Cartagena was sadly the last stop in Colombia, after six weeks in the country, and also the place where we spent Christmas last year.
Imagine this: tropical climate, colourful colonial buildings and cobblestone streets. It is hard not to fall in love with this place, if you the add the fact that we had some great company here. As a matter of fact, besides Charlie and Martin, our two friends we met in Salento and had been travelling with us since, we had a little reunion with other friends we made along the way in Mexico and Colombia and got to spend some time together before going in different directions.
Things to see and do in Cartagena:
- Take a free walking tour;
- Buy (and eat) fresh fruit from the Palenqueras;
- Go to Volcano El Totumo and take a mud bath;
- Relax by the beach;
- Take a salsa class and enjoy the nightlife.
Free walking tour are a great way to get to know the city and its history. Cartagena was the first Spanish colony in the Americas, which remained under the Spanish control for almost 300 years, due to its perfect location on the Caribbean Sea that made it a very important port at the time, but it was also the first city in the country to break free from the Spanish control and declare its independence, with the help of Bolivar. In 1984, the walled city was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But learning about its history and culturally isn’t all that you will be doing, You will also get the time to wander through its colourful streets and find out about all its hidden secrets. My favourite is the different sculpted animals on the doors, but I won’t spoil the surprise!
Something that immediately caught my attention while wandering through the city, were these beautiful women dressed in big dresses, with vibrant colours and baskets of fruits on their heads. They are called Palenqueras. You can – and should – buy some fresh fruit from them and in exchange for this, they will be happy to take a picture with you and tell you more about what they do!
One of the days, we decided to visit Volcano El Totumo and take a mud bath. You could try to get a bus or a taxi, but your hostel will be able to arrange transportation for cheaper, as a bigger group of people will go. Although there is nothing dangerous about it, this experience might not be for everybody – read below! – but it is definitely something to thick off your adventures’ list!
When you get there, get ready to get into this 3,000 metre deep – or maybe bottomless – volcano crater filled with mud. You can climb down through a ladder or bomb dive into it, although I really wouldn’t recommend this last option, as people who did it had mud coming out of their ears and nose for a week. Although it is supposed to be optional, when you get inside the crater, you will be welcomed by a group of local people who will give you a massage for a small tip of 4,000 COP. After the mud bath, you will be directed to a river where a group of women will wash the mud off your body. Also this is supposedly optional and it comes at a price of 4,000 COP. However, when you are there, you don’t really have a choice, as the people will start massaging/washing you, before you have a say in this, and – if you are not okay with physical contact – this is the best experience, as they touch you literally everywhere and we had people in our group that got their swimming shorts even taken off!
The hot weather in Cartagena makes every day a perfect beach day. We were there in December, which is supposed to be the freshest month of the year, but it was still over 40 degrees every day. The more you go away from the city, the nicer the beaches and the cleaner the water. Since we spent Christmas day on a beach, we picked one in the city itself, to make sure we would be able to get back to the hostel on time for our dinner.
Finally, Cartagena has a lot of options when it comes to nightlife. We stayed in El Viajero hostel, which, despite some disappointing things – including a disgusting Christmas dinner and the fact that we paid a higher price for an eight-bed dorm than any private room we have stayed over the 9 months – is a good place to spend some of the nights. They have lots of classes, including salsa classes.
One of our favourite place to hang out was the KGB pub!
Getting there and away
Cartagena is less than 250km away from Santa Marta and, except during peak season, you don’t need to book your ticket in advance. There are 3 bus companies that operate this route – Expreso Brasilia, Copetran, Unitrasco – and they all cost around 30,000 COP and take between 5 and 9 hours to get there. Once at the Cartagena bus terminal, you can either get a taxi to the Old Town for around 20,000 COP or a public bus to the India Catalina Monument for less than 2,000 COP.
To get from the Old Town to the airport, instead, you can either get a taxi that will cost you between 10,000-20,000 COP, depending on your location – obviously ask the driver for a fixed rate before getting in the taxi to avoid surprises – or you can get a colectivo bus that will only costs 2,000 COP.
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