Cartagena, a city of contrast & a hate and love relationship…

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September 8th 2012
Published: September 25th 2012
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Three weeks already that my Colombian adventure started and after bustling Bogota, precious Salento and its coffee area and a week filled by Colombian salsa in Cali, time to head to the Caribbean coast! First stop Cartagena de Indias that is said to be one of the jewel of Colombia, with its colonial architecture and cobbled streets, a travel through history…

Arrived around 9pm after an hour and half flight from Cali on Colombian newest low coast airline (viva Colombia) and walking out of the airplane I had my first climate choc...still way over the 30 degrees and a level of humidity that makes you want to run back inside the plane!

Wasn’t quite mentally prepared for that and somehow it is one of the reason why I would normally prefer to travel by bus; at least you get time to slowly acclimate yourself, well this time timing issues somehow conspire together for me to catch a plane…On the bright side, I avoided a 20 hours plus journey by bus, not so bad after all!

Cartagena old town by night – should I run away ?

I dropped the bag at the hostel
the cartagena blue...the cartagena blue...the cartagena blue...

Cartagena, Colombia
and map on hand I headed to Cartagena old town, full of expectations as I had heard so much about the beauty of the place, and then as I crossed the inner wall and entered the heart of the old town I had my second choc of the night…Is this Walt Disney ???

At that precise moment and during the entire time I spent walking around the upper hand old town that night, I had the feeling that I had entered an attraction park, fake, entirely catered and centered around tourists and without the vibe that you normally find in old town.

Immaculate white horse drawn carriage passing by every second or so, carrying tourists who seemed to pay little attention to the explanations of their guide and who seemed somehow more interested in taking pictures of themselves in the carriage.

Clowns performing in the streets and then asking for some money; as I passed by one of them tried to grab the coin purse in my bag, well he handed up with a nudge and no purse…

And yes I was looking for locals enjoying the old town and except the one who were working there that Saturday night it seemed more like a tourist only place, might they be Colombians or foreigners, the only exception being some part of the wall where young local couples would gather…

Definitely not my cup of tea, so I decided to head back pretty much soaked by the heat to the hostel. As I crossed once more the inner wall to go back to Getsemani, the area between the inner and outer wall, and along the way started to explore the area, I simply couldn’t help but notice how different the two places are. Here, locals (yes!!) were walking around, having beer on one of its small square, chatting, laughing, listening to music, the whole vibe somehow brought me back to the Colombia I have been really enjoying so far…pfff…guess I might stay after all!

Met a few travelers as I finally reached the hostel, and I was somehow relieved to see that I was not the only one who had just been through a culture choc, that was one of the main discussion topic!

Sunday early morning, best bet to avoid tourists and (re) discover the city

Second attempt
Playa BlancaPlaya BlancaPlaya Blanca

Cartagena, Colombia
to discover AND enjoy Cartagena old town but this time with Edouard who I met in Cartagena and who just like me the night before had been pretty much running away from Cartagena old town part.

Around 8.30 am and the heat wave is already coming in but the tourists are still sleeping! We cross the inner wall, with a bit of apprehension and definitely less expectations. Very few people by the main gate, mostly street sellers installing their rug and merchandises as well as here and there a snack or coffee trolley man.

It is with relief and curiosity that we finally started to rediscover the old town of Cartagena. And yes, its architecture is beautiful, colors are everywhere, massive bougainvillea hang from wooden carved balconies, its cobbled streets make you feel like they are coming straight out of a movie set and here and there brass plate on which the year of construction of the house is written remind you just how old (and well preserved) this colonial town is.

Locals seem to be back, or maybe it is just because there are no tourists around that they somehow stand out.
Street Scene - GetsemaniStreet Scene - GetsemaniStreet Scene - Getsemani

Cartagena, Colombia
We stop by the coffee trolley man, order two tinto and seat with them, enjoying the black nectar and chatting with them for a little while.

Passing by a really old house that seemed half abandon, I pause, the light and colors inside the courtyard have caught my eyes. The few locals at the entrance, greet us and invite us to come in to have a look, not asking for anything, simply being nice…arhh this is the Colombia I really enjoy everyday, the one that warm your heart through simple moments, glad to have found it back !

Same city, and yet another face of it…welcome to Miami beach ! (or what feels like it..)

If it hadn’t been for the message I had promised to pass to Miguel who works on the beach of Bocagrande, I might not have discovered this part of Cartagena where ultra modern condo tower are lined up along a black sand beach.

Backtracking a little, while I was in Cali I met the owner of the hostel, a French national who lives in Colombia, and was asked to find the famous Miguel (who doesn’t carry a phone…) to
"Black and white""Black and white""Black and white"

Cartagena, Colombia
pass him a message.

“So how will I find him ?” (after having said yes obviously…)
“Arh it is easy, he works on the beach” (right…)

“where they rent tents” (ok)

“next to some of the tallest buildings on Bocagrande” (should be easy)

And how does he look like ? “you cant miss him, he is a tall black man”

Now…here I was with Edouard who had found the story fun so he decided to join me in my search for Miguel before heading together for a well deserve rest on the beach.

A few things about Bocagrande (wish I had knew…)

They rent beach tents everywhere…they are lined up from one hand to the other of the never ending sea front…guess that won’t help to find Miguel !

Tall buildings…well anything lower than 15 floors is an exception…not much help there either !

Tall black man, ok they might not all be tall but the majority of people in Cartagena is black…

So with these very useful information, we started to walk along the sea front, stopping by to ask whether anyone knew the famous Miguel…I asked and asked again, getting smile and a negative answer in return…then I saw a tower that was slightly taller than the others, that might be the place !

Bingo, a few meters further, a young man replied a bit surprised:

“Yes I know him, he is my father !”.

Followed a few explanation of why we were looking for him (the young guy
"Miami Beach" Bocagrande"Miami Beach" Bocagrande"Miami Beach" Bocagrande

Cartagena, Colombia
seemed a bit worried at first) and here was Miguel coming in! A tall black man with a huge smile when he heard I was a friend of Jean Pierre.

Read the message out loud and made him call Jean Pierre, mission accomplished! And that’s how we somehow ended up with a “VIP” treatment..

They kept our personal effects when we went for a swim, brought chairs so that we would be more comfortable and got the cocktail price down. All in all a nice surprise as I wasn’t expecting anything in return.

The beach in itself, outside of the fact that it has a rough feel of Miami beach, isn’t the nicest I have seen; crowded, tents and buildings breaking the charm the place could have had, black sand and kids addicted to crack wandering around. Again, back to the huge gap between the richest and poorest…

Getsemani, yet more contrasts

I stayed there as most foreign tourists on budget do and somehow I am really glad I did as I am now staying away of Disney Land at night!

The houses are more modest but just as colorful and
Street vistaStreet vistaStreet vista

Cartagena, Colombia
it has a village feel to it, simple and unpretentious. As you walk around, music is coming out from people house or should I say door steps as most of them would place the speaker on their door step, music full on and toward the street, interesting way to listen to music !

To find a local restaurant with a menu of the day opened on Sunday was even more challenging that finding Miguel on the gigantic Bocagrande beach. Locals would indicate some places but literally every single one was closed so we walked and walked more, until we found a panaderia open where we managed to eat some empanadas. The heat was becoming unbearable and after this short snack, the only thing we were looking forward to was chilling out at the hostel in front of the fans and that is precisely when we passed by what must have been the only restaurant open on Sunday…

Arhh the rule of universal vexation…

And that must have been as well the only place where there was a nice breeze cooling down the terrace…That’s it, we spent most of the afternoon there! Enjoying some Alguire beer and chatting.

At night, the main square in Getsemani came alive in a quite unexpected manner. In its center, a 2CV which had been converted into a muppet show set; in front seated on the cobbled stone ground, plenty of kids completely & unconditionally absorbed by the show, laughing, dancing, standing, clapping their hands at every trick of the moppets; behind them, the parents chatting or watching the show with the same light in their eyes.

We basically spent the whole evening there, enjoying the performance by these two Argentinean traveling throughout south America. More friends came and joined us. The show ended and as the argentinians were moving their car away, a group of dancers started to take place on the small “stage” in front of the church, facing once more the plaza.

And I simply couldn’t believe what I was witnessing: a live aearobic class in front of the church, full music on and dozens of ladies and kids moving and dancing following the movements shown by the aerobic teachers standing by the door of the church!

Colombia would never cease to surprise me !

Finally a real day at the beach !

Street sceneStreet sceneStreet scene

Cartagena, Colombia
in Cartagena, the one beach that deserves a little detour is Playa Blanca. Not exactly next door as you got to go for a 45mn boat ride to get there and quite pricey too (the ride would cost you about 35’000 COP plus tax and once on site meals are at a minimum of 12’000 COP) but definitely worth it!

Playa Blanca, the white beach, well deserves its name, as it is indeed a long stretch of silky white sand along crystal clear water. Palm trees in the background gives you the well deserve shades, as although you might be outside of Cartagena, still unbearably hot!

Spent the full day chilling out, swimming, reading and napping, pure happiness !

Ready for the next stop along the Caribbean coast, Santa Marta that is before pushing further west along the coast.

Travelers tips

Transport: you can either reach Cartagena by bus or plane, the latest is worse checking (low cost airline: vivacolombia). If arriving by bus, be aware that the bus station is really far from the center of Cartagena (about 45mn) and going through a neighborhood where you would not want to get
Woodem balconies and colorsWoodem balconies and colorsWoodem balconies and colors

Cartagena, Colombia
lost at night. Did it when leaving Cartagena (during day) and it was fine but lengthy. Drop out point is not far from Getsemani, you just got to cross the river and you are there.

Accommodation: depends what you are looking for, but Getsemani is a good bet for its vibe, price range and proximity to all sites

Worth a try: the Coco Loco cocktail on the beach, a blend of several rhum (and other non identified alcohols) served inside a coconut.

For Salsa nights: Havana café (cover charge 10’000 COP) and the salsa bar on the second floor across the main entrance to the old town (on the outer part of it)

Additional photos below
Photos: 29, Displayed: 29


Playa BlancaPlaya Blanca
Playa Blanca

Cartagena, Colombia
Cartagena Old City WallCartagena Old City Wall
Cartagena Old City Wall

Cartagena, Colombia
Walking aroundWalking around
Walking around

Cartagena, Colombia
walking bywalking by
walking by

Cartagena, Colombia
Curves and colorsCurves and colors
Curves and colors

Cartagena, Colombia
hidden gemhidden gem
hidden gem

Cartagena, Colombia
Football is everywhereFootball is everywhere
Football is everywhere

Cartagena, Colombia
the famous 2CV - Getsemanithe famous 2CV - Getsemani
the famous 2CV - Getsemani

Cartagena, Colombia

25th September 2012

Great blog as usual!!!
Did you ever think to write a book about your traveling? Your style of writing would worth it!!! I love reading it all the time and it makes me feel that I am traveling with you! Thank you for sharing! You're one of the best blogger here on this site! Keep writing because every single time, I can't wait for your new adventure!!!
26th September 2012

Re: Maya
Hello Maya, thanks for your comment:-) knowing that other travelers enjoy reading my blogs is always a great additional motivation! Glad you enjoyed that one, & thanks for taking the time to write a comment :-)
25th September 2012

Driving out the locals to attract tourists
I'm not sure why tourism authorities in certain places try to create such artificial environments for tourists. This only results in such visitors being distanced from the unique product (whether that be the people, attractions or ambience of a village, town or city) that tourism authorities are trying to promote in the first place. Lovely architecture photos by the way :-)
26th September 2012

Re: Shane
Indeed, totally agree with you, by turning some major tourist sites into "attraction park" authorities impact negatively on what they are trying to promote... A pity but luckily enough so far only saw that once in Colombia (Cartagena) ... Thanks for your comment about the pics :-)

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