You can’t travel through Colombia without a stop in the fairy-tale city of Cartagena. Set on the Caribbean coast, this seaside town boasts cobbled alleyways underneath the balconies of brightly painted Spanish homes from the 16th Century, all encircled within massive walls that kept the city safe from looting pirates and sieges from centuries past.
Founded in 1533, the city became the main Spanish port on the Caribbean Coast and the gateway to the rest of the continent. Today much of the original infrastructure and buildings remain and have been restored to their original splendor. One of the highlights of the city is simply wandering the streets and enjoying the sights and sounds of the city. Temperatures and humidity soar during the afternoons but thankfully the sea breeze helps to cool Cartagena in the evening, making it the perfect time to explore the walled sections of town and enjoy dinner on a breezy patio. Be sure to grab a drink on top of the walled fortress from the many beer carts that patrol the area and enjoy the view of the city at night.
In stark contrast to the restored historical center of town lies the backpacker district of Getsemani. If you arrive in the evening as we did, prepare to have the wits scared out of you as your cab from the bus terminal or airport takes you to your hostel in the seediest area of the city. Money is flowing into the area slowly and newly refurbished buildings turned into hostels and restaurants lay cheek by jowl with abandoned churches and warehouses on the cracked sidewalks. This is not a part of town you’ll want to be exploring alone at night. As equaling shocking as the squalor are the prices. While you may be staying in a rock bottom crash pad, the price of a room runs about 40-50% higher here than in the rest of the country. That’s right – expect to pay a lot more for shockingly less.
Luckily the town can easily be explored in a few days where you can then move onto smaller seaside towns that offer more affordability. Cartagena is also the place to book your onwards sailboat transfers to Panama and as such a necessary stop on a cross continent journey. (Details on sailing to Panama coming soon!).
One of the most popular ways to spend a day in Cartagena is by taking a boat to the outlying Islas del Rosario which consist of 27 small coral islands that offer white sand beaches and a chance to escape the heat of the city. The most popular beach, Playa Blanca on Isla Baru, is the most beautiful of the lot and offers snorkeling just off the shore. While there are a few rustic places to stay on the island most people take a day tour and return to Cartagena in the late afternoon.
Another quirky touristy attraction is a visit to Volcan de Lodo El Totumo for a dip in its bubbling mud pit. If you haven’t done a mud bath before then it is certainly a fun novelty to try out and offered a more authentic experience than our time in Nha Trang, Vietnam. The mud offers a strange sense of buoyance as you float upright in the mud without touching the bottom. The one downside is that all the tour buses arrive to the mud pit at the same time causing a bit of a backup at the mud pit as they hustle you into the pit and then out of the pit again. It definitely makes for some fun photos and if you have a day in town before your boat to Panama departs.
Girl Gone Gallivanting Overall Review: Arrive into town early in the day if possible to orient yourself and find somewhere decent to sleep, better yet make a reservation ahead of time. Be prepared for the sweltering heat and beeline to the beaches as soon as you can.