Cartagena is Colombia's sweetest rainbow.
Can you tell on these two photos the blue building is in fact the same one ...
This blue building is The Cuban Restaurant, which we didn't visit though, but the staff looked nice, don't you think?
As we were sitting at the Ficci Cafe in The Old Town, I read somewhere that Cartagena is not so much a place to do, as it is a place to be. Cartagena is undoubtedly the great example of how the ancient history in The Old Town with its museums and most refined restaurants, not to mention its balconies that spill over with flowering bougainvillea, successfully intertwines with the cosmopolitan lifestyle of Boca Grande.
Try their local plum, ciruela criolla - it is a great refreshment during the hot days.
What I liked the most about Cartagena, was its epicenter - The Old Town, its colonial style architecture with wooden balconies and its vibrant color combinations.
Cartagena's fortress and colonial wall city are classified in UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the entrance of the old colonial part it is situated The Clock Tower (Torre del Reloj) at The Clock Gate (Puerta del Reloj). It exits onto the Square of the Carriages (Plaza de los Coches). Inside the colonial part you will find San Pedro Claver Square with the church, named for Saint Peter Claver, Saint of the African slaves, whose body is kept in a casket. In front of the very well known Santo Domingo Square (Plaza de Santo Domingo) it is located the jewel of The Old Town - the yellow Church of Santo Domingo (Iglesia de Santo Domingo), which is also the oldest church in Cartagena.
Tip: The moment you step inside the historical part of Cartagena, I advise you to buy a hat (sombrero) at the stands and you will not be disturbed so much by the street vendors. I did it and it was okay after that.
Many times when we came across this street, there was a mass in progress inside the church. At the small square near the church you can't miss the sculpture of a woman's body, known as The Reclining Woman (Mujer Reclinada).
You can hear loud music like bachata, merengue and salsa in every corner.
Where to eat in Cartagena? Most of the restaurants we went to, had an average food quality, compared to European standards; it is possible that we didn't visit 'the right ones', but this one I would definitely recommend: Harry Sasson Restaurant. It is located right in the beginning of The Historical Part. I was amazed by their food and their service in general as much as by their interior. Do try their lobster (it is huge) and a coconut pie (I adored it)!
The best ceviche we had was in La Cevicheria (I don't have a photo though).
Traffic tip: If you decide to rent a car, please do find out all the details regarding Colombian traffic rules first. The most surprisingly news was, that because of too much city traffic in Cartagena it is forbidden to drive on certain days (I don't remember exactly which ones, but I think it was on Wednesdays and Saturdays). The same thing is in Baranquilla and Santa Marta, but the days are not the same. Therefore you need to decide when and where you will plan to drive.
Tip for the backpackers: Do visit the Getsemani - Cartagena's full of graffiti new neighborhood... Don't miss Cafe Havana, if you want to dance, Bazurto Social Club, Di Silvio Trattoria ...
Cartagena is known for its visitors enjoying in lingering sunsets by The Old City Walls. It was even more beautiful to watch the sunset, because of the festive December euphoria.
The night life of the modern part of Cartagena - Boca Grande ... There are many boutiques, night clubs, bars and restaurants and Gabriel - our taxi driver that night - told us (I don't know if this is true), that in this area Shakira's family lives.
The main night attraction are the buses full of tourists, driving through the city for sight-seeing, but those are not regular buses; there are two important specialities: lots of alcoholic drinks are available and very loud music is being played. In my opinion this kind of entertainment is an interesting tourist bait - like a mobile disco. We nicknamed them 'The Happy Buses'.
Today Cartagena is the fifth-largest city in Colombia and has an important role as a port town. In the neighborhood of Crespo is located The Rafael Núñez International Airport, which is only ten-minute drive away from The Old town or the downtown of Boca Grande. Cartagena Bay has two entrances: in the south Boca Chica (Small Mouth) and in the north Boca Grande (Big Mouth).
Castillo de San Felipe
A 20 mins walk from downtown is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, which supposed to be the biggest / greatest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in their colonies. We went to the castillo the only partly cloudy day in Cartagena. The view was really nice and we were told, that all of the tunnels were constructed in a way as to make it possible to hear footsteps of an approaching enemy and some of them are also open for visitors. The entrance fee: 20.000 Colombian Pesos (around 7 USD) per person.
Colombia has over forty islands, keys and archipelagos. Most often the tourists are taken to Gorgona island, where used to be a prison and to the coral reefs of the Rosario Archipelago.
Rosario Archipelago is in fact a national park, formed up of 28 islands, located approximately an hour south of Cartagena. Now I will explain the story I mentioned before (in Colombia post) - a story of an emerald on my necklace, that I got 'for free'. This was our first day trip in Colombia and it turned out not so great, but in the end we came to terms with the situation. Let's be honest: it happened before and surely it will happen again. At least you learn how to deal with the situations, when the tourists get 'legally robbed'.
The second day of our arrival to Cartagena, we were sitting at a restaurant, eating our easy brunch with bruscettes on the table and the three street singers around it, when a thirty-or-so years old man approached us and offered us a boat trip to Rosario Islands. We said we will probably go there by ourselves, not by an agency. He didn't wanna get disturbed and he continuously tried to convince us, that he was the right address for this trip. We told him, we didn't want these kind of trips, overloaded with tourists, just to get rid of him nicely, but he was very persistent. He in fact started with his 'fairy tail', that he had a private boat just for the two of us and that it would cost us only 70 USD per person with a discount. He promised us, for that price we could decide on which islands we wanted to go and I admit, it already sounded funny. We hesitated a lot, but in the end we agreed, that for a private boat this was a good price. He wanted, that we paid him the whole amount at once. Of course we didn't, but we arranged the 40 per cent payment in advance and the rest we agreed for the next day.
The next morning, the van with - I think six or seven tourists in it - picked us up in front of our hotel with a five-minute delay and drove us to the bus station near the marina. Just the two of us stepped out of the van. The driver of the van introduced us to one guy, to whom we paid the rest of the amount and the van drove off. This guy then called for one girl who accompanied us to the marina and he dissapeared while walking. May I add, there were at least 50 boats, all of them the same and none of them had any signs on it of where they were headed. This new girl, who - we assumed - should have been the right person to take us to the boat, then redirected us to another older woman, who let us through the tourist marina gate and when we turned around in all that chaos, she was nowhere to be found anymore. When we looked around, the situation at the marina got out of control. It looked ridiculously confused. No one spoke a word of English, so any kind of a conversation was impossible and my crummy knowledge of Spanish also didn't help much. We tried to look for the right boat, but no success. People, working at the marina looked busy, like they didn't want to have anything to do with the problems, that occured within other groups, too. Ironicaly, I noticed one woman of the marina staff, who actually had a big sign on her T-shirt: 'I'm not in the mood'.
At that point we got really furious. We exited the marina and headed back to the jewellery shop, where we paid the 40 per cent of the price the day before. The owner of the store was inside and he recognized us. We told him what happened and he looked a little surprised, not so much upset, but he was very kind and told us: 'This is Colombia, I am very sorry, but don't trust everyone.' He apologized to us and then called the guy, who sold us 'the tickets to the paradise'. He played dumb on the phone, that we didn't understand each other, that he didn't even offer us a private boat and that this was the price for a regular boat trip to the Rosario. He said, that he would send back the same girl, we met before and that she would take us back to the marina. In the meantime the store owner offered me five kinds of small emeralds and asked me which one I liked the most, as an apology for what happened. He didn't have anything to do with this joke on our account, so I took the one on the necklace, but still had this bad feeling on my shoulders, as we were walking out of the store with that girl again. He waved at us and we went back to the marina, where we finally found a tourist boat for The Rosario.
Tip: I really don't wanna be too long in my explanation and I really don't care about private boats in general, but just because he was so persistent, I want to warn you, that you don't pay anything in advance and that you go directly to the marina and arrange a boat trip by yourself. I must say, we were really sad and didn't like the 'non-organisation skills whatsoever'.
As for the boat trip itself: it was so-so. I liked Baru Island the most and if you ask me, I would be totally satisfied with just Baru, not so much the others, because it was too much for one day and therefore not enough time nor enough space to swim on these amazingly beautiful, but small islands, because there were simply too many people.
Isla Tierra Bomba
La Isla Grande / Pablo Escobar's abandoned secret mansion in the Caribbean
On one of the Rosario Islands you can still see the colossal, yet abandoned property of El Patron: Hacienda Napoles, known as one of Pablo Escobar's secret mansions, actually a complex of luxury buildings with huge gardens and swimming pools, as well as a helicopter landing pad. In the media it was commonly named as his party palace on a remote island (La Isla Grande), dotted in the Caribbean crystal clear waters off the coast of Cartagena. I didn't notice, that you can book a boat trip to visit his party villa, but as I learned from some locals, some special boats from Cartagena might drive you there.
I would like to thank Luke Spencer (Atlas Obscura), because he was so kind to let me use some of his photos from the famous Isla Grande mansion and he also wrote a great article (look up for the link below these photos):
Copyright: Luke Spencer, Atlas Obscura
Copyright: Luke Spencer, Atlas Obscura
Copyright: Luke Spencer, Atlas Obscura
The island of Barú was my favorite, simply because I was hit by the mercy of Amor and I got engaged there, so pardon me for not remembering much of the other details about this beatiful island with its bleached white beaches.
Playa Blanca was the real Caribbean jewel, but again - we didn't have enough time to swim. They gave us an hour, so we had to decide either to go for some sight-seeing or swimming, so we did the first instead of swimming, but we wanted to do both, of course.
Oh, wait a second, I do remember one thing, which is pretty common on the Caribbean islands, but I simply forgot how that works. Hey, he proposed to me, how could I think straight ... I remembered later on, the exact same thing happened to me six years ago in Venezuela, on Isla Margarita island ...
We were not offered a massage - we got a massage, not that we would want one and even not as an engagement secret gift, so beware: the ladies on Baru are very enterprising.
I regret not seeing the island of San Andres, Providencia, because on pictures it looks absolute paradise. Another very interesting archipelago is San Bernardo, where Santa Cruz del Islote is declared as the most densely populated island in the world. Houses literally stick next to one another and they use to say, the people practically need to go through each others houses to get to the other side of the island. The interesting thing about the popular Catalina islands is that it is the only place in Colombia where English is the official language.
My hubby at the city beach ... Sea temperature in December was around 26 degrees Celsius.
Happy New Year, voyageurs! (sorry for the delay)