When my dad heard I was going to Colombia he did what most parents would do and gave me some parental advice. Not, as you might expect, about the dangers of travelling through the still-unstable rural areas. He did not tell me to steer clear of the perilous borderlands, nor lecture me on the dangers of illegal drugs, no.
What he said was: “Don’t take the bus to Cartagena.”
[No time to read? Skip to the end for my top 5 things to do in Cartagena.]
If you don’t get the reference, don’t worry, neither did I. Luckily my dad was only too happy to enlighten me.
For those unfamiliar with the 1984 classic Romancing The Stone, this is what happens to Kathleen Turner when she hops on a bus to the northern coastal city (the first 30 seconds pretty much covers it).
Yikes. In the end I flew to Cartagena. Not because I was worried about ending up in a ditch (in fact I am afraid of flying so on most occasions I would far rather take the bus), but because the bus from Bogota to Cartagena takes 20 hours while a flight takes an hour and fifteen minutes.
Cartagena was somewhere I’d been looking forward to. Mixing Spanish heritage with Caribbean climate, not only is it intensely attractive but it’s history and culture makes it unique within Colombia.
The city, perched on the edge of the Caribbean Sea was once among the most important ports in the whole of Latin America. Founded in 1553, Cartagena de Indias (to give it its full title) became a crucial stopping point on the way east from Peru and Ecuador onward to Cuba and Puerto Rico and back across the Atlantic to Spain.
The Spanish quickly found gold in Colombia, as they did elsewhere, and Cartagena itself was home to many indigenous burial sites, all filled with treasures that could be traded and sold. Unsurprisingly with so much gold passing through the port, the city was also a prime target for pirates – something that probably only adds to its story-book appeal.
But the uncomfortable truth is that a lot of Cartagena’s wealth came from the slave trade. In the 17th century the city became an official slave-trading centre – only the second in Latin America (the other was in Mexico). In fact many of the old city’s buildings were built on money made this way. Suddenly they don’t seem quite as charming, do they?
Beneath Cartagena’s dreamy surface lies a history at best uneasy and at times really quite dark. It’s a place of legend and mystery, romance and cruelty. It’s the town that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ fictional coastal setting in Love In A Time Of Cholera (in fact the city did suffer a major cholera outbreak in the 1800s) and after just a few days here, I think I can see why.
The walled Old Town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Outside this, it’s an ordinary working city and port with the majority of its 1million+ inhabitants working in maritime logistics, manufacture and exports (eg coal, petrol, sugar, and coffee), and of course tourism.
It’s as popular a holiday destination with Colombians as it is with foreigners and most people stay in one of the many chic hotels in the Old Town itself, in hostels in nearby Getsemaní, or in one of the purpose-built tower block hotels in affluent Bocagrande
I arrived alone on a Friday afternoon in December. Rob had left Bogota two days earlier to go to Valle Dupar for work and so I was going solo for the first time since we’d left the UK. I meandered idly round the vibrant streets and alleyways of Getsemaní – the ‘popular’ quarter just outside the walled city – taking pictures, enjoying being answerable only to myself.
But as the evening drew in and I made my way towards to twinkling Christmas lights of the walled city, I began to miss my travel buddy. Not just for his Spanish-speaking skills (although they would have come in handy when I tried to explain to the hostel receptionist that to simply tell me “There six beds and only five lockers and yours is the one without the locker – sorry, is that ok?” was really not ok), but because Cartagena is seriously romantic.
Tiny, tucked-away restaurants, leafy plazas full of fairy lights, candlelit bars perched high on the old walls, overlooking the ocean, music, dancing – we’re talking picture-postcard levels of romance here.
In fact I’d go as far as to say Cartagena is the second-prettiest city I’ve ever been to. I’ll give you to the end of this blog post to guess what the first is!
I consoled myself in Rob’s absence as any pining lover would: by going to the Spanish Inquisition Museum and looking at torture devices.
Cartagena was a key tribunal site for the Spanish Inquisition, with over 1000 people questioned and tortured here between 1610, when the tribunal was established, and 1700. The Palacio de la Inquisición, in Plaza de Bolíva is small and there isn’t an awful lot to see. But you can check out some of the more grisly means of interrogation and gauge whether you’d have passed the questioning. (Spoiler: You wouldn’t have.)
Rob arrived on Saturday evening, tired, sweaty and, having eaten little more than an empanada and a bag of Colombian Wotsits in the last 24 hours, very much looking forward to a decent meal. We went to La Cevicheria, a seafood restaurant I’d scoped out, knowing that both of us love Peruvian ceviche and having heard that they did it pretty well in Cartagena. It was one of the best meals we had in Colombia.
Reinvigorated by delicious fresh fish and a bottle of House White, we decided to check out Havana, a Cuban-themed club on the corner of Media Luna and Carrera 10 in Getsemaní. We took our place in the (mercifully short) queue, paid our 20,000 peso (£5.60) entry and went through the velvet curtain to emerge in a high-ceilinged hall dominated by an old-fashioned brass bar that starts at the back wall, runs almost the full length of the room before curving back round towards the far side once again. The place exuded an easy glamour, all twinkling lamps, clinking glasses and a nine-piece live salsa band. Photos of Cuban musicians and politicians decorated the walls and around the bar, tables were pushed back against the wall to allow people to dance… which we did, with varying degrees of aptitude and indeed coordination as the night wore on.
We nursed our hangovers, the following day, up at Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. The fort was built in in the mid 1500s and it one of the biggest and strongest ever built by the Spaniards. What remains today appears at first glance to be a rather ugly stack of stone. But it does have some pretty good tunnels, climbing between one level and another. For someone who still, at the age of 30, feels a flutter of childlike excitement at the thought of a secret passage, this seemed a decent trade-off.
The fort is also where the video for Colombian salsa singer Joe Arroyo’s hit La Rebelion was filmed, a song we discovered in Cartagena and which is now on our ‘travel playlist’ alongside some seriously dodgy Guatemalan hip hop and a lot of Latin power pop. Drawing on the history of the city it tells the story of a slave and his wife who decide to rebel and escape their masters.
If you’re on holiday or travelling it is customary to try to be on a beach on Monday morning so as to be able to post a smug “Monday morning… doesn’t look so bad from here ;)” comment for the benefit of all your buddies back at home, who are easing themselves into a new working week. Of course, in Cartagena, the majority of your morning will be spent fending off tour agents, all of whom want to convince you their identical (and more or less identically priced) trip is the one to sign up to. Then, when you’ve finally agreed to part with some cash, flung your name on the nearest clipboard, and been issued with your tickets, you will spend another hour or two waiting on the dock while everyone around you seems to be getting on a boat until finally your name is called and you set off. The tedious rigmarole is such that I’d almost tell you not to bother. But if this is likely to be your only taste of the Caribbean, as it was for us, then you should go for it. And the beach, when you finally get there, is pretty heavenly.
We rounded the Cartagena leg of our trip off with a visit to the Totumo Mud Volcano ($35,000/£10 each and we booked it through our hostel). The legend goes that it was once an active volcano which was exorcised by a priest who sprinkled holy water into its crater and turned its fire and ash to nourishing mud. According to locals, the mud is so rich in volcanic minerals that ten minutes inside will make you look ten years younger. I know, ridiculous.
We’d also heard tales of tourists, herded in to be summarily scrubbed and washed and filed out like a production line, with each person along the way demanding a handful of pesos for their services. At least one traveller told us categorically that it wasn’t worth doing. We did it anyway.
With it being the Christmas holidays, our tour bus was made up almost exclusively of vacationing Colombians whose infectious enthusiasm quickly dispelled any doubts we had about the trip. It was also where we met Ivan and his family, a Paisa who a few days later would show us round his home town of Medellin with equal enthusiasm.
Once up on the ‘volcano’ we shuffled round the edge before climbing down the ladder into the muddy crater. As the warm, grey sludge closed over our limbs, we found ourselves grabbed and ordered to relax and lie back for the massage. Tentatively we did. And while the massage itself is nothing particularly life-changing, the feeling of floating in a pit of mud 15 metres deep was very cool indeed.
The mud gives you so much buoyancy that it’s actually difficult to stay upright as your legs keep trying to pop up to the surface. Eventually I managed to manoeuvre myself into a sort of standing position, suspended in the mud and from there could enjoy watching everybody else shriek with delight and bewilderment at the sensation.
Afterwards we made our way down to the lake to wash off with the (unsolicited) help of local women who scrubbed our skin, hair and even – having ordered us to take them off – rinsed and wrung out our swimsuits. Of course, all these people – the masseurs, the washerwomen, and the man who looks after your camera and takes snaps of you – do require paying ($3000/85p apiece). Given the utterly bonkers nature of the whole experience, not to mention how much I’d enjoyed myself, this didn’t seem too unreasonable.
On the bus on the way back, a young lad got on, explained he was saving up to go to music college, and then proceeded to belt out versions of local pop songs while accompanying himself on the guitar. Our new Colombian friends all joined in, looking at us questioningly when they saw we weren’t singing along. Okay, it’s not quite up there with Kathleen Turner’s bus trip experience… but it’s close.
Five cool things to do in Cartagena
1. Eat at La Cevicheria.
The classic Peruvian dish ceviche – raw fish and seafood marinated in citrus juices and chilli – can also be found in neighbouring Colombia, particularly on the coast of where the fish is fresh and plentiful. This place, on the corner or Carrera 7 and Calle 39 was fantastic. The blue and white colour theme, with fish and mermaid motifs just manages to squeeze in this side of kitsch and it serves an array of delicious seafood combinations, both hot and cold – all well worth the hour-long wait for a table. NB it’s closed on Tuesdays.
2. Lose yourself in winding cobbled streets.
Did I mention Cartagena was pretty? So pretty in fact that it’s quite easy to while away a day simply wandering around the old town, snapping pictures and stopping for the occasional coffee/beer/fresh coconut. I highly recommend losing at least a morning to its streets.
3. Take a bath in a mud volcano
We’d heard that this was a bit of a tourist trap. No one is quite sure whether the stories about how the mud volcano came to be are true (the ones about it having been an active volcano, not the ones about the mud god) but the pull of doing something this unusual was too much for us. I can’t vouch for how beneficial it is but I can tell you it’s hilarious fun. We signed up through our hostel and it cost $35,000 (£10).
4. Salsa the night away in a Cuban-themed bar
It says something not very complimentary about our own culture that when we read that Havana, on the corner of Media Luna and Carrera 10, was the city’s best nightclub, we imagined a dingy, sticky-floored dive full of coked-up backpackers and churning out Latin electro-house. Instead what we found behind the curtain was a stylish cocktail bar full of old-style charm and a live salsa band.
5. Dibble your toes in Caribbean waters
If this is your only chance to hit the beach in Colombia (it was for us) then you’ll want to make the trip to Playa Blanca. While the city’s own polluted beaches are decidedly unenticing, the nearby Islas del Rosario and Isla Baru have everything you expect of their Caribbean location: white sands, clear turquoise waters, palm trees full of coconuts and beach shacks selling scrummy fried fish.
To get the most out of the beach you really need to stay there for a night or two but this can be prohibitively expensive (on Islas del Rosario) or unappealingly basic (on Playa Blanca). To do it in a day you’ll need to get up early and make your way to the port where ticket touts will compete to sell your their identical tours. Most cost around $60,000 (£17) and take you to visit various parts of Islas del Rosario, including a stop at the reportedly unimpressive aquarium, before dropping you at the beach for about two hours. If you want to skip the tour and go straight to the beach (as we did) you can easily negotiate this and you’ll pay a bit less, too. The return boats leave Playa Blanca no later than 3.30pm so it’s worth setting out early if you want to make a day of it. To work out which boat is likely to get going soonest, ask to see the tout’s clipboard before signing up. The boats leave when they’re full so the clipboard with the most names on it is the one you want to sign!
Oh by the way, the most attractive city I’ve ever been to is, of course, Venice. Did you guess correctly?