Colombia is such a beautiful country with a diverse selection of geographical features from stunning lush green mountain ranges in the coffee production department of Quindio to the tropical beach cities such as Cartagena, the capital of the Bolivar department. In any department of Colombia you will find unique perspectives of a nationality enriched with culture, tradition and history. We are happy to call this awesome place on earth our second home, and we like to visit as often as possible.
On our most recent trip to Colombia we had the opportunity to explore outside of Armenia, Jessie’s home town, to the remote island of San Andres and to the very alive city of Cartagena, or Cartagena de Indias. In this post we’ll look at our adventure through Cartagena, a city located in northern Colombia on the Caribbean Coast Region. Cartagena became an essential port for trade between Spain as early sixteenth century, and during the colonial area saw bountiful exports of Peruvian silver to Spain and imports of African slaves whose lineage is still existent in present day Colombia.
Coming from San Andres island, we arrived to Cartagena through the Rafael Nunez airport, the third largest airport in Colombia and located just 3.5 miles from Old Town Cartagena. We stayed right in the heart of the Old Town at the Centro Hotel and for two nights it cost $160. Considering the location is highly attractive to visitors, this was a very reasonable price.
Let’s talk about Old Town. Old Town Cartagena is a preserved historical city comprised of narrow, cobble stone streets and colorful colonial buildings built within stone walls. Plans for the construction of the walls began in 1568 and were executed by 1631 with intentions of protecting the major port city from enemies of the crown or vicious pirates seeking to thieve the city’s riches. It also served as a symbol separating the rich from the poor, who were only allowed in for work.
Right outside of the thick walls of Old Town visitors will find a bustling city packed with skyscrapers and this part of Cartagena is known as Bocagrande. Bocagrande boasts a great selection of hotels, restaurants and beachfront apartments. The beaches of Bocagrande are made of volcanic sand, causing the beach to have a distinct dark grayish color and the water to appear almost black. Our tour took us on a brief drive through Bocagrande with one stop for fresh air and selfies but that was about the level of intimacy we shared with Cartagena’s concrete jungle.
On that same tour, which was conducted by a young hungover local who was belching up last night’s Aguardiente shots the entire trip, we were dropped off at El Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a fortress built by the Spaniards on the Hill of San Lazaro. The castle was strategically built high on the hill to have view and coverage of all approaches to the city by land and sea. This is one of Cartagena’s main attractions and a must do if you are planning a visit. With hidden tunnels and hollowed out sections for strategic surprise attacks, El Castillo de San Felipe paints a historical image of the militant efforts used to safeguard Cartagena from enemy attacks.
Some things to expect in Cartagena:
- Palenqueras – women in very colorful dresses balancing fruit bowls on their heads
- Some of the world’s best, most fresh ceviche
- Hot, humid climate; the sun is really, really strong there!
- Pretty steep meal prices (especially in Old Town)
- Many tourists from all over
- Vendors hustling cold water, beer, and soda
One of the highlights of our trip to Cartagena was going out partying on a chiva through the city. Chivas are old school party buses with no windows, wooden bench style rows for seating, and on board musicians jamming vallenato music for the crew to party, drink and dance to. The chivas fit about sixty people on board, with a live commentator getting everyone’s energy up by encouraging dancing, narrating your trip and playing games/contests with the crew. We were part of a chiva caravan that would stop at local, historical spots around the city where everyone could get off, dance to live papayera performances, and grab a bite to eat from local vendors. Really cool!
- Stroll through Old Town and learn about each historic point within the walls
- Take a romantic ride on a horse drawn carriage through Old Town
- Visit El Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
- Buy some fresh fruits from the beautiful Palenqueras!
- Go on a short day trip to Las Islas de Rosario and Isla Buru
- Sign up for a chiva ride through the city – best to do at night!
Cheers to Cartagena, Colombia!