From the moment we stepped out of the airport in Cartagena, I knew I was in love. Not only was it the waft of hot, humid air that hit me as I walked outdoors (for those who know me, I love heat and especially humidity), but I just had a feeling...and my instincts are rarely wrong!
There is a magical feeling you get as you step off the main road, through the doorway of the ancient city walls, and into a whole new world. The cobblestone streets winding through ancient colonial buildings, with the turn of each corner taking you through a narrow street full of bright, multicoloured homes decorated with an array of colourful flowers. There’s the hustle of people walking through the streets and relaxing outside at the many cafes and restaurants. There’s the clicking of the horse drawn carriages mixed in with the beat of the drums as the traditional Colombian dancers attract crowds with their inspiring performances. There are the rows of food vendors lining the streets, filling the air with aromatic scents that tempt your taste buds.
Our time in Cartagena was so wonderful that I continuously forget that the entire city had no running water for almost three full days! That meant some uncomfortable bathroom moments and learning to shower with a bucket of water – thanks to our amazing hotel, Hotel Patio de San Diego, who purchased water for us so we could bathe the sweat, sunscreen and mosquito spray off our bodies. We so easily forget what privileges we have back home and take advantage of so many little things, like running water. I’ll never forget the moment of joy I felt as we walked by a family’s kitchen and saw the stream of water coming out of the kitchen tap, indicating that the water was back on. I felt an overwhelming surge of happiness, a feeling I never thought I’d encounter at the sight of tap water! The sound of the first toilet flush that followed was like music to my ears!
You can’t go to Cartagena and not visit El Totumo, the mud volcano. As you lower yourself into the pool of thick, bubbling mud, a strange man starts rubbing mud all over your body before you become completely immersed. He then pushes you across to the other side where another man gives you a massage. The mud is so thick and full of minerals that you can’t sink, in fact you can barely stand up! Once your massage is over, the masseuse slides you across to the ‘socializing’ area, where you sit VERY closely with other mud covered zombies and begin to make friends as you are half-naked and squished together in this intimate pot of mud. There might be some unintentional leg caressing and body rubbing! Once your time is up in the mud, you pull yourself out of the pool into the cool air as another man aggressively rubs the mud off your body and then you proceed down the hill into the lake where a strange woman forcefully bathes you with a bucket of water. Beware, these women take their jobs very seriously and that often means your bathing suit being removed and the invasion of some personal body parts – but they are just trying to get all the mud off, don’t take this the wrong way! If you find this uncomfortable, just tell them you don’t want to remove your bathing suit, sometimes they listen ;)
Another must-do activity is the Party Bus! A large, open-air bus, called a “chiva” picks you up at night and takes you around the city…and you guessed it, you party on the bus! The experience includes a live performance of the traditional Colombian music, Vallenato, which consists of an accordion, a drum and a charrasca (a metal tube instrument that kind of looks like a cheese grater). All party-goers are given unlimited drinks of rum and coke (gotta love South America!) as well as some late night empanadas as the bus drives through the streets of Cartagena. There is an MC that keeps everybody entertained as you play games and after a few self-poured rum and cokes, there’s definitely some dancing involved! There are a couple of stops, including a stop outside the old city walls where crowds gather and dance in the street, and ends at a night club inside the old city. A unique experience for those who like to party!
If you’re a beach bum like myself, you can also visit the island called Playa Blanca for a nice escape from the city. The boat ride allows you to do a snorkeling stop as well – warning, they don’t tell you that you have to pay to snorkel until you are already stuck snorkeling (and there really wasn't much to see), as well as an option to stop at the aquarium. The waters can be VERY choppy and can make for some intense boat rides that can be considered fun once you've made back to land safely! The beach itself is nice, but make sure you head to either ends of the beach as the middle is very touristy and you will find yourself swarmed with vendors. Find a quiet spot and enjoy the calm, turquoise waters with some fresh coconut water in-hand!
I can’t forget to mention the food in Cartagena as I had some of my best meals in Colombia here. There are the amazingly delicious cheese arepas, which are pretty much just patties of cheese that are fried and then served hot and gooey – I couldn’t get enough of these! Then of course there is the seafood. Most of our meals included fresh fish straight from the ocean, lightly seasoned, grilled to perfection, and served with a side of coconut rice and fried plantain. Yum!
It was easy to fall in love with Cartagena, with the magical vibe of the city hidden behind the old walls and the amazing people who made my time even more special. The food, the music, the energy…Cartagena has definitely become a highlight of my many travels and an experience I will always cherish!