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[For an audio/vlog version of this blog story, click here.]
If you’re looking for the definitive visitor’s guide to Cartagena, this isn’t it.
As one of Colombia’s most popular tourist spots, much has been written about it. And because this popularity with Colombians and foreigners alike has seen it become one of the most expensive places in the country to visit, I hadn’t been in a rush to go back. The last time I’d been there was in 2011, with my first visit in 2009.
That 2009 trip, accompanied by a Colombian friend who did most of the planning, saw me take in many of the tourist attractions, including a recommended day trip to one of the picturesque Islas del Rosario, Rosario Islands.
The beaches there are — or at least were — more pleasing to the eye than those around the city. This isn’t to say the beaches in Cartagena, specifically the Bocagrande sector, are unpleasant. They’re fine, no more, no less.
What had bugged me the most in Cartagena was the intensity of the beach vendors — they were far worse than the mid-30 degrees Celsius heat.
Alongside the selling of refreshments and tattoos of questionable quality, one would be offered a massage a minute. These masseuses were as annoying as mosquitoes buzzing around your ear in the middle of the night.
On this latest visit, such vendor force was, thankfully, nowhere near as powerful. Maybe I just got lucky with my timing. Or maybe I was unlucky in 2009 and 2011.
The fact that there was much more of a relaxed vibe for the three consecutive mornings/early afternoons I spent on Bocagrande’s western beach, does suggest it has become a little more tranquil. It could be said the ambience is like the surrounding waters, rather calm with only the occasional wild-ish wave.
Indeed, much to my pleasant surprise, I discovered that it was fine to leave my belongings on the beach while I went for a refreshing dip in the sea.
Initially, not only had I asked neighbouring loungers to keep an eye on my stuff but I also gathered it up and left it beside them. No dar papaya and all that.
Yet, I soon noticed that hardly anyone else was being as cautious. Considering how important this sun, sea and sand tourism is to Cartagena, especially in the upmarket Bocagrande, it seems opportunistic thievery has been largely eradicated.
However, in Bocagrande one gets robbed in another, officially sanctioned way: the high prices. For example, a beer on the beach costs around 10,000 COP for a 330-ml bottle of the working man’s Aguila brew. That’s four times more than the standard price.
‘I found it rather curious that El Guerrero’s TV gave us live pictures of the toilet. What would one be up to on the loo besides relieving oneself?’
As mentioned, though, Bocagrande is upmarket in what is a Caribbean tourist hotspot. So there’s nothing too shocking about the higher prices.
Those on a tighter budget will most likely opt to stay in Cartagena’s historic centre or in the chilled-out Manga neighbourhood.
(Regular readers might be surprised to discover that I stayed in Bocagrande, in the four-star Hotel Cartagena Plaza. Don’t worry, it’s not that I lost my mind and went on a mad spending spree. At a press conference in Bogotá earlier this year, I won a three-night stay there. As fancy hotels go, it was fine. I certainly made the most of the decent spread of food at the buffet breakfasts.)
When my three nights were up at the Cartagena Plaza, it was to Manga I went and the quaint San Jacinto hostel. A dorm bed at 40,000 COP per night, light breakfast included, is about the best value one will get in the city.
The Guerrero of Getsemani
My evening socialising throughout my stay was reserved for the historic centre, inside the old walled city, around Plaza de la Trinidad in the Getsemani barrio to be precise. Well, there and a couple of brief visits to the more unkempt Mercado de Bazurto, the working class’s shopping district.
Outside of the centre’s liveliness come sunset, there I found a tienda, El Guerrero, that sold litres of my preferred Poker beer for 6,000 COP. That’s an acceptable price anywhere in Colombia — except in my local watering holes in my Bogotá barrio — never mind Cartagena. (Do note, even though my bed and breakfast was free for my first three nights, I was still in Cartagena on a tight budget.)
While El Guerrero is popular with revellers — not surprising considering the booze prices — most buy their tipple to drink outside. As is my wont, I positioned myself in a corner at the counter, allowing me to chat with the employees/owners.
I did find it rather curious that the TV in the tienda, via the security camera, gave us live pictures of the toilet. What would one be up to on the loo besides relieving oneself? It did, nonetheless, give another, um, solid reason not to be glued to the box.
WC watching aside, El Guerrero was certainly an interesting place to observe the comings and goings of the diverse folk traipsing around Cartagena’s colonial quarter.
Just outside the centre is Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a castle constructed by African slaves under Spanish supervision in the 16th century.
‘It was nice to view and enter the sea for the first time since 2018.’
I’m fairly sure that I visited this tourist site for free in 2009, although perhaps my memory is failing me on that one. These days, there’s what I consider a fairly hefty entrance fee, 30,000 COP. I gave it a miss this time; the long queues waiting to get in were off-putting, too.
Now, that I enjoyed my stay in the city may be because I went there with low enough expectations. That and the fact that I generally look forward to any escape from Bogotá these days.
As this story has explained, though, there’s more to it than that. And in a more basic sense, it was simply nice to view and enter the sea for the first time since 2018.
The biggest drawback is getting there from Bogotá, as I detailed in Colombia’s plebeian transport: A riveting ride.
As mentioned in that piece, I broke up the marathon return journey with a night-and-day stay in Aguachica in the Cesar department, about halfway between Cartagena and Bogotá.
Well inland at a low altitude, temperatures reach the mid-30s in degrees Celsius.
With hardly a breeze about and no nearby refreshing waters to cool off in, it’s one of those places where you could take a shower every hour to stay feeling fresh. I don’t particularly mind that, it’s just that the town seems to have little going for it. Again, this generally isn’t a drawback for me, I can create my own fun.
It must get plenty of visitors all the same, for whatever reason. There are hotels on pretty much every street. It also has an abundance of barbershops and hairdressers.
What annoyed me the most during my brief stay there were the motorbike taxis. They won’t leave a wanderer in peace.
I probably need a second, longer visit to give a more rounded review of the place. Like my Cartagena experiences, my opinion of Aguachica might get better with subsequent stays. Return visits are unlikely, all the same.
However, if Hotel Cartagena Plaza wants to gift me more free nights on the Caribbean shores, I could include another stay in Aguachica en route. It certainly does its job as a fairly cheap stopover town.
Listen to The Corrigan Cast podcast here.