"You're going where?! Colombia? You mean, like, in South Carolina, right?"

(Click photos to enlarge)


Our shocked friends shook their heads, fully aware of our adventuresome travel habits. We were getting the itch – it was time to try somewhere new. My father had fallen in love with Cartagena several years ago and even purchased a one-bedroom apartment in nearby Laguito, a touristy beach district full of high-rises with mostly well-to-do Colombian families on holiday.

We did some research at www.cartagenainfo.net and found out that Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage site steeped in history, Spanish fortifications and beautiful Caribbean views. Besides being the setting for the movie, Romancing the Stone, we knew very little about Cartagena, but we were excited to find out.

As we were travelling on a budget, we used our Delta SkyMiles to get to Colombia. It was surprisingly easy to book the flights. Colombia's national airline is Avianca, conveniently a Delta partner. Avianca flies direct from Miami to Cartagena, and it only cost us 35,000 frequent flier miles plus a $75 fee each ticket. Fantastic! You can barely fly somewhere in the continental U.S. for 35,000 miles. We booked a rental car for the drive from Tampa to Miami and boarded a direct 2-hour 20-minute flight to Cartagena.

Customs was a little bit of a wait, but overall very tolerable. Dad met us at the airport and helped us pile into one of the plentiful taxis. (Ask if the taxi is air-conditioned before you get in, if that is important to you!) The seaside ride to the walled city was very short – 15 minutes at most – and cheap, about $4 dollars. It seemed like we were entering another world as we drove through one of the small openings in the wall that surrounds the Old City (El Centro). People, bicycles, aromas, sounds and vendors filled the narrow streets in vibrant old town.


We pulled up to our hotel, Los Balcones de Badillo, and went up the stairs to meet our gracious hosts, Antonio and Giselle. We had emailed them prior to our arrival and worked out a nice deal for our weeklong stay. While there are a few hostels and budget accommodations in El Centro, most of the hotels are a bit on the pricey side for cash-conscious travellers. We stayed within our budget by travelling in the off-season, which fortunately coincided with Martha's birthday! If you stay a week or more, many hoteliers are willing to accept a lower room rate. It's worth asking!

After resting in our clean, spacious room and checking out our huge wrap-around balcony, we changed clothes and headed out with a map of El Centro. We soon put the map away and happily wandered the many small streets and alleys. Beautiful wooden balconies projected from every building, many dripping heavily with lush magenta-colored Bougainvillea and giant yellow Oleander. We walked up the stone steps into the Santa Clara convent, now a Sofitel hotel. The bar/lounge area was very comfortable and low-key. I wonder what the old nuns would think of everyone having martinis in their convent! We tried some Colombian wine – not so great. Chilean and Argentinean wine is the popular choice here. Right behind where we were sitting at the bar, some steep stone steps lead down into one of the convent's old crypts. We carefully made our way down and took some photos.

Our evening ended with a stop at Pizza en el Parque. We were starving, and the pizza was excellent and affordable ($9 for a very large chorizo pizza). We would stop there many times during our trip to enjoy the friendly service and great food. If you don't feel like eating inside, the owner will set up a table for your pizza just outside in the Parque Fernandez Madrid near the Church of Santo Toribio.

We woke up on Wednesday morning refreshed and ready to soak up some of the history of Cartagena. We went upstairs to the rooftop of Balcones de Badillo for our full breakfast, cooked to order, which is included in the price of the room. Every day there was a new exotic juice waiting for us. This first morning we had watermelon juice. Martha is not a coffee drinker, but she did try the Colombian coffee at breakfast. Very flavorful!


Our first adventure was to walk along the top of the 7-mile long wall that surrounds El Centro. It is quite feasible to walk the entire town in one day, as the total area of El Centro is not very big. After stopping at a large department store to use the inside ATM (we had no problems the whole trip using our bank cards), we headed off on foot to see the big Spanish fortress, Castillo de San Felipe De Barajas. This impressive structure is the biggest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World. It has been beautifully restored. We opted to explore on our own without a guide and had a great time. The maze of lighted tunnels is particularly fun. Poor George had a rough time fitting his 6-foot, 4-inch frame in the low ceilings of the tunnels! Outside the fort is an impressive statue of Cartagena's patron war hero, Don Blas de Lezo. Our running joke throughout the trip was, "Blas de Lezo – lost his leg-o!".

After exploring the Fort, we walked back to El Centro to visit the most touristy area, Plaza de Santo Domingo, where Martha kept up the tradition of rubbing the gordita statue's breast for good luck (notice how shiny they are!) Both George and I think the world famous sculptur, Botero would be proud of the way the tourists are attracted to his work. Be forewarned that in the touristy plazas you will be targeted by vendors, shop owners, wait staff, people wanting to be your guides and even mimes. A polite, "No, gracias," will take care of most of it. Except for the obnoxious mimes – one followed and mimicked us until we ducked into a nearby restaurant for relief. La Bodeguita del Medio, named after the famous Cuban watering hole frequented by Hemingway, provided us with tasty (and expensive) mojitos and some of the best yucca fries we have ever had, not to mention a haven from the mime. We would come back here to eat again before we left.

Thursday was Martha's 40th birthday. We took a taxi to Bocagrande to visit Martha's Dad and check out his apartment in Laguito. Bocagrande reminded us of Miami Beach a little bit with all the huge high rises. Dad's apartment building is right in front of the Hilton and has its own private palm tree'd beach and swimming pool. After eating breakfast, all three of us went swimming in the warm Caribbean Sea. We then boarded a very modern, air-conditioned bus (about 75 cents U.S.) for the ride back to El Centro. Martha's Dad showed us another beautiful convent-turned-hotel, the Santa Teresa, with its rooftop pool and chic courtyard. We then ate a filling lunch at a popular local restaurant, Crepes & Waffles. We hear they have the best ice cream in town, but we were too full to try any.


After a delightful nap in our cool room back at Balcones de Badillo, we woke up rejuvenated and headed back to Santa Clara for a birthday drink. A three-piece band sang: "Feliz Cumpleanos" to Martha, and the bar manager began sending us complimentary martinis. He and his staff were trying to create some new drinks and were using us as willing guinea pigs. After that we boarded one of the many horse-drawn carriages for a giddy late night tour around El Centro. (Coming from Florida, we have a tendency to disdain any touristy trappings like carriage rides – but this one was well worth it.) The clip-clop sound of the horse's hooves echoing through Cartagena's colonial buildings was unforgettable. The carriages are a big part of the Cartagena experience – you hear the clopping throughout the town at all hours. Sometimes there are parades of carriages as entire wedding parties laughingly go by.

Friday morning we donned our bathing suits and met up with Dolphin Dive School for an all-day snorkelling trip out to Islas de Rosarios, a group of islands scattered about a one-hour boat ride from the coast of Cartagena. Dolphin Dive School's home base is on a large island rumoured to have once been owned by Pablo Escobar. Even with the water turbulence we experienced that day, the sea life was spectacular. Back on the island, we enjoyed a lunch (included in the price) of paella and lounged about in hammocks until it was time to return to Cartagena. The Rosarios were so appealing to us, we decided we will have to stay a few nights on our next trip. There are quite a few hotels to choose from.

That evening we walked around El Centro and soaked up the busy nightlife. You could tell it was the weekend! Everyone was out in the streets gossiping, shopping, flirting, eating and playing dominoes and chess. We were pretty pooped from our day out in the sun, so we went back to our room at Balcones de Badillo, popped open some Aquila beer from the well-stocked fridge (very reasonable rates!) and sat out on our copious balcony and enjoyed the activity below.

Saturday we awoke to heavy tropical rain. It ended fairly early and we went out to do some shopping. First we hit the row of artisan stalls of Las Bovedas. The stalls were originally meant to be prison cells, but the structure was built too late during the waning Spanish rule, and it was never used as a jail. We found Colombian handmade souvenirs for our friends and family, including an intricate wooden bowl we bought for ourselves. We checked out the Museum of the Inquisition and paid $7 for a personal guide who spoke English (sort of). Looking at the instruments of torture made one cringe, but a lot of them were never used in Cartagena. We found the historical photos, artwork and dioramas more interesting.


The next stop was Lucy's Jewellery to look at purchasing some birthday earrings for Martha, whose May birthstone happens to be emerald. Colombia mines 80 percent of the world's highest quality emeralds. Lucy's shop was immaculate, and the service was great with Lucy attending us personally. In the corner of her shop was the jewellery maker working away on new pieces. We found some stunning earrings with eight stones of very deep green, for which we received a certificate of authenticity. It is quite safe to buy emeralds while travelling to Colombia, as the government strictly regulates the quality of the stones, and the gold, all 18 KT, coming from each jeweller. A complaint to the government may cause a jeweller to lose his license!

After we spent all our money shopping, we walked around the district of Getsamani, another part of the Walled City, but outside of El Centro. This area is not as well-restored as El Centro, but you could tell it is up and coming. After another lovely rest back at our room, we dressed up for an evening out – after all, it was Saturday night! Our first stop was back in Getsamani at a bar called San Felipe on Calle Arsenal. It was a small dance hall catering mainly to locals, which is exactly what we like. We ordered the traditional Colombian rum setup: a small bottle of rum, a bucket of ice, a saucer of limes, two glasses and two bottles of Coke. Everyone was in the mood to dance, and San Felipe played everything from salsa to traditional Colombian music.

From there we walked back into El Centro through the Puerta del Reloj, past the Plaza de los Coches, down the Portal de los Dulces (sounds far, but it's not) to another bar we liked a lot, Tu Candela. They played great taped music throughout a cavernous downstairs dance area and a smaller balconied upstairs. We really loved this place.

Sunday was a day of recovery, lazily walking about, picture taking, packing, and enjoying a $40 steak dinner for two (including a bottle of wine). We returned to the room very relaxed and settled our bill. We laughed at the mini-bar charges. If we drank the same amount out of a room fridge in a hotel in Florida, we would be paying four times that much!

On Monday morning a taxi picked us up at the hotel and took us the 15 minutes to the airport. Except for a delayed plane, the trip was uneventful. We picked up our rental car at the airport and drove back to Tampa. We couldn't believe how easy it was to get to Cartagena from Florida. Overall, the trip was remarkable, romantic, easy and affordable. We recommend that you come see Cartagena now before the world barges in and makes it less fun. Better hurry!


Martha's tips:

1. Women don't wear shorts in Cartagena.

2. I took my T-Mobile blackberry with me and was stunned at how easy it was to communicate back home. I sent text messages and emails and the bill from T-Mobile came to $2.48. Our hotel also had an Internet station in the lobby. Most do, and there are many Internet cafes all over Cartagena.

3. Try the food from the street vendors. We especially liked Arepas con Queso (fried bread with cheese) and platano chips (salted plantain chips)

4. If you have not traveled to a developing country before, be prepared to see some poverty. Tourist towns like Cartagena will have fancy restaurants and nice hotels intermingled with locals who struggle to make enough money to buy food. This is a tough thing to see, but it is best not to give any handouts. You will be starting something you cannot handle.

George's tips:

1. Brush up on your high school Spanish – you're going to need it. Not very many people speak English.

2. Prepare to do a lot of walking.

3. Drink the rum!

4. Don't buy food from a sleeping street vendor.



- B A C K -