Cartagena is a mythical, romantic, fairytale city, full of rich culture and history. It has also been used as the setting in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novels, including Love in the Time of Cholera, Of Love and other Demons, and The General in His Labyrinth. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, Cartagena’s walled city is a preserved colonial town, filled with brightly colored colonial style buildings, open air cafes, and a labyrinth of old cobblestone streets. Visiting the walled city is like going back in time, and you can easily explore it all in a day.
There are many places to stay within the walled city from a 5 star luxury hotel to a $10/night hostel. After doing a bit of research, I opted to stay at El Viajero Cartagena Hostel, which was voted “Best Hostel in South America” in 2013 by Hostelworld. I also liked that it had breakfast included, AC, and low rates. The reality, however, was much different from what I had envisioned. After a long day of traveling, I checked to El Viajero around midnight to find a full-fledged party going on throughout the hostel. People were salsa dancing in hallways and in the courtyard, which I normally would have loved, but after travelling all day, I just wanted to crawl in bed and go to sleep. This, however, was near impossible with the all the “rumba” and noise going on outside my bedroom door. The speakers were also conveniently placed right outside my window, which were blaring dance music throughout the early morning hours. I kicked myself for forgetting my earplugs.
In the morning, after taking advantage of the free breakfast the hostel offered, I spent my first day in Cartagena exploring the old city, walking up and down the cobblestone streets, admiring the beautiful colonial architecture, and vibrantly colored houses which all seemed to have a balcony abundant with flowers.
I explored the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a fortress that sits on top of the 40m-high San Lázaro hill. Built in the 1600s, the fortress consists of a complex labyrinth of tunnels, and is said to be the greatest and strongest ever built by the Spanish. Near the entrance to the fortress, there was a small movie room where you can watch a video about the history of the Castillo in Spanish or English.
By my second day within the walled city, I was itching to get out and do some exploring outside the city’s walls. I took a short walk over to port with some friends I had met at the hostel, and there we bought a ticket to Isla Barú, and the Rosario Islands. We bought a round trip boat ride (with lunch included) for $45.000 COP, which is equivalent to around $22. We took a large motorboat to Playa Blanca on Isla Barú (Baru Island), the trip was very “bumpy” to say the least. We were going quite fast, and several times, the driver would try and race other boats, causing the boat to flap up and down, crashing against the waves. Everyone on the boat was screaming and laughing as the boat flew across the ocean at top speed. It felt like we were on an amusement park ride, only not as safe.
Before arriving on Isla Barú, we stopped at some of the neighboring Rosario Islands. I was under the impression that we would be dropped off on one of the islands and would be able to spend part of the day there enjoying the beach. This, however, was not the case. We were give two options: 1, to visit the aquarium on one island (which we were told consisted of only fish), or 2, to go snorkeling. When I inquired if it was possible to be taken to one of the beaches instead, I was told this was not an option. I ended up going snorkeling with a few other people from the boat, and was shocked when the boat just drove away after dropping us off in the middle of the ocean. We were told it would return in an hour or so. There was nothing to hold on to, and my initial thought was “oh great, now I’m going to drown”, but with the help of my lifejacket, and my floating skills, it ended up working out. It took me a while to get used to snorkeling and not breathing in large gulps of water, but once I got the hang of it, it was almost enjoyable. An hour and a half hour later, the boat returned to pick us up, and we continued on our way to Playa Blanca.
Playa Blanca was breathtakingly beautiful. Rightfully named, the white sand beach and pristine clear blue-green water was one of the nicest beaches I’ve ever laid eyes on. The second we stepped off the boat however, we were immediately approached by various “vendedores” or people trying to sell things, and they were very persistent. As we made our way down the beach, many of the vendedores followed us, offering us handmade jewelry, food, and massages. As we staked out a spot on the beach and sat down, some of the vendedores even went so far as to grabbing our legs and feet, and started massaging them. They claimed the massage was “un regalo”, or “a gift” and after tried to charge for it. I saw this coming, and was very adamant about not accepting this “regalo”, so they eventually left me in peace, but some of my friends were not so lucky. I’ve heard the massages actually are pretty good, and usually go for around $25.000 COP, or $12. We spent the say basking in the sun, eating fresh cut mangos, and sipping on piña coloadas as we enjoyed the picturesque scenery.
Cartagena is truly a magical city. Whether you wish to spend the day inside the walled city, exploring the Castillo or a museum, walking along the wall at sunset, or taking a moment to enjoy a cafecito at Juan Valdes, or venturing outside the city’s walls to go beach hopping, Cartegena has sometime for everyone.