We have finally reached the part of our trip where we go somewhere international! We wanted to explore parts of our own country before exploring other destinations. But… oh how excited I am to finally get on a plane again after 3 years of the pandemic. When we decided to come to Colombia, we really knew very little about the country. We’d heard that Cartagena was cool and we’d watched Narcos – that was about it.
With Colombia, we did not follow my own rule and booked a whirlwind 21 days where we’ll stay in 5 different places. Oops…. But the guidebooks suggested way too many cool places to visit. We decided to start our adventure in Cartegena which we knew was a little more touristy and hopefully a little bit less culture shock for the girls.
The plane ride itself could be its own blog post. We’ve heard all the horror stories about the Toronto airport but we experienced none of it. We made it through check-in and security in record time and settled into the lounge before our red-eye flight. The girls were so excited by everything – the luggage belt, the security screening, the people mover. Isabella had vague memories but Julie did not remember flying at all. We flew the Colombian airline Avianca and got on the plane at midnight. Everyone fell asleep within the first hour, except me. I think that I was too excited to sleep right away and instead watched a movie and ate Colombian potato chips. But after a few hours, I nodded off as well.
Only 5 hours later (yes Colombia is that close), we landed in Bogota. I think that there are direct flights to Cartegena but this route was much cheaper so we opted for the stop. It was actually nice because Michael’s new lounge pass scheme worked again and we had a great breakfast including our first tropical fruit in the Bogota lounge. Later we boarded the 1-hour flight to Cartegena.
Day 1 was not the best because we were dressed for Toronto and Bogota (i.e. jeans) and Cartegena was so hot. We love staying at Airbnbs but the downside is that you often cannot check in early. Lots of them have automated locks and the app is programmed to email you at the exact check-in time with a code. So arriving at 9 am was not great when check-in was at 3 pm. We managed to store our luggage but could not get very far because it was just so incredibly hot. Luckily there was a mall nearby but we did not really feel like shopping in the first hours of Day 1. We ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant in the mall which was the first of many good meals in Cartegena.
We explored 3 areas in Cartegena and could have spent an extra day in each of them. I think that I would recommend 6-8 days to anyone who wants to come here because there’s lots to see and do.
The city is famous for its colourful colonial buildings and fortress walls. You can walk on the perimeter of the wall and there are great views of the sea and the colonial city. Many people enjoy a drink at the bars built on top of the wall, especially at sunset. We took a walking tour and learned some of the history of the region and of Columbia.
There is a beautiful mix of Colonial and Republican architecture in the old city. While many buildings have been restored and turned into restaurants and hotels, others suffer from serious disrepair. Many are adorned with balconies and rooftops to explore while vines and bougainvillea hang down. While the buildings used to be white, they are now painted in brilliant colours that add to the city’s ambiance.
Although there are several museums in the walled city, we only went to the Gold museum (and that was mostly because we needed A/C while walking in midday).
I am torn about what to write about Getsemani. It is one of those neighbourhoods that has gone through rapid tourist gentrification and sometimes seems like a kind of fake place with “Instagram sets” rather than historical sites. The story is one you’ve heard before in Colombia – a dangerous neighbourhood found a tourist hook (in this case street art graffiti murals) and transformed into a tourist hub. Locals moved out in favour of Airbnbs and boutique hotels. Now only 20% of the dwellings are local and 80% are for tourists.
Getsemani’s street murals are colourful and beautiful and tell stories of Colombia and the neighbourhood itself. We did a walking tour with a local which helped us put the artistic movement into context and understand what the murals were depicting. It’s one thing to see a mural of a man and it is another thing to understand that he is a homeless man who until a few months ago (when he was sick and hospitalized) slept right under the mural each night.
The vibe, food and ambiance are great in Getsemani and we had one of our best meals in the restaurant Demente in the main square.
Beach – Bocagrande
We opted to stay on the beach peninsula of Cartegena rather than the old walled city. We wanted a bigger place with a kitchen and most importantly a pool. Parts of the beach (including the part directly in front of our condo building) are under construction. There are huge diggers moving sand and rocks around as they appear to be building out the beach. Our condo had two pool areas: a 40th-floor rooftop pool and a 3rd-floor complex with 3 pools.
We were high up on the 21st floor so we had a great view. The Airbnb was also next to an army base and the kids loved starting each day with the Colombian National Anthem that played at 8 am sharp. They would stand on the balcony and listen intently.
We know the reviews on the beach aren’t the greatest in Cartegena proper (the suggestions are to take a boat to nearby islands with better beaches). But we still wanted to visit the local beach and we had a great time. The water was ridiculously refreshing (perhaps cause it was a sweltering 30 degrees) and the kids played with Mike in the waves for a solid two hours. Some fishermen were pulling in their nets so the kids also got to watch pelicans dive-bomb the catch. We even went ahead and rented those umbrellas and loungers on the beach. Based on what we remember paying in Italy, we haggled a little bit and got two hours of beach time for $10 Canadian (and we probably paid more than we should have). And yes a lot of vendors came by to sell us stuff but we were in such a good mood that it didn’t really bother us.
Maybe it was the high of our first city and the general good mood we all were in but no one wanted to leave Cartagena.
Places to eat
- An Arepa con Queso on the Street: Find a stand where they are frying them fresh.
- Demente: Located right in the main square of Getsemani, the perfect place for dinner with a family. They have wood oven pizzas for the kids and amazing tapas-style Colombian dishes for adults.
- Tacna Restaurant: Great place if you are staying on the beach. Excellent ceviche and a great place to try coconut lemonade.
Where we stayed (5 words or less):
- Airbnb located on Bocagrande: Near old city, rooftop pool
By the numbers:
- Number of free walking tours we took: 2 – Old City and Getsemani
- Trips to the grocery store: 3
- Times the street outside our hotel flooded: 3 – Mike had to take his shoes and socks off to cross it
- Submarines we saw docked at the navy base from our balcony: 3
- Visits to the pools: 4 – had to visit it daily of course