If you’ve ever been the type of person who is shy about wearing colors, ruffles, skirts that twirl when you dance, (or if you’re a guy: Panama hats and leather hand-made sandals with your short colorful shorts) then you may want to consider stepping outside your box for a bit and open up to the way of life the “costeños,” embody.
My husband and I spent an entire three weeks in Cartagena. We arrived late at night, and Juan Pablo (a good friend from my husbands Barcelona days many moons ago) received us at the small airport. We had just enough time to throw our bags in the spare room, throw on a wrinkled dress and for my husband Alberto, a dress shirt over jeans, and run out the door. As I walked out of the room, Juan Pablo says, “I don’t think Nicole wants to go out, she’s wearing a nightgown,” and in my mind I muttered “Hippie-California-girl-dress, strike one.”
Juan Pablo took us to his new club he was preparing for opening the next week called La Jugada in the center of the old walled city. It has a tasteful theme of art deco with contemporary geometric patterns and on the second floor, a fabulous repeating jungle wallpaper with hidden elephants and zebras throughout. The dim backlighting and disco ball glitter give it a dance club feel. From the small terrace on top, you can see the glowing tower of the Cartagena Cathedral. Once inside, gawking at all of the glamorous people he had invited for the exclusive pre-opening, I realized why my dress could be taken as a nightgown. All the women were sporting short, tight, clubbing dresses, or sleek jumpers, or flowing chiffon fabrics, and all with heels most girls in the U.S. wouldn’t dare to try walking in, not to mention their bold jewelry and makeup.
We socialized with friends of Juan Pablo, who despite their intimidating clothes were full of smiles and questions about who we were, what our plans were here, and recommendations of their favorite places in Colombia.
The next day we assumed the role of typical tourists perusing the colorful, well-preserved colonial streets of Cartagena’s walled city. I couldn’t make it one block without stopping for a photo. From the afro-Carribean culture with the women carrying fruit on their heads dressed in traditional dresses to the climbing flowers whose color complimented perfectly the paint on the wall they were climbing, I was impressed at how vibrant this city is. We met up with friends from Alberto’s Santa Cruz-based company and had some inventive food at La Cevichería. A warm ceviche sounds not so pleasant on the menu, but is absolutely delicious! Make sure to also order the pulpo (octopus) ceviche, simple and flavorful.
For our days in Cartagena, my husband Alberto was working Tuesday through Friday, and so I was in the company of some fellow gringos trying everything here for the first time. The first lesson in new food: An “Arepa,” is a thick corn-flour tortilla, sometimes filled with things, sometimes topped with things, and almost always including a margarine butter flavor on the outside. We tried a cheese-filled arepa from the street vendor, and it was reminiscent of the richness of movie theater popcorn.
Another surprising realization of the Colombian food is the lack of spice. Not that it doesn’t have seasoning, but that it is not “Picante,” or spicy. Even if you ask for “Salsa,” they will not understand what exactly it is you want. I learned a new word for chile, as you must ask for “Ají,” pronouncing the “j,” like an “h.”
In Cartagena, be prepared to sweat a lot. It is on the Caribbean coast and has a humid climate. According to our host, we came during the cooler month of March when the wind is blowing more strongly. Also, be prepared to bring home a lot of souvenirs. I found myself constantly reminding myself that I could not fit more things in my already packed to the brim backpack. Nonetheless, I now find myself with a beautiful new hat (Visit the shop Artesenias Colombianas for excellent quality) and a gorgeously designed Colombian swimsuit from Maaji (also sold in the states, but with the exchange rate it was about half the price!)
For more food recommendations, make sure to try “La Mulata,” in the Walled City. They have traditional Colombian dishes at great prices. For a more upscale experience try Maria, right across from La Jugada, or Cande, also within the walled city. Many backpackers stay in Getsemaní, and there’s a great pizza place called Di Silvio Trattoria with lots of variety. The one with pear and pancetta was my personal favorite.
If you can, try to organize a day on a sailboat. We were fortunate enough to have Juan Pablo’s friend invite us on a tour of the Islas del Rosario where Juan Pablo’s grandfather had built a house on one of the islands, and which the family still uses as their weekend getaway. The water is that famous Caribbean turquoise, and some spots offer good snorkeling around coral reefs.
We also did a day trip to La Playa Blanca, as our Lonely Planet guidebook recommended it as a beautiful stretch of beach, and a friend who had traveled through reported staying there for a few days. I was shocked by the hoards of people and mounds of burning trash. The sand and the water were beautiful but the overall image was tarnished by the over-populated chaos and lack of local concern for the wellbeing of the beach.
After the immersion of Playa Blanca, we stopped at a friend’s restaurant called “El Pescador de Los Colores,” on the way back to town. It is a secluded, luxury space with daybeds and floating sheer white fabrics. The food is superb, and the watermelon juice-infused Moscow mule was heaven. They even have a dock if you want to drive your own boat in.
For another lively night, Juan Pablo introduced us to this other club, La Movida. Already a local favorite, it was busy with people dancing and drinking, and a little more relaxed feel than La Jugada. There are two rooms with different music playing, so if you feel like reggaeton, you can head to the back room to try your salsa moves, or if you feel like something more new age and less pop, stay towards the front of the house.
After spending three weeks in Cartagena, you realize something: All of the sunsets are the same. They go by quickly, and they are a romantic red. I recommend getting a seat early at the Cafe del Mar on top of the wall, and sipping a mojito while you watch the sun submerge into the ocean. Another option is arriving at the “Castillo,” which is more accurately described as a military fortress, before 6 pm and walking to the top to watch the sunset.
Other things you recognize: People are very friendly and happy to help. Kids might chase you down and surround you on the street while they rap about you in Spanish and then ask you for money. There are horse-drawn carriages everywhere as your taxis, or there are also real yellow cabs that will honk at you four times just to make sure you saw them. The streets are well-lit at night, and many nights we made the choice to forgo a taxi so we could walk on the outside of the city along the waterfront. And lastly, if you stay there three weeks you might start seriously considering how to make this your permanent home.
So as to not overstay our gracious host’s welcome, Alberto and I booked a weekend to Tayrona National Park, about a 4-hour trip away. After that, on to explore more of South America. We won’t be back to Cartagena on this vacation, but we will certainly be back some day.