Colombia gets a lot of love from backpackers, but no city within the newly minted go-to destination gets as much love as Cartagena. A small coastal town with a culture all its own — a vibrant mix of Afro-Caribbean-Spanish — Cartagena is called the jewel of the Colombian coast in my Footprints guidebook, and after spending five days there, we can understand why.
I mean, seriously, have you ever seen such beautiful colors paint a city? I couldn’t get enough of it.
The set-up of the city is also something interesting to note. Its center is surrounded by a wall — thereby giving it the name “the walled city” — a tactic used by the Spanish to protect their artillery back in the 1500s.
We didn’t do much sight-seeing beyond walking around the city and inspecting the wall, but we made up for it big time by sampling the local cuisine. The best way to do so is by ordering the set lunch menus, which run at an economical $5-7. It usually includes meat (often fish because it’s on the coast), rice (sometimes the local speciality of arroz con coco, or coconut rice), mashed and fried plantains called patacon and salad.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on the tropical fruit. In drinks or on their own, the fruit was spectacular. We made it our mission to try as much as we could.
Lulo, best served in drinks:
Limonada with coconut:
The street vendors told us the get their fruits, not at a special market, but at the grocery store, so that’s where we went:
Maracuya (spiky yellow), grandilla (looks like an orange) and hijo (in Eaman’s hands):
Breakdown of the grandilla. First, a weird, sponge cake-like inside:
Tangy, crunchy seeds to be scooped out and eaten:
When we weren’t stuffing our faces with local cuisine, we were hanging out at our hostel, El Viajero, probably the most “party hostel” we’ve had so far. The set-up was great, with a long common patio for everyone to chat, drink and, in the case of the night we got in, learn champeta (a super, um, sensual local dance) and salsa from the bartender girl.
Hostel party excursion to nearby hostel, Medialuna. We hung out on the hostel’s balcony, but this was the scene below. Very New Orleans:
Live band, playing Colombian fare at the hostel party:
Back at 3:30am, Eaman found a guitar and a fellow backpacker decided to read Game of Thrones:
Oh, and beyond all those other goodies, Cartagena was HOT. You may remember me complaining about how chilly Bogota was. Well, it was humid and in the 90s every day. I never, ever take cold showers — even in NYC’s muggy July and August temps — but they only offered cold showers at the hostel. And you know what? I loved it. That’s how hot it was.
The temperature also made it all the more perfect for a two-day trip to Playa Blanca, a picture-postcard beach on the island of Baru, just an hour boat ride from Cartagena. It’s a bit of a cluster**** trying to get there because, of all the places that people hassle you to buy stuff in Cartagena — and there are a lot — it’s the worst at the port leaving for Playa Blanca. It’s actually worse than the bazaars of Cairo, if you can believe it.
But once you get to the island and once the boats leave for the day around 4 p.m., you have this beautiful place set on the Carribbean to yourself:
We slept overnight in hammocks for $3, swam in what may have been the warmest water I’ve ever felt at a beach and bonded with a new group of friends — three Brazilians, two Swiss and one Argentinian from our hostel who came to the playa on the same day. It’s funny because at the last two hostels we’ve stayed it, I felt misplaced and had difficulty connecting with people. But on the beach, we became a little clan who did everything together — whether we were dancing on the beach or arguing with the restaurant that took two hours to bring out our order. It’s interesting how friendships shape so quickly when you’re isolated.
It was usually deserted, but this was pick-up time for everyone to go back to Cartagena, hence the masses:
It was particularly unclear the day we went to snorkel, but we did see some fish and picked up seashells:
Playing with my camera’s functions:
Coconut water and leftover coconut to be eaten:
It was heaven — except for the raging sand flies, who were in full force the day and night we were there. We would’ve definitely stayed another night if it weren’t for our flight to Medellin because despite the number of people that go there, it still felt special and serene.
For an even better look at Cartagena, I highly recommend watching part one of Anthony Bourdain’s trip to Colombia for his Travel Channel series No Reservations. (Note: We wanted to go to the ceviche place he visits in the episode, but we had heard it’s gotten expensive and touristy since it aired.)