Welcome to Cartagena: Colombia’s Caribbean Gem

I remember the exact moment I booked a ticket to Colombia.  After traveling through Southeast Asia for seven months – traversing the region from Laos to Indonesia – my boyfriend and I felt like we’d reached the end of the line.  Aaron and I were sitting in our bungalow on the tiny island of Gili Trawangan, Indonesia, staring intently at the screen of our laptop.  Aaron hit the “Purchase” button and then we looked at each other in that did-we-seriously-just-do-that type of way.

Colombia had been on my travel radar for years.  Growing up in the States, I was always intrigued by stories of Pablo Escobar, drug cartels, and FARC kidnappings.  But more recently I became enraptured by stories of other travelers who preached that – despite the country’s tumultuous past – Colombia is a top South American destination.  It has it all, from a vibrant capital city to treks to ancient cities to remote Caribbean islands.  But despite the myriad things this country has to offer, I have to confess that as I was booking my plane ticket to Colombia, I was suffering from a serious case of tunnel vision.  And I spent my first weeks in Colombia focused on getting my butt to Cartagena.

Flying high to Cartagena!

There’s something about the Caribbean that always manages to steal my heart.  The first international trip Aaron and I ever took together was to Jamaica when we were still in college.  And from that point forward, we were hooked.  Since then we’ve traveled to Cuba (twice) and the Dominican Republic.  We are obsessed with everything about the Caribbean – the lush jungles, the turquoise waters, the chilled-out vibe.  So I just knew I was going to fall head-over-flip-flops in love with the vibrant city of Cartagena.

Located on Colombia’s northern coast, Cartagena is a bustling city of roughly one million people.  It’s the perfect size – it’s not too large to navigate but still lively enough keep any visitor intrigued for days, weeks or even months.  Dating back to the 16th century, the city is famous for its impeccably preserved walled city which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  To this day a 13-kilometer-long wall stands as a reminder of the city’s violent history and still serves to protect the near-perfectly preserved colonial neighborhoods of El Centro and San Diego.

The first day we arrived in Cartagena, Aaron and I made a beeline straight to the walled city of El Centro.  Well, actually we took a long, hot walk from our apartment in Bocagrande (which is located a few kilometers from El Centro).  I should probably explain that I’m the type of traveler who rarely ever takes taxis.  I enjoy walking everywhere, even if it is a sweltering 31°C (88°F) and 80 percent humidity outside.  We walked along the beach, dipped our toes into the cool ocean water, and tried to politely avoid the swarms of touts hawking ceviche, massages and snorkel trips.

The beaches of Bocagrande get pretty crowded with Colombian tourists. And touts are just a reality of vacationing in Cartagena.
fruit vendor beach
Beach-front fruit!

We really did feel like we were worlds away from Bogotá or Medellín.  Cartagena has a true Caribbean vibe, which is apparent in so many ways.  It’s a melting pot of different races, people speak in a patois that’s difficult to decipher, and everything is full of color and life.

When we finally entered the walled city we were sweating profusely, yet completely awed.  Standing on top of Las Murallas (the wall that surrounds the old town), we were grateful for the ocean breeze.  And as we looked out over the sea we couldn’t help but imagine all the history that had taken place behind these walls – from the arrival of Spanish conquistadores to a series of 16th-century pirate attacks to public executions of heretics to slave auctions.

walled fortress
This portion of Las Murallas overlooks the Caribbean ocean and the modern high rises of Bocagrande.
cannons fortress
The wall was built to protect Cartagena from relentless pirate attacks.

Inside the city we strolled along the maze-like streets and I deemed each of the perfect houses we came across to be my dream home.  Every so often we would stumble across seemingly abandoned buildings.  With their peeling paint and overgrown bougainvillea, I found these structures to be more beautiful than the perfectly maintained ones.

colorful facades
The buildings of El Centro are very well maintained. And colorful facades like this are found everywhere inside the walled city.
old building
The combination of magenta flowers, sky blue paint and the colorful graffiti was picture perfect.

After a while, we took a break and bought an ice cold Aguila (a popular local beer) and a cheesy arepa (cornmeal stuffed with cheese), sat on a park bench and watched the hawkers skillfully convince each passing tourist to buy everything from fedoras to neon fruit drinks to colorful paintings.

arepa cart
Arepas are my new favorite food!

After my first day in Cartagena I had a really good feeling about the city.  At that point Aaron and I had spent nearly one year on the road, so we made the decision to rent an apartment and stay in Cartagena – well, for a month anyway.  I can’t even convey how very excited I was to call this colorful Caribbean city my (temporary) home.

Have you ever been to Cartagena?  What are your impressions of this Caribbean city?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

16 thoughts on “Welcome to Cartagena: Colombia’s Caribbean Gem

  1. I’ve always been a beach person…if you do intend to stay there long, I’m gonna pretend to be your long lost friend so that I can visit and bum off you…muahahahaha….;)

    Oh, but wait…you did mention sweat and humidity….hmmmmmm…..those 2 combinations are swear words in my dictionary, unfortunately….hehe

    1. Um, yeah, unfortunately it’s REALLY hot and humid here. But I suppose it’s the price you’ve gotta pay to be in such a beautiful place. I’m so used to traveling in Southeast Asia so the heat doesn’t bother me too much!

      1. Haha…that’s good for you. I’ve lived with humidity my whole life and am always looking for ways to escape all the time..haha…>_<

    1. Hi Katie! It’s funny you mention Pirates of the Caribbean because as we were walking around Cartagena’s historic center my boyfriend and I were both saying we felt like we were on Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride — not sure if you’ve ever been on it. Anyway, the architecture here is so unique. It really is a cool place! I hope you get to visit the Caribbean soon 🙂

    1. You definitely have to make it to Cartagena, Tammy! It’s definitely worth it. Well, Colombia is just an amazing place in general. There’s so much I’d still love to see and do here!

    1. I can definitely see a similarity between Cartagena and some of the cities in Central America. I really recommend Colombia. I seriously enjoyed my time there. Hopefully you’ll be able to make a trip there next time you’re in South America 🙂

    1. I ate way too many arepas and empandas. I can’t resist anything that’s stuffed with cheese!! I love cities on the beach. Maybe it’s because I’m from California but I just love being near the ocean 🙂

  2. Cartagena was my least favourite place in my 6 weeks in Colombia. Worst beaches. Tons of tourists. Insane amounts of people trying to sell you stuff on the streets and are very pushy. American/european Fashion shops galore. Super expensive. At night time the police will routinely search you for no reason at all in the hopes of finding something they can extort money from you with, or they will plant drugs on you and get one of their friends to search you 2 minutes later and you will have to pay a fine. Get in and get out. If you want beaches head to tayrona/costeño/palomino where you’ll have miles to yourself.

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