Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Colombia had been on my list for a couple of years and I'll admit wasn't my highest priority, but one especially chilly January Chicago night in 2018 changed all that.
I had a very stressful December in real estate as I had several deals that almost fell apart for one reason or another. Thankfully I was able to salvage them all and was now desperate to release some stress and escape this blistering cold Chicago weather. I randomly googled "What country has the best weather in January?" To my surprise, Colombia topped the list.
Like I said before, Colombia had been on my radar so I knew I wanted to visit Cartagena because it was right on the shore, had interesting history and lots of beautiful street art.
What I didn't know was how affordable it was...I couldn't resist! I found a beautiful Airbnb right on the beach and booked tickets to leave 2 weeks later!!! Flying into Cartagena I didn't quite know what to expect. The only thing I knew about Colombia was what I had seen on Narcos... not the best introduction.
Because I plan so many of my trips last minute and almost never do any research like a responsible adult, I often try to get an idea about what I'm about to walk into on the landing approach. It sounds ridiculous but you can actually make a few fairly intelligent guesses from the aerial view. Here's a great example:
The first thing I noticed is cruise ship in the bay, that let me know Cartagena is a super touristy city.
The tall buildings in the distance, large industrial area, and well developed neighborhoods told me the city has a strong and diverse economy.
All the water let me know that there had to be lots of beaches nearby...WIN!!!
This was my 2nd Airbnb experience and it was perfect. The building was in the ultra touristy neighborhood of Bocagrande, right across the street from the historic Hotel Caribe and the Bocagrande beach.
Our apartment was a 3 bedroom/3 bathroom unit which was obviously way more space than we needed but that's the great thing about Airbnb, you can get an amazing property for a reasonable price, in our case only $150 per night.
It was sensory overload walking thru the front door! The apartment, beautifully decorated with hammocks and surfboards, was on the 14th floor with amazing views. We could hear the crowds of people with music playing on the beach and smell of decorous food in the air...we were home!!! Now its time to explore our neighborhood.
Bocagrande is a great neighborhood to stay in if you've never been to Cartagena before or if you've been a dozen times. It's very touristy which means its one of the safer areas to be in (there was a police station right across the street from our building) and there's tons of restaurants, night clubs and bars lining the streets. There's also plenty of drug stores, clothing stores, groceries and even 2 malls within walking distance. We always like to stop in grocery stores when we travel to check out the local fruits and veggies.
One of the first things you notice when walking down the streets of Bocagrande is everyone is trying to sell you a tour. With the government of the USA and Colombia trying to change the perception of the country, billions of dollars have been poured into the tourism industry and it seems like everyone you meet on the street has a tour company they work for.
After politely turning down the first few offers, we stumbled on a travel company that was handing out brochures of the tours they offered and I grabbed one so we could plot the week out. There I meet a young guy with fairly good English and we talked more about me being from Chicago than me being in Cartagena. Charlene found a few trips she was interested in and we booked a few tours for the next days. Because I had built a solid rapport with the guy I figured he be the best one to ask where I can find WEED... I was in luck!
I have a method of buying weed in countries where I'm not familiar and don't speak the language. Find someone you know you'll see the next day and ask them to get it for you. Don't shop with random people you meet like taxi drivers or street vendors.
You want to be able to hold the dealer accountable if anything were to go bad, like the weed is terrible or (worst case scenario) you get in trouble with authorities. A friendly tour guide that you've done business with or bellmen at your hotel is often your best bets. I let them know if I don't like what they bring me... I WILL SEE YOU TOMORROW!!! And if I do like what they bring, I'll buy more.
Thankfully the weed was decent "outdoor reggie" (read: average) and I was set for the rest of the trip.
Our first full day we decided to do a guided group tour around Cartagena that took us through a lot of the distinct neighborhoods. We were quickly reminded of why we prefer private tours as the group we were with primarily spoke Spanish and the guide we into deep detail in Spanish but had few words for us in English.
We could tell because the Spanish speaking group would laugh at his jokes, but when he told us the same information rarely did it end with a chuckle. So we decided to make the best of it by getting familiar with our surroundings as we went from neighborhood to neighborhood and taking great pics along the way.
Getting Muddy in El Totumo
Next, we did a tour of the El Totumo Mud Volcano about an hour outside the city. Again the group tour decision failed us. The same issue with the guide giving the majority of information (and charm) in Spanish and leaving little for English only speakers reared its ugly head again. Thankfully there wasn't much sightseeing as I felt like I learned just as much by Googling my location.
The mud volcano on the other hand was amazing! The mud was so dense you can barely move, which is why the workers already in the volcano pit pull you around the top of the mud and put you in a place where you can relax and get a massage. ChunkyButt and I massaged each other and worried why people brought their crying clearly terrified babies in the volcano mud when we all looked like Game of Thrones extras. We then washed ourselves off in the river.
After the volcano, our tour took us for lunch on the beach. Fried snapper, salad and plantains are included on most tours. Then it was back to our apartment.
We spent the next day exploring the Old City (Walled City) and Getsemeti, two neighborhoods in Cartagena with beautifully restored 16th century Spanish-architecture and street art everywhere. The brightly colored buildings reminded me of Havana, Cuba but its clear Colombia is way better financial shape...largely because of the drug trade that both build up parts of the city and the US government money that went into supporting the Colombian government in its attempts to fight the Narcos.
Because of the influx of money over the decades, celebrities and politicians from all over the world have bought homes in and around Cartagena. The streets in Bocagrande, Getsenimi and the Old City are well patrolled by the police and we felt really safe everywhere we went no matter the time of day.
The Old City is the city center of Cartagena, sandwiched between Bocagrande, Cartagena Bay, Getsenimi and the Atlantic ocean. There's tons of shops, restaurants and bars to explore. Plus there's many street merchants selling everything from art to tours to food...you name it they got it.
Getsemini is a neighborhood that was once rampant with drugs and gangs, but now has been gentrified and filled with boutique hotels, bars and restaurants with exquisitely elaborate graffiti everywhere. Street performers gather huge crowds day and night in the square and perform what only could be called Colombia's Got Talent. When I was looking at Cartagena as a vacation destination, the street art of Getsemini was something I was really looking forward getting pictures of and it did not disappoint.
We realized that with all the running we hadn't yet had a beach day and while the beach across the street looked nice from above, the sand and water close to the city is very dirty. So the next day we decided to book a private tour to Playa Blanca, Baru, which is a small island less than an hour away from Cartagena with super amazing white sand beaches and crystal clear blue water. There's beach restaurants, bars and hotels all along the coast so food and drinks aren't far. The views are INCREDIBLE... but its a very touristy location and boats pull right up to the beach to let passengers out, some with suitcases and all.
After our day in Baru, we came back to our apartment and decided to visit the beach across the street for the first time...it was complete culture shock. The beaches in Baru, while crowded and busy, were clean and the sand was soft. The beaches in Bocagrande were gross, the water was gray, the sand was gray and rocky. Playa Blanca it was not, but we still walked the beach and enjoyed watching the Colombian sunset which is beautiful from any beach.
Our Last Day
For our last full day in Cartagena, I had to visit the first city in the Americas officially liberated from European rule, San Basilio de Palenque. Palenque was found by run away slaves who escaped into the mountains outside the city.
They founded the city and organized a massive intelligence network to free more slaves. As more slaves were freed they trained massive armies to defend Palenque. For years, the King of Spain sent his armies to conquer Palenque and defeat the Maroons but they were severely beaten. Eventually the Governor asked for a truce and declared Palenque a free city. I had never heard of this history before I came to Colombia, but this was by far one of my favorite parts of the trip.
Who else has traveled to Colombia or near Cartagena?! Tell us your experiences in the comments below.