After buzzing, modern-feeling Medellin and a few days in lush, isolated coffee country, Cartagena came as a surprise. First of all, it was steamy. Every day that we were there it was humid and extremely hot, so much so that we tended to retreat to our air-conditioned room for a few hours each afternoon. You can’t really escape it, though– many people there seem to cope with the heat by finding a spot in the shade outside of their front doors, grabbing a cool drink, and parking in a plastic chair to watch the day go by. It wasn’t just the heat that made the city feel like a Caribbean retreat– sea views, brightly colored colonial buildings, and music everywhere on the streets also contributed. The city is ringed by an 11 km long colonial wall (to keep out pirates!), and features an impressive castle, the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, built in the 1600s and never breached.
We arrived very late on May 8 after a flight from Pereira, a tiny airport not far from our coffee getaway. During the following days we made our way through the walls to the beautiful and surprisingly well-preserved old city. We wandered through the cobblestone streets, passing spanish-style plazas and old churches. Colombia is famous for its emeralds, and we spent some time browsing through a few shops (those lacking aggressive touts outside). Plenty of ice cream and cold fruit juices were consumed along the way.
We explored the pathways on top of the old city walls. The castle itself offered great views and some very dark (and only slightly smelly) tunnels connecting various parts. On Sunday we stumbled across an all-day somewhat scrappy street baseball tournament with players of all ages, blocking off a street near our hotel. It was a great scene– serious players with intent spectators, and then a wider group warming up, just playing catch, or enjoying a drink or some bbq on the street.
Speaking of food and drink, Cartagena has great restaurants and fun bars, and after dark it’s actually comfortable to wander about. The city squares come alive with ramshackle vendor carts, kids up far too late, and (of course) music everywhere.
Cartagena is a must-visit on a first trip to Colombia, and for good reason–it’s beautiful and vibrant. It’s certainly a fun place to spend a few days, but the center is quite touristy (it’s a very popular cruise ship stop) and it was difficult to get a real feel for the place. It was also excessively hot there– did I mention that? We had a great time, but we were ready to move on to Bogota (and the conclusion of our South American adventuring!) after a few days.