What to Do in Cartagena de Indias

When I stepped off the ship in Colombia I was immediately enveloped by a smothering humidity, the likes of which I’m pretty sure I’ve never experienced before in my entire life. There was no breeze, not a cloud in the sky, and I felt as if whenever I inhaled I was breathing in pure heat. (Let’s face it, that’s a pretty weird sensation when you’re not in an actual sauna.) Across the water of the harbour through the hot haze I could see the towering blocks of Bocagrande, the city’s most exclusive and expensive area, looking not too dissimilar from the buildings in the deepest dream-layer of Inception, as if they might only be a mirage after all. It was weird, you guys. It was also awesome. Things got a little weirder when I entered the cruise terminal and discovered it’s more of a zoo than your average passenger-holding area. Monkeys, flamingos, anteaters and peacocks all gave off a cacophony of noises and smells, and just before reaching the crowds of taxi drivers waiting at the end of the whole experience I was blasted with what seemed like a wall of macaws- which was at first glance amazing but after some inspection more on the sad side as it became obvious that their wings had all been clipped in order to keep them hanging out by the cruise ships. But still pals; I was full on thrilled to finally be in Colombia, a country I’ve wanted to visit since I discovered that it’s a country. Which is quite some time. Over the three months I spent docking in Cartagena, the majority of my time was spent exploring the Old Town, one of the most colourful, beautiful parts of any city I’ve visited.

Walk the city walls

The city of Cartagena de Indias was founded back in 1533 when a Spanish sailor named Pedro de Heredia arrived, fought the natives and claimed the land in the name of Spain, as was the customary practice of several European nations back in the Age of Exploration. The city’s home on the North coast of Colombia made it strategically a brilliant place for exporting silver, gold, and emeralds, and therefore a brilliant financial asset to Spain. The money was a-rollin’ in!! But, this also meant that the city was a massive target for all sorts of pirates who were after the riches the city had to offer; and other European nations, namely England, France and Holland, all actively supported and encouraged attacks on poor old Cartagena, eventually leading those in charge of the city to decide that maybe they should build a wall around it to help prevent any more daylight robbery and torching of the place, and these walls still surround the Old Town today, making for an almost seven mile stretch to stroll along, sometimes interspersed with a few old cannons pointing outwards towards the Caribbean Sea.

Visit the cathedral (and learn that there’s more than one side to every story)

The Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría is an absolute stunner of a building (partly because its painted bright yellow; it’s so bright that it can’t help but stun), and is worth having a look in even if you’re not a religious type just because of its beauty and the holy vibe it has about it. The first time I visited there was a lass singing and playing guitar close to the altar, and the whole experience was all rather lovely.

This place also helped me learn a bit more about my own country’s history. Being a Brit I’d learnt in primary school all about Sir Francis Drake, friend to Queen Elizabeth I and all round great guy; he did a whole lot of exploring and even the fact that he had a ‘Sir’ in front of his name goes to show how well-respected he was. I mean, being a ‘Sir’ means you’re officially a knight, ya know? But it turns out that in many parts of the world old Frankie D was actually known as more of a pirate kind of a guy. In 1586 Francis Drake led 3000 men to Cartagena in a fleet of ships and attacked the city, burning just over half of it to the ground and looting whatever they could from its inhabitants. (Not the behaviour of a ‘Sir’ if you ask me but what do I know? I’m no queen.) The people of Cartagena refused to pay the ransom that the English demanded in order to stop their city from being reduced to ashes, until after six weeks Ol’ Frankie threatened to destroy this very cathedral: the city’s pride and joy. After a warning shot (which was less of a warning and more of a semi-destruction of the building, causing parts of the ceiling to collapse), the city finally agreed to the 110,000 silver ducats that had been demanded and the English skedaddled on the double.

Photograph the most colourful streets I have surely ever seen in an actual outdoor museum

The streets of Cartagena are such an explosion of colour that I think I could have spent weeks there just wandering around taking pictures and not once have gotten bored. And as a UNESCO world heritage sight, meandering through the tropical-hued colonial buildings feels a bit like stepping back in time. There are also a few actual museums scattered across the town, if you feel like escaping the hot air. The busiest part of town just behind the clock tower at the Plaza de los Coches is full of vivid historic mansions turned into boutique hotels and restaurants, vines of tropical flowers pushing through wooden balconies overhead, and on all the doors a collection of some of the most fantastical door knockers I’ve ever seen. (And that’s no word of a lie nor joke, the door knockers are BRILLIANT) The main streets are packed with street vendors selling all manner of mysterious looking fruits from wheeled carts, bowls made from coconuts and colourful woven bags…plus a few of the usual selfie sticks thrown in for good measure, obv.

Head a few blocks away from the main tourist spots however, and the streets are far quieter and lined with just as many beautiful brightly-painted houses and buildings. With air as stiflingly humid as it is here, even the shade of the window ledges and balconies can provide some relief from the sun, and even better than that I’d highly recommend stopping to buy a freshly squeezed limeade from one of the street vendors. That stuff is AMAZING.

Say hi to the world famous Palenqueras of Cartagena

Maybe you know, or maybe you don’t, but one of the most famous symbols of Colombia is that of the Palenqueras- the ladies who sell fruit from baskets carried on their actual heads. Now in my opinion that’s a fantastic skill to have, but I didn’t realise the story behind these beaut ladies that makes them all the more fascinating.

Back in the day, the port of Cartagena de Indias didn’t just become rich because of gold, silver and other precious goods; it also had a lucrative business in slaves, and was the place that hundreds of thousands of Africans arrived in South America and were sold. Several of the squares throughout the walled city were once used as slave trading posts, and to say that that’s a sad thought is an understatement. But a small group of runaway slaves set up camp outside of the city, and that camp eventually became the village of San Basilio de Palenque…and by 1691 this village officially became the first free town of the entire Americas. Which is no mean feat, that’s for sure. But with not much of a way to make an income, the women of Palenque decided a brilliant way to earn money for their families was to use the natural abundance of fruit that surrounded them, and began to head into the city in their African dress, baskets laden with as much fruit as they could carry, and over time more and more Palenqueras (as they were now called) began to do the same. So these amazing lasses who now roam the streets are the direct descendants of African slaves, who have carried on the work that the women before them once had the initiative to do, and have accidentally become a symbol of Colombia itself. And I reckon that’s pretty full on amazing!

Coffee. So very much coffee.

Apparently Colombia is ideal for growing coffee because of the combination of volcanic soil, high altitudes and a decent level of rain with zero frost involved; so chances are that if you’re currently sipping on a cuppa joe it’s possibly travelled all the way from the Colombian Andes, just to make it into your mug.

Pretty mental I’d say.

But back to the old Cartagena topic, it would be crazy to go here and not try an actual home-grown cup of coffee, on Colombian soil. Although, it’s completely possible that the home-grown coffee might also make you actually crazy. That stuff is STRONG, and after approximately four sips of my first ICED LATTE in the country I genuinely began to get the shakes. There are coffee shops galore in Cartagena so you’ll have no trouble finding somewhere to sit and drink it, don’t you worry, and I didn’t shake every time I drank coffee there so either that one was particularly caffeinated or I just adapted to industrial-strength beverages.

Eat Colombian food because you WILL NOT BE SORRY

I’m going to bang on about one place in particular here because I’m sad to say it was the only time I managed to eat a full meal in Cartagena, mainly due to my obsession with photographing random streets which consumed most of my time. Cafe Mila, a pretty pastelería owned by a genius lady called Mila Vargas, started out as mainly a cake and coffee shop (and don’t get me wrong, the cakes and coffee are INSANELY AMAZING and EXQUISITELY BEAUTIFUL). But this place also does a brilliant selection of breakfast, lunch and dinner options, all of which are amazingly well-priced.

In Cartagena you HAVE to eat ceviche, anything made with plantain, fresh fish (red snappers a true fave) and any form of Colombian soup. What sold Cafe Mila for me is the fact that so many of their meals involve shells as serving dishes, but then I’m easily pleased. Also if you ever see Limonada de Coco on the menu you need to order that beverage on the double because it is icy, coconutty, and GLORIOUSLY REFRESHING AND DELICIOUS.

Shop till you drop

Cartagena is a bang on-trend location which is as much a hit with tourists as it is with the people of Colombia, and as a result the options for shopping are bountiful my friends. As well as the usual souvenir-selling locations, there are a whole load of clothes shops varying in price range from your classic discount-style locations to designer boutiques which are more on the expensive side. This is a fashionable place to visit, you guys.

At the stalls up and down the streets you’ll see a tonne of mochila bags- brightly coloured bags woven by the Wayuu people who live in the North-East of the country. I’m a big fan. Souvenir-wise, a classic woven Colombian bag will go brilliantly with a bag of Colombian coffee; you just can’t go wrong!

The Getsemani neighbourhood

Still located within the city walls, but slightly off-the-beaten path, once upon a time Getsemani was NOT the place you’d be up for getting stuck in late at night, that’s for sure. Back in the day it was a seedy kind of a neighbourhood, but these days it’s had an injection of happiness and good times and is a beautiful part of town filled with murals and music. Although it’s the perfect place for a wander, this super-artistic area is also lived in by locals merrily going about their daily business, kids playing football in the street, and the odd moped whizzing through everything. The first time I drifted down a lane into Getsemani it was mainly because I could hear the sound of Ella Fitzgerald wafting out of an artist’s shop on a corner further down, and that was basically the only sound I could hear bar the odd dog bark in the distance. It’s got quite the magical atmosphere, and at nighttime is supposed to truly come alive…although alas, for all the many many positives, the downside to cruise ship life is that you rarely get to witness an evening on land! That will be for my next visit.

The last time we boarded the ship after an afternoon in the city, the weather took a turn for the worse. The clouds had been building and filling up with raindrops for some time, and as we entered the cruise terminal/zoo, the heavens finally opened and pelted the most ginormous raindrops I’ve ever been pelted with, relentlessly firing down over everything, hosepipe style. We couldn’t even wait in the terminal till it stopped, just in case we were late on the boat and got sent to the captain…so obv we just had to run through it. All I will say is if it’s too hot and pointless to wear a bra because your dress is backless anyway, just think about the possibility of torrential rain turning it see-through. Because it is a VERY REAL POSSIBILITY. I’m going to go so far as to even say PROBABILITY. And trying to protect both your camera and your modesty at the same time is, it turns out, quite the challenge.

But don’t worry, Colombia. I still love ya.

Exploring the colourful city of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.

LOGISTICAL STATISTICALS

  • Currency is Colombian pesos, and £10 equals approximately 39 pesos.
  • Although, US dollars, and cards, are accepted by most places; just bear in mind that if you pay in cash dollars they’ll still give you change back in Colombian money.
  • The official language is Spanish, and the more you can understand and speak it, the better-off you’ll be for it.
  • If you get in a taxi, decide on a price with the driver before you start the journey.
  • Humidity here is normally around 80%. That’s a whole lot of humidity.
  • Rainy season is normally from May till November, and the rest of the year is hot hot hot, with an average of 25-32 degrees Celsius.
  • Haggling is the norm around these parts,so don’t be afraid to ask for a lower price on anything.
  • Despite what you might have heard about Colombia, I never once felt unsafe in Cartagena. It’s a particularly popular city with visitors and so the only real crime that’s directed at tourists is the usual pickpocketing and scamming that’s experienced in every major city in the world it seems. So fear not.

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