I spent the two months after my trip to Colombia pining for Cartagena. It was the shortest but sweetest time in an eccentric, colourful, culturally rich and magical place. Now that time has passed and I have taken time to reflect on my entire trip I think I can speak almost objectively about Cartagena.
Cartagena is marketed really well and it’s perfectly clear why tourists flock this coastal town – beautiful beaches, friendly people, great weather, so many things to do, see and eat and an incredible mezcla de cultures. I think coming from Bogotá and Medellín, flying into Cartagena was almost like coming home.
We loved this but in retrospect I’m not sure that if you’re from the Caribbean you absolutely need to go to Cartagena. If you can, definitely do it but it’s not absolutely necessary. I feel somewhat disingenuous saying this because of how much I enjoyed it, but I saw more of what I think genuine life in Colombia is like in Medellín and even Bogotá. This was primarily because of how tourist oriented Cartagena is and also because our time there was short.
When reflecting on my trip I realised that I didn’t absolutely love everything so I’ve decided to share my thoughts on my trip to Cartagena a bit differently.
What I loved
- Cartagena is black people paradise.
From the time the wheels on the plane hit the runway we felt it. Throughout our entire time there, every black person we met made us their best friend. They would come, put their arms next to ours and indicate that we had the same skin colour. This was almost always followed with ‘familia’ or a wide grin – we loved it! On our way to paragliding we had to walk through a coastal community (La Boquilla). We literally strolled through the community as if we lived there because it was the first time seeing black people in days.
Of course we don’t travel to try to find home in foreign places – but we had literally spent the days before trying to figure out where all the black people in Colombia were and then walked straight into La Boquilla. The people in Cartagena were generally also very good looking – I ain’t saying it related but it probably is.
- The friendliness of the people
It was such a refreshing change to Bogotá. From the friendly taxi driver who brought us to our AirBnb and opted to let us know how much tip he deserved, to the overfriendly guy who couldn’t speak a word of English and so followed our taxi to our AirBnb to tell us how beautiful we were (yes, yes, it was somewhat creepy). Even our ‘neighbours’ were friendly – when we arrived we noticed that everyone was in their porch or on the street talking and spending time with their friends and family. One came across when he noticed we were having some trouble checking into our apartment and sorted us out. I’ve found this friendliness to be true for many Caribbean islands and tourist centred destinations, but in some ways the friendliness in Cartagena seemed much more genuine while we were there.
- The food
We did a food tour with Cartagena Connections which was everything a food tour should be. There was food coming from every direction and it was all so yummy. A perfect mix of sweet and savoury food and refreshing drinks. It was also a great way to learn about Cartagena’s history and culture through food. My favourite was the arepa con huevo. There are many different types of arepas but this is the one Cartagena is known for. Its ingredients were brought by the different groups who came to Cartagena. Food tours are the best y’all.
- The eccentric nature of the people we met
We spent our first night in Gethsemani. We were SO tired and after a delayed flight we had landed after midnight but the pump had to go on. I’m so happy we did that. I still can’t find the words to describe that experience. It was almost movie like. There was of course a high concentration of tourists but also quite a number of residents on the streets eating, hanging out and just being. Music was blasting from every street corner and it was literally the best place to people watch. We met a guy who looked like Jack Sparrow who offered us cake, a sad clown was sitting with friends on a street corner and the most interesting people were making their way to some gathering – we were very tempted to follow to see what was happening but it was too late to end up in any compromising situation.
What I liked
- The weather
Because we didn’t pack properly after underestimating the weather in Bogotá it felt great to actually wear the shorts I packed and not worry about freezing.
- The boldness of the people
The people were bold af. One quick story, this guy (aforementioned) saw us in the airport and waved to us. He was very good looking and so I waved back. Y’all, how does someone waving back say “follow me to my apartment and leave your number please”? When we pulled up at our AirBnb apartment would you believe he was outside waiting on us. At that point we were high af on life and excitement so we didn’t completely digest how creepy it was. He gave us a call card and used a translation app on his phone to apologise for following us home. We met a lot of people this way though and it made for some interesting stories and experiences.
What I didn’t like
- Cartagena is extremely touristy
Everything seems to cater to tourists so it’s naturally more expensive. After getting away with spending little(ish) in Medellín and Bogotá, everything in Cartagena (food, transport, accommodation) was more expensive. Aside from this, to get that genuine Cartagenian(?) experience you have to stay a bit longer than we did because your time in the Walled City will be very tourist centric. I enjoyed this immensely but at the same time it wasn’t my favourite thing. We were lucky enough to meet a family from Cartagena on one of our tours (#staycation). They adopted us for the remainder of the tour and made it such a great experience.
- People were very laid back and not too concerned with time. Is it because it’s so similar to the Caribbean?
Our Chiva Tour (party bus) was literally two hours late and we were expected to just stand outside this random hotel and wait for it. We did get a discount for the wait but they were very nonchalant about being late. The paragliding guy from Fly Cartagena was maybe the most laid back person I’ve ever met. He was lovely but his idea of giving directions to his office was to tell us to take a taxi to this random hotel and just ask people along the way for directions. I kid you not.
Our Uber driver got so upset and eventually had to drop us in the middle of nowhere. The people at the hotel knew exactly who we were before we even smelled the lobby. The guy clearly sends people to them every day for directions. When we finally arrived we spent so much time sitting, waiting for the wind to pick up and even when it did he decided we should wait longer because it wasn’t optimal. This aside, paragliding was amazing.
What I really didn’t like
- Cartagena is extremely touristy
Hear na, we were sitting down to have dinner and people were passing trying to sell us everything under the sun. After about 15 minutes we had to literally pretend to be our phones before they approached so they’d leave us alone. The craziest was this group of teenagers who decided to perform in front of our restaurant. After the performance they came around and stood in front of us waiting for money. The girl literally would not move until we gave her money. This was highly annoying. I had some of these experiences in Bahia but it was a whole other level in Cartagena. I don’t mind supporting most times but forcing someone into paying for a service they didn’t ask for? Na.
- Leaving so quickly
We spent a little under two days in Cartagena. Ideally, we should have spent more time and travelled from there back to Trinidad, but tickets to and from Cartagena are so expensive that we had to fly back to Bogotá. Even the tickets to Cartagena from Medellín were four times the price of tickets to other Colombian cities. There was still so much to see and do in Cartagena but we were still able to enjoy so much.
We started our time there in the sky paragliding and then walked around Cartagena feeling like queens, feasting our eyes on the colourful city, eating everything in sight and ended the time dancing the night away to bachata and soca at a club. Like I said, Cartagena is a dream.