’s invitation.
One thing that stood out from our discussion was Alex’s dedication to the barrios where he grew up. Alex is the founder and driving force behind the Alex Rocha Youth Center, located in the San Francisco neighborhood of Cartagena. The youth center serves as a safe haven for children. With the help of his family and many volunteers around the world, Alex manages to keep most of the community’s youth off the streets by teaching them social skills, languages, music and arts, and different outlets in finding jobs in the tourism industry.
Don’t let the negative chit chatter steer you away from experiencing the amazing city of Cartagena, Colombia! Dream, Explore, Discover!
Until next time, travel safe, travel well!