It’s evening in Cartagena and I wander out into the balmy night towards a humble looking plaza in Getsemani, just steps away from the Casa Santa Ana Hotel I am staying at. Up ahead, filmmaker Jeff Cerulli and I spot a crowd of people around the Plaza Trinidad; some sitting on the stone steps of the nearby cathedral whilst sipping on Aguila beers, others huddled around benches by the food vendors selling hot arepas and stuffed empanadas. Music is playing and the ambiance is festive as I find my pace quicken in excitement, eager to reach the plaza and whatever frivolity is unfolding there. My mind is already ten paces ahead of me: it’s a dance party! Thoughts of dancing cumbia unfold until we reach the plaza and see that everyone is simply watching what appears to be a Zumba class taking place in the middle of the square. Everyone is simply milling around, sipping beers, eating food and basically tailgating this high energy Zumba class as backpackers and travelers randomly join in on the dancing. It seems to be the perfect summation of Cartagena: lively, entertaining, passionate, welcoming and always unpredictable.
Cartagena is Colombia’s colorful seaside city located on the coast on the Caribbean sea. In a country that was once synonymous with danger, Cartagena is booming with tourism and rising like a phoenix from the ashes of its complicated past. When I visited Cartagena three years prior, I was greeted with eyebrow raises and quizzical looks by friends and family. Why are you going there? Now, three years later the reaction is very different as I’m often met with exclamations of wanting to visit Cartagena or desires to know my tips on places to see. Recently, I was in Colombia on assignment for VICE to cover the chatoric, dirty-as-hell Mercado de Bazurto and learn how local chef, Juan Felipe Camacho of Don Juan Restaurante, uses local ingredients in his cooking. During my trip, I had the chance to revisit some of my favorite spots in the city as well as embark on new adventures. For those heading to Colombia, consider this your guide to Cartagena.
Exploring the Street Art of Getsemani
Getsemani is Cartagena’s answer to New York’s Soho–an artistic neighborhood that is brimming with talent, color and photo opportunities. Hailed as Cartagena’s newest ‘hot spot’ neighborhood, Getsemani is best known for its politically charged street art that is splashed across the walls of the buildings that huddle together along cobblestone streets.
While some tour agencies will offer organized walk throughs of Getsemani, I find it is best to just roam the calles with a camera in tow and see where Cartagena takes you. Every street will prove beautiful, every wall colorful or used as a canvas of symbolic grafitti. Poet, Charles Baudelaire once coined the term “flanerie” to describe the idea of idly roaming the streets of a destination; letting the city unveil itself to you. When roaming Getsemani or Cartagena’s Old City, channeling Baudelaire will show you the city better than any tour guide could.
Visiting Playa Blanca and Booking an Overnight Stay
White sand beaches, turquoise waters and swaying palm trees–Playa Blanca is the type of beach you expect to find when visiting a Caribbean city. Like stepping into the desktop picture slapped up on a wistful employee’s work computer, Playa Blanca is stunning yet unfortunately overun by tourism. Located just 45 minutes outside of Cartagena, most people head to Playal Blanca on a pre-packaged day trip that affords them a bumpy boat ride, snokel trip and 3 hours on Playa Blanca at the time of the day when the sun is at its hottest and the crowds are at their fullest.
To the savvy traveler though, at 3pm Playa Blanca transforms from a veritable amusement park of banana boat rides and obnoxious children to a calm paradise devoid of litter-bug tourists and their beer bellies. 3pm is the magic hour on Playa Blanca, at which point all the day-trippers are loaded into their boats and swept away to Cartagena–leaving only a handful of local beach vendors and backpackers who know that to enjoy a visit to Playa Blanca means to spend the night.
There are perhaps a handful of accommodations on Isla Baru to choose from–including modest hostels nestled on the sands of Playa Blanca for $25/night to nicer-yet-still modest hotels that afford you your own working bathroom, shower and meals. Rather than wait at Cartagena’s marina with sleepy day-tripping families and their caravan of kids, beach toys and inflatable toys; the hotels arrange door-to-door transportation to get from Cartagena. I have traveled to Playa Blanca three times now (the first as a day-tripper, the second as a hostel-goer and the third as a hotel guest) and like Goldlocks, the third time proved just right. For my stay, I spent the night at Playa Manglares hotel that is only a 10-minute trip to Playa Blanca and nestled on its own private beach on the otherside of Isla Baru. Playa Manglares is a rustic home with mosquito net draped beds, open air showers and homecooked meals served at communal outdoor tables; it is perfect for an evening to have paradise to yourself and enjoy Playa Blanca outside the 12-3pm hours of tourism. Only by spending the night on Isla Baru do you truly get a feel for the beauty of this small island; do you wake up to the sounds of birds chirping, feel the invigoration of an undisturbed morning swim and watch both sunrise and sunset on an island that feels like your own.
A Stroll Through the Old City
Cartagena is a U-shape where one end is home to Bocagrande and its modern high rises, chain hotels and Miami-esq vibe; while on the otherside is the walled Old City that is like stepping into the dreams of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and finding that Spanish colonial beauty lost to time. Horse-drawn carraiges are driven along narrow streets that are lined by colorful buildings with tropical flowers spilling over their wooden balconies; fruit vendors dressed in traditional garb sell exotic produce from the islands while cafe-goers sip cocktails to the sounds of Spanish guitar or Colombian radio.
The Old City is my favorite part of Cartagena–as it likely is for most visitors–simply because of how vibrant it is. To come from New York whose color scheme seems to be grey buildings, blue glass, black tar and red brick; walking through Cartagena felt like that scene when Dorothy first enters Oz and sees the world in technicolor. Most simply roam the Old City (here’s channeling Baudelaire again) and discover artisan shops, cevicherias and restaurants along the way.
Visiting the Beaches of Bocagrande
You head to Colombia and there is one thing you invariably expect to enjoy: the beach. Playa Blanca is 45 minutes away, Cartagena’s walled Old City isn’t exactly beach accessible, which leaves Bocagrande. The beaches at Bocagrande are much like New York City in the sense that anything you could possibly want or need will be delivered right to your feet. Knock off Ray-Bans? Ceviche? Massages? T-shirts? Cigarettes? Fruit? Jet-ski rides? Persistent beach vendors (correction: very persistent beach vendors) will try and sell you everything from the necessary (water) to the illegal (marijuana). You’ll become an expert at saying “No, gracias” or “Si, gracias” but will ultimately enjoy sipping on coconut cocktails and jumping in the warm waves that lap against Bocagrande’s shores.
A Day-Trip to Volcan de lodo el Totumo
About an hour outside Cartagena is a mud volcano nicknamed “El Totumo,” where legend has it a local priest would sprinkle holy water in the mouth of the volcano until its fiery lava turned into the pudding-like mud it is today. To call “El Totumo” a volcano might be playing fast and loose with the word “volcano” since it is more like a giant ant hill with a rickety, wooden ladder winding its way up the side.
Day trips to El Totumo can be booked anywhere (although I recommend booking it at Mama Llena Hostel as this proves the more affordable and convenient option). You can expect to be picked up at the hostel and then taken in a van alongside other travelers to the volcano, which by all accounts appears to be in the middle of nowhere. Once you arrive, you’ll change into your swimsuit and handover your camera to the “camera men” who for 3,000 COP (less than $2 USD) will snap photos of your every move as you are transformed from human to mud monster. As you lower yourself into the cold, grey mud amidst fellow travelers whose limbs instantly become indiscernible from yours, you’ll be offered a massage (3,000 COP) and then will awkwardly float around until it’s time to leave the mud and be washed off in the nearby river by the local bathing ladies (another 3,000 COP). While “El Totumo” might seem like an experience to skip, the wild nature of it makes it memorable and definitely one of the more interesting things I’ve done while in Cartagena.
Cartagena Night Life (and a Rockin’ Wednesday Night Party)
Nightime in Cartagena and the promise of a sultry evening ahead infused with that idyllic Colombian passion seems to beckon. Being the romantic that I am, when Jeff and I landed in Cartagena I imagined us dancing our first night away while sipping mojitos and Colombian beers before stumbling along cobblestone streets back to our hotel and its flower covered courtyard. I got my wish at Media Luna’s weekly Wednesday night party, where every week the hostel hosts an open party of live music, dancing and libations. Media Luna is also down the street from the iconic Cafe Havana where live salsa, strong drinks and a nod to Cuban culture reign supreme. If the energetic crowds of Media Luna’s hostel party starts to wear thin, Cafe Havana (which attracts an older, more upscale crowd from the backpackers and travelers of Media Luna) is less than 5 minutes away.
Sunset Cocktails at Cafe del Mar
Atop the walled city rests Cafe del Mar, Cartagena’s popular tourist restaurant that is known as the go-to spot to watch the sunset whilst sipping mojitos. Having been written up and fawned over by numerous publications, Cafe de Mar is a bit stuffy like someone to whom flattery has gotten to their head. The waitstaff is slow if not completely unresponsive, food options seem to be limited to overpriced lobster and the only locals around are those that work there and the vendors hovering nearby; regardless it is still home to excellent mojitos and is worth ordering one drink (you’ll be lucky to catch your server’s attention for drink two!) so you can watch the sunset paint the sky.
Braving the Local Mercado de Bazurto
Mercado de Bazurto is a sort of “I dare you” destination because of how chaotic, dirty, enthralling and busy the local market can be. Selling everything from pineapples to electronics, Mercado de Bazurto is Cartagena’s daily market that brings together farmers, fishmen, growers and vendors from all over the country.
Located just 15 minutes east of the city center, you’ll be hardpressed to spot tourists at this market place where only renegade foodies and culinary daredevils dare venture. With words like “theft” and “robbery” associated to its name, Mercado de Bazurto is not the type of the market where Hawaiian shirt wearing tourists with socks and sandals will be seen casually strolling on a Sunday morinng. While on assignment for VICE to cover the Mercado de Bazurto, I met with respected chef, Juan Felipe Camacho, of Don Juan Restaurante in the Old City. Juan’s culinary training in San Sebastian, Spain at restaurants such as Arzak, left him with fantastic cooking techniques and the Basque philosophy of letting the ingredients of a dish speak for themselves.
In a country that is said to be lacking a food identity, Camacho uses local produce and ingredients in his cooking to celebrate the variety and vibrancy of Colombia’s cuisine. The Mercado de Bazurto is as real an experience as you can find in Cartagena–it is raw, exciting and electric with energy; a look into the lives of locals and Colombia’s food scene. Some companies offer organized tours into Cartagena’s marketplace, which is the way to go if you are keen on exploring the winding alleyways and narrow passageways of Mercado de Bazurto.
Castillo de San Felipe
Castillo de San Felipe is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a well-preserved fortress that stands tall above Cartagena. Built by the Spanish during the colonial era, the castle was constructed as a military base against enemies approaching the city by land or sea. Castillo de San Felipe offers beautiful views of the city as well as a look at the impressive architecture of the Spanish colonials and their ingenius methods of protecting Colombia’s Caribbean city. It is worth noting that to visit Castillo de San Felipe around noon will find you red-faced, panting and looking like you just crossed the Sahara. The fortress is unshaded and high on the Hill of San Lázaro; so it is best to visit the castle either early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid feeling like an egg on a frying pan.
It’s your turn! Have you been to Cartagena? Are you heading there? Share your comments, questions and stories below!