If you know me, you know that I desperately try to get these blog posts out in a timely manner but I often fall short. Therefore let’s pretend I just stepped off the plane rather than three weeks ago and I am freshly reflecting on my time relaxing oceanside in Cartagena, Colombia. Traveling to Cartagena was the result of a sporadic desire for excitement. Needing some spontaneity in my life, I decided to venture to South America, a continent I hadn’t visited before. Why Cartagena? I ran across a JetBlue vacation package and to be honest, the Google images looked cool. So I convinced Alejandro, my friend and Spanish-speaking confidante to join, packed my bathing suit and bug spray, and we were set for our South American adventure.
Day 1 – Much-Needed Island Breeze
The flight to Cartagena from New York was an easy 5-hour direct trip. Upon arrival, we were welcomed with a THICK layer of humidity and 85-degree weather. The temperature was 40 degrees when we left New York so we were sweating our way through customs. The hotel picked us up from CGA airport and shuttled us to Hotel Las Americas where we loved our stay. Because the Colombian peso goes much further than the American dollar we were able to afford the 5-star accommodations (flips hair). The hotel is located in La Boquilla, a fishing village in Cartagena that is about 5 minutes from the airport and 10 minutes from the city center. The beaches are calm and quiet and there’s plenty of fresh fish to go around.
After we spent time lounging by the pool and enjoying a delicious dinner, we headed into the Walled City to watch the sunset at Cafe del Mar, a popular outdoor destination to grab a drink and listen to music. We caught the sunset just in time as you can see from pictures!
Day 2 – Colorful Cartagena
The following day we headed to Old Town to wander through the streets of central Cartagena. It’s as though the city was frozen in time hundreds of years ago. The architecture remains intact and the bold colors pop from one building to the next. We wandered past hostels, shops, and soccer viewing parties on the way to Castillo San Felipe, a castle built on the hill of San Lazaro. Once we climbed up the fortress we made our way through a complex system of tunnels. Once on top of the fort we were able to get a great view of the city.
Afterward, we grabbed lunch at Cande, an upscale Caribbean restaurant with live music and dancing. As became routine, I ordered some form of fresh seafood and ceviche for each and every meal while in Cartagena. In fact, I could build a complete slideshow all the dishes of fish I devoured with a mojito on the side. What’s special about Cande is that 100% of the food comes from Cartagena.
After a long day we decided to head back out to the “Infamous” Cafe Havana, where we enjoyed delicious arepas, mojitos and lots of salsa dancing. We were hinted that there is always live music at Cafe Havana so I definitely recommend visiting!
Day 3 – Rolling in the Mud
This excursion was something that I had seen online and from the pictures, I knew this was something I really wanted to partake in. Where and when else would I be covered head to toe in mineral-infusing mud? Only at Volcan de Lodo el Totumo.
The day started with an hour bus ride from our hotel to the outskirts of Cartagena. We pulled up to a small village where there a small home with lockers would hold our belongings. Before packing up our valuables, we (Alejandro) gave our phones and cameras to one of the many workers who would take pictures of us in the volcano. Of course, we were initially nervous about this set up but they did a great job of not mixing up any phones and producing quality pictures.
We climbed up the very steep steps of the volcano and one by one, climbed down the ladder into the mud. You can tell by my facial expressions below that I initially did not know how to feel. There were lots in people in the space with us and the mud was warm so I tried to tune out all thoughts of what could be in this mud. Also, we were floating which caused some balance issues as we were constantly tipped over. We got some good laughs out of the situation.
As we exited the volcano someone scraped the mud off and guided us down the other set of very steep stairs to the river. Once dipping in the river the mud came off fairly easily. After drying off and grabbing a snack, we were back on the bus to head to La Boquilla to enjoy (another) pescado (fish)/tostones (plantains)/arroz de coco (coconut rice) lunch and a beach day with our tour group.
Later than evening we jumped on the Chiva Night Rumba Tour. The Chiva tour is catered to tourists who are visiting Cartagena. Think NY City tour bus but with rum and live music…and arepas. So I guess it’s not like the NY City tour bus…
The bus stops at various hotels across Bocagrande to pump up tourists for an entertaining sightseeing tour around Cartagena. Depending on the seating arrangement, you’re placed in small groups to share a bottle of Aguardiente rum. You can see us (kinda) dancing in our seats as the mariachi band performs in the back. We were the first stop so by the end of the night the bus was packed.
Heads up, the tour is completely in Spanish, which is why once again, I was fortunate to have my handy dandy translator, Alejandro, to help me understand what the heck the tour was about. My favorite part was when they called me out as the girl from los Estados Unidos and asked me to get up and dance and I had no idea. After my awkward hesitation I think everyone realized I was the one person on the bus who didn’t speak Spanish.
Half way through the tour we stopped in the Walled City where other Chiva tours were parked for arepas and more live music. After jumping back on the bus the last stop left us at a night club that was a drop off point for all other Chiva tours. So imagine a club full of rum-infused tourists. Yes, it was a fun night.
Day 4 – Playa Blanca
Obviously we couldn’t go to Colombia without spending a full day laying at one of the Caribbean beaches. While there are many beaches to choose from, we chose probably the most popular, Playa Blanca.
Once again, we were picked up for about an hour bus ride to the beach. The beaches of Playa Blanca on the Island of Baru are completely different from the beaches of Cartagena. It looks like Caribbean water with the bright blue colors. Once there you can grab a beach chair, umbrella, and a locker to head out into the water. Some popular activities include snorkeling, jetskiing, scuba diving, . We decided to go on the private snorkeling tour where they even took pictures of us underwater, BUT unfortunately we forgot to pick up the pictures before we left so pretend this was us:
Lunch was provided after our snorkeling adventure and guess what was on the menu? Yep, pescado, tostones, y arroz de coco–my favorite staple! After lunch there was a free happy hour with rum, vodka and tequila. Free was especially great because by this point we had run out of cash (there’s story about this as you scroll down). In the late afternoon we headed back to the hotel very very sunburnt but relaxed.
We ended the evening in the city center with dinner at La Cocina de Cartagena, where I had my usual–you guessed, it, pescado, tostones y arroz de coco con un mojito! There was live music at this restaurant as well and fireworks went off as we were heading out. We never found out why there were fireworks but it was a fitting finale to our trip.
Tips for Traveling to Cartagena
- Convert your cash at the airport: There aren’t many ATMs in Cartagena and when the ATM in our hotel broke down (luckily on the last day) we were left with the cash we had in our pockets. Unfortunately, that’s when we were headed to the beach where everything had to be paid in cash. We were strugglingFortunately at the beach Alejandro was able to negotiate so we could afford the beach chairs, snorkeling and locker rental, which brings me to my next point…
- Speak Spanish: Everyone, including the hotel staff, only spoke Spanish. Most people visiting Cartagena are from other South American countries and very few are from the U.S. or Europe. We met a few people along the way who could speak about as much English as I can speak Spanish (which isn’t much) but I’d have been screwed if Alejandro hadn’t been my translator!
- Pack light: I’ve already mentioned how hot and humid Cartagena is so I’d only recommend loose and light clothing.
- Must love fish: Every single meal I ate was fish, plantains and arroz de coco which I loved. If you’re a fish person, you’ll love Cartagena!
- Purchase your excursions in Cartagena, not in advance: If you look up some of the excursions online you’ll see that you can reserve a tour in advance. No need to do that, the hotel and hostels will set you up once you arrive and walk you through the day and the options. It’s also cheaper to purchase the tours in Cartagena rather than online ahead of time.
- It’s ColOmbia, not ColUmbia: Columbia is the university in Harlem, Colombia is the South American country. Don’t mix it up!
I loved visiting Cartagena and was surprised by how many people I knew had already been! Let me know if you’re planning to visit Cartagena any time soon!