Why I Fell In Love With Cartagena Colombia: It Wasn't Just The Cute Men!
I'm in love and I just can't hide it. For a city that's never been on my radar, I swear I left a piece of my heart in Cartagena.
Firstly, if you're Canadian just know that you'll have to pay $201,000 pesos ($90 Canadian) at the airport. I felt betrayed. All the Americans just got their passport stamped and they got to keep it moving. The Canadians however, all had to line up to pay this tax! Not cool! You have some explaining to do Canada.....
While in my taxi cab headed to my hotel, I quickly realized that driving in Cartagena is very much like driving in the Caribbean, more specifically Jamaica! I saw my life flash before me quite a few times. The lines on the road really had no meaning or purpose. At times 2 cars would be sharing one lane, and it would be a daredevil combat mission to see who gets ahead of whom. Numerous times I caught myself stomping on my invisible brakes on the passenger side! Ha!
I stayed in Bocagrande, which is about 20 minutes from the airport. It's the beach area of Cartagena. If you decide to hang out at the beach however, be prepared to deal with a lot of vendors selling items. A lot. You just have to be polite and say no thank you....10-15 times, but eventually they'll leave you alone. Hey, everyone has to feed their families. So, it's a minor inconvenience to be able to deal with beach life.
One thing that I immediately love about Cartagena, is that there was no real urgency for people who live in Cartagena, or even work in the tourist industry to learn English! I love it. North Americans seem to think that regardless of where they travel to, people should speak English. Why? You travelled to their country, you need to adapt. My first day at the hotel, I was so exhausted that I ordered room service. I had to speak to 3 different people for them to understand what I wanted to order. Although I attempted to learn Spanish in advance with an app, I just eventually wanted to throw my phone with the app out the window! No one speaks Spanish as slowly like the app does, so they might as well have been speaking a totally different language because I didn't understand a word! I resorted to my miming skills to act out what I needed!
My first night, I had already pre-arranged a party bus tour. There is nothing like taking a walking tour or a party bus tour (OPEN BAR!!!!) to get to know a new city. Listen, this party bus had tourists written all over it. If you're one of those people who only want that authentic experience with the locals, please avoid these buses. But since I love a good turn up, I had a blast (Did I already mention the open bar???) While on the party bus, I met 2 other sista's travelling solo, and we just instantly connected. As I said before, when you travel and meet people who look like you, it is an automatic love affair. We drank (I feel like I'm being repetitive here), we tried beef and egg empanadas, we danced, and I met amazing people from all over the world.
For the next few days, I had tours booked with Alex Rocha from Experience The Real Cartagena. If you are ever planning to go to Cartagena, I would suggest you take any one of Alex's tours. His tours give you the real Black experience in Cartagena. My mind was blown with all the history of Africans in Colombia. It is a must do. Although my trip was mostly about culture, I still found beach time. That is an absolute must for me. So I headed out to Playa Blanca beach. This was definitely my speed. Men, just cover your eyes and ears for a second. Ladies... oh lawd there were some hotties there!!! Chillllleeeeeee!! We were greeted by a young man, who was going to give us a boat ride over to a more private beach. Good Lord he was cute! Being the creep that I am, I took pics! I may or may not have asked his permission. I mean, I almost jumped ship, just so he'd have to jump in and save me. Possibly give me mouth to mouth to revive me. But then I thought, what if he can't swim? !!!! Sooooo many things could have gone wrong with my plan. So I stuck with the creeping!
When I say gorgeous beach, I mean Playa Blanca was gorgeous. There were ladies there offering massages on the beach. There was actually a dispute in terms of prices for one of the massages with my new friends that I made from D.C. and New York. The masseuse said $50 U.S. dollars (which is a bit much for a beach massage), but my new friend understood it as $15. So at the end of the massage, when she handed her $15, the masseuse was looking like where is the rest? I was just standing there like a deer in headlights because I didn't understand a word of Spanish, and wasn't trying to get hauled off to jail over the dispute! I'm telling you this Spanish translation is going to get me in trouble one of these days.
After the beach, I really wanted to meet Alex Rocha, the owner of the tour company that I was travelling with. Up until that point, I hadn't met Alex because he was ill and he had his son and his son in law running the tours. Alex is famous when it comes to travellers going to Cartagena, because he's the man to talk to, to experience the real Black culture in Cartagena. I told his son in law to call him and see if he was well enough for us to pass by just to meet him. Alex was kind enough to agree. So you know when you're leaving the beach, you're still wearing your swimsuit, with maybe a cover up over it. My cover up was mesh, so it was pretty much see through. What I thought was going to happen was we were going to pass by Alex's house just so we could meet him. What actually happened was we were brought to Alex's Community Centre, where he teaches children English! Thank God I had a pair of shorts to put on in the car, because when we walked in the door to meet Alex, we were at the front of the class with about 30 young children staring at us!!! OMG!!! Alex gave us seats at the front of the class, so the students could practice their English on us... Oh man! It was such a beautiful experience to help the kiddies with their English, but I'm just saying, it would have been nice if I didn't have to do it in my swimsuit!!!!
There was so much to do in Cartagena, that I didn't even scratch the surface. The Walled City alone has so much history, and beauty. Every single door in the Walled City was a photo op. There were statues, free salsa lessons, vendors selling food and souvenirs. It was impossible to see everything that Cartagena had to offer in just a few days.
I think one of the things that excited me the most was all the solo travellers that I met. Especially other Black women (come thru melanin!) It was totally safe in Cartagena as a solo traveller. I met so many solo travellers that I had someone to hang with every night. Some corners in the Walled City were a little sketchy late at night, so I wouldn't suggest walking by yourself too late, but taxis are on every corner, and they are cheap. The average ride from Bocagrande to the Walled City is about $5-6 Canadian.
If you are a foodie, you will have ample amounts of food to try. I personally devoured fried fish, coconut rice and fried green plantain every day! The fried fish didn't stand a chance!
Overall, I loved my experience in Colombia. Next time I think I'd like to squeeze in Medellin and Bogota too. If you're planning to visit, I would personally recommend going for at least a week if you really want to experience everything.
Things You Should Know:
Although there is systemic racism towards Blacks in Cartagena, I personally didn't experience it until my last night there at a restaurant. I went in with another Black solo traveller and we were pretty much ignored. When we were finally seated, the attitudes towards us were very different compared to the attitudes towards non Black patrons. In order to get our bill, we had to get up and pretend that we were leaving before they ran to go print it. If we didn't do that I think we'd still be in the restaurant waiting for them to serve us.
Tip is included on most bills. So check your bill before paying, to make sure you are not double tipping.
Ladies, please wear flat shoes. The walkways in the Walled City will have you flat on your face if you're not careful. Consider yourself warned!
I also have to shout out American Airlines. It's been years since I got a meal on a flight! It felt good! Maybe I need to travel to Colombia more often! Sheesh!
I'm planning a group trip back to Cartagena. I loved it so much there that I want to show it off to others. I'm thinking February 2019. That should give everyone advance notice and time to save, although Cartagena is not that expensive! Who wants to go? Message me if you're interested and I'll add you to my list.