Cartagena – Our Last Taste of the Caribbean

Playa Blanca, Isla Baru

Our journey to Cartagena was on a tourist transfer bus that picked us up from La Brisa Loca, made a couple of quick stops then headed to Cartagena. Looking out of our windows on the journey we saw our first taste of poor rural Colombia. There were miles and miles of simple, often unfinished, terracotta brick or concrete box houses with corrugated tin roofs on small, sometimes rubbish strewn, plots opening onto unpaved roads. Some of these were more elaborate, plastered and painted at the front, with additional sections, front walls and gardens, but many were basic 5m by 3m boxes that had obviously been put up purely to provide a roof over the owners heads.

The view from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
The view from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

In many ways rural Colombia reminded me of Africa, and shows that in a country that in many ways seems very developed that there is still a population living in very real poverty and a high level of wealth inequality between the cities and the countryside. At the other end of the spectrum Colombia’s cities have been a surprise, offering a similar variety of quality products and services that you would find in any European city. From the food we’ve eaten, especially in the more locally orientated restaurants in Bogota, it is clear that Colombia has a large and culturally astute middle class. On one of our first days in Bogota an old Colombian lady had told us (when we told her where we came from) that Europe was the first world and that Colombia was a third world country. We were puzzled by this comment at the time but while we still don’t necessarily agree with her, we can at least start to see where she was coming from.

We arrived in Cartagena from the east which took us past the airport and pretty much straight into the historic centre. We were dropped off at El Genoves, our hostel for the first night.

The staff on reception spoke not a word of English but were extremely nice and we managed fine with our Spanish (Alex only had to explain a few bits to me). The building that housed El Genoves is a beautiful old Colonial building complete with an internal courtyard and has been sympathetically restored with beautiful blue stained carved wooden doors, heavy naïve decorative ironwork and terracotta tiles and cascading foliage and flowers everywhere. The room on the first floor had a private balcony looking over the pool, a lovely bathroom with the largest rainfall shower head that I’ve ever seen, and only a slight musty smell.

Colonial Architecture and Flowers – a typical Cartagena street
Colonial Architecture and Flowers – a typical Cartagena street

We got changed and went straight out for dinner. We’d seen online a place around the corner that seemed to have an extensive vegetarian menu and good reviews. On walking out of the hostel we headed to the nearest plaza and immediately got distracted by a cocktail at a bar with tables outside. They weren’t the cheapest but they made a decent Mojito. In fact, as we once again set off to the restaurant, we were again distracted by a Cuban bar selling cigars and advertising 2 for 1 happy hour on Mojitos. In order to have a fair comparison we decided to give them a go, and they were good enough that we went back there on at least half of the remaining nights in Cartagena.

We finally made it to the road where we expected to find the restaurant. We couldn’t find it but we did find another restaurant which had a dedicated vegetarian menu that included seitan, something which I’ve made at home but never seen on a restaurant menu. Although the restaurant was reasonably quiet we decided to give a go and were pleasantly surprised. My seitan was pretty delicious and although I don’t often tend to eat vegetarian meat substitutes (excluding BBQs), knowing that this would probably be my last for some time I was pretty satisfied. Alex opted for the fish with rice and plantain (a pretty popular local dish along the coast) which she was also delighted with. Tired from the travelling we decided to get an early night.

A street scene in Cartagena
A street scene in Cartagena

We awoke the next morning and went down to breakfast, provoking a flurry of activity with the staff quickly providing cereal, toast, juice and scrambled eggs. After our hearty breakfast we headed out to explore the city.

The historic centre of Cartagena consists of a small area that was once an island surrounded on three sides by the remainder of the city wall. The fourth side of the wall that was demolished in the early 20th century borders Getsemani, a slightly grittier neighbourhood that was once an island on it’s own. Past Getsemani on a hill sits the imposing Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the largest fort in the Americas.

Alex takes aim
Alex takes aim

We decided to wander around pretty much aimlessly trying to get a feel of this historic city and quickly came across the museum of San Pedro de Claver, a Spanish saint who is famous for helping the slaves and campaigning for their equal rights. The explanation in the museum was all in Spanish and mostly beyond the basics that we know but we at least managed to get the gist of it. Either way the building was a beautiful example of colonial architecture which in itself was worth the entry price just to see.

Enemies on the Horizon
Enemies on the Horizon

We carried on walking and eventually wandered past the museo Naval de Caribe. The gentlemen at the entrance had served in the merchant Navy for 25 years and was keen to tell us about his trips to London and Liverpool so we wandered into the museum. The ground floor gave a complete and detailed history of Cartagena and the various attempts by the British and other colonial powers to take it, due to it’s position as the gateway to the continent. Again the explanation was mostly in Spanish but we were able to understand a little more of the language here and were helped by a few English translations and lots of maps, pictures etc. to explain all of the attacks and the subsequent attempts to fortify the city. Upstairs was an interactive exhibition on the modern Navy including a mock up of a submarine with ‘working’ equipment. I won’t lie we played with all of it, and I can proudly say that the child inside me thoroughly enjoyed sounding the “abandon ship” siren even though it did make Alex jump!

The only work we'll be doing for the next 6 months
The only work we’ll be doing for the next 6 months

We walked out of the museum and were immediately approached by a guide offering us a free walking tour of the city. As it happened by chance we’d wandered past the meeting point for the walking tour at the exact time that it was due to start. Seeing a few other tourists sitting around waiting we decided to join them. The tour itself was actually really interesting and we spending the next two hours walking around the historic centre, finding out about the history and discovering why Cartagena is known as ‘El Heroica’.

After the tour we headed out for a drink with a few of the guys on the tour. As they were all around 18-24 and on restricted budgets we found a Supermarket, bought a few beers then walked up the city walls to watch the sun go down. We sat metres from Café Del Mar where tourists were paying three times what we were for the same experience. A few hours later we went for dinner with the group (the cheapest meal we’ve had so far) and while we were eating outside we were accosted by a couple of rappers who proceeded to give us a personalised rap performance. They started off by referring to one of the guys by the name of a famous footballer, and me as Leonardo di Caprio. I was thoroughly enjoying my apparently obvious resemblance to the Hollywood star when they referred to Alex as Beyoncé. While laughing we realised that the criteria to nominate the characters in the performance was probably more based on our sex than anything else, and they hadn’t in fact just freestyled their rap based on our genuine similarities to celebrities. Since we were sitting outside dinner included a few more impromptu disturbances including more rappers, a variety of people selling stuff and even a mime artist! After dinner we headed off to explore the local bars.

Street Art on the front of Bacco Trattoria, we later ate dinner here
Street Art on the front of Bacco Trattoria, we later ate dinner here

This group was a pretty interesting bunch of people, all solo travellers and all with different backgrounds and experience. Jimmy was 18, teetotal and had just spent a few months volunteering in Costa Rica. Judy was from Belgium, with a good outlook on life, had worked as a bartender and wanted to travel indefinitely. Veniece was from Florida, into the spiritual and was planning to find a job and settle in Chile. Annie was 21, German, teetotal, quiet but as a solo female traveller had been on the move for months, couch surfing and learning Spanish. Finally Tim had worked with mainframes then packed it up and had been traveling on his own for months. We shared a similar sense of humour and it was great to hang out with the guys for a few hours over the evening. Soon enough we’d all had sufficient beer for the night so we made our way to bed.

Since our first hostel, El Genoves, only had a bed for the first night, we’d moved to another hostel that day. The new hostel, El Viajero, was around the corner but we’d only been able to secure a room with a shared bathroom. The room itself had a high ceiling with a book stuck to one wall. Pages fluttered out of the book over the back wall and eventually led to a large Spanish text on one wall which roughly translated reads:

“The world is an open book and those who do not travel only read the first page”

The room was clean and comfortable and both the showers and toilets were nearby so we were happy enough.

The next morning we woke up with a sharp reminder that we are 31 and are far too old to be drinking with guys in their early 20s! Luckily we had some admin to do so we spent the time reading up on where to go next and booked our flight to Ecuador. That afternoon we decided to walk a circuit of the city walls and then had dinner at Bacco Trattoria. When the waitress realised that I was vegetarian she was really keen for me to try to homemade goats cheese and pumpkin tortellini but I was dying for a pizza. I made the right choice as the pizza was delicious!

'Papa' bails out our canoe
‘Papa’ bails out our canoe

The next day we’d decided to do a tour of the mangroves outside Cartagena. There were only four of us on the tour and the first stop was lunch. Lunch was served at a basic little restaurant next to the beach. Since we were on the coast Alex had the fish and I had some rice, beans, plantain and salad. Although mine wasn’t the most exciting I hadn’t eaten much Colombian food and it was all very fresh and tasty. After we’d finished eating there was a commotion on the beach with loads of people crowded round a small rowing boat. We headed over to have a look and it turned out to be the local fishermen bringing in a catch. The commotion was the locals crowded round to buy the fish. Right in the middle of the crowd was the owner of our restaurant and he proceeded to buy a small pile of the fish, many of which we suspected would be on plates within the hour. Although the restaurant was pretty basic, fish rarely gets fresher!

Exploring the Mangroves
Exploring the Mangroves

After lunch we walked over to an old wooden canoe which “Papa” our guide had to bail out first. Praying it was rainwater that he was bailing out we climbed in and he punted us into the thick mangroves. Over the next hour he took us through the mangroves spotting birds, crabs and very briefly a cat-like creature. Eventually we made it to the park of pre-Colombian history which is a grand name for walking around the garden of an island dwelling family. The exhibits consisted of clay replicas of pottery produced by pre-Colombian civilisations including an “erotic culture” section which in all honesty didn’t really further our understanding of pre-Colombian civilisations. After this short diversion we headed back into the canoe and punted the final few kilometres to our departure point. Unfortunately this last few kilometres really just highlighted the threat to the mangroves from human incursion. We were now nearer to the beach and our silence was disrupted by the sounds of pumping music while a debris of plastic packaging littered the mangroves either side of the canoe. Unfortunately few visitors to Cartagena will choose to see this side of the city, so we felt pretty privileged to be able to explore something that may not be there indefinitely.

That evening we ate at El-Arabe, a middle eastern restaurant where I had a mezze plate to rival anything I’ve had in London, including on Edgware road!

Exploring Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Exploring Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

The next day we walked to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the largest fort in the Americas. It’s a short walk from the historic centre but made to feel a little longer by the baking heat. As it turned out we’d arrived on a day where Colombians got free entry and a free guided tour, however there is no reason that the Colombian government should subsidise us so we had to pay for the tickets, and almost by accident, we bought a private guided tour of the fort. We walked up to where we’d been told to find our guide, asked for an English speaking guide and, after a little head scratching, they located a man who spoke perfect English and off we went. We were immediately glad that we had a guide as there were no signposts or explanations anywhere and our guide went into great detail explaining the history and architectural features that made the fort hard to attack. We then descended into the underground tunnels that connect the gun batteries and were shown all of the various features that would make life difficult for any of the attackers. At

Alex stands guard in the sentry box at Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Alex stands guard in the sentry box at Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

one point we were led down a pitch black section of the tunnel feeling our way by the walls alone to show how hard it would have been for any attackers to navigate. An hour later we’d finished the tour, taken a few photos and, with the fort increasingly overrun by local kids, we decided to head back into the centre. We walked back via Getsemani, a less restored, more bohemian district where some old colonial buildings sat abandoned and seemingly held together by the vegetation growing through them. Dinner was at Pizza en el Parque where we sat outside on a balcony looking over the plaza. For probably the first time since arriving in Cartagena we sat outside, free of air conditioning and didn’t immediately regret it. We must have been acclimatising as they had to put our red wine in an ice bucket to bring it down to the correct temperature!

The next day we’d booked a tour to Playa Blanca on Baru Island and, on the way there, we got acquainted with the rest of the guys on the tour. These included Deborah, an American from Seattle who worked in events and was effectively homeless, traveling the world in between major racing events. Danny was another American who worked for

Playa Blanca - Isla Baru
Playa Blanca – Isla Baru

an NGO while Anthony was an Irish actuary from Cork who helped us blend in by being a white as us. There was also a Frenchman who detested Paris and most of his countrymen, and a Colombian taking a long weekend off work. When we arrived at the beach itself we discovered a long thin strip of beautiful white sand and a perfectly clear turquoise sea. The sea was so warm that it barely cooled us off so we spent a few hours lying on the beach regularly re-applying suntan lotion and occasionally heading for a swim. There were quite a few other tourists at the beach without it feeling packed and we were constantly approached by people trying to sell us goods  although when these were fruit, beer or cocktails we didn’t mind too much. In fact even the sellers of general tat weren’t too persistent, except for the masseuses who seemed to latch onto one of the group and attempt to massage them until they either relented or one of the other members of the group put them out of their misery. We eventually wandered down the beach for some lunch, accosting the owner of the restaurant as he was bringing in a fresh catch and insisting on him cooking it for us. After lunch we then wandered back up to the minibus for our trip home. On our way down to the restaurant we’d managed to pick up a random Canadian who looked just like the archetypal traveller with a bandana, beard, guitar and plenty of stories to tell us. On our way back to the van he seemed to drift off just as quickly as he arrived and we never saw him again.

Playa Blanca, Isla Baru
Playa Blanca, Isla Baru

By the time we got home we realised that despite our fairly attentive application of suncream we had managed to burn, with the tops of both of my feet and both of our backs and shoulders having taken the brunt of it. We realised that my feet had been burned on the 10 minute walk down the beach as I had put suncream on them as soon as we sat down. From the lines on our backs we realised that they had been burned after we got out of the water for the last time during our 10 minute walk to lunch. In both cases we hadn’t worried too much as we were only exposed for a few minutes and had re-applied suncream as soon as we got to our destination! How wrong we were. Alex was also feeling like she might have a little sunstroke, so we headed back to Bacco for an early dinner (trying the recommended and very tasty pasta dish this time) and a good night’s sleep.

A bell tower, Cartagena
A bell tower, Cartagena

The next day was our last full day in Cartagena. The flight to our next destination went only every other day and we knew that by leaving a day earlier we would have missed a few things that were on our list. By now however we’d done everything that we really wanted to do in Cartagena. Keen not to waste a day we headed over to the museum at the Palacio de la Inquisicion which had been closed when we’d previously tried to visit. We hadn’t heard particularly positive things about the museum so weren’t expecting much, however, as my knowledge of the Spanish Inquisition only goes as far as that it is generally unexpected, I was keen to learn a little more. As it happened they were just finishing off modernising the museum with an expensive re-fit containing lots of text about the history of the Inquisition in Cartagena so it was actually quite informative. Coupled with an exhibition upstairs about the history of Cartagena it made for a diverting hour or so.

Museo del Oro, Cartagena
Museo del Oro, Cartagena

Since we were now checking the museum boxes of Cartagena we discovered that the gold museum was both across the square from us and free, so we decided to wander in. It wasn’t a huge museum but explained the history of the Pre-Colombian and Columbian goldsmiths and showed some very delicate work created using a lost gold casting technique (which seemed a lot less lost after they’d explained how it worked). Note from Alex – the technique was called the lost-wax technique, it was the wax that was lost not the technique, obviously he wasn’t paying that much attention to it! We spent the rest of the day wandering around Cartagena and went back to Anacardos (the place with the veggie menu) for our last night’s dinner where I had a delicious brown rice Paella.

Alex on the city walls at sunset
Alex on the city walls at sunset

Our flight out of Cartagena was at 07:30 in the morning so it was an early night for us and an early start. Luckily we found a taxi relatively easily and, although he had to stop on the way to the airport to fill the tank in the driver’s boot with LPG, we arrived in good time and checked in our bags. I’ll leave the story at this point with us heading easily through security. Our next stop is Salento, a tiny town in the tropical central coffee growing region of Colombia where we’ll be walking in the mountains and tasting the finest Colombian coffee!

Here’s a few more photos that didn’t make it into the text above!

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

2 thoughts on “Cartagena – Our Last Taste of the Caribbean”

  1. Love the photos, Alex I recognise the new sandals (and skirt!). sounds like not only are you seeing a lot you’re also making a lot of transitory friends on your way, always makes life more interesting xx

  2. Great blog, so jealous! Both looking very well. And I always did think you looked a bit like Leo, Chris!

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