AWARD WINNER TAKES IT EASY IN
ROMANTIC CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA
going where?! Colombia? You mean, like, in South Carolina, right?"
(Click photos to enlarge)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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
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.
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!
buy food from a sleeping street vendor.
- B A C K -