Our arrival in Cartagena three weeks ago seems so long ago now it’s almost hard to write about it. A broken laptop, sporadic wifi, and a lot of travel in a short space of time has left me very behind with blogging, so it seems strange to be writing about the bright and colourful Cartagena on the glittering Carribean coast, while through the bus window I can see the arid landscape of brown mountains, sugar plantations, and dusty yellow or brown houses that surround Chiclayo in Peru. But the heat is the same, an oppressive white heat that is stronger than anything I remember feeling before so that makes it easier to recall.
When we arrived in Cartagena it was evening, still hot but stuffy with the darkness. It was the first time we’d arrived somewhere without making a booking, something we instantly regretted as we were turned away from the hostel we’d been recommended, then five others. Weary and downhearted, we were traipsing down one of the narrow streets in Cartagena’s old town centre, buckling under the weight of our backpacks, when we found Donald, the Jamaican owner of the Cuban themed bar Casa del Habans. He had a perfect American accent and the friendly confidence of a man who knows everything, and certainly he knew everything about Cartagena that seems needed to be known. Donald quickly saved the day, pointing us in the direction of The Roof, a hostel on the edge of the old town – “the roof always has beds” – before making us promise to come back to try his mojitos, again with his easy confidence: “you don’t like my mojitos you don’t pay”.
Once we’d checked in at The Roof, where, of course, they did have beds, because they always have beds, we dutifully headed back to Casa del Habano to try Donald’s mojitos, which were, of course, delicious. Possibly the best I’ve ever tried, they were very different to most mojitos – much greener for one thing, and juicier – although Donald maintains that the secret ingredient is simply “lots and lots of tlc”. Not only did he sort us out with plenty of drinks, but as soon as we mentioned eating Donald produced the menus for two neighbouring restaurants and, once we’d chosen, had our food – two big plates of delicious creamy pasta – delivered across the street to the bar by the restaurant’s staff! After eating, we spent the evening chatting to Donald and his friend, an American expat named Dia, mining them for more tips about our latest destination, especially about the best beaches nearby.
It was the perfect welcome to Cartagena, a beautiful, relaxing city that loves it’s tourists and, more importantly, loves to have a good time!
After our first evening in Cartagena, I was already in love, and woke up the following day ready to explore. I’d found a helpful website with tons of great recommendations, and using a freebie map from the hostel we put together a jam-packed day tour that would let us see plenty of the city.
Starting at our hostel on the edge of the walled section of the city, we dived into the old town; an intricate net of narrow streets lined with beautiful colonial buildings. There was so much colour everywhere – pink, blue, orange, yellow, white, red – and the buildings, mostly in lovingly restored conditions with fresh paint (although equally pretty were the peeling, faded facades of less well kept buildings) had beautiful details like wooden window boxes, iron grilles, or colourful trailing plants climbing the walls. I could gush and gush about how pretty the place is, but I don’t think I could ever do it justice – the cramped streets closing over at the top with leaning balconies and window boxes, bursting with flowers; the stalls of fruits or icy fresh lemonade; the women in brightly coloured traditional dresses… it’s just one if the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited: a vibrant fusion of antique European and lively Carribean styles.
In the north east corner of the old town, we came to las bovedas (the vaults). One time army storage vaults, these small, tunnel like spaces behind sweeping yellow arches have been converted into beautiful souvenir shops. I’m not usually interested in these kinds of things, but the shops were really good and very fun to browse, selling loads of authentic hand crafted goods like shoes, jewellery, leather bags, hip flasks and more – as well as a great selection of Colombian emerald jewellery, and the usual souvenirs like key rings and postcards.
Above las bovedas are the city walls, thick sturdy walls built by the Spanish in the 16th century, lined with rusting canons. We strolled along the wall opposite the ocean, enjoying the sea breeze ruffling the palm trees and cooling our hot, sticky skin. By mid morning, the city was already overwhelmingly hot; a heavy, white heat that hung on our backs and drenched us in sweat, slowing our every movement, so the sight of the sea and the whipping wind were welcome relief. Even that wasn’t enough, though, so eventually we turned back into the city in search if aircon and a cold snack.
We found it in the shape of Gelateria Paradiso, a beautiful, boutique ice cream parlour with a pastel pink and green vintage inspired decor, elegant iron chairs, and an icy air conditioning system. The array of colours and flavours behind the counter was almost overwhelming, but luckily the lovely manageress let me sample a few before a made my final decision – mora (raspberry) and chocolate, a delicious combination. Sam had the tangy and super sweet limonada de coco (coconut lemonade) which is a must try at this gorgeous gelateria.
Sufficiently cooled and refuelled, we headed back into to baking streets and wound our way to the Plaza Bolivar, a green and shady square with fountains and benches, overlooked by grand two-storey buildings. One of these was the Palacio de la Inquisicion, a building once owned by the Spanish church and used, among other things, for the torture and execution of religious prisoners, heretics and witches. You wouldn’t think the place had such a dark history to look at it; a lovely example of a Casa Alta (literally tall house: two or three storey mansions set around an inner courtyard, which were reserved for the rich and social elite) with a cool, richly decorated interior of black and white marble floors and thick wooden doors. We found the antiquated torture implements in the quiet, leafy patio area surrounded by crumbling rock walls and flowering banana trees. The morbid instruments – spiked collars, a stretching rack, a menacing guillotine – sat silently amongst leafy plants in a picturesque setting, almost distracted from their grizzly history if it weren’t for the illustrated notes describing how and for whom each one was used. The most haunting was perhaps the gallows, with a noose just slightly swaying in the breeze, silent and brooding in the corner of the courtyard. Looking at the wooden trapdoor beneath the noose, I couldn’t help wonder how many innocent pairs of feet had kicked and struggled there, hung for half imagined crimes by the over zealous Spanish church.
Morbid curiosity sated, we left the beautiful old building and headed into another part of Cartagena’s old town outside the old city walls, La Getsemani, passing the old cathedral and the yellow clock tower on the way. The beautiful buildings and bright colour schemes continued here, perhaps in slightly worse condition that before, but still wonderfully picturesque – I could hardly put down my camera, constantly spotting more lovely details. We stopped in the a Plaza de la Trinidad for lunch before continuing out of La Getsemani and over the bridge to the Castillo San Felipe. This ancient fortress, bedecked by turrets and rusting guns and reinforced by an immensely sturdy outer wall, overlooks the old part of Cartagena like its personal guardian. Built in 16th century and expanded over the 17th and 18th, it has an interesting history as a key player in the war against the British in 1741, but today the castle serves as a viewpoint for groups of tourists, providing stunning 360 views of Cartagena – both the old and modern parts of the city. Aside from the view, the castle doesn’t have much to offer, but wandering through some of the skinny, dimly lit interior passages was pretty fun!
By late afternoon, we were pretty much worn out from sightseeing and fully beaten by the sun, so we hopped in a taxi to the beach at Bocagrande. Old big mouth is the wide bay fronting Cartagena, and the beach there is a long strip of sand lining the piece of land that sticks out into the bay. This is the modern, expensive area of the city, the beach is backed by skyscrapers and fancy hotels and looks more like Miami than Colombia. As with most beaches in Colombia, there were dozens of people selling souvenirs, drinks and snacks on the beach – including a man with a tray of enormous sugary doughnuts, which were fantastic! It’s certainly not the prettiest beach we’ve visited, but it was clean and very fun. We spent the rest of the day in the water, surprisingly warm with strong, fast waves that were great for leaping and splashing. We swam until the sunset over the sea to our left, a vivid ball of shivering gold sinking down a clear sky, painting everything pale orange and turning the water into glittering light. It was the perfect end to a fantastic day in my favourite Colombian city, Cartagena.