At the time we thought 5 days would be a good amount of time. In hindsight, we could have seen the city in 2 days. Lesson learned, we’re working with less firm dates as we continue on our trip. This way we can see more cities, stay longer in places that we like and move quicker from those cities that we do not love.
Things We Saw
Since we were staying in the old town area, we spent quite a bit of time wandering around the streets of old town. There were the things that you expect to see in an old city – a large wall, cathedral, cute buildings and lookout points.
Things are preserved quite well and there is charm with horse drawn carriages walking down the narrow, cobblestone streets.
Castillo de San Felipe
We had a good time visiting the castle. While most people would take a cab, we decided that we would walk the 20 minutes there – leaving our apartment at 11am. In hindsight, we couldn’t have picked a worse time to leave but that is when we were ready to go.
After one of the hottest walks of our lives, we arrived at the castle and paid our 15,000 peso or $11 fee for both of our tickets and treked up the huge hill to the castle. By the time we reached the top we were covered in sweat. Fortunately, we got our first break in the weather – an amazing breeze. We found some shade and just stood there, enjoying the breeze.
After we had cooled down a bit, we explored some of the tunnels before taking some pictures of the picturesque city below. After another short break, we headed up to the top of the castle where we took a few more pictures from the lookout point. After that we decided that we were done and headed down to the street.
Since we were already covered in sweat and planning to shower when we got back to the apartment, we decided to walk back. While it was still really hot, it didn’t seem nearly as bad as the walk over to the castle.
Convento La Popa
To get to Convento La Popa you have to take a taxi. It would be a ridiculously long walk through a few rough neighborhoods which would not be advisable. We read online to book a cab to take you up to the convento, wait for you (around an hour) and drop you back off.
We flagged a cab and did some negotiation. The starting price was 75,000 pesos or $25 – we laughed and waved him off, knowing that price was way too high. A few seconds later, he countered with a more reasonable 40,000 peso or $14. While we could have probably gotten him a little bit lower, we figured that the fare was reasonable and liked that the air conditioning in his cab worked quite well.
After a drive up to the mountain, we paid our 8,000 peso or $2.75 entry fee each and walked around. The museum was not overly exciting, but the main reason that we went to La Popa was to see the view of the city. While the sky was not overly clear, the view was still great.
If we were to do it again, I am not sure if we would go to Convento La Popa again. The view from the castle while not quite as good, was still pretty good.
Ice Cream Shops
Well maybe this isn’t something that one sees, but we ate our fair share of ice cream during our time in Cartagena. For 1,000 pesos or about 33 cents, you could get a single scoop cone. Since it was so hot, the ice cream always tasted delicious, but we had to eat it very quickly before it melted.
Things We Opted Not to See
We heard a lot about a white sand beach not too far from Cartagena. Coming from the San Blas Islands, we knew that it would be a disappointment. Even if it were as beautiful as the San Blas Islands, which I doubt it was, I know that there would be crowds of people all over.
This was actually something that I toyed with going to. There is a volcano that is filled with mud. You pay to climb down into a pit of warm mud that you float in. While it was somewhat intriguing, we knew we would want photos of us covered in mud, but leaving our camera with a stranger or setting it up to take pictures just wasn’t a great idea. We decided we wouldn’t be able to truly enjoy it.
What We Didn’t Like
Before I arrived in Cartagena I thought I knew what hot was. We had come from Belize, Guatemala and Panama. While we were hot in all of those places, the heat in Cartagena was so much more oppressive. Since it was so hot, we spent most afternoons escaping the heat in our air conditioned apartment.
There were people all over the streets trying to sell us stuff. While I have experienced this in many different places I have traveled, they were all over us here. Andy lost count of how many times the men selling Colombian hats asked him if he wanted to buy a hat. Each man would ask him 4 to 5 times in a row as we walked by… they just ignored every time we said “no”. We later learned from a few native Spanish speakers we met, that instead of saying “no”, say “gracias”. It’s crazy how a different word can make the vendor leave you alone.
While it was a cute town, it reminded me of every other old Caribbean town that I’ve ever been to. There was nothing that unique about the city that I am not able to get anywhere else.
Mailing something was nearly impossible
We never thought it would be so hard to mail something during our trip, as it was for us in Cartagena. The day after we arrived we found postcards in a shop near our apartment and decided to also buy stamps for the additional postcards we planned to buy in Medellin and Bogota. At the time we had no idea that it would take us until our very last day in Cartagena before we could find a place that would mail our postcards for us.
For 4 days we searched for a post office or mailbox, but saw nothing. On our last day we started asking where we could mail our postcards. We asked 3 different places and received 3 different answers… all written on small pieces of paper. Our favorite response was the guy at the bank that looked at our postcards like they were from another planet and very slowly in English said, “En Co-lom-bi-a… ahh… we don’t…” Then he shook his head. After his initial confusion, he remembered something, gave us a piece of paper with the number 472 written on it, and pointed us in a specific direction. We looked for a building with the address 472, but found nothing.
We had pretty much given up at that point, but on our way back to our apartment we decided to stop at a frozen yogurt shop that was owned by a British man. He had helped us find the Exito grocery store previously, so we thought he may be able to help. He told us that there was a store where we could mail our postcards. Interestingly, it was the same store where we had bought our postcards and stamps. We walked into the store and asked one of the workers if they could mail our postcards. They said yes and pointed to the entrance. We walked over to the entrance but we were still confused. The worker, seeing our confusion, pointed at the wall by the entrance. There on the wall was a small blue box with the number 472 on the front. We still have no clue what 472 actually stands for, but apparently it is secret code for mailbox.
When we told our family and friends that Colombia was on our list of places to go, they all got nervous and worried about our safety. I’m happy to report that we never felt unsafe when we were in Cartagena. There were police officers all over town, ensuring that everyone was following the law. Just like every major city, I’m sure if you wander to the wrong neighborhood, flash valuables or walk around alone at night there is a chance that something could happen.
The biggest threat that any tourist has in Cartagena is paying “gringo prices”. Taxis are not metered so you have to negotiate your fare before you get in. We always asked locals or googled what taxis should cost and negotiated down when we felt that a driver was taking advantage of us. If they didn’t go down, we would wave them off and wait for a more honest driver to come along.
Brush up on your Spanish before you go but expect not to be able to understand anything. The coastal Colombian Spanish is some of the hardest in the world. Even native Colombians have a hard time understanding it. Very few people speak English so it’s a little challenging to get around but even with our basic Spanish we were able to navigate, albeit not very pretty.
I don’t think that we will ever return to Cartagena. Even writing this article makes me feel sweaty and uncomfortable. If the weather was better it is something that I may consider but there are far more beautiful places with far better weather that I would travel to.