Why You’ll Fall in Love with Cartagena, Colombia
From the moment I stepped out of the airport in Cartagena, I knew I was in love. And it wasn’t just the welcoming waft of hot, humid air that hit me as I walked outdoors; I had a feeling…and my instincts are rarely wrong!
It’s not difficult to be transfixed by such an incredible place. But just in case, here’s some tips for getting the most out of Cartagena.
Visit the Old City
There is a overwhelming sense of wonder that overcomes you as you step off the main road, through the doorway of the ancient city walls, and into a whole new world. The cobblestone streets wind through ancient colonial buildings, each turn taking you through narrow lanes full of bright, multi-coloured homes decorated with an array of beautiful flowers. You’ll hear the chatter of people walking from place to place and relaxing outside at one of the many cafes and restaurants. The clicking of the horse drawn carriages blends with the beat of the drums as traditional Colombian dancers attract crowds with their high-energy performances. Finally, rows of food vendors line the streets, filling the air with aromatic scents that tempt your taste buds.
My time in Cartagena was so wonderful that I continuously forget that the entire city had no running water for almost three full days! Which meant some uncomfortable bathroom moments and learning to shower with a bucket of water. We so easily forget the privileges we have at home and take advantage of so many little things. I’ll never forget the moment of joy I felt as we walked by a family’s kitchen and saw the stream of water coming out of the tap, an overwhelming surge of happiness, a feeling I never thought I’d encounter at the sight of tap water. The sound of the first toilet flush that followed was like music to my ears!
You can’t go to Cartagena and not visit El Totumo, the mud volcano. That being said, this isn’t an experience for the faint of heart. As you lower yourself into the pool of thick, bubbling mud, a strange man rubs mud all over your body before you become completely immersed. He then pushes you across to the other side where another man gives you a massage. The mud is so thick and full of minerals that you can’t sink, in fact you can barely stand up! Once your massage is over, the masseuse slides you across to the ‘socializing’ area, where you sit VERY closely with other mud covered zombies and begin to make friends, as one does when half-naked and squished together in this intimate pot of mud.
Once your time is up in the mud, you pull yourself out of the pool into the cool air as another man aggressively rubs the mud off your body, then proceed down the hill into the lake where a woman forcefully bathes you with a bucket of water. Beware, these women take their jobs very seriously. That often means your bathing suit being removed and the invasion of some personal body parts – rest assured, they are just doing their best to get every bit of mud off you.
Join in the City Nightlife
Another must-do activity is a ride on a chiva! The large, open-air bus picks you up at night for a tour around the city. The experience includes a live performance of the traditional Colombian music, Vallenato, which consists of an accordion, a drum and a charrasca (a metal tube instrument that looks a bit like a cheese grater). All party-goers are given a classic mix of rum and Coke, as well as some late night empanadas as the bus drives through the streets of Cartagena. The bus makes a stop outside the old city walls where crowds gather and dance in the street to the beats and sounds of live performers – a truly unique and fun way to spend a night!
Hit the Beach
If you’re a beach bum like myself, you can also visit the island of Playa Blanca for a nice escape from the city. The boat ride includes the opportunity to snorkel as well as well as an option to stop at the aquarium. The waters can be VERY choppy, making for some intense trips that can only be considered fun once you’ve made it back to land safely. The beach itself is nice, but make sure you head to either ends as the middle is a tourist hotspot and you will find yourself swarmed with vendors. Find a quiet spot and enjoy the calm, turquoise waters with some fresh coconut water in-hand.
It was easy to fall in love with Cartagena – the magical vibe of the city hidden behind its old walls and the amazing people who made my time even more special. White sand, crystal clear water, the people, the energy, the beat of the drums…it’s true what they say: “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay!”