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Cartagena, Colombia

an authentic experience

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

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At the end of March 2021 travel advisories by American and Canadian governments increased for Colombia due primarily to COVID-19 but also for potential violence in parts of the countryside. In retrospect, my 2020 trip to Cartagena seems like a fantasy. The greatest danger I encountered was beach vendors wanting to slather me with suntan oil. I only experienced the tourist areas so can't speak for the entire city or rest of the country.


It was our last trip before the sudden pandemic lockdown, a spur of the moment decision in the middle of the Canadian winter to go someplace warm that we'd never been. Illusory bubble or not, we took off from Toronto with a cheap flight + hotel package to be tourists in the tropics.

Flight over the Caribbean

We checked into the austere 3-star Be Live Experience Cartagena Dubai high rise on the Bocagrande hotel strip. The hotel had a Middle East theme, complete with distinctive dhow-shaped fronting. The amiable doorman, Jorge, had fled the turmoil of Venezuela looking for work. We became instant buds for the week. A highlight of the location was breathtaking rooftop panoramas of old town, harbour and surrounding hotels and residences. If only the meals were as inspiring.

Aerial view of Bocagrande beaches, Cartagena, Colombia
aerial view of Bay of Cartagena, Cartagena, Colombia.jpg
Aerial view of Bocagrande Peninsula apartments and hotels, Cartagena, Colombia.jpg
Aerial view of apartments, Bocagrande, Cartagena, Colombia

Like the locals, we absorbed caffeine at the nearby Juan Valdez Café, one of a small chain. The name is a takeoff on some old TV ads portraying a humble Juan and his burro transporting beans to market. These days Juan has even made it to the airport with a café catering to your in-flight buzz.

Juan Valdez coffee shop interior, Bocagrande, Cartagena, Colombia.jpg
Juan Valdez coffee shop interior, Bocagrande, Cartagena, Colombia.jpg.jpg

Beaches were the main draw for people who came to the peninsula, though not so much for us. We soaked up some daily vitamin D from the morning rays, had a swim before lunch, then went sightseeing. Unfortunately, one day I lost my sunglasses to a rogue wave. Somewhere there's a fish who  looks swimmingly like Joe Cool.

Beach scene, Bocagrande, Cartagena, Colombia.

Each day we'd make either a 25-minute walk or catch a crowded local mini bus (a chiva) to the historic part of the city. At night these buses reverberate with Latino music guaranteed to keep you from sleeping past your stop. From the plaza in front of Iglesia de San Pedro Claver (patron saint of slaves) you'll see a classic view of the cathedral.

House balconies and Cartagena Cathedral

Vehicular traffic is scarce in the historic section and tends to move at a one-horse trot.

Horse-drawn carriages, Cartagena, Colombia

A display of hats in the central market is topped with a row of Panamas — more than appropriate, since Panama borders Colombia to the north. Tempting, but I resisted the urge to switch my trusty Tilley for Panama panache. Instead, we bought a bag of coffee beans from a lady in her tiny shop. Another vendor translated for us to cement the deal. The beans turned out to be so so, but at least we made a small contribution to the local economy and international relations.

Hat display

Murals, some quite elaborate, are displacing graffiti in the traditional neighbourhood of Getsemaní, just across Parque del Centenario from the central historic district. Everywhere pocket-size houses are being turned into boutique hotels, restaurants and B&Bs.

Man and woman painting a wall mural in Getsemani district

Café del Mural is a Getsemani neighbourhood coffee shop with a popular guidebook following. They offer tastings, wi-fi and a cool vibe. Unfortunately, my specialty coffee was overground and mostly sludge. They owe me one.

Cup of coffee, Café del Mural, Getsemani neighbourhood, Cartagena, Colombia
Café del Mural is a Getsemani neighbourhood coffee shop

Weddings in the cathedral traditionally conclude with a walk through the streets while the couple is fêted by a dance troupe. I waited patiently outside for this moment.

Newlyweds kissing outside Cartagena Cathedral

Who can refuse silent kisses from  a street mime?

A street mime gives a silent kiss

Wind surfers glide past the 11 km / 6.8 mile ramparts surrounding the Old Town.

wind surfing, colonial ramparts, Juan Valdez coffee shop interior, Bocagrande, Cartagena, Colombia.jpg.jpg

Late afternoon sun brings out the city's refurbished colonial colours. 

visitors making wall shadows in the Centro district, Cartagena, Colombia
Painted buildings, Cartagena, Colombia

Café del Mar atop the ramparts in the old quarter is the hot spot for afternoon drinks and a skyline view of Bocagrande.

Crowd at Café del Mar, Cartagena, Colombia

Meanwhile, back in Getsemani, the evening begins unhurriedly.

Coloured umbrellas over a street, Getsemani district, Cartagena, Colombia
Colonial architecture, a bar, Getsemani neighbourhood, Cartagena, Colombia

As the cathedral in the old quarter begins to glow, a lively bar / restaurant scene mixes with community activities in Getsemani.

Cathedral of Saint Catherine of Alexandria illuminated at dusk, Cartagena, Colombia
Bar scene, night life, Getsemani, Cartagena, Colombia
Painted bar exterior, night life, Getsemani, Cartagena, Colombia

 In quick time the neighbourhood has gone from drugs and squalor to being fashionably hip.

Chess game amid the night life, Getsemani, Cartagena, Colombia
Renovated entrance door of a residence, Getsemani neighbourhood, Cartagena, Colombia

 Visitors and city folk interweave their daily activities in shopping and residential neighbourhoods. It's these interactions, up close and personal, that stamped the city as authentic for us.

Restaurant hostess, night life, Getsemani neighbourhood, Cartagena, Colombia
Snack and beverage vendors and patrons, Centro neighbourhood, Cartagena, Colombia

In the gift shop next to our hotel we bought a souvenir to remember our bus rides.

I can still hear the music.

Souvenir model of mini 'chiva' bus, Cartagena, Colombia

Photos, text and layout
© Gary Crallé 2021
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