Cartagena was one of the Colombian cities I’d originally wanted to live in. I had visions of finishing work everyday and diving straight into an azure sea under the Caribbean sun. When I finally visited, it wasn’t what I’d imagined. I’d been worried I’d fall in love with the place and be disappointed with my new hometown of Cali, but that didn’t happen.
When you read about Cartagena, it’s described as a paradise; the jewel of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It’s true that parts of it are really beautiful, but once you’ve seen them, then what do you do?
The city’s famous for its colonial centre, a picturesque collection of painted historic buildings surrounded by old city walls with Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the city fortress, standing proudly in the sunlight. The narrow roads are packed with tiny boutique shops, ice cream vendors and stall after stall of Cartagena-themed trinkets. Street entertainers perform traditional dances in the town squares as horse-drawn carriages clatter by. It really is pretty.
There’s a strong Spanish influence, reminding me of European towns I visited as a child. This makes perfect sense since the area was colonised by Spain in the 1500s. Having said that there’s also a definite Caribbean spark.
The heat in Cartagena’s like having a hairdryer blown in your face twenty-four hours a day, except there’s no actual breeze. A local saying exists that roughly translates as ‘aim to do one thing a day’. Once you experience those relentless temperatures, it makes perfect sense. Sometimes Cali can get so hot that achieving one thing per day feels like too big an ask, but Cartagena’s on an entirely different level.
Something I loved there was the relaxed atmosphere. Having adapted to Cali living, it was a refreshing change to safely answer my phone in the street and wander the city at night. Little bars are dotted around the centre, timeworn doorways pumping out champeta music guide the way to them.
Of the city beaches, we only visited one, Boca Grande. It’s a collection of small sandy coves flanked by a busy road of towering hotels and half built apartment blocks. The vendors there are intense. Women with buckets of ominous green liquid demand to massage you while jewellery sellers belligerently hawk their wares. The water’s pretty murky in this area but the pelicans and frigate birds flying overhead lend a more tropical feel.
Playa Blanca on the other hand, about an hour and a half’s drive from Cartagena, is ridiculously beautiful. Crystal blue waters lap against a perfect white coast with a selection of cabaña hotels, bars and restaurants perched in the sand; a classic coastal paradise.
The hotel we stayed in was a wood cabin on the beach, propped up on stilts with a roof of palm leaves. The lockless rooms were accessible by a rickety ladder from the sand and as we realised a little too late, there were no showers, only makeshift toilets of buckets and rainwater barrels outside.
As a vegetarian the famous seafood of the region definitely didn’t appeal but I enjoyed mountains of coconut rice and plantain followed by Coco Locos. They’re a favourite drink in Playa Blanca and are a delicious mix of unknown spirits blended in a fresh green coconut. They’re also really strong.
When the night came in we wandered along the beach to where we’d been told a party was happening. A circle of girls in floaty dresses danced a circle in the sand to acoustic rhythms from a travelling Peruvian band. It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting, more reminiscent of a 70s horror movie scene before the killer crashes through the trees, but technically it was a party. People chilled in hammocks on the beach and we decided to opt for the rum shack next door.
Listening to Hip hop in Spanish has really helped me learn more of the language. I’ve become pretty familiar with Latin rap and at this point was almost exclusively listening to Canserbero, a Venezuelan rapper who came to a horrifically grizzly end. He’s really popular in Colombia.
As the place died down we requested some of Canserbero’s music. The bar guy was more than happy to oblige. A big speaker was brought out and after listening to a few songs, a mini rap battle took place between two of the locals. We swam in the pitch-black sea between drinks and as my friend began to snooze on a stranger’s knee it seemed like a good time to call it a night.
Back at the hotel, our heavy sleep was interrupted by some very strange and very close sounds from the space above our beds. Huge shadows flickered against the wooden walls and it took a moment to register we were sharing the room with a family of massive bats. They swept in and out through gaps between the beams and when they finally settled, rustled their way up into the eaves and went to sleep. We followed suit, relaxed in the knowledge it was only bats that had entered our unlocked room.
The garish pink décor of our hotel felt a little intrusive the next day but an early morning swim in the sea fixed everything, for me at least. As we basked in the cool water, we watched our friend who had left the bar early the night before, cautiously step into the lapping waves. She tentatively shuffled forward until she was neck deep in the water only to turn immediately round and crawl back across the sand on desperate hands and knees. I’ve never before seen someone that hungover in such picturesque surroundings.
Arepas are a Colombian corn bread loved across all departments of the country but they tend to vary a little by region. Playa Blanca’s version was a huge deep-fried pocket with a fried egg somehow sealed inside. Perfect for that kind of morning.
We relaxed for a few hours making the best of the scenery and my last chance to swim in the sea then without warning, some seriously heavy rain kicked in. Huge raindrops pelted the waves and streamed through the leafy gaps in the cabins. We waited for a break in the downpour but it never came. On the count of three we ran to the car and completely drenched and muddy, drove back to the city.
My time in Cartagena was great, but not really because of Cartagena itself. The people I was with and the natural beauty of Playa Blanca are what made it memorable.
There’s nothing wrong with Cartagena, it’s a scenic city with incredible weather and an unbelievably relaxing atmosphere. It just wasn’t what I’d imagined. It’s quieter and quainter than I’d hoped for and time moves slowly there. What I’d really wanted was a little Colombian version of Rio de Janeiro. But lets face it, nowhere’s like Rio except Rio.