Following our two nights in Minca we set our sights on the tourist friendly town of Cartagena a 4/5 hour drive from Santa Marta’s main bus terminal (25,000 COP). Cartagena is famous for its old town, which is located within a magnificent city wall and the district of Bocagrande, which is known as ‘The Miami of Colombia’ – which will either sell it to you or completely put you off depending on your point of view.
The coach from Santa Marta was occupied by ourselves, a surly French couple who shared the same group taxi from Minca to Santa Marta and the rest were Colombians making the journey – my ability to communicate (mime) in Spanish had clearly improved so we felt fairly confident using public transport. I really like taking long drives in foreign countries as it really helps you take in the culture and get a series of snapshots of how the country really is. You have to go through the city of Barranquilla on the journey which is host to one of the biggest football teams in the country and the only prominent team on the Caribbean coast. It amazing to see the favelas with immaculately painted Junior FC logos all over them. Another one of those ‘worth the price of admission’ moments.
Once we arrived in Cartagena bus terminal (word of warning; located a lot further out than you would assume) you realize that you are now in tourist country as you see a significant number of people looking a little bit lost and looking for a hand to hold. My Spanish miming skills were no use here but after a while we managed to get a taxi to our hotel. We paid 12,000 COP from the bus terminal to Getsemani, which considering the journey time was a fairly good rate. Getsemani is just outside the walled city, but as the old town is a one-way system getting a taxi inside the walls might be a bit more expensive! Also, for point of reference, if you’re getting a taxi to Bocagrande it will set you back upwards of 20,000 COP.
We were spending Thursday – Monday in Cartagena so we felt we had time to experience the famous nightlife and explore while it was a little quieter, best of both worlds. After struggling to communicate the majority of our time in Colombia we spent our first evening in a Dutch owned Indonesian restaurant, with an owner who spoke fluent English, a bit of a cop out I know but this was a major help after spending all day travelling.
The town itself is very picturesque and Iberian looking, for anyone who read my post on Lagos it throws up similar feelings and at night it really becomes beautiful. As the town is a lot more touristy than my previous destinations of Santa Marta and Minca the restaurants on the whole seem to be less ‘Colombian-y’ but the quality of food is really high. There are a lot of coffee shops pottered about in which you can get really good empanadas.
The one thing I would recommend saving a day for while in Cartagena is booking a trip to Isla del Rosario, to do some snorkeling or scuba diving, as we’re not PADI qualified it was a case of snorkeling, but this is certainly not a hindrance, as some of the most populated coral is nearly too shallow to swim in so you do not need an oxygen tank to see all the marine life. If you book with the guys we went will it will cost you around £50pp or 200,000 COP (Diving Planet), this includes two dives, transportation to the island, which is about an hour on a speedboat and lunch at the hotel which is used as a base. It's easily worth it, arguably the best money we spent on the trip.
My second favourite moment while in Cartagena was a virtual free-bee (Small price of admission to the city's fort Castillo San Felipe de Barajas), Once we reached the top of the fort you could see out in to the full town, but directly below us was some kind of party/ Sunday gathering for the citizens of Cartagena, complete with fustal style 4 a side football and baseball. I ended up spending an hour watching the locals play football from the top of the fort. This was probably the point in which I most felt I was seeing the 'real' Colombia, even my girlfriend wanted to stay and watch the games with a beer. Although now she will never get an invite to see me play as they all far exceeded my level of ability.
I don’t really need to recommend much in the way of nightlife in Cartagena because it is everywhere you look, there is no doubt in my mind if you walk around the walled city and Getsemani you’ll find a number of bars which will take your fancy. There is a great little bar on the main street in Getsemani which leads in to the walled city, I think it is a hostel bar, but it has a very chilled out vibe, and like much of the Old Town shows off a lot of Cuban influence. I've forgotten the name, and cant seem to find it online so if anyone recognized the art below please do let me know in the comments section.
In closing Cartagena is a fun town, lots of tourism pasos to spend, so you’ll never be bored. The two hotels we stayed in where nice, because of a couple of booking mishaps (one my fault and one not) we ended up staying in two of the higher end hotels in the area, 'Friends To Be' is built in to an old fort and has a very unique look, they have private rooms and traditional hostel dorms so its suitable for all. The second hotel really saved our arse and I think we benefited from it being new as it was not booked up on a Saturday night. It's called 'Hotel Casa Tere Boutique' and is a really nice little boutique hotel, with awesome staff, (there are a couple of criticisms on Trip Advisor which are no longer relevant as they've appeared to fix them.)
I'd love to return to Cartagena, as it is a brilliant way to break up a 'backpacker' type trip and just enjoy being a gringo for a couple of days.
Cheers for reading,