Cartagena: An Ideal Gateway to South America
Cartagena. I left for this old, walled port city with its infectious Afro-Caribbean charm on December 12th, 2015. Even a year later, when I returned to Texas, this was one of the places on my backpacking route that I longed to return to the most.
Located on the coast of Colombia, the city has a laid-back rhythm to it that gets into your veins. It’s hot in Cartagena - sticky even. The air is salty. You get there & immediately a sense of total relaxation overwhelms you. This is THE place where Colombians come to vacation & it's easy to see why. Nothing is formal in Cartagena. The people exude a “relax, take it easy vibe” in everything from their clothing to their walk. *And they’re extremely friendly! [*Colombians are working hard to combat the stigma often associated with their nation and are thrilled that tourists are starting to discover & explore their paradise. From my experience, this mentality has resulted in the extreme hospitality of the Colombian people. Further, the nation was recently ranked the second best country to visit in 2017 by Lonely Planet (https://www.lonelyplanet.com/colombia), and with good reason. If you're not looking for trouble & keep your eyes open, you won't encounter problems - after a total of four months in the country, I say this with confidence.]
The buildings in Cartagena are colonial, crazy colorful & their facades often overtaken by tropical flowers. Mule-driven carts carry tourists throughout the historical center. An old stone fortress looms in the background above the city, replete with cast-iron canons & a massive Colombian flag. From there you can see all of Cartagena - the buzzing of chaotic traffic & street vendors below, ships coming into port, the outline of the old imposing city walls that the blue, blue ocean laps up onto from as far away as the eye can see. It’s not hard to imagine what life looked like here 500 years before.
Being in Cartagena at Christmas time added an extra dimension to the whole experience. Although I wasn't there for New Years, Cartagena is apparently tough to beat then as well. It seemed that the entire city was on vacation from the time I arrived through the end of December, when I left. In Getsemani (the neighborhood where I stayed & where many affordable hostels are located), entire families would hang out in the entryway to their homes from 8 am until the wee hours of the morning - playing soccer & cards, dancing, drinking & doing nothing but enjoying la vida in general. Christmas lights & Coke bottles were suspended in a zig-zag pattern above the narrow street, connecting every home & giving each neighborhood a festive glow. It seemed like at least every other house had a massive speaker (a prized possession) that was used to blast reggaeton sometimes until 6 in the morning in celebration of the holiday season. And noise violations in South America - I don’t think that’s a thing. But you learn to laugh at it and to love it, and it’s crazy.
When I left for my extended travels in South America, my ONLY plan was to spend two weeks at Nueva Lengua Spanish school in Cartagena. From there, I would see where life took me. This turned out to be the best decision I could have made. Because I didn’t have a plan, I was able to tag along with friends I made whenever I felt like it. Amazingly enough, the connections I made in Cartagena carried me throughout all of Colombia and Peru as well!
There was Monika, a Swiss girl of Croatian descent who was spending two months in Cartagena. She & I were basically at the same point in life - we had left our long-term jobs & were both ready for some lifestyle changes - and we became fast friends because of it. There was Marc, also from Switzerland, an international badass & helicopter pilot, who flies & manages life-saving missions & has done so all over the world. There was Jolein, a Dutch doctor whose dream was to work with Doctors Without Borders & who had done a residency in Surinam. There was Eline, a Dutch lawyer with innate Latin rhythm (we shared a few fun salsa nights!). There was Mike, a Swedish guy who worked with refugees back at home & whose laid-back demeanor I really appreciated. There was Jessi, a teacher from England, who planned to travel South America for 1.5 years total and had just finished extensive travels in Brazil. There was Richard, a French Canadian who had just sold his restaurant & also planned to travel South America extensively. It didn’t take me long to realize that by “hitting pause” on my life & taking time to do something for personal enrichment that had nothing to do with my resume, I had come in contact with an extremely interesting, inspiring & diverse group of people (many of whom I know I will stay in touch with for life).
Those two weeks, about 15 of us Nueva Lengua students made the most of Cartagena together. We shared fresh fruit bowls (a mix of papaya, mango, watermelon, etc.) from the local street vendors & crispetas (popcorn) during our morning snack breaks at school.
We attempted to spend a day at the famed Playa Blanca, the beach at an hour’s boat-ride from Cartagena that everyone raves about, but realized we had actually fallen into a tourist trap that involved very little beach time. On top of that, our boat’s motor stalled on open water at least 5 times (oops…haha). [If you go, make sure you ask which stops your boat will make on your way to the beach or just take the bus to Playa Blanca to avoid the same problem! Boats leave from the main harbor near the entrance to the Old City.]
We gathered each evening to have a few beers on an old, festive church square (Plaza de la Trinidad) near our school where hundreds of locals could always be found. We danced all night at Mister Babilla, sharing bottles of aguardiente (an anise-flavored liquor you can’t miss) in true Colombian style. Many friends enjoyed daily kitesurfing lessons & our school offered frequent salsa lessons as well.
We also participated with Colombian police in raising funds for & giving Christmas gifts to local children.
In the end, Cartagena was an incredible experience that left an imprint on my memory. The Old City (where you want to be) is small enough that you can figure out what you should get up to while there without having to plan much. Your experience in the city really can be as relaxing or as fun as you want it to be - with such a great mix of beach, terraces, restaurants & clubs, it really is a city that has something to offer everyone. Not only that, but Cartagena is a place you can explore on a budget. If you wanted to, you could easily get by on $10 - $15/day in Cartagena. I really hope you go - for Christmas or New Years - and send me a picture! You won’t regret it!
Stay tuned for the next blog post - I'll get into my travels (with Jolein) in the north of Colombia (Palomino, Santa Marta & the Lost City).