Cartagena, our first stop on the Caribbean coastline of Colombia. Faced with a very long bus ride, we decided to fly from Medellin for the few extra pounds it cost us. As soon as we disembarked from the plane the climate difference was immediate. Despite being past 7pm, an hour after sunset, the temperature was still in the high twenties and the humidity acute.
With only three nights in the city we made quick work of getting to the taxi rank so that we could check in and enjoy the evening ahead. We were impressed by the taxi system which is in place to reduce scams and ensure a fair price. You check in at the official booth and they give you a ticket for the cost based on the area of the city you want to go to. For our journey to ‘Centro’ (Getsemani) it cost 13,000 COP and took less than 20 minutes.
We had booked our stay in a four-bed dorm at El Arsenal Boutique Hostel, it had great reviews and the photos that we saw of the pool looked lovely. It was even better than expected as no one else checked into the room during our stay, so we had the whole space to ourselves. And the pool was a welcome addition to cool down from the tropical climes… although every time we got in the rain came and we had to get back out again (hostel policy and just our luck!).
On that first night we dumped out bags, freshened up a little and went out for a stroll. We had heard of the beauty of Cartagena’s old town and wanted to see it for ourselves – would it live up to all of the fuss? We had seen a lot of beautiful Colombian old towns by this point, could it really be so much better?
In one word, that first night, walking around the old town was magical. The town has been an UNESCO world hertiage site since 1984 and it’s beautifully cared for, with very well planned lighting that makes it feel like you’ve entered, in the corny words of Aladdin, ‘a whole new world’.
It definitely didn’t feel like we were in Colombia anymore when we tried to order our first beer. Cartagena has some of the highest prices in South America, and way above the prices we’ve seen on our travels through out the rest of its country – 12,000 COP for a cerveza, which is at least three times the usual! Faced with the menu, Phil and I looked at each other and decided that we didn’t actually need that beer so soon after all. Our table was outside in one of the beautiful old plazas of the town, so we slipped away easily without being noticed. I’m sure we aren’t the first to leave in a similar state of shock!
We continued to walk and didn’t let our beer-less predicament dampen our spirits. We just soaked up the atmosphere instead, content to get lost amongst the old streets and peer in through the array of windows, glimpsing a look into the old town’s countless hostels, shops, restaurants and bars.
Our hostel was located in Getsemani, an area just outside of the walled city. It’s labelled as ‘an up and coming’ neighbourhood which has a hipster/backpacker vibe. There, we thought, there must be cheaper beer and a great view to be found! Patience wore off, and we sat outside a great little bar with a 5,000 COP beverage to sooth away those flight nerves and say cheers to the evening. We might not have been sat amongst the old town itself, but in some ways our view was better. There we got to see the town and its walls from the outside and of course, got two beers for the price of one!! This little bar is called Caponera Cafe Bar. Quick tip if you go – they only own downstairs. The salsa bar with the balcony above, which had no one in when we popped our heads in, will charge you twice the price for a beer.
The next day we woke up excited to explore more of the old city after such a wonderful evening. We had breakfast at the hostel, the typical Colombian fayre of eggs and arepa, and couldn’t get out quick enough.
We walked back the way we had the evening before, armed with a do-it-yourself walking map that we had discovered on the internet. Our first stop was the entrance close to where we were staying, the first sight to see The Torre del Reloj, or Clock Tower.
We walked through the entrance of the wall and.. phroommmmmf… we were like a magnet for all the street vendors who spend their daytimes in the square.
There we were with our directions in hand, trying to read about the wonderful history of the city, whilst being swamped by somberos, bottellas de agua, cigarellos, the list goes on…
We quickly tried to find our way to the next stop of interest, perhaps we thought, it would be quieter there, away from the entrance. We were partially correct, there was a little more space here, the sun was rising higher in the sky and so the sellers lurked in the shade.
Unfortunately throughout our DIY tour, we were constantly plagued with an array of items for sale. Drawn like moths to a flame, the sellers come to find the tourists in the old city, keen to promote today’s new ‘promoción’. I honestly think that this was the worst we’ve ever known street selling to be throughout either of our travels. With the intense heat beating down into the small, stoned streets, and the barrage of voices desperately seeking their next, or most likely first sale of the day, we were soon exhausted. It was a juggling act between the two, enter the refuge of the shade but face the onslaught of requests.
Luckily lunch time provided a respite from both, we went to Dorotea for their menu del dia. Phil always talks about ‘that fish in Lake Toba (Indonesia)’ as a legendary meal that will never be beaten. That day in Cartagena, the fish with it’s tasty coconut sauce came a close second! All for 15,000 COP (about £5) with soup and juice!
Unlike the rest of the country, sightseeing is expensive in Cartagena and the city’s old fort, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the biggest the Spanish conquistadors ever build, is no exception with a pretty hefty (for Colombia) entrance fee. This might not have deterred us completely but we had heard from other travellers that all of the information inside is in Spanish and so decided to just enjoy the impressive view from outside its walls.
That evening we were a little peckish and shared some awesome tacos and nachos from Maria Bonita Taqueria Cantina, a little Mexican place near our hotel with a love for Frida Kahlo. Only by going here did we manage to stumble on the small square where it sits. Here there were street food stands, and lots of locals and foreigners mixing together as the sun set. The square is lined with bars, but if you’re happy to perch on a small wall or step you can save a lot of money by getting your beer from the small shop on the corner. It’s not illegal to drink in the streets in Colombia and if nature calls there is a small toilet that you can use in the shop (take toilet paper and LOTS of hand sanitiser).
In the square children played together, people ate from the food vendors, drank their beers, and there were street artists (take some change to give them). It was a really great atmosphere and we spent several hours here just enjoying the warmth of the evening.
The next day, our last full one in Cartagena, we were armed with the knowledge of the old town by day, and we spent a few hours there in the morning, after mentally preparing. For dinner we found a great a great bite to eat in the quirky Beer and Laundry. As the name implies, you can get your laundry done and pass the wait by eating awesome pizza with a beer! Unfortunately we found out too late, and had done our laundry at the hostel already, but we still nipped in for something to eat. The owners are really lovely, a married couple from Medellin, with fantastic English. Another place we would recommend and their veggie pizza is yum!
With satisfied stomachs we headed to the old town’s walls for a view of the ocean and sunset. We were greatly rewarded, as the sun hung low, the walls and the old buildings were set aglow and the magic that had been missing since our first evening came flooding back. Lots of people were milling around but the atmosphere was pleasant, with plenty of room for individuals and groups to find their own viewing spot. There are a couple of bars along the wall if you would like a proper seat, but we didn’t dare to look at the prices!
That evening we headed through the old town, back to the small square in Getsemani. As it was Halloween, the place was crowded and all the children were dressed up. There were some very impressive costumes and one girl, dressed as Cruella de Vil had even turned her poodle into a dalmatian! The children weren’t dressed for a competition, they were just happy to play together while the adults socialised.
The evening ended up taking a drastic turn and wasn’t the chilled out night we had envisioned after we met some locals in the square. After sharing a beer and broken Spanish/English together a mysterious bottle of Aguardiente, the Colombian spirit, appeared and it all gets a little hazy from there… we ended the evening in a Salsa bar in the old town!
Cartegena’s hidden secret
It was on our final day where the dots were joined together, and even through bleary eyes from the evening before, it was hard to ignore the truth hiding just out of sight of Cartagena’s old city.
Cartagena is a very poor place. Just a few blocks away from it’s world renowned centre, there are shacks built with the very few materials their owners can afford. Bits of metal, poor quality wood, homes just a few metres wide, where several family members live together. It was like that first morning in the old town all over again, but this time reality really hit hard. Just a few short miles away from Cartagena’s beautiful old town, where prices are terribly inflated, and the wealthy sleep and dine surrounded by hundred of years of history, is the true Cartagena of 2017. It’s not the old town where tourists flock, and it’s not Getsamani where the backpackers rule, it’s these hidden districts where people are cramped together, forgotten by the outside. They belong to a city which has incredible beauty, yet they have been completely priced out in favour of the hordes of tourists.
If it hadn’t been for a miscommunication with our taxi driver, we would never have seen this part of the city. As hard as it was to witness, it’s important to know, to understand what’s happening to this place. Suddenly we understood those street sellers and their desperation for a sale.
In our minds now, Cartagena will always be a juxtaposition. That first night was wonderful, and we’re so pleased we got to see the history of the old town. Yet, at the same time, just beneath the veil is Cartagena’s dirty little secret. It’s really not well hidden, and it’s certainly not so little, yet most tourists won’t look too hard. This is an example of the trap of travelling, where you can visit so many places in the world, yet never really see them. Personally, it’s made me ask questions about how I can be a better tourist, how I can better understand a place and its people, and how can I make sure that my money is a part of the solution and not the problem.
I don’t have any answers here, I’m not suggesting you don’t visit Cartagena, but I would welcome your thoughts on sustainable tourism and how we can help rather than hinder. We should all want to share the beauty of a place with its locals, to learn from them, not separate them from their heritage as second class citizens.
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