Cartagena, the city of love, or boredom?

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August 12th 2013
Published: August 13th 2013
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Palomino to Cartagena

In the last blog i mentioned that we were heading out to Palomino, a place that we had heard so many good things about from locals and gringos alike, however, we were a bit disappointed.

The collectivo trip out there took us through some beautiful scenery, winding up and down rolling lush jungle mountains, and then skirting alongside Caribbean beaches for a little over 2 hours in a cramped and hot little van. At times buying strange fruits like mamon, something like a grape crossed with a lychee, from vendors on the side of road, and surprisingly not getting stopped by the numerous police checks that dotted the road east to Palomino.

Dropped off at the main town, more so a collection of corner stores and houses for the local fisherman, it was either a 20 minute walk to the beach or a short ride on a motorbike taxi. Deeming it too risky to hop on the back of a 125cc motorbike with 30kg's of backpacks, we begrudgingly took the more rigorous option. Walking on sand in thongs and weighed down with a backpack on your front and back is not much chop in 35 degree heat and high humidity, and by the time we made it to the beach the three of us were covered in sweat and dirt that had been swirled up by the moto taxis ferrying people to and from the town.

What greeted us was a long stretch of beach, with numerous hostels and restaurants that must have only popped up in the last few years, and groups of gringos aimlessly walking around with beers in their hands or lieing on the beach lobstering themselves. It was gringo ground zero. The waves were quite choppy, with a lot of rips and strong currents causing it to look like a washing machine. I think we were spoiled by the beauty of Tayrona and held high expectations, which inevitably were not met.

We trudged up and down the beach with our backpacks on, looking for reasonably priced accommodation, which we eventually did find, but in a bit of a dump. The original plan was to stay for 2 or 3 nights, but we all concurred that one night would be sufficient. After a swim where it was only possible to go waste deep for fear of being sucked out into the Caribbean, we had a fairly decent meal and then sat on the beach drinking rum, and listening to the waves crashing into, and eroding the beach. Although it was quite peaceful and enjoyable, one night here was enough, which was reinforced when i stood in a fresh dog turd that some pooch had strategically planted in the middle of the beach.

After a quick swim and some breakfast the next morning, we packed up and walked up to the main road to find a collectivo to take us back to Santa Marta. The guys at the hostel were surprised to see us back so quickly, but they had a room for us, and life had returned to the way it was before we left. We were only going to stay in Santa Marta for a few days over the weekend to enjoy the night life, before making the trip down the coast to Cartagena, but this turned into a week. During the day we would make our way to Taganga beach or cool off in the drop pool at the hostel, and at night we would eat well and then head out to bars, Salsa clubs, or a nightclub perched on the headland overlooking Taganga. A lot of the familiar faces from our previous stay were either still there, or had returned from other short trips and we had some memorable nights. One night, a massive storm vented its fury for 3 hours, with constant lightning flaring up the sky and thunder hard enough to make your insides shake, and soon the streets were turned into rivers. In places it was 40cm deep, and as cars slowly made their way through the torrent, the water from the wake would lap at peoples doorsteps. Once the rain stopped, the water quickly flowed down the streets towards the sea taking all sorts of rubbish along with it.

Another reason for extending our stay in Santa Marta is that we had heard mixed reports about Cartagena. Some people loved it, but many more said that they were not taken by the place. So we decided to head in for 4 days over the weekend. Instead of getting a bus, we opted for the easier choice of getting a hostel to hostel minivan service, removing the pain of having to get taxi's to and from the respective bus terminals. Considering the driver did this trip 5 days a week, he was clueless as to how to navigate around the old town of Cartagena and the suburb of Getsemani, where we had arranged accommodation. After circling the block 5 times and asking countless locals for directions he finally managed to get us, quite amusingly, to our hostel.

Everyone said that Cartagena would be much hotter then Santa Marta, but it was the opposite, it is still in the 30's during the day, but it dips off at night, usually assisted by storms that seem to form in the late afternoon. The old city, which is encircled by a wall built by the Spanish over a few centuries to keep the pirates out, is very pretty. With narrow lanes lined with big beautiful houses with large balconies over looking the street, and many with bouganvilla's weaving up the walls, often starting from cracks in the walls were the vine has found a suitable home to form its base. There are vendors trying to flog all sorts of wares, from fake football shirts to paintings to trips on one of the many horse and carriages that trot around the city, and some coca. But they are not as aggressive, or pushy as the ones in say Cusco, and it's not too in your face, and bearable. In fact it is a nice city, but a couple of days is really all that is needed, the old city is small and can we walked around in an afternoon, including walking on top of the wall in its entirety. The night life is ok, but you are limited to gringo bars, a handful of local bars or expensive nightclubs that charge exorbitant entry fees and ridiculous prices for drinks. It is much more enjoyable going up to Plaza Trinidad where locals conjugate every night, drinking beers, eating street food, playing football, and chatting away. This has been going for hundreds of years, and it has a nice relaxed feel. Apparently there are free Zumba classes on Sunday nights at the plaza, but a massive storm crashed its way in yesterday, and did not let up for the rest of the night, so we missed out. Mind you it would take a silly amount of beer to get me up there doing Zumba...

Outside of the city, it is not really possible to explore, as the surrounding areas are very poor and its a bit sketchy. As the city became more touristic, the price of living in the city went up, resulting in a lot of people being forced out of the old areas. It is possible to take a tour to Playa Blanca, a beautiful looking beach on an island a short distance off shore, but it is silly expensive to get there and apparently you get hassled incessantly from vendors. After Santa Marta where we could get a bus to the beach for 70c it's just not worth it. We will wait for Central America to get some more beach time.

So in summary, yes Cartagena is beautiful, but a short stay is enough for us. Tomorrow we fly to Medellin, a nice break from the heat up in the hills.

Additional photos below
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Fruit ladyFruit lady
Fruit lady

One of the many sculptures in Cartagena depicting every day life

14th August 2013 the streets?
It is much more enjoyable going up to Plaza Trinidad where locals conjugate every night, drinking beers, eating street food, playing football, and chatting away....what an interesting place! Back from Noosa which was much too short a stay. Wedding all pretty organised. Love M n M

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