“The cure for anything is salt water; sweat, tears, and the sea”
After spending an entire month in the mountains of Moab and then the high altitude Andes in Ecuador, this Hawaii girl was so happy to get to the sea, my natural element and happy place. We flew from Bogota into Cartagena and were immediately met on the tarmac with humidity and heat strong enough to melt the plastic surgery right off Donald Trump’s face. Welcome to the Caribbean. Average daytime temperatures are well into the 30’s Celsius, so naturally this is a slow-paced town where people take daytime siestas and animals appear to be dead, lazily lounging listlessly, lacking a care in the world even if their nap spot of choice just so happens to be in the middle of a busy road. They can’t be bothered.
This is why Cartagena is the queen of honking. Honking is everywhere; it’s a way of life. Honking in America means you’re either alerting someone for making a dangerous move, or you’re just a douche bag. Here, you honk just because everyone else is doing it. You honk when you pass someone (even if there is no clear danger whatsoever), you honk when you cross through an intersection, you honk when people are crossing the street legally on their green light…hell, the locals probably honk in their sleep.
Cartagena is a city protected by a wall that envelops the entire old town. Built in 1796 to protect from enemies, Las Murallas took two whole centuries to complete (the delays were thanks to storms and pirate attacks). Today its thick walls serves as a reminder of an engineering marvel and the city’s resilience. Most of the wall still remains in good tact and you can walk both on top of it and inside of it, to view from all angles.
We were joined by Sasha’s friend, Yony, whom he met while living and working in Sydney, Australia while Yony was studying English at the time. Even though I speak Spanish (I minored in it in University), it has been nearly ten years since I graduated, and I wasn’t able to use it very frequently living on O’ahu and in Seattle, so it was very helpful to have a local with us to negotiate taxi rates (meters do not exist in Cartagena so you have to negotiate a price beforehand otherwise they will rip you off, especially if you’re two meters tall, have blue eyes, white skin, and are named Sasha.) Also, Las Costeñas (coastal locals), speak extremely quickly and have their own twang that is nearly impossible to understand.
Our favorite area was Getsemani, once a very dangerous part of the city and now a popular backpacking destination. Our favorite joke during our time here was that we needed to “get some money from Getsemani” (there are plenty of ATMs in this location and we love a good rhyme. ;)) Cartagena is perhaps the most charming town I’ve ever visited with its vibrant colors, street art, and bougainvillea hanging down from shaded balconies above.
Inside the walled city:
Where to Eat in Cartagena
Since Cartagena is a cruise ship port, the city highly caters to tourists…wealthy tourists at that. So expect the prices to be quite a bit higher within the walled city. The prices in Getsemani are still relatively inexpensive due to it being a backpacker town. Here are some outstanding restaurants that we frequented:
- La Chingada (Bocagrande, about a 15-minute drive from the walled city) – Mexican food. On Tuesdays they have a promotion of 3 for the price of 2 tacos ($) By the way, “chingada” is a very bad word in Spanish (it means “F**K”), so don’t go around saying it.
Restaurante Az-Zahr (inside Las Murallas) – Arabic food. Excellent service and nice ambiance ($$)
Beiyu (Getsemani) – Incredible fresh juices and free filtered water. Delicious vegetarian options (wraps & sandwiches) for lunch. Farm-to-table concept and very cheap! No AC inside so be prepared to sweat. ($)
La Perla (Las Murallas) – Latin American food. Pricey but delicious. Excellent ceviche, ahi steak, crab & lobster-stuffed ravioli ($$$)
Because it’s hot, ice cream and fresh fruit popsicles are a must…like, three times a day, must. But it’s okay, it’s just fruit and milk, so it’s healthy, right? 😉
Where to Stay
There are lots of accommodations from backpacking hostels in Getsemani, to fancy luxury high-rises in Bocagrande. We stayed at Hotel Hollywood Beach Suite in Bocagrande, right across the street from the beach and a 15-minute taxi or Uber ride into Las Murallas. $60,000 CP (around $21 USD) per night for a private room with private bathroom, balcony, kitchen inside the room, and extremely strong air condition. We split it between the three of us, so it was very cheap. AC is absolutely vital here, so make sure you search for this when looking for accommodation. Around 95% of the hostels have AC but who knows how well it works.
We met several travelers along our journey in Ecuador and Colombia who had recently spent several months in Colombia alone. Many people recommended a small town called Minca, known for the largest hammock in the world at Casa Elemento. We had never heard of the place before, and we love small towns in the mountains, so we were intrigued. We decided to check it out for one night to be non-committal. After reviewing several travel blogs, we booked our stay at Casa Loma Minca which was one of the best accommodation experiences we had. It was as if we were sleeping in a giant tree house with the sounds of nature lulling us to sleep as we curled up in the safety underneath our mosquito net.
If you don’t like bugs, this place is not for you. If you prefer swanky hotels with your own bathroom, this place is also not for you. But if you’re a nature-lover and don’t mind the occasional bug (or 20), and if you want to wake up to nothing but the sound of nature and roosters, then Casa Loma is perfect. Inaccessible by vehicle, you must ascend 300 steep stairs (with your packs in tow – you probably don’t want to stay here if you have a roller suitcase). When you are halfway there, you will see this sign:
There is no Wi-Fi anywhere near the hostel (and really, the only relatively reliable Wi-Fi in the entire town is at The Lazy Cat, just a ten-minute walk down the steep stairs and into the main town (which consists of only a few cuadras (blocks)). We ate here two days in a row. The food is excellent and the owner is originally from London, so it’s fun to have a chat with her about expat life in Colombia.
You might see the lazy cat…
Or you might just feel like one yourself…
Once you reach your victory at the top of the stairs, you are met with an adorable shared space at the reception welcome area.
Casa Loma is THE best spot to watch the sunset in the entire town.
But be careful, once the sun goes down, the bugs come out, so apply plenty of bug spray! There is a type of flying bug, similar-looking to a cockroach. Being from Hawai’i, I am used to these grotesque creatures (on the islands we call these buggers B52s because they fly), these guys were smaller but fearless. They will literally fly AT your face and end up in your hair, on your ear, or down your shirt (I saw it happen!) They are attracted to water, so they’ll fly into the toilets, showers and sinks and then drown because they can’t figure out how to get out (you’d think flying bugs would be smarter, no?) Anyway, as long as you’re cool sharing your space with flying creatures, this place will be great.
Casa Yoga Minca
I am a certified yoga instructor and used to practice yoga every single day when I lived on O’ahu. It was the most grounded and centered I’ve ever felt and I unfortunately lost my dedicated practice while living in Seattle. I have done yoga in some really awesome places, including Yoga Under Glass at Chihuly Garden and Glass, and the MoPoP (Museum of Pop Culture) in Seattle, and on beautiful beaches in Hawai’i. This was by far, my favorite location to do yoga. The owners and instructors, Alex & Katya are originally from Russia and moved to Colombia five years ago to open up their studio. They teach their classes in Russian, Spanish and English. You can’t beat the background of green nature and the sound of a nearby stream. Classes are very small because the veranda only fits a handful of people, so you get focused attention. Classes are donation only and you can just drop in! I left feeling relaxed, rejuvenated and centered, finally gaining my sense of connection with Mother Nature back after so many years of gloomy, dark winters in Seattle.
Day Trips from Cartagena
After our stay in Cartagena, we drove our rental car to Santa Marta, stopping at one of the area’s best known attractions: Volcan Del Lodo El Totumo. This bizarre natural attraction is quite literally in the middle of nowhere in between Cartagena and Santa Marta. A part of me thinks that two locals were having a beer one day and said, “hey, why don’t we create a volcano, fill it with mud, and open it as a tourist attraction?!”
In all seriousness, real or not, this little mini volcano is in the middle of nowhere next to a fresh water lake and is filled with mineral-rich lukewarm mud. Sounds gross? It kind of is, but it was more strange and awesome than anything else and ended up being one of the highlights of our trip!
When you enter the volcano, it is surprisingly viscous, as if you are trying to swim through honey. There are clumps of mud and sticks and apparently the bottom is 2 kilometers deep!! The locals have this down like a well-oiled machine. Depending on how busy it is (again, we were the only people there so we got extra attention!), you get the following (which means you have to tip each one):
- Parking attendant (only applies if you come in a rental car)
- A photo/escort person – they guard your belongings and your camera/cell phone and take photos of you. We actually didn’t want this, but they did it anyway and I’m really glad they did because the GoPro photos turned out great!
- Massage person
- The ladies who wash you off in the lake. (This is unavoidable. They won’t let you enter the lake by yourself even though you are perfectly capable of cleaning mud off your own body.) Be prepared to strip down to your birthday suit…and don’t you worry, they’ll get all the crevices clean.
Santa Marta is a lively town right on the Caribbean. Honking is still quite prevalent, and food options are absolutely incredible. This is a restaurant entrepreneur’s and designer’s paradise. Our favorite place for delicious fresh fruit smoothies was Carambolo. You can order the smoothies with water, milk or yogurt (highly recommend the yogurt as it’s a meal in itself!) The food was not very good, so I would recommend coming only for the smoothies.
There are all kinds of fun restaurants with funky and creative designs and interesting interior architecture. A Deriva was a fun French restaurant with hilarious restroom signs.
Playa Rodadero was our favorite beach, located about a 25-minute drive from the main city center of Santa Marta. We loved to go at 7:00 AM for a morning dip before people woke up. It never really got that crowded, and there were far fewer vendors trying to sell us things. Playa Blanca is also a popular option, requiring a boat ride to get to the other side. We didn’t make the trek as we heard mixed reviews on TripAdvisor.
It was so nice to spend a week in the sunshine and at the sea. Our skin immediately glowed and we became five shades darker than we were when we left Seattle. There’s something so magical about what the sea can do to your mind, body and soul.
NEXT UP: MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA