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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?