If you’ve always wanted to make it to the Caribbean, it’s time to add Cartagena de Indias to your travel list. It’s a golden, windswept city, known for its extreme heat, colonial architecture, and the ancient stone wall that runs along its Caribbean shoreline. Based on meeting the ranking criteria for “outstanding universal value,” it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its history as an important stop on the trade passage through the West Indies, as well as the being the vertex of the power struggle over the new world.
Khakis and White Socks With Sandals: Tourism and the Old City
When I decided to plan a trip to Colombia’s northern coast this winter from my new home base in Medellín, I was honestly a little torn about whether or not I should make a stop in Cartagena. I’d heard different reports, but a lot of them were from backpackers and digital nomads, all of whom seemed nonplussed by the experience. “Think khakis and white socks with sandals,” one German guy told me, by way of a warning. “I’d say spend a day or two there, then head to Santa Marta.” Other negative reports included mentions of oppressive heat, pushy salespeople, “sketchiness,” and lackluster beaches.
But another friend told me, “It’s worth going, just once.” So I went.
Yes, it was hot, but it didn’t knock me over like I thought it would. There was a nice breeze, and most places in the old city are air-conditioned. And about the tourism — were there a lot of older travelers, clicking away with their cameras? Definitely. Were there a lot of nicer restaurants and hotels? Absolutely. Were things overpriced? For sure. But did I have a great time nonetheless? Heck yes, I did.
Some places are just touristy; there’s no way around it. The only thing to do is to stop looking for authenticity, and then to put on a pair of khakis (alright, kidding) and enjoy the ride. And it turns out that one of the beautiful parts about being a tourist in a touristy city is that it’s really easy to meet people — a plus if you’re traveling solo. My first day, I met a group of American guys celebrating their friend’s bachelor party in a restaurant and ended up spending the day with them. Later, I met groups of people from all over the world, even taking an overnight trip to a nearby island with a group of Argentinians (plus a German).
Some Juicy Recommendations
In terms of accommodations, Cartagena isn’t as inexpensive as other places in Colombia; but by American standards, it’s still dirt cheap. You can find a nice hotel for a few hundred USD, or stay in a pretty decent hostel for around $20 per night. I stayed at one called Hostal Republica, which was really cute for a hostel and turned out to be an amazing place to make friends. Passing through on another trip, I also stayed in Hostel Papaya Getsemaní, which was also pretty good.
If you’re debating whether or not to stay in the old walled city or nearby Getsemani, I’d say they both offer some great benefits. I really enjoyed the old city; but passing through on my way to Barranquilla for Carnaval just a few weeks later, I tried Getsemani and was really impressed by the restaurants and nightlife in that part of town as well.
Certain parts of Colombia aren’t known for their food, but the coastal region has amazing food, from fresh seafood to coconut rice. To fend off the heat, you can stop for some fresh-sliced fruit along the street, or try a sweet smoothie served pretty much anywhere.
And as for what to do, I think that’s where you’ll want to get creative. It’s fun (and definitely safe enough) to walk around the town and take photos. There are some great museums, such as Museo de Arte Moderno (modern art) and Museo de Oro Zenú (showing gold from the Sinú people); a castle; lots of historical churches; and a bunch of cute little shops and cafes in the old city and Getsemani.
However, to get the real Carribbean experience, some beach time is a must. Don’t go to Bocagrande, the nearest beach, unless you’re desperate to kill a little time and cool off. It’s not very clean or very picturesque, and you’ll have to fend off hordes of aggressive salespeople. The best beaches are found on the surrounding islands, and it’s here that you’ll finally see the stunning blue water you’ve dreamed of. I recommend Isla Barú, or Playa Blanca, for at least a day trip or some fun overnight hammock camping; but there’s also la Isla de Rosario. Just ask around at the hostels or hotels in Cartagena to get on a bus or boat headed toward your destination.
A Few Notes on a Sordid History
Before making the trek to Cartagena, it’s worth getting to know just how much history the place contains. With imposing signs of conflict that have remained for nearly five centuries — the crumbling tower of the Castillo de San Felipe, the urban wall, and the bastioned harbour of Bocagrande — Cartagena has as colorful and embattled a story as you’d expect. The city was developed (you can imagine how this went down) from an indigenous village after being discovered by a Spanish explorer, Pedro de Heredia, in the mid-1500s. Thriving after the discovery of treasure in the tombs of the Sinú people, the riches stolen from the Amerindian villages of the surrounding areas, and the slave trade, the city quickly became a prosperous hub for trade.
According to Discover Colombia, these old relics are still standing today partly because in the mid-1950s, Cartagena was gutted by a large fire, which led Heredia to call for everything to be made of stone. Later on, the city became a particularly attractive target to the pirate ships cruising the area looking for booty, resulting in five sieges over several centuries — including the iconic Jolly Mary pirate ship. Its positioning on Colombia’s northern coast makes it a focal point for many conflicts over the years, including as a place of victory during the revolution led by Simon Bolivar, the Colombian Civil War during the beginning of the 20th Century, and later as a hotspot during La Violencia.
These days, Cartagena is still a major Caribbean hub. In fact, it’s the largest port in Colombia. But most of the city isn’t as idyllic as the parts you’ll see as a traveler. It’s a sprawling urban jungle with little shade, lots of humidity, and a reputation for being a bit dangerous. The old city and Getsemani are the two neighborhoods that remain virtually unchanged, the ancient stone buildings and winding streets linking themselves strikingly to the past — deceptively so. The only thing separating the realities of life in Cartagena from the throngs of tourists who visit each day are the stone walls built by Spaniards to defend their newfound colony.