The Magic of Cartagena
Cartagena was my last stop on a two and a half week Colombia vacation. The laid back Caribbean coast city was the perfect place to end the trip, even though I wished it didn't have to end at all. Apparently, this city inspired Gabriel García Marquez' writing and as soon as I set foot in Cartagena I understood why. Magical is not an overly dramatic way to describe it. The architecture, the yellow-lit streets at night, the heat, the breeze off the ocean, seafood, freshly squeezed fruit juice, street vendors selling papaya and mangoes, all contribute to the magic of Cartagena. Not even the packs of tourists could ruin the mood.
I kept most of my days unstructured, knowing the climate would slow me down and force me to relax. Here's a breakdown of what you can do in Cartagena.
Stroll Through the Historic Center
On my first day in Cartagena, I signed up for a free walking tour (free, but tips are accepted) of the walled-in historic center, or Centro Histórico. They have tours in English, but I opted for Spanish to immerse myself in the language as much as possible. A walking tour was a nice way to begin my stay in Cartagena. It oriented me a little bit, plus I learned some additional history behind the architecture and specific buildings that added to the experience when I saw more of the Centro throughout my stay. One part that was very moving was standing in the Plaza de los Coches, where the slave market was held for centuries.
My unstructured days were full of eating, drinking, and aimless walking around the Centro Histórico to explore and take photos. I took full advantage of the favorable exchange rate and treated myself to a manicure and pedicure at a hotel spa and a four course meal at an upscale restaurant called Carmen. I stopped by the home of Gabriel García Márquez and it didn't disappoint. Visitors can only view it from the outside, but judging by the tree that peeks out from the open-ceiling courtyard, I'm sure it's just as amazing inside.
Cartagena is also well-known for palenqueras, the Black women selling fruit in colorful, traditional dresses. Palenqueras and palenqueros are actually the names for people from a small village south of Cartagena called San Basilio de Palenque. This village was ruled by runaway African slaves and gained its independence from Spanish colonial powers in 1691, making it the first free town of the Americas. As a poor town cut off from the rest of society, the women had to make an income. They began to pick fruit in the village and make the trip to the city every day to sell it. Today, San Basilio de Palenque is still a poor town and the same line of descendants of runaway slaves make the trip to the city to sell fruit. But now that palenqueras are a national symbol of Colombia, much of their money comes from posing for tourists' pictures for a small fee.
Go Salsa Dancing
Not going salsa dancing in Cartagena is not an option. I met a friend at Cafe Havana where a live salsa band was playing and also went dancing on my own to Quiebracanto, a bar right next to my hotel. Cafe Havana was packed, mostly with tourists, so there wasn't much space to do a lot of dancing. But once some of the crowd filtered out, the people who actually came to dance got more space on the floor and the fun picked up from there. If you're traveling alone like I was, you can't be afraid to ask strangers to dance. I tend to watch first to see who is a decent dancer, then ask them when I get a chance. In my experience, the men who, like me, were just there to dance were always gentlemen.
Take a Boat Trip
While in Cartagena, I realized I hadn't planned any trip on the water so I got out my phone and easily booked a day trip to the Islas del Rosario. These are tiny islands off the coast of Cartagena and multiple tour companies will take visitors there by motorboat to spend the day. I waded in the stunning turquoise waters, dipped into the pool, and ate a delicious lunch of fish steak, rice, yuca fries, and cocadas, which are a baked coconut snack, for dessert.
On my last night in Cartagena, I was like a kid who didn't want to go home after playing outside all day. With no particular plans, I wandered the streets until I got tired and found a restaurant that looked like it had good seafood. I had a comforting meal of rice with shrimp and plantains and of course some fresh fruit juice. With only two other people in the restaurant, the waiter and I talked throughout the meal and his friendliness made me even more sad to leave. After dinner, I wandered a bit more then finally gave in and returned to my hotel to prepare for an early flight the next morning.