I’m so excited to share this post with you because I think it’s possible that my writing about Colombia will change some of the perceptions you (and others) may currently have of the country. Cartagena was truly the coolest place I’ve ever visited. I was given all the standard warnings by family members: “be safe,” “it’s so dangerous there,” “be extra vigilant,” etc. etc. You would’ve thought I was traveling to a war zone. I’ve had quite a few friends visit Cartagena in recent years, so to be honest, I wasn’t too concerned about violence or crime, but I was pretty worried about Zika. I’m sure a lot of you share my concern or the concerns of my family.
As many of the locals I met in Cartagena put it, “everyone thinks Colombia is Narcos,” in reference to the hugely popular Netflix show depicting a Pablo Escobar-era Colombia. They were eager to hear our thoughts upon actually spending time in their country, and eager to share with us just how far the country’s dark past is behind them.
From the sky, Cartagena looks a lot like Miami Beach – a peninsula filled with modern skyscrapers jutting out into the Caribbean Sea. It was not at all what I’d expected. I later learned that what I’d seen from the sky was the “new” Cartagena, where all the locals live and most modern business takes place. The part of the city most visited by tourists is the “Old Town” of Cartagena. We arrived at a small but modern airport to an 85° day, and were whisked away into the old town within 15 minutes. Our van pulled over on the single-laned, cobblestone street in front of the vast wooden door to our home for the week. Multiple horse-drawn carriages, street vendors and miniature taxis had to wait as we unloaded our luggage and brought it into the house.
Stepping inside was like entering a spa paradise. A dark hallway led to a brightly lit lap pool flanked by bamboo mats for sunbathing, coconuts, colorful pillows, and loads of tropical plants. The space was completely open to the sky above and surrounded by tall white walls. Beyond the pool was a covered living and dining area, and beyond that another set of moss-covered walls with a staircase (again exposed to the sky) leading up to our bedrooms. This was the #MaajiHouse – the villa Maaji Swimwear had rented to host us in for the week. It was stunning, and a paradise unto itself.
We had taken a red eye so by the time we were settled into our rooms it was only around 10AM. We spent several hours getting sun on our rooftop, eating lunch prepared by a local chef, and getting ready for dinner that evening. It was so peaceful and quiet within the villa that we all nearly forgot there was an entire bustling city beyond the walls. Opening the door to outside around sunset, we joked that it was like stepping into Narnia. We went from cool, calm and quiet to hot, noisy and very colorful!
The old part of Cartagena is quite small – easily walkable from end to end – and entirely surrounded by an ancient wall that was built in the 18th century. We didn’t take a taxi one time during our stay!
That first evening, some of the girls and I wandered the street from our house down to the restaurant we were meeting the Maaji team at for dinner. Talented singers, rappers, artists and other performers followed us as we walked. We stopped constantly along the way to check out local wares that included jewelry, handbags, leather goods, clothing and fruit. I got a pretty pair of pom pom earrings for $8. It didn’t exactly feel like tourists got good deals on local products in Cartagena – nor were the locals very willing to negotiate. But we got killer facials for $50 at our hotel the last night, so that was a nice surprise!
The following morning we were up early and on a speedboat to a private beach on Isla Baru. The beaches of Cartagena aren’t very nice because a lot of local rivers feed into the sea there, causing the seawater to become brown, so it seems everyone heads to islands when they want some time at the beach. It was about a 30 minute ride to Isla Baru and very smooth sailing. The other nearby islands are the Islas de Rosario. We were fortunate to have a private beach because I heard from a friend that the public access is absolutely slammed with people. One way to ensure a nice experience in the islands would be to book one of the hotels there, which for the most part seem to have their own private beaches. I assume if you had your own boat chartered you could also cruise around and find quiet places to hang out, but I’m not positive about the rules on that as I know much of Isla Baru is a nature preserve. Anyway, once we made it to the islands, the water was the perfect Caribbean teal and soooo warm!! We spent the entire day basking in the sun, chasing fishes along the shoreline, munching on fresh papaya and mango, and drinking margaritas, of course.
The rest of our days in Cartagena were very chill so I won’t go into all the details, but I do have some recommendations which I’ll share, and also some things I learned that could be useful/interesting…
What I learned
- Cartagena has a large Arab influence in its food, so you’ll find a lot of tabouleh, hummus and Middle Eastern spices in dishes there. I was really excited about this!
- Electrical outlets are the same as the US (!!!) so you can bring all your hairstyling tools.
- We didn’t do much exploring outside of the city, but locals told us that the infrastructure (AKA road system) still isn’t very good in Colombia, so everyone flies between cities. There are tons of flights available!
- English isn’t particularly prominent amongst Colombians in Cartagena yet. Most of the servers at restaurants and bars don’t speak it at all. It’s hugely helpful to have a local or fluent Spanish speaker help with restaurant/hotel reservations or negotiate in the markets.
- The Colombians don’t relate to our fascination with Pablo Escobar. Don’t bother asking them about tours related to him (or telling them if you go on one). You would find them in Medellin BTW.
- There is petty theft in Cartagena (like many cities). Don’t wear flashy jewelry or walk around talking on an expensive cell phone. This was the one thing locals warned us about. I left my engagement ring at home!
- We felt very safe in the city, even late at night. As common sense would dictate, we used the buddy system, but even as a pair of young women, walking home at 3AM the streets were brightly lit and we made it back, without incident, each evening.
- Mosquitoes are not an issue during the day, but in the evening you definitely want to break out some OFF! I managed to remain bite-free the first two days, but that third night I sat in an open-air lounge area for nearly an hour with no fan going and got a bunch of bites on my feet. No one seems to have gotten sick (and I was told by our hosts that Zika isn’t currently affecting Cartagena), but always best to avoid bites when you can!
Vera – Romantic, beautiful setting inside the Tcherassi Mansion, Mediterranean cuisine
Donjuan – Caribbean seafood, fun, trendy atmosphere
Restaurante Interno – a unique experience dining inside the local women’s prison; food prepared by prisoners who have been trained by Colombian celebrity chefs
Where to stay
Tcherassi Hotel – Ok, a tip here: If you book this, make sure you are booked to stay at the “mansion,” as opposed to the new hotel. It’s a little confusing on the website to tell which venue you are actually booking. The new hotel is nice, but the mansion is stunning! We stayed at the new hotel our last night in Cartagena. The food was really good and the pool was perfect to layout at, but I just found the mansion to be more authentic to the style of Cartagena.
Casa Pombo – I haven’t stayed here but a lot of my friends have, and I can tell from photos that it is very similar in layout to the private villa Maaji rented us. It is located very near to where we stayed, in the old town. sIt’s so beautiful, and has that very unique Cartagena style to it!
Where to party
Cafe del Mar – Go for sunset cocktails. It sits atop the wall surrounding the city and has beautiful ocean views.
La Movida – This was our favorite nightclub, we went twice. Great music to dance to! There are indoor and outdoor sections. We preferred the indoor area as it got a little too hot outside once we were dancing!
Thank you to the Maaji team for hosting us on this trip of a lifetime! I have fallen so in love with your country, and Cartagena! I can’t wait to bring my family along next time.