Book! Pack! Go Travel! by Robbie Mamo

Cartagena, Colombia – Colorful and Colonial

Cartagena, Colombia – Colorful and Colonial

Following an excellent two weeks of rugged adventures in Venezuela it was time to make good on an earlier promise to myself that I would visit Colombia very soon. I made this promise after I had to bypass Colombia on my Mexico to Peru trip one year before. Leaving Venezuela I spent a full day travelling that started with taking a 3 hour taxi from Santa Elena, Venezuela to Boa Vista, Brazil. From Boa Vista I then had a relatively short, 2 hour flight to Sao Paolo.

Once in Sao Paolo I cleared customs and immediately checked in for my flight to Cartagena. I would also fly back to Sao Paolo from Cartagena at the end of my trip on my way back to Canada so I booked a return ticket. Between Sao Paolo and Cartagena I flew with LAN Airlines which is a the largest airline in South America. Expect to pay quite a bit to fly between countries in South America as fares are often expensive. I paid $500 for my return ticket between Sao Paolo and Cartagena and this was a reasonable price but much more expensive if comparing regional flights of a similar distance.

Cartegena was the first stop on my visit to Colombia. I only had 10 days in the country and also wanted to visit Medellin and Bogota so didn’t want to spend much time in transit either. This was easy as the regional flights in Colombia are extremely cheap. I didn’t pay more than $80 for a 1 way flight and they were all less than an hour and a half or less all over the country. While in Colombia I flew with Copa Airlines. They have extremely cheap flights and no compromise in service. I was very impressed! Avianca is another airliner to consider in this region and is also quite good.

The bus system in Colombia is not for those short on time or patience. The speed limit is 80km/hr everywhere in Colombia and the buses are constantly stopping at military checkpoints. When stopped they check everyones ID and full bag searches are a common occurrence. For the price of the flights even if I wasn’t short on time I would probably fly.

Where to stay…

Once I landed in Cartegena I got a taxi to the highly rated Casa Lola Hotel. This is a boutique hotel that offers guests artsy and natural accommodation within the old city. It is located in the now bohemian Getsemani neighbourhood within the old colonial ‘walled city’ of Cartagena. After sleeping in basic rooms, tents and hammocks for the first 2 weeks of my trip I knew by the time I got to Colombia I would want to treat myself! If you are wanting budget accommodation and hostels there are over 40 options in the city with beds in dorm rooms ranging from $10 – $20 and private rooms ranging from $20-$40 per night.

This hotel was located in the once dangerous and now well established Getsamani neighbourhood and it is now home to boutique hotels, great restaurants and lots of other shops. This is one of the most unique hotels that I have ever stayed in. It was super low key and the perfect size. The front desk service was amazing and everyone who works here is very welcoming and helpful.

The rooms are all art inspired and everything showcased in the rooms is actually for sale. The rooms all had character and were one of a kind. There were plants and water surrounding a boardwalk that led to the rooms and to the upper floors. There was a really comfortable lounge area on the main floor of the hotel. The rooftop terrace and salt water swimming pool were perfect when the city was hot. This was also perfect place to relax after a day of enjoying the sights, sounds and flavors of this wonderful city.

Room rates range from $180-370 in low season and $270-450 in high season. I got my room last minute and booked a standard room for $110 per night. I spent 5 nights there and it was well worth it. Breakfast was also included and the food was excellent.

 

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My amazing room at Casa Lola! 

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The walkway surrounded by plants and bathing pools!

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Breakfast area and lounge.   

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The rooftop terrace and saltwater swimming pool.

Around the old city…

Cartagena was named and colonized in the early 1500’s by the Spanish but some of the most ancient cultures lived in this region as long ago as 4000BC. Early after its colonization the city was destroyed by fire and was slowly rebuilt. The old district of the city is known as ‘Cartagena de Indias’ and lies within the fortified walls that were built centuries ago by the Spanish. The large stone walls were started towards the end of the 1500’s and weren’t completed until almost 200 years later as they were regularly damaged by storms and also pirate attacks. The city was famously taken by the English under the command of Sir Francis Drake in 1586.

The walled city is also home to San Felipe de Barajas Castle in Cartagena which was constructed in the 1700’s. The walled city has 3 neighbourhoods. San Pedro, San Diego and Getsemani.

The city is well positioned on the Caribbean and has been an important maritime trading port since the colonial era. It continues to be a busy shipping port and the natural deep harbours and shelter make it ideal. It also has a strong and evident Afro-Caribbean influence that gives this city so much character and makes it a fusion of cultures that have grown together over the years. The music is also heavily influenced by the Afro-Caribbean culture and the city and culture here is very similar to Cuba and Hispaniola which is the island shared by Haiti and The Dominican Republic.

The first thing you notice about Cartagena is the amount of color everywhere and the well preserved colonial architecture. It’s the perfect area of the city to get lost in and just wander the streets. It also has many sites worth visiting all relatively nearby each other. Linking these sites together are narrow cobblestone roads surrounded by old buildings. The whole city is bursting with bright colors and it is one of the liveliest places I’ve ever been to!

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I spent hours walking around the streets of the old city and you always find something new!

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The colorful and lively streets of Cartagena are always alive with lots of energy!

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Las Bovedas historic colored archway is a landmark and also home to many vendors.

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There are lots of courtyards and squares in the old city which are perfect for relaxing.

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Tour buses are common in Cartagena but you won’t see them inside of the walled city!

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Horse drawn buggy is a common way to get around inside the walled city as you won’t see to many cars on these streets. 

There are lots of metal sculptures throughout this part of the city both representing the history as well as showcasing art. The art and history in this city make it special. Many of the more famous sculptures are in the main plazas such as San Pedro Claver, Plaza Santa Domingo and Plaza Bolivar.

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San Pedro Claver square is where you find the most sculptures within the old city. These depict day to day life in Cartagena. 

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Sculpture of a vendor selling shaved iced treats called Raspados. The hand operated ice shaver is what they still use today to concoct the frozen treat of shaved ice, condensed milk and flavored syrup. As always anything involving shaved ice gets my attention and I had lots of Raspados while in Colombia!

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Sculpture depicting people playing dominoes.

Making it even more lively is the amount of restaurants, small shops and street vendors that are everywhere. The vendors here are pushy but they are not confrontional or intimidating. A simple ‘No Gracias’ is enough to free you of any further sales pitch. That being said there are many items on offer from the street vendors. Flowers, paintings, hats, jewellery, bags, and other crafts are all easily available. The vendors also like to haggle so be patient and find the best price. There are also people walking around selling snacks like pastries, fresh fruit and refreshments and you could live for weeks on street food alone.

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A flower stand in the old city with beautiful blooming flowers.

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Fruit vendors are everywhere in Cartagena. These ladies were dressed in traditional fashions and always busy!

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The most common food item offered is fresh fruit. Mango, pineapple and watermelon are the most common fruits available. 

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Many vendors walk around offering items for sale. This lady walked around balancing pastries on her head and there were lots of others like her selling snacks and other food. 

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Wonderful art work was available from the many streetside vendors here. Most art was inspired by the Afro-Caribbean song and dance. 

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Colombia is known for hats and you can find lots available anywhere in the city. 

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Bags, hats, jewellery and other fashion items were easily had and vendors were quite flexible on the pricing so don’t be scared to bargain with them. 

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A shop in the old city selling arts, crafts and souvenir items.

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Living statue! These guys sit still for hours and this is very common in Cartagena.  

Sights in the old city…

You could spend days visiting all the sights in the old city of Cartegena de Indias. The most popular sights here are related to art, history or religion. I only had 3 days in the city and wanted to get a beach day in so I chose to visit four key sights. The Gold Museum, San Pedro Claver Cathedral and Convent, Palace of Inquisition and San Felipe de Barajas Castle. All four were excellent choices and gave me a good feel for the history of the city from ancient times into the colonial era. Other good sites are Rafeal Nunez Mansion and the Naval Museum which I regretfully didn’t have time to visit.

Wanting to walk around the old city more than anything I chose to do the museums in the middle of the day after a good lunch. This allowed me to avoid the hot midday sun and swelter of the city. Even though it’s on the water this part of the city get extremely hot.

La Puerta del Reloj(The Clock Gate) is the main entrance to the walled city and it is unmistakable and is also a good way to get your bearings about the area. It is also the best place to catch a taxi if necessary.

The Gold Museum

Deep within the burial mounds of the early Sinú culture there have been priceless discoveries of gold that somehow survived the conquistador pillage. This gold is now on display at Cartagena’s famous Gold Museum and this is a must visit for anyone who is spending time in the city. Not only does it show different eras of gold but also how the elite adorned themselves with intricately crafted jewellery. In addition there are gold figurines as well as ancient funerary urns where the ashes of the dead were preserved.

Entry was into the museum was free which makes it an even better choice!

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Ancient gold jewellery!

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A pot of priceless gold artifacts from ancient times!

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Clay and gold figurines. This display showed the transition from stone to metal. 

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Funerary urns that were used in ancient times to hold the ashes of the dead. 

San Pedro de Claver Cathedral and Convent

Saint Peter Claver was a Jesuit priest that lived in the 1600’s. He dedicated his life to show compassion to the slaves that were brought to Cartegena to be used locally or sold. He was known as the “Slave of Slaves Forever” and Cartagena was the busiest Spanish port in the slave trade. Records show that over 1 million slaves were sold here.

The captives were treated terribly and Saint Pedro Claver dedicated his life advocating for the humane treatment of these people and ending slavery. He also preached to these people and offered them medical treatment and other aid. It is said that he baptized over 300 000 slaves during his lifetime.

The cathedral is a beautiful old building and even more interesting is that the saints skeleton is in a glass case below the alter which you can view. The convent is attached to the cathedral and is considered one of the best preserved examples of the colonial architecture within the city.

There is also a planted courtyard that gives shade to the well that was used to baptize thousands of the Africans that were brought to this new land. Here the saint also grew medicinal plants and herbs to use when treating the slaves for medical issues.

The cathedral is also home to a museum that has exhibits spanning from ancient to colonial times. It has artifacts from early cultures that lived in this region dating as far back as 7000BC. Here you can also see the oldest known ceramic artifacts in the Americas which date back to 4000BC.

In addition to artifacts you can see religious artwork and sculptures. Most of the art is centuries old but there is a floor that showcases more contemporary Afro-Caribbean works.

Entrance is 27500Col/$9 and there are guides available for hire at the site itself.

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The San Pedro de Claver Cathedral is a beautiful historic church which is one of the main attractions in the city.

 

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While it isn’t the most striking Cathedral, the historical significance and relevance to the local Afro-Caribbean population is unparalleled.

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Looking down at the alter that holds San Pedro de Claver’s skeleton.  

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The alter that holds San Pedro de Claver’s skeleton. 

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The archway into the planted courtyard where thousands of Africans were baptised. Medicinal plants were also grown here and used to treat the slaves for sickness and injury. 

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Bells in the courtyard.

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A painting depicting San Pedro de Claver asking for mercy towards a slave.

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A painting depicting San Pedro de Claver offering fruit to slaves as they land on the shores of Cartagena. Around 1/3 of the slaves died en route from Africa and the ones that did survive were malnourished and often had fallen ill to disease.

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The museum at the Cathedral has a wonderful display of ancient pottery and funerary urns and is worth checking out.

The Inquisition Palace

Cartagena was the third and final location where the Spanish Inquisition was carried out and the main location for executions and trials is called The Inquisition Palace. The building itself is built in a Spanish colonial style with elements of Baroque and is located across from Parque Bolivar.

The exhibit here sheds light on how brutal it was in these times. The building was completed in the 1600’s and it is said that around 800 executions took place here. Criminals were punished here by torture and eventually death and anyone who was Jewish or non-Catholic as well as those considered to be practising witchcraft would be taken here to be dealt with.

The main attraction here is the display of the instruments of torture. The torture chambers here make an electric chair look like a walk in the park by comparison. I came to my own conclusions that the guillotine would have been the best option compared to the other ways to be tortured slowly and die.

The palace also holds Cartagenas Historical Archives and is considered one of the most historic buildings in the city.

Entry is 15000Col/$5 and although it isn’t the best museum the area has to offer it is worth visiting for the cost.

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Guillotine – Off with their heads!

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Rack – Used to stretch the limbs of the person being punished until they were dislocated or severed. 

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Garrote – This was used to contract the neck of the person being punished. It would either strangle them or crush their spine, whichever came first. 

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Head Crusher – This was lowered on the skull of the person being punished until their head crushed and was often done slowly to increase the pain.

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Breast Ripper – This was heated until red hot and placed around the breasts of women that were being punished. It would tear off the breasts or severely disfigure them.

San Felipe de Barajas Castle

A short walk from the main tourist area of Cartagena de Indias and sitting high above the walled city is the San Felipe de Barajas Castle. This castle is actually a massive fortress that dominates the landscape. The construction started in the 1500’s and completed in the 1700’s taking almost 200 years to fully build. It was very successful for fending off invasions once complete and prevented the attackers from entering the main bay and attacking the city from behind.

I really enjoyed being up here and the castle offers great views of the city and coast. It has everything you would expect with large cannons aimed out over the horizon and long dark tunnels to explore. The walk up is steep and long but worth the effort. I chose to visit early in the day as there is no shade here and it wouldn’t be as enjoyable in the searing heat. If you do plan on going while the day is at its hottest then bring lots of water inside with you. There are also guides available but you can watch an information video in what was once the fortresses hospital.

Entrance is 24 500Col/$8. However, entry is free on the last Sunday of each month.

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The massive castle was built to withstand even the worst of invasions. 

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The hight slanted walls made it difficult for invaders to penetrate the fortification.

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Looking out over the city from the castle walls.

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Cannons line each wall of the castle.

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Turrets standing high above the castle. 

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The walls were built very thick and could withstand a very strong invasion.

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Looking down into the tunnels that channel beneath the castle.

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Statue of San Felipe de Barajas.

Making the castle even more interesting was the live music and dancing that was being performed on one of the upper levels. I’m not sure if this is something that happens often but I sat and watched the show for about half an hour. Over 20 performers captivated the large audience with Afro-Caribbean music and dance. It was easily one of the best live performances I’ve seen and the rhythmic song and dance had soul, energy and character. The female dancers wore brightly coloured dresses and makeup while the men wore white shirts and pants with red scarves and sashes. The performance they put on was amazing and everyone was impressed!

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The male and female performers dance together and then took to the front for solo performances throughout the show.

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The female dancers in their colourful outfits and makeup made them the main focus of the show!

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Percussion and wind instruments set a lively tone for the dancing!

Also near the castle is The Monument of Old Boots which is a large metal statue of a pair of boots. It was sculpted to honour local poet Luis Carlos Lopez. Near the boot is also a plaque with the words to the poem ‘A Mi Ciudad Nativa’ which translates to “To My Native City” in English. This makes a good photo opportunity and is worth checking out.

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The Monument of Old Boots.

Mercado Bazurto

A short taxi ride will take you to the local food market in Cartagena called Mercado Bazurto. This isn’t typically a tourist attraction but if you have a strong stomach and enjoy sensory overload then it is a good choice! The first thing you notice when you arrive here is that you’re likely one of few tourists at the market. That being said you aren’t bothered by anyone to buy anything like you constantly have in the walled city and other areas. Not that anyone is giving you strange looks either but you definitely stand out being a tourist here.

The market sells some other items but food is the mainstay at Mercado Bazurto. The market is a maze of stands offering fresh meats, fish, seafood, fruit, vegetables and spices. There is garbage everywhere and the smell is almost unbearable at times. Not having the stomach to spend any more time at the market I had the pleasure of trying to find a shortcut and this leading me to where all the garbage gets dumped into a large yard. If I didn’t like the smell of the market you can imagine how my stomach felt after walking through the area where they keep the garbage in a failed attempt to get to the main road and get a taxi out of here!

It was definitely something to see here but it wasn’t somewhere I’d go on a first date!

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Workers push bags of food on traditional style carts.

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Fresh meats, fish, seafood, fruit, vegetables and spices were all available at the market and stands were often mixed together.

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A vendor selling small plastic fruit and vegetable ornaments.

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Whole pig being butchered and sold off as necessary.

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The main item for sale at the market was fish and seafood.

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Two groups of fish vendors happy to have their photos taken.

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It was common to see fish for sale right beside raw meats.

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Many spices and dry items like whole grains and rice were available. These were all sold bulk by weight.

Other sights…

Just walking through the old streets will bring you to many other sights within the old city. Plaza Santa Domingo is a popular site and this is where the main slave trade took place. Now it is home to many restaurants and terraces as well as the famous Gordita(Fat Lady) sculpture by native Colombian artist Fernando Botero. It is a great place to stop for a meal as well as to take in the ambience of this great colonial city.

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Gordita(Fat Lady) sculpture by native Colombian artist Fernando Botero.

Plaza Bolivar is also worth stopping at and there you can view a sculpture of Simon Bolivar riding a horse. Both are considered a must see and make a point to stop and take in the art as you are strolling around the old city.

A statue of San Pedro de Claver is in the plaza of the same name and is a great monument to the work he did and legacy he left behind.

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Statue of Pedro de Heredia in Plaza de los Coches. Pedro Heredia founded Cartagena de Indias in 1533.

Plaza Bolivar is also worth stopping at and there you can view a sculpture of Simon Bolivar riding a horse. Both are considered a must see and make a point to stop and take in the art as you are strolling around the old city.

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Statue of Simon Bolivar in Plaza Bolivar.

Where to eat…

The food in Cartagena is just like the city itself where Colonial meets the Caribbean. The food was amazing and I didnt have a bad meal during the 3 days I spent there. The fish and seafood available were top notch and the Colombian beef was also very good. Like usual when I’m near the coast I eat what is the freshest and of course that means fresh fish and seafood.

Cartagena did not disappoint and to make it even more appealing there were restaurants to suit any budget. Lots of affordable local food made it unnecessary to spend much to get a good meal.

What the higher end restaurants do offer in this city are the chance to dine in historic colonial mansions and state buildings that have been wonderfully converted into hotels and restaurants. There were lots of choices and the decor and ambience of some of these establishments was breathtaking. That being said if you are on a budget these more expensive options make better choices for drinks after getting food elsewhere.

This city was a street foodies dream come true. Everywhere you looked there were food stands and strolling vendors with anything and everything from pastries, fresh fruit, fried snacks, sandwiches, burgers and other hot food items. For cold refreshment and treats there were people set up selling shaved ice everywhere. Shaved ice is one of my favourite ways to cool off on a hot day and I had fun watching the vendors using their hand powered ice shavers for each customer.

Sason Santo Domingo

The first meal I had in Cartagena was from a local owned restaurant called Sason Santo Domingo. Here I had a whole fish cooked in a curry coconut sauce with rice, salad and fried plantain. This was an excellent start to my food adventures in the city and I made sure to return back to the same place. This costed 12000Col/$4 and was an amazing meal for the money.

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Fogon Costeno

Another local owned restaurant with good food at great prices was Fogon Costeno. Here I had the fish filet with rice, salad, spaghetti and fried plantain which costed 15000Col/$5. This also included chicken and vegetable soup. For the price of the meal and what you got you really can’t beat this place. The service wasn’t the greatest and I ended up having to go up to the counter to pay but they were short staffed and it was packed.

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La Cevicheria

Another popular restaurant is La Cevicheria and I ate there twice. This is one of the hot spots in town and they are famous for freshly prepared ceviche and seafood cocktails done with a modern Colombian and International flare. If ceviche isn’t your thing there are so many other menu items that any seafood lover would want to taste the whole menu. They have a retro designed dining area as well as a large patio to enjoy your meal in either setting.

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Seafood and fish in ceviche heaven!

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Ceviche being made fresh to order!

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The large outdoor patio area.

The first time I ate here I ordered the mixed ceviche and octopus salad. The mixed ceviche was so fresh and as good as any ceviche I have had anywhere including Northern Peru where it originated. I got the large size and it was priced at 33 000Col/$11. The octopus salad was called the ‘Pulp Fiction Salad’ was amazing. Pulpo is Spanish for octopus so thats how they came up with this name. The salad was a heaping portion of cold octopus, tomato, lettuce and olives topped with balsamic vinegar, pesto and parmesan cheese. This was priced at 33 000Col/$15 and was another taste treat that would have costed way more in other countries.

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Mixed ceviche!

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Pulp Fiction salad.

The second visit I decided to try one of the hot menu items. I had the “King Prawns a la Brava” which was a large serving of prawns cooked in a spicy coconut milk with fresh tomatoes and cumin. The mix of flavours was exceptional and it was a meal to be remembered. This was priced at 35000Col/$12 and was well worth it. If I lived in this city I would be at this restaurant all the time.

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King Prawns a la Brava.

Patagonia Asados del Sur

Located nearby La Cevicheria is another great restaurant and hangout called Patagonia Asados del Sur. This funky and randomly decorated restaurant has to be experienced and oozes with lots of character both inside and out. Even the menus are printed on wine bottles! Specializing in hot off the grill meats and Argentinian wines this is a popular place to sit outside and have a few drinks and enjoy some barbecued meat which some consider the best in town!

I didn’t try the food myself but it looked good coming off the grill and it was a great place to drink good wine. The drinks were expensive but worth it based on the selection they carried. It is also a good choice if you want international beers from the Americas as well as Europe and beyond.

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The restaurant is decorated with a random collection of antiques signs and other items. I enjoyed sitting in the funky outside seating area but inside has a character of its own. I don’t think there is a section of bare wall in this place!

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The menus were printed onto wine bottles!  

Cuzco Cocina Peruana

My favourite restaurant from this trip to not only Cartagena but all of Colombia was Cuzco Peruvian Restaurant. Located right in the heart of the old city near Santo Domingo square this gorgeous colonial building has been tastefully converted into what might just be a perfectly designed restaurant!

There are two dining areas and as you walk in you are greeted by live music in a garden patio inspired indoor space featuring giant plants and an illuminated central pool. As you walk further into the restaurant area you are in a slightly more quiet setting decorated with wonderful natural colours and ambient lighting. Add great food and service to the atmosphere and you are guaranteed a good experience.

I tried two dishes at Cuzco and both were exceptional. To start I ordered Saltado de Mariscos which is sautéed seafood with a sweet, sour and spicy tomato reduction. This was served on top of fries which I didn’t bother eating because I knew I had more food coming. The seafood was cooked perfectly and the sauce had a tangy and spicy taste.

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Saltado de Mariscos.

My main course was steak with shrimp in a creamy mushroom sauce which had so much flavour. I hadn’t ate beef too often on this trip and this was a great choice. The beef was tender and the shrimp were full of flavour. The cream sauce was thick and the mushroom flavour came through just enough to accent the taste of the beef and shrimp without being overpowering.

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Steak and shrimp in a creamy mushroom sauce.

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Live music is a nightly event at Cuzco!

The prices here are middle to higher end for Cartagena but not unreasonable. Expect to spend around 90000Col/$30 per person and upwards for a meal with a few drinks.

Cuzco was the perfect place to eat and enjoy the great ambience with live music, perfect lighting and an outdoor patio vibe.

Plaza Santo Domingo

Not a restaurant per se but in this main square you can find authentic Colombian food. In addition there are a few Italian restaurants and pizzerias. This is a lively place to be and I went there for pizza a few times and this is what most people are ordering. Finding good pizza is always something I like to do when I travel and the pizza here didn’t disappoint. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant I ate at but most of the pizza from the different restaurants looked similar. It was all thin crust and very cheesy. There is also lots of live music in this square and it is always busy. Definitely one of the hot spots in the city for eating and drinking!

The vendors here can be a bit much at times until they see the security guard who keeps an eye out for them. There are also live bands here that go table to table trying to find an audience. Be prepared to offer something if you do accept and when I was there a few bands got into a bit of a scuffle over who was going to play for the table with the most customers.

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Typical busy night in Plaza Santo Domingo.

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Really good thin crust pizza!

Pasteleria Mila

For those with a sweet tooth or wanting a great place to have a coffee or even a meal have to experience Pasteleria Mila. Named after owner Mila Vargas. This is Cartagenas most famous destination for those craving the best in baked goods and sweets.

Not only do they have what are considered the best desserts in Cartagena but also amazing Colombian coffee, chocolates and pastries. Mila also has a popular menu for food items and serves up breakfast, lunch and dinner selections.

I tried the fudge brownie topped with chocolate covered caramel. This was such a treat and nothing complimented it more than an espresso drink made from Colombian coffee beans! The prices are reasonable and although many desserts can be found cheaper the quality and atmosphere of Mila make it world class.

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Espresso made with Colombian coffee beans = Heaven! This also came with a shot of mint infused water and a small cookie. 

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Fudge brownie topped with chocolate covered caramel! 

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Fudge brownie topped with chocolate covered caramel ready to be savored!

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Some of the many freshly baked desserts available at Mila!

Cartagena’s Beaches…

Colombians Caribbean coast is renowned for its beaches as well as islands. Cartagena itself doesn’t have any beaches that are worth a trip in itself but if you are in the city there are still some choices. Those wanting more privacy or a more relaxing and natural beach atmosphere should look into travelling 4 hours North along the coast to the Santa Marta region of the country.

Bocagrande…

Bocagrande is Cartagenas city beach which spans along the outer bank of the peninsula. It is lined with high rise hotels which give way to an esplanade and then the wide sandy beach. This is also the busiest beach and it can get extremely crowded even despite its size. It is a great day trip for people staying in the old city and with the cheap cost of taxi’s in the city you can be anywhere for less than $10.

Being one of the most popular and budget conscious places to stay in the city. It is no surprise why people stay in Bocagrande. There are lots of food and drink options and much of them are more casual than what is found in most of the old city which tends to cater more to the high end. This area is only a short taxi into the old city and the whole city is well accessible.

The area itself is very lively and has a modern city feel which is also a different option from what is offered in the walled city. This would be a good area choice for families staying in Cartagena with the amount of hotel and food options available. The surrounding businesses make it convenient if you want to get food from a grocery store or need something from a pharmacy etc. Even better is that most hotels are on the beach itself so you just cross the road and start enjoying the sunshine! There are fast food restaurants and other chains here as well and this area is also where you will find the largest selection of live music. This area is far more casual in comparison to the old city and has a younger vibe to it. I enjoyed my time here and would consider staying in this area the next time I came to Cartagena.

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Like most city beaches Bocagrande is the first choice for most people wanting some sand, sun and water without having to venture too far from the action.

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The beach is lined with breakwalls which offer calm waters for swimming. 

Beach day at Baru Island…

One of the most popular day trips is to go to Playa Blanca which is on Baru Island. This is only a short distance by water taxi and they leave in the morning and then bring you back later in the afternoon. You have different boats going to different destinations with some being more direct and others being part of a full day tour. The boats and ticket office are located at what is called ‘Muelle de la Bodeguita’ and this is where the majority of the boat taxis in Cartagena depart from.

I arranged my day trip through the front desk at my hotel. If I were to do it again I would just go down to the dock where they sell the tickets and operate the boats from. There is no need to book this in advance through your hotel or an agency as anyone can show up at the dock between 8 – 10am and easily find a boat or tour and purchase tickets.

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Ticket booth at Muelle de la Bodeguita. 

The most common full day tour visits the Rosario Islands National Park which is a protected archipelago of almost 30 islands near Cartagena. These islands are surrounded by some of the most diverse reefs in the Caribbean and are crucial to marine life in the area. The main island of Rosario is home to only a handful of very exclusive high end resorts offering an isolated paradise.

For most people it makes a great day trip. Once on the island you get to see dolphins, do an aquarium tour and finish up with some beach time at Playa Blanca on Baru Island. These are typically 120000COP/$40 for the day and this includes a fresh fish lunch at Playa Blanca. The aquarium entrance fee is an additional 25000COP/$8 for those who are interested.

I wanted to maximize my beach time and given that I was already going to be on the boat for 45 minutes each way I decided to take a boat directly to Playa Blanca. I managed to find a boat that took me to Playa Blanca without having to go to Rosario Island. It was a bit unorganized on the boat and I am happy I reminded the captain that I wasn’t going to the full tour including Rosario Island. This got me dropped off sooner to enjoy the beach which is all that I was interested in.

I decided on the Playa Blanca boat which leaves at 10am and returns at 4:30pm. My hotel arranged the tour so it included pick up from the hotel in the morning as well as a fresh fish lunch. This costed 60000COP/$20 and it was a great value. In addition you also have to pay a port tax of 6500COP/$2 as well as a national park fee of 7000COP/$2.25.

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The dock was lined with similar water taxis and there were people trying to line you up with the right boat. This was a chaotic operation from the beginning and I wasn’t sure if I was on the right boat and the people working there didn’t seem to know either until the last minute.

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The water taxis lining the dock waiting to fill up with passengers for the day trips.

Our boat was called the SurySaray 2 and once we loaded up the small launch with more people than life vests the twin 250hp engines fired up and off we went. It took 10 minutes to leave the channel and then we had to stop in for fuel on the way out. After fueling up we we motored across the channel to another dock to swap out crew members at what looked like a waterside slum. All of a sudden I felt a splash of water and it was one of the local children climbing onto the boat asking for money. As we drove away with others swimming behind him trying to get ahold of the boat another young local jumped onto the boat and after a short ride he jumped off just as the boat let loose 500Hp and sped off.

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Local boy who swam up to our boat and climbed onto it asking for money.

The whole operation was unorganized from the start and all this stopping and starting again was a little frustrating. I was only interested in hanging out on the beach at Playa Blanca on Baru Island. Making this slightly more worrisome was that the whole trip they had one of the deckhands sitting on the engine mount holding together one of the fuel lines. Luckily the boat had two engines but it still wasn’t the most comforting thing to notice at the back of the boat. Most of the passengers were oblivious to this but me being into sailing and boats I was naturally aware of how seaworthy the boat was.

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Yikes!

As we sped along we passed through Bocachica Strait and then past Tierrabomba Island. This is where the San Fernando de Bocachica Fortress and the San Jose Battery are located. These were both strategic in protecting the city from invasion from pirates and other navies. This was worth seeing up close and I was actually happy we slowed down a little near this section. After we finally got away from the main area of the port we started moving quickly for Baru Island.

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San Fernando de Bocachica Fortress on Tierrabomba Island.

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Baru Island in the distance! A welcome sight!

Even with the stopping and starting I made it to Baru Island in around 45 minutes which wasn’t bad. Prepare to get somewhat wet when the boat lands on the beach and if the waves are crashing it can be a bit difficult to get off the boat. It is necessary to hop off the bow which is built up to take the waves.

Baru is a long island with dozens of resorts and beautiful white sand beaches. Playa blanca is the most popular beach on the island and is definitely one of the busiest! I went on a weekend so the main section of the beach was way too crowded for my liking. I chose to walk 10 minutes down the beach and found a much less crowded area however it was still quite busy. The water was calm and crystal clear. The sand was very fine white sand and there wasn’t too much garbage for the amount of people here.

You have to be careful when swimming here and you have to watch not to go very far out.  This is because of the amount of jet skis and small watercraft that are in the water. These come dangerously close to shore and often the people renting them are acting like drunk, acting like idiots or both.

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The busy section of the beach which I hurriedly got away from! 

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The less crowded area of the beach! 

All along the beach are stands and restaurants selling food and drink. The main item on offer here is the whole fish dinner and most of the boat tickets include a voucher for one free lunch. The whole fish was fried and served with rice, salad and fried plantains. This meal costs 15000COP/$5 and if you want a second whole fish like I did they will sell you one for 10 000Cop/$3! The meal was also served with fresh squeezed lemonade which was great but the dollar beers were already quenching my thirst quite well.

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One of the many drink stands that line the beach! 

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Whole fish dinner that was included in the ticket price for the water taxi.

There were also vendors walking around with snacks and drinks. I decided to try some sweets made with coconut and brown sugar. These were excellent and you could get quite a few for 3000COP/1$. Another common item for sale was fresh shellfish that the vendors would sell straight out of a bucket with lime. I didn’t try any myself but many others were buying them.

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Coconut snacks which were excellent!

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Vender selling shellfish.

There is also accommodation available right at Playa Blanca in very basic beach huts. These were really funky and if I had more time I would have spent atleast one night there. These lined sections of the beach and the rates per night range from around 15000COP-20000COP/$5-7 per person. The cabins are very rustic and it is a shared toilet and shower setup similar to most campgrounds. If you have a tent you can camp at these sites for the nightly rate of 10000COP/$3 per person.

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Beach huts lining the sandy shore.

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Most of the beach huts were multi level sitting above a shaded patio area. 

After a day of sun, water and lots of food and drink it was soon time to catch the boat back to Cartagena. Make sure you get there earlier than when they say the boat leaves as I saw quite a few people who said their boat stranded them and they had to pay again to get a ride back. This is no surprise as the whole organization of how these boats do business is terrible. My boat left on time at 4 30 and had us back to the dock in Cartagena in 40 Minutes.

Once back on shore it was easy to get a taxi back to the walled city. This boat tour was worth taking and I was happy I chose to get a day off the mainland and check out one of the islands and nicer beaches in the area. I was also nice not having to go too far from the city to have a beach day.

Nightlife…

I didn’t notice too many clubs and cabarets being advertised when I was in the old city of Cartagena but there were a few dance bars which mostly looked like local hangouts. Most of the larger clubs and bars are in the Bocagrande district as mentioned earlier. One of the really popular places to go hear live music and have some drinks is Cafe Havana Club. This is a fixture of the music scene here and is proof of the Cuban influence with the Afro-Caribbean culture in this city. This is the place to hear live authentic music and it is a must for anyone who wants to hear excellent music.

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Live music at Cafe Havana Club. Not to be missed!

Go to Cartagena…

Cartagena was one of the most culturally rich places I have ever visited. The old city was full of Afro-Caribbean culture, colonial history and architecture. Cartagena also has some of the most vibrant and welcoming people I have ever met travelling. In addition there was amazing food, music and an energy that I haven’t felt in too many other places.

When most people heard that I was planning on going to Colombia all they kept saying was that it is supposed to be dangerous, drug infested and known for kidnapping and other crimes. This may be the case in the past or in other areas of the country but my first impression of Colombia as I travelled first to Cartagena was nothing like this at all. I didn’t feel unsafe walking around late at night and wasn’t offered drugs more than a handful of times which is something you often see a lot more of in other countries I’ve been.

I was happy to have a great start to my experience in Colombia and Cartagena is one of the best cities I’ve been to in all my travels. I highly recommend going there and will hopefully return once again!

Gone on a whim…