Celebrating a birthday in Colombia? Fantastic. Celebrating a birthday with 5 days and nights in beautiful Cartagena, Colombia? Priceless. Or at lease well worth the cost of my hostel, meals, bus fare and sightseeing. Arriving on a Friday after a long week of teaching, the hot Caribbean sun was just beginning to set in the deep blue sky. After taking the inexpensive but slow-paced Metrocar S.A. from the bus terminal, it was a relief to walk around the alluring Getsemani neighborhood again, my third visit since arriving in Colombia.
With the weekend finally here, the streets of this trendy neighborhood were crowded with tourists and locals enjoying happy hour drinks in the balmy, breezy evening weather. Still reveling from 10 days in Lima, my friend suggested dinner at Restaurante Perú Mar, with its elegant atmosphere and great service.
A friendly waiter brought traditional cancha as a snack on while the meals were being prepared. The ceviche, causa and Pisco Sours he graciously delivered were authentic, fresh and flavorful: every morsel deserved to be savored. On this Friday night, the restaurant was busy serving its delicious Perúvian fare accompanied by the live performance of Spanish-influenced guitar.
A walk around the gorgeous Plaza de Santa Teresa at night revealed the popular spot for couples and romantic tourists taking photos beneath the glow of the domed Catedral de San Pedro Claver. A stop by the vendors along Plaza de los Coches, many of whom stay open late, meant a sweet treat of sugary Cocada in several varieties, including fruity guayaba, lush arequipe and velvety panela.
Beaches Boca and Blanca
The next morning, heading out for a day at the beach meant stopping by Tienda Naturista Girasoles Restaurante Vegetariano, a wonderful discovery from my first visit to Cartagena. After selecting some of their tasty whole wheat empanadas stuffed with cheese and sautéed mushrooms, I darted through skinny streets, dodging wayward taxis, towards Plaza de los Coches to catch the bus.
As one might guess, there are several expansive beaches near Cartagena to choose from, including easy-to-reach Bocagrande, and white-sanded Playa Blanca. On this visit, an afternoon in Bocagrande included a bargained-down chaise lounge under a spacious umbrella from a friendly vendor named Jose, and cold, refreshing Aguila, rated by LatinZine as one of the most popular beers in Latin America.
Several days later, Playa Blanca was accessed via what has become my own non-touristy route: Take the bus to Pasacaballos ($1700 COP), get off and hail a mototaxi ($10000 COP) for a ride over the convenient new puente and along the twisty roads of Isla Barú to arrive at a breathtaking beach. The entire trek takes about 1 hour and costs less than the boat tour or a hired taxi.
To return, call the mototaxi (if he provides you with a number, some will) or walk to the top of the stairs, where several others are waiting. You can also catch a boat back, paying less than the tour groups, as lanchas and large tourist boats often need a few extra passengers (and pesos) at the day’s end. Bargain fairly and be safe!
Castillo Climbing and Jetlag Dancing
If the gorgeous cathedrals and picturesque plazas of Cartagena aren’t enough, take a taxi (or if you can bear the heat, a 15 minute walk) from el Centro to alluring, historic Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, built in 1536 by the Spaniards to defend the city. A massive structure on the hillside of San Lázaro, the castillo successfully guarded Cartagena for 121 years. Tickets range from $8000 COP for teachers to $17000 with a guided tour.
Not only does Castillo San Felipe de Barajas offer spectacular views of the city but, because it was built by slaves, their quarters and underground tunnels may be seen and explored during a visit. There’s also a gigantic Colombian flag with an extraordinary view of Cartagena, prefect for a taking photo to show off your orgullo for this stunning, diverse country.
Finally, if you happen to be in Cartagena on a Tuesday night, consider yourself suerte, as you can catch the unique, free social event, Jetlag Tuesdays. Held at Explosíon Salsa, the weekly event offers a small, stylish space to practice your mad merengue moves, or learn something new, like the Costeño favorite Champeta.
On the night I attended with Laura from México, Alexis from Argentina and Joaquin from Perú, Jetlag Tuesday was cooking with great beats, drink specials and nonstop dancing, all of which we engaged in and enjoyed.
Making our way back through the quiet weeknight streets of Gestemani to El Viajero Hostel, our group agreed that Cartagena is an exquisite, historic city with a magic all its own worth experiencing at least once, or in this case, as many weekends as your volunteer year in Colombia allows…