Having traveled quite a bit in Central America, with some unfortunate soirees in the rather gruesome metropolises, the first surprise I got from Cartagena was that people — droves of people — were still out on the streets at night. My flight had touched down after dark, approaching nine o’clock, yet when the taxi driver realized he didn’t know where my hostel was, he’d put the cab in park and began wandering the sidewalk, asking folks. This would never happen in Guatemala City.
Yet, let us not dwell on the shortcomings of other big cities in Latin America, but rather find ourselves rejoicing in one of the great destinations: Cartagena. Located on stretch of the Caribbean Sea, the city already has a lot going for it. Mix with that location a beautiful 400-year-old wall encasing colonial churches and historic plazas, and it’s well on its way to being bucket-worthy. Then, add in a collection of corner cafes, sidewalk markets, and a welcoming community — this is the type of place that warrants a first visit to South America, which it was for me.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s walled city is stuffed with colonial architecture, promenades, and show-stopping views of the city and sea.
- Beyond the touristing headliners — churches and museums and such — Cartagena has a homey feel to it, a sort of New York borough motif, with hole-in-the-wall restaurants, independent boutiques, and true walkability. Except, of course, with a Colombian flare that makes it all its own.
- It’s great for the history, for the culture, the amalgamation of sites, nearby island getaways, and vibrant nightlife. It could work for families and is definitely a to-do for travelers doing the long-term thing.
The City from upon the Wall
Morning one in Cartagena finds me on the hostel roof with a bowl of cornflakes and a side of dry toast, looking out over the steeples of the nearby cathedral. I’m drinking homegrown Colombian coffee and getting tips for a route to walk around the city. A block east, I can climb onto the wall (free of charge) and take in the sites from up high as I make my way down the coastline. The wall was originally built to ward off pirates—yes, pirates—so it conveniently hugs both the old, protected parts of the city and the Caribbean, where the pirates were.
After a half-an-hour or more atop the wall, I climbed down for a look at the centerpiece cathedral of the old city. More than just a church, the area is full of life, cobblestone streets stocked with artisanal vendors, food stalls, wide-eyed tourists, and lounging locals. Approaching midday, the heat swells, and the tinkling of the wandering snow cone carts proves irresistible. And, I can’t resist a sampling of the coconut cookies or taste-testing a local specialty, patacones: a fried plantain pancake.
Schedules and Sites Be Damned
If ever there were streets to wonder aimlessly, Cartagena has them in abundance. The stone structures of old merge with the trademark pastels of the Caribbean, and the narrow streets of the old city offer hidden plazas, massive parks, as well as seaside diversions. I stop in the shade of buildings for rests. I soak up the sun on my way from here to the next attraction: a street with mural graffiti, a corny pirate ship docked along a highway harbor, a congregation of locals beneath a massive tree…
The afternoon gets chewed up getting lost and discovering new routes to nowhere in particular, just more of what is quintessentially colonial, Caribbean, and coastal Colombia. It is what it is, and that’s something very worth seeing.
At night, the street life is vibrant, with impromptu concerts and dance performances. It requires ambling all over again. Restaurants spill out into the streets. There are beautiful lookouts along the wall, and the sunset turns the sea golden, the city melting into the streetlights. The buildings, squares and cathedrals all change their expressions once the sun is down, so I wind up seeing the city twice. No complaints with that.
- Stay within the walled city. There, you can find the cheapest hostels or quirky boutique hotels or even the upper-crust dwellings of the well-to-do. But, ultimately, being in this area is why you want to come to Cartagena. Why stay elsewhere?
- Realize that the lounging, bathing beaches will take out day-trip out of town, to distant Caribbean islands, something easy enough to arrange through your hotel or hostel. Or, if you are heading north toward Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park, hold out for the beach thing there.
- Cartagena shouldn’t be missed, but be warned, it is amongst the more expensive (and more tourist-ed) places in Colombia. Take a deep breath and make the most of a city with a lot to offer, even in just a quick day of sightseeing.