Until a couple of years ago I couldn’t have placed Cartagena on a map, but then I discovered it in a video game and researched it and stared at photos of it and, like a dozen other places I’ve been drawn to, knew I had to go and see it for myself.
I’d never been to South America, so I got stuck into my Lonely Planet guide and read as many blog posts as I could. I needed some injections before travelling and packed the necessary stuff: high factor sunscreen, mosquito net/repellent, Duolingo app, Instax camera…how else could I capture those gorgeous doorways?
I’m all for travelling a long way for a short time, it doesn’t really bother me, but I was travelling for 19 hours to spend 5 days in a city I’d been recently fascinated by, and didn’t really know what to expect. I’d also read some horror stories about Colombian hotels but figured that Cartagena would be tourist-friendly and I would be fine if I was careful.
I finished work on a Friday and flew Birmingham > Amsterdam > Bogota > Cartagena on the Saturday. Despite a little confusion at Bogota airport I landed in Cartagena de Indias on the Saturday evening, jumped into an Uber to get my hotel. By this time I was tired, head buzzing from being on flights all day, and getting apprehensive about my hotel. Pretty soon I was within the walls of the old city, checking in to the Centro Hotel, so happy and relieved once I opened my door.
Despite being exhausted I freshened up, ready to start my ‘just arrived in a new city’ ritual of buying some food and drink to keep at the hotel, getting my bearings, and walking round to see what the city had to offer. It didn’t take long to fall in love with Cartagena and its people. The city comes to life as the day goes on, and by the time I wandered around the narrow streets they were filled with music, street food, dancing and art.
The next morning I was up and out by 6.00am, when my only company was a dog or two, people cleaning the streets, and people heading home from the night before.
One of my priorities in Cartagena was to experience as much coffee as I could. A few doors down from the hotel was the Epoca Espresso Bar which I went in every day for either lunch or breakfast for an iced coffee or one of their coconut concoctions.
Cartagena is a beautiful city filled with colonial architecture (which seems to be draped in bouganvillea) and surrounded by the city walls. You can walk around the walls and take in the views of the Caribbean Sea, but I was quite happy to stroll around the city – it was difficult to do anything other than sit and stroll in those tropical temperatures – and soak in as much as I could.
One place I knew I had to visit was the Naval Museum. Cartagena was visited by Sir Francis Drake so there was plenty to geek out over…
A few minutes walk out of the city’s walls you can explore Getsemani – filled with street art, eateries, hostels, and so much colour.
As a solo traveller in a new country I never once felt in any unsettling circumstances. There is a strong police presence in Cartagena, but there’s also a lot tourism, so I never felt like I was out of my comfort zone. When you’re walking around you get asked to join walking tours a lot, and only once did one man continue to ask me several times after I’d said no, but I told him firmly I wasn’t interested and he moved on. I was advised to be cautious if walking around Getsemani in the evening but it’s hostel/backpacker central and most people seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Cartagena offers day trips to beaches and nearby places of interest but this was a proper holiday for me – rest, keeping it local, experiencing as much as I could in the city walls. I did take a walk to Bocagrande, where all the glass hotels and resorts are, but it wasn’t what I was interested in. I was all about the food, the architecture, and the coffee. After 5 days absorbing all it had to offer, I was heading to Michigan and Chicago for a week, and I wasn’t ready to leave.
One more shoutout – this is to Abaco Libros Y Cafe which is the most beautiful bookshop and cafe I could ask for on my doorstep! My photos don’t do it justice – I was trying not to be obvious when taking them.
Oh, and no Cartagena post would be complete without mentioning the sunsets and the cathedral…so here we are.
I’ve never been anywhere like Cartagena and I fear it’s spoiled me for any other trip. It’s definitely captured my heart and I can’t wait to plan a return trip – maybe Christmas 2018.