When Americans think of Colombia, they think of two things: Coffee and Drugs. Colombia is portrayed as a crime ridden, drug lord infested country where Americans are kidnapped for ransom money because we watch too many movies and semi-informative/biased media. Instead of listening to the propaganda, I decided to check out the place for myself because who doesn’t want to become more cultured?
Colombia first peaked my interest after I read a New York Times Travel article that talked about how the country was planning to increase it’s tourism by re-building the Colombian reputation. When booking my trip, there were three key factors that I focused on. The first was safety because, while NYC is no walk in the park, a foreign country is a bit different so you want to follow any warnings and stay close to tourist areas. The second was activities because the number of available tours is important to me. I wanted to be able to see everything I could while saving time and money. The third was a beach because in the middle of August, I needed some beach fun. Keeping these three factors in mind, my friend Heather and I chose to visit Cartagena, Colombia’s fifth largest city that sits in the Caribbean Coast.
Heather and I got to Cartagena after a four hour flight and checked into the Radisson Ocean Pavilion, a brand new hotel with a beautiful main lobby, pristine rooms and amazing views. The hotel is located in a beach city called La Boquilla. We were about a 7-10 minute drive from the Old City and 15-20 minutes from Bocagrande; a more popular part of Cartagena. There weren’t many hotels where we stayed but there was a lot of construction and new buildings being erected.
Cartagena uses the peso as their monetary instrument. The peso is about 1.8 to every dollar so it’s almost half. Unlike other South/Central American countries I’ve visited, they prefer to take pesos vs. US dollars due to the high amount of counterfeited bills circulating the country. I recommend that you exchange your money at the airport or a reputable financial institution to avoid running into problems. Using an ATM at a bank usually gives the best rate since you are cutting out the middle man.
Generally we felt safe. There are police everywhere and they are on bright green motorcycles. Even so, you should probably not be out too late which is not a problem since the city is a ghost gown after about 10pm. Be careful about wearing gold or any jewelry and always walk with a copy of your passport for identification purposes. As with anywhere stay alert of your surroundings and you will be fine. There was no out of the ordinary danger.
Since Cartagena is a coastal city they serve a lot of seafood. You can even get fresh fish and lobster prepared for you right on the beach. Talk about service!
Like most Latin countries, rice is a big part of their diet. A typical meal in Cartagena would be fish, rice, salad and some patacónes (fried green plantain slices). Needless to say the food was absolutely delicious and very reasonably priced. I am a stickler for visiting small family-run restaurants that give you that good ole traditional feel. We found one in the Old City by the name of La Cocina de Dorotea. It was a quaint homely restaurant on a back street. We had a refreshing lime cooler with a meal of chicken, rice, patacón and salad for about 10 pesos!!! The best part is that it was fresh and very tasty. If you want something a little fancier you can dine at Cande, a beautiful restaurant with white table linens, indoor greenery and an extensive menu. If you’re in a rush and would like a quick taste of Colombia, visit a ceviche (pickled and peppered seafood) stand. You will find them all over. I was reluctant to try seafood from a street vendor but it was amazing and definitely different.
Taxis are readily available from any hotel. Be careful not to take privately owned cars because those can be dangerous. Legit taxis are yellow and black, similar to the ones in NYC. There are buses, however, the schedules and routes are not readily available so taking one will be an adventure in itself. There are no trains. Wear comfortable footwear as walking is your best bet. Its a great way to see the city and learn the routes. And don’t worry…its safe.
What to Pack
Colombia much like its surrounding countries has a very warm climate. Humidity is around 90% so its safe to say you need to pack light garments. Materials that allow your body to cool off easily. The typical shorts, tanks and maxi dresses will do. Rainy season is from May to June so I would pack a small umbrella since rain showers are unpredictable. Bring sunglasses and sun tan lotion because the sun is powerful. But the breeze is amazing.
Originally Cartagena was a city build inside of a seven mile wall. The wall was used for protection from invaders and even from some natural disasters. When they began to build outside of the wall to extend the city is when the existing walled portion became known as ‘The Old City’ or as they locally call it ‘El Centro Ciudad’ (the city center). Inside the Old City are beautiful Spaniard style buildings with brightly colored walls and small balconies. It reminded me of a scene from an old romance story. There are many bars and restaurants in the walled city, you can even find hotels and the famous San Pedro Claver Cathedral.
There are many things to do and places to see in Cartagena. Some major points of interest are:
- Palace of the Inquisition
- Clock Tower
- Castle of San Felipe de Barajas
- San Pedro Square
- Plaza of La Trinidad
- Bolívar Square
- Gold and Archaeological Museum
- Museum of Modern Art
- Naval Museum
- Casa Bolívar
- Las Bóvedas (The Arches)
- Monument to India Catalina
- Monument to Zapatos Viejos
- La Popa, Convent of La Candelaria
- Bocagrande District
- Getsemaní District
- Rosario Island
- Barú Island (Playa Blanca)
We took a day trip to Rosario Islands and Barú Island for about $60 USD per person. This included transportation via boat and lunch. Like most tours you can purchase prior to your trip or you can just go to the pier and buy them from the ticket windows. You can click on the links below for the websites I used to find information and tours.