The Meat and Potatoes (or in Colombia) The Fruit and Rice
- Flight= $230 (JetBlue)
- Hotel= $120 + points @4 Nights (San Lazario Art Hotel)
- Fun, Food and Drinks= $150
I couldn’t believe it… JetBlue.com came through on a flight to Cartagena, Colombia for a crazy low price of $230. Well, it didn’t take me long to decide whether I was in the mood to get lost in the land of “Romancing the Stone.” Can you guess how old I am? Ah well…
After securing the ticket I did a quick search on various hotel chain websites and found a lovely little spot across the street from an amazing 16th Century Fort, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. I had three days left on my Hotels.com rewards so I went ahead and stayed at the San Lazaro Art Life Style Hotel. The staff was very friendly and extremely helpful in planning excursions (but not at all pushy about “up-selling”). The roof top bar and restaurant gave a lovely view of the nearby fort and internet was easily accessible throughout the hotel. The only thing that may come as a surprise is there was not “hot” water and I only had access to a very nice shower (no bathtub). But frankly, with the heat and humidity, I only ever longed for a nice cool or warm water rinse off, so my needs were absolutely met. I also came to find that hot water is not common in many boutique and smaller hotels.
Some reviews may suggest it’s not in a particularly nice (touristy) area. I found this to be a welcome as I came back to a quiet home when I was ready to sleep. Too many hotels and hostels were next door to the loud venue you were probably ready to leave, but can’t, so I felt like the lucky one. Plus my digs were just a 5-10 minute walk over the bridge and boom, I’m in Getsamani (the up and coming neighborhood, of street art, backpackers and coffee shops). Another 5 minute walk and you’ve entered the walls of the historic district.
Although Cartagena has been a tourist destination for South Americans for a long time, the other continents are just now figuring out what they’ve been missing. Consequently, do not be surprised (or upset) that English is not widely spoken. That’s OK for two reasons.
- Learning the basics is fun (and nobody is rude to you for not knowing). A few simple phrases, pencil and paper (to confirm costs) and friendly hand gestures (don’t forget to smile) is all you really need.
- There’s an app for that… No seriously… we’ve come a long way since the phrase book. Click here to learn more about how incredible the Google Translate app really is.
But if you really want to stay in the shallow end, Getsamani is probably your best bet. With so many inexpensive and beautiful hostels/ boutique hotels, Getsmamani has more experience with English than the rest of the city. It also has some incredible street art. Take an afternoon walk and appreciate the work the locals have done.
Typical Street Art of the Getsemani Neighborhood
Within the historic district, there are plenty of fun things to do for next to nothing. To name just a few:
- Walking around and taking in the sights. If you are like me, you enjoy getting lost in narrow alleys and appreciating the architecture. Meander by hand-crafted wooden balconies, with effulgent flowers, pouring over in shades of purple and pink. One minute, you seem alone, in a passage through the 17th century. The next, you are somewhat overwhelmed by the rickety bicycles, small cars, and small crowds who seem to be coming and going in all directions (darting in and out of doorways). Don’t worry, if it gets to be a bit much, you can always slip into a doorway yourself. You’ll probably find art or clothes… or trinkets… or a cold beverage (and maybe something to nibble on).
- Rent a bicycle. For about two dollars an hour, why wouldn’t you? My only recommendation would be to go earlier in the morning (8- 10 am). If you do find yourself turning into one of the busier streets it can be a little stressful otherwise. But things don’t pick up until about noon anyway. Many people enjoy riding the inner (and outer) parameter of the wall for a casual sight see and of course stop at any cafe of interest (locks and helmets are included). Best of all, the cars aren’t speeding much faster than 3-5 miles an hour as the thin streets prevent quicker movement. This makes the ride a lot more comfortable.
- Going to the Beach. How could you not go to the beach? Lucky for you, Cartagena is on the coast. From Rosario islands to Bocagrande, you really can’t go wrong. If you need more help, check in with your hotel front desk and setup your needs. Some people demand the exclusive, while others desire the closest available. Are you interested in kitesurfing, jet ski, or just want to lay with a coconut, filled with rum and fruit? Many beaches can have a fair number of vendors. A consistent and polite, “no, gracias” was really all I ever needed.
- Museums and Art! The MOMA of Colombia, the old Cathedrals, the Palace of Inquisition; Cartagena has a rich history and burgeoning cultural experience that seems to intertwine seamlessly. Blending centuries of experience, growth, turmoil, and the ambition to go forward into the 21st century, shines in the art all around you. SMALL ADVICE: If you want to save a little money, you can opt out of the guided tours. They are absolutely worth the extra, but I found much of the information provided was either online or on plaques. For me, I just enjoy looking around and reading. By my 5th museum, the guided tours start to add up. Don’t forget: I’m a guerrilla traveler. Someday, I’ll hire a valet to hold my hat (just not today).
- The Food and drink! What exactly is Colombian food? For me, it was a little tough to pin down. With Caribbean, Latin American influences, and access to the Pacific supermarket, Cartagena offers everything and “fresh,” is the main ingredient. Fruits you’ve never seen before stack high in women’s baskets, for prices that will remind you why you there is no Trader Joe’s. Ceviche seemed to be my go-to meal as it was always well prepared and really cheap ($5 maybe). Throw in a couple local beers (Cerveza Aguila or Club Colombia) for one or two dollars more and boom! The belly is full. If your feeling a “little” swanky, Marzola Parrilla Aregntina Steakhouse, offers a wonderful experience without any pretense. A colorful restaurant, steeped in Argentinean love, there are many fish and steak (of course) options to choose from with vegetables and fruits to accompany. The truth is, you really can’t go wrong. Street food to Roof top, the cuisine is all delicious so my only recommendation is to try it all. Be careful and examine the menu before entering. The prices can vary significantly and the food is wonderful everywhere so there’s no need to break the bank even if you are a gourmond.
- Sunset! When all is said and done, the sunset was my favorite way to cap the day (before my evening would start). Whether you pop into the Cafe del Mar (an outdoor bar, high on the wall) for a few cocktails or just a couple cans of beer from the street vendors, you can see the perfect sunset year-round. I preferred just grabbing a space on the wall, with my legs dangling over the side. Being so close to the equator, sunset is pretty much around 6:00 pm, all the time.
Enjoying Cartagena, is simply too easy; It’s wonderful. It’s a real city so don’t be surprised that it’s not all perfectly manicured. You will find some broken sidewalks, some street garbage, and people bustling to and from work on packed busses (we can’t all be on vacation). The heat/ humidity can be influencing, so stay hydrated and dress accordingly. I changed clothes in the evening from shorts and t-shirts to light slacks and loose button shirts (to fit in with the crowd). Whatever you do, love it.
Safe Journey and Good Travels