Things I Like in Cartagena

December 28, 2015-January 2, 2016: Cartagena, Colombia

I went to Cartagena de Indias, a beautiful colonial city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, for New Year’s Eve 2015. The city buzzes for the holiday – Colombians, South Americans, and people from everywhere else flock there for what amounts to a weeklong street party. Before, during and after my trip to Cartagena, I took copious notes about places/things I heard/thought were good so I would know to try/remember them. My friend visited the city a few months later and I sent her my recommendations. This is what I said.

I stayed in Ciudad Antigua (the Walled City) and spent my time there, in Getsemani and in the Parque Centenario-ish area in between. I didn’t venture into Boca Grande at all, but that’s where the bigger hotel chains and some nice tall buildings are. There’s also a beach there, but I’ve heard it’s kinda dirty.

I took a day trip with a bunch of people out to Cholon, which is basically an island’s beachfront crowded with vendor stands and a crapload of boats anchored by the beach with people chilling in the water next to the boats. It is pretty lawless – you can order up a jetski, full seafood lunch, 1-hour massage (you might get one even if you don’t ask), wakeboarding session, water taxi to other boats, etc. from people that prowl between the boats. While this was extremely fun, if you aren’t with a group, the cost would probably be prohibitive; the nearby Rosario Islands are supposed to be nicer.

Safety-wise, I never felt threatened or in need of help, but I was also sober and of sufficient stature to at least not seem like a super easy target. I never noticed any pickpockets trying to dig around in my stuff and never had anything stolen. One friend of mine did get hassled by cops on his way home late at night, but the security guard at his AirBnb talked them down. The cops were just looking for bribes.

Something I found very useful and didn’t know about before I want: If you don’t want to use data but do have the ability to turn on your cell phone, Google maps allows you to see your location and the local map (though not actually calculate directions) without using data!

Highlights

  • Favorite breakfast: Beiyu. Short walk outside Walled City in Getsemani. Great breakfast, lunch, coffee, juices, acai bowls, anything you want. Very slow service so don’t plan on going here if you have to make it somewhere else quickly. Their menu has an entire page dedicated to the “Slow Movement.”
  • Favorite bookstore: Abaco. Somewhat sparse English language section; better if you’re bilingual. Also serve coffee and such.
  • Favorite place to dance outdoors: Eivissa. Official internet documentation of its existence is scarce, but it’s the rooftop in the same building as the Clock Pub. It’s just a small bar, DJ set, and crowded dance floor on a roof, but completely open to the stars and looks out over both the Walled City and the area around it. Dancing outdoors is one of my top three pasttimes. I had an absolute blast here, as did several of my friends, but it is not universally recommended as a favorite bar. It may be telling to note that when one female friend walked in, she immediately said, “This place looks really young.”
  • Favorite rooftop pool: Hotel Monterrey. Small pool, big patio, can almost see the sunset, good views of city/Parque Centenario and Boca Grande and what not. It closes kinda early – I went here maybe two or three days and attempted to go 2-3 times as often.
  • Favorite brownies: Pasteleria Mila. Great desserts, breakfast and coffee, but had a long line for sitting whenever I went. While you’re waiting you can go to Abaco and get books.
  • Favorite place to watch the sunset: Cafe del Mar. Great view and location. Can get crowded.
  • Favorite coffee shop: Juan Valdez. I went to the one across from my hostal several times a day. True, it is Colombia’s Starbucks, but it’s owned by the Colombian coffee growers association and doesn’t taste like garbage.
  • Favorite historical site: Castillo de San Felipe. Hard to miss. Very big. Lots of tunnels and such, good views of everywhere around (sort of the point of a fortress). I’d recommend getting the audio guide.
  • Favorite place to watch the sunrise: Nowhere. The aforementioned castle, among other things, blocks your view to the east. You can see the sun come up from behind the castle if you sit on like the northeast corner of the Old City’s walls, but it’s not as good as seeing it over the water.
  • Favorite ice cream: Gelateria Tramonti 

Other Historical Stuff

  • Tu Candela: This is the bar where the Secret Service went to meet hired girlfriends in the Obama administration incident in Cartagena. It is still a functioning bar and has not been turned into a monument. I saw a man lean right across a table a lick a professional’s face; she didn’t bat an eye.
  • Palacio de la Inquisición: Headquarters of Spain’s western hemisphere inquistition by which the regime vanquished its American enemies and subjugated all non-Catholic religions. Only about 1/5 of the signs are translated into English, but it’s still pretty cool and located right in the Walled City.
  • Convento de la Popa: I didn’t make it over here, b/c it’s kinda hard to get to, but it’s supposed to be pretty sweet.
  • San Pedro Claver Church: This was the one church a Colombian friend recommended checking out. I didn’t make it inside, as I wasn’t going in for mass and couldn’t figure when it was appropriate to make a tourist attraction of someone else’s personal search for god, but it looked like Plaza de San Pedro Claver had a pretty killer NYE street party.
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s house: He lived in Cartagena at some point and it’s right on the north side of the Walled City.

Other bars

  • Cafe Havana: Salsa bar. Great live bands, super packed at all times, but you can get some space on the dance floor if you are aggressive and so inclined.
  • Bazurto: More diverse (musically, not necessarily ethnically, religiously, etc.) dance bar than Cafe Havana. It’s in a basement, it’s kinda a dive, but it’s a sweet time. Multiple Colombian friends strongly recommended this place before I went to Cartagena; they also strongly cautioned me against going without a group. That said, I never felt unsafe. One kind of music they play is called champeta but I’m not totally clear on the difference between that and other Caribbean-influenced music, other than its more African origins.
  • Movida: Really popular nightclub. Lines, nicely dressed patrons, expensive drinks, etc. It is very much like a club anywhere else, though it redeems itself somewhat with a sizable outdoor courtyard DJd totally separately from the ACd indoors in which you can dance outside.
  • Quiebra Canto: This seems to be where people who really want room to dance go to salsa. Up on the second floor, nice little balcony, old people dancing inside.
  • Coro: Kinda swanky bar in the Hotel Santa Clara (the hotel is nice as hell – check out the lobby). I think on Wednesdays or Thursdays they have a live salsa band, but not a ton of room to boogie.
  • Babar: I didn’t actually like this one, just figured I’d note it in case you are passing and think “should I go in?” I have nothing to say about it, good or bad. Went there the first night when the line at Movida was too long. You go up some stairs, there is a bar and space to dance.
  • Malagana: I heard the rooftop is really cool but it was closed for reservations when I went in so pretty normal time.

There are a bunch of other bars spread around the Parque Centenario that seem nice and loud and what not. Also obviously bars everywhere, that just seemed like a fun area that was slightly less crowded than the Walled City. Though maybe less safe too! I dunno.


Other restaurants

  • El Kilo: Fresh seafood in the window, good ceviche, shellfish, etc.
  • Cevicheria: Bomb ceviche. You can also get shellfish. I sliced open my thumb attempting to crush a crab leg manually when I couldn’t finagle the meat out of it with a fork.
  • Cuzco Cocina Peruana: Nice Peruvian food. More ceviche. I like ceviche.
  • Marzola Parrilla Argentina Steakhouse: One of several good Argentine steakhouses in the city.

I didn’t really have a favorite of those, all were pretty solid. Others I’m told were good but didn’t make it to:


Other food/drink

  • Cafe San Alberto: Good coffee shop, less corporate than Juan Valdez
  • La Paletteria: Real nice popsicles when you’re walking through the Walled City back from wherever. One of my stops here came on my way back from Ego Gomez to Hostal Don Miguel on New Years’ Eve. It was a hot day. I didn’t notice till I got back that the plastic covering my brand new guayabera had an opening around the hanger, and fruity red popiscle had melted and dripped right through that opening. I spent a considerable amount of time hunched over the hostel sink, scrubbing the pure white collar with a bar of soap. That method actually worked and I stubbornly wore the shirt out that night. It looked clean, and I exuded an overpowering essencing of bar soap.
  • Street arepas: Not great but honestly not that bad
  • Aguila and Aguardiente: Colombia’s beer and liquor, respectively. I didn’t try either but heard the beer was pretty good for a national beer and the liquor was anise-ish.
  • Bollo limpio: I kept hearing that this was really good but I haven’t figured out what it is or where to get it


Places I went in Bogota that I think have locations in Cartagena

  • Bogota Beer Company (BBC): A bunch of hipsters making beer. They only serve limonada de coco on the coast.
  • Crepes and Waffles: Great breakfast, and ice cream, which you can get as one meal. Very socially conscious business model, too: They only hire single mothers.
  • Tennis and Arturo Calle: Where I purchased new underwear and shirts at the mall when I missed my flight back to the states and was out of clean clothing. Very reasonable prices. They have ladies’ sections too.

Shopping

  • Street vendors: Will sell you anything (including full bars set up on the street, and anything else you can dream of. A friend of mine had an amusing encounter involving a taxi driver’s brother and a strawberry yogurt). I did a poor job of bargaining for a sombrero vueltiao, a “traditional” hat that made me look like a tourist
  • Ego Gomez: The most famous seller of the guayabera shirt (also known as the “hangover shirt”). I heard he made one for President Obama. I didn’t check out their ladies’ selection. It’s on the eastern edge of the Walled City – you go into like a hair salon lobby, then behind that is a room with an ironing board and they get you the shirts
  • Cayo de Agua: Apparently an up-and-coming vendor of swimwear. Somewhat hard to find, tucked back on Calle de Iglesia. The girls in my group were raving about it, so I stopped in and procured a pair of swim trunks with some funny animals on them.

If you are really into shopping, there are lots of nice stores but I am the wrong person to give you the rundown.

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