It’s Colombia, Not Columbia – A Quick Guide to Doing Cartagena
If you’ve been keeping up with my travel adventures then you know, I recently spent 7 days on the Caribbean coastline of the small yet beautiful city of Cartagena, Colombia not Columbia. For starters, I almost missed this gem of a flight deal and initially said NO to this trip because “life”, plus I’m stubborn and was attempting to be “fake” responsible and financially frugal in 2018. But hey what’s that in your 20s, at least I tried right?
To be honest, Cartagena was not on my radar of places to visit and since I’m being completely honest I never knew this gem existed. But most importantly when there’s a roundtrip flight deal for $250 (click here for How I Spent Under 500 for a roundtrip to Spain), you never say no! Besides I’ve never been to South America. My motto is book now, ask questions later. Sometimes it’s best to say yes and figure out the rest later.
At best Cartagena is reminiscent and gives the vibes of some popular U.S destinations and cities such as Miami in the Bocagrande area (new city) and often gives New Orleans and Cuba tease in places like the Walled City also often referred to as the (old city). It’s very hot and humid with temperatures ranging anywhere between 90 degree Fahrenheit -80 percent humidity; so prepare yourself, wear lots of sunscreen and bring tons of bug spray! The heat and bugs are no joke. The locals have joked that temperatures are like this year round so there’s no escaping it.
Oh yeah, there’s one more thing I forgot to mention. The locals do not speak English fluently BUT they are extremely friendly and patient. Knowing basic Spanish skills/phrases helps and having Google translate ready on hand will save the day. Wifi is pretty decent and accessible in the hotel; however, you may not have the best service when you’re out and about on the town.
If you are still debating this, don’t! It’s certainly worth the trip. Here is my quick guide on how to do Cartagena including things to do, places to see and where to eat:
A trip to Cartagena is not complete without a tour of the Walled City. Simply put, it’s the heart and history of the city. There you will find the Gold, Emerald & Chocolate museums, restaurants, fruit stands as well as Las Palenqueras (ladies with the vibrant colorful dresses and fruit baskets). For at least 10.000 COP ($3-$4) each, you can take a picture with these ladies. The hustle is so real but I can respect it.
Playa de Castillogrande
If you are looking for that clear crystal blue water then this is not the trip for you, as most of the nicer beaches are located hours and a boat ride away from the city. However, if you are absolutely in need of beach vibes then Playa de Castillogrande provides a quiet, pleasant option away from the vendors and an amazing sunset.
El Totumo (Mud Volcano)
I was initially sold on this excursion well due to IG of course & begged my friend to do this with me. For some reason, seeing everyone covered in mud enticed me to try this thing at least once and I’m so glad I did. El Totumo is located approximately 45 minutes outside of Cartagena. It’s definitely a tourist attraction but when you’re a tourist, you do tourist things. The $35 fee included transportation i.e hotel pickup/drop off with a beach lunch at Playa Blanca.
This does not include the additional fees for the massage, spring wash off, and pictures which are 5.000 COP ($1-$2) each. Despite being a self-proclaimed girly girl, I didn’t mind getting dirty this time.
Pro Tip: Be sure to wear a dark colored bathing suit or one you don’t mind getting dirty in.
While in Colombia, we decided to visit a nearby village Palenque (an Afro-Colombian community formed by escaped slaves in the 16th century) which is an hour drive from Cartagena. If you have ever been to Johannesburg in South Africa, then it’s somewhat similar to the Soweto tour. Today, many of its descendants have preserved their African roots & customs. If you are short on time, a day trip is the best way to maximize your time abroad.
During our visit, we met and connected with the local school girls with whom I bonded with over my box braids, learned the local language Palenquero (Spanish based Creole), spoke and danced with local musicians and explored the street art filled township.
Fun fact: Remember the ladies with the vibrant colorful dresses mentioned previously above, they are direct descendants of this township.
Castillo de San Felipe
There is a 25.000 COP ($8-$9) fee to gain entrance into the fort which was constructed as a means to prevent potential attacks by land & sea. Although I’m terrified of heights, the fee and steep inclines are certainly worth it as you will get the best view of Cartagena (old & new city) from atop the fort.
Los Zapatos Viejos (The Old Shoes)
The old shoes are conveniently located a couple of blocks away from Castillo de San Felipe. It’s in your best interest to tour the fort and stop by the old shoes within the same day in order to save time. Unfortunately, we did not find out about the old shoes until a few days after leaving the fort.
El Baluarte de San Francisco Javier
Views, outdoor seating, a live band, drinks on top of the plaza of the Walled City…what more could you ask for? P.S. the crab cake sliders are everything, get them!
What I loved most, she had so much soul. Cartagena exudes everything black girl magic and sure knew how to make this black girl feel loved, appreciated and represented! If you love beautiful street art then you must absolutely take a walk through Cartagena’s Old City in the neighborhood of Getsemani. Not to mention, it’s free and the perfect spot for pictures!
Santo Domingo Plaza
The Plaza is lively, fun and comes alive at night with its salsa infused dancers and live musical entertainment. It’s the perfect place to grab a mojito, margarita or both. Here is where you will find the popular Botero sculpture. Legend has it that if you touch the butt, you will return to Cartagena!
The restaurant La Mulata is highly recommended during your stay in Cartagena. The inside of the restaurant is very afro-centric and adorned with African-American artists. I strongly recommend trying their mojitos and filleted fish which is topped with calamari, shrimp and plantain. The dish also comes with a side of sweet rice and avocado salad.
You also can’t go wrong with “Marinero” at the restaurant Palenquera’s which is also served with traditional rice, shrimp, mussels, jumbo shrimp, calamari and fish.
No matter the restaurant, your best bet is to stick with the seafood here. Thank me later!
Overall, Cartagena is a super affordable and extremely traveler friendly destination (side-eyes Barcelona per usual). Although everyone has their hands out at times, I understand that everyone has to eat. I am forever grateful and indebted to this city for their kindness despite my butchered Spanish skills.
Thank you for challenging me Cartagena, until we meet again!