Old Town Road (Colombia Remix): Cartagena Travel Diary

Old Town Road (Colombia Remix): Cartagena Travel Diary

Mes chéries… I don’t even know where to begin with my trip to Cartagena, Colombia. This city holds such a special place in my heart, and I can’t wait to share everything (well, almost everything) with you all! This trip was full of sunshine, culture, delicious food and cocktails, and interesting people. There were also some mishaps like frog deliveries… a lick or two… record for fastest depletion of hostel resources… but we can get into some of that on the vlog.

In this travel diary, you’ll find a summary of our six days in Cartagena, background information about all the places we visited, and things to know should you wish to visit this beautiful old town as well. In the accompanying travel vlog, you’ll hear and more candid moments and stories of Lauren and I’s trip. I’m not going to go into every meal we had but rather just let you know that we tried street food, local restaurants, and hit 4 of the restaurants featured on Vogue’s 7 must-visit restaurants list and a few others that are equally delicious like Lobo de Mar.

Trip Highlights

As you may remember, Lauren is one of the Hippos (“Sassy Hippo”) known more socially acceptably as my group of roommates from our junior year summer in college. We decided to embark on this trip together because Cartagena has everything we needed: islands, culture, history, great food, and nightlife. With that in mind, I created an itinerary for us that allowed us to alternate between activities and relaxation.

Cartagena has multiple sections: The Walled City (Centro, Getsemaní), the resort strip (Bocagrande, Castillogrande), Rosario Islands, and the actual city itself outside the tourist area. We had a chance to explore all areas, but mainly the Walled City where we lived. The first half of the trip, we stayed at Hotel Boutique Santo Toribio in Centro. The second half was spent at Selina Cartagena in Getsemaní. Selina serves as both a hostel and hotel with two separate buildings for each type of rooms. This gives travelers staying in the hotel building a chance to experience the hostel lifestyle as well which we found very interesting. As you can guess, Bouge & Rouge does do hostel rooms…

Centro Historico

We touched down in Colombia a little before 1pm and finally got ourselves settled by mid afternoon. The main area of the Walled City is actually so small that I would compare it to the size of West Village and Greenwich Village combined. We combed through almost all the streets of Centro in one afternoon and on our walk back to the hotel in the evening as you’ll see in the vlog.

The streets of Centro are absolutely stunning. While many buildings follow the same few structures, the wall colors are different for each. Some are brightly painted with white rails outside their windows while others are white two story buildings with wooden railings and beautiful luscious plants and flowers spilling over their wooden balconies. It’s incredible how everything can be so unique yet mesh together to create one unified aura and character for the Walled City.

I’m going to temporarily flash forward to day 4, where we explored the other half of the Walled City. Sadly, the Museo de Oro was under construction but we had a chance to climb the wall, explore the Plaza de Santo Domingo where we witnessed a beautiful wedding and a statue of a naked woman with an ass that gives mine a run for its money.

We dined at the famous La Cevicheria and poked our noses into the lobbies of the bougie hotels. Wealso had the chance to visit Ábaco Libros y Café where we got to book shop as we drank coffee. Later in the day, we snaked through the remainder of the streets and window shopped at the beautiful boutiques as well as all the street vendor stations.

Cafe Del Mar

Around 5pm, we headed off to Cafe Del Mar on the west end of the city. This restaurant/bar is situated on the corner of the wall and famous for its sunset views. The place is often packed by 5:30pm for a 6:30pm sunset, so I highly recommend getting their earlier or making reservations (which I believe you can do?). We managed to snag a few photos and poach seat for ourselves and catch the sun setting behind the beautiful (and rather oversized) Colombia flag blowing in the sea breeze. One fair warning is while they understand what you’re asking, most staff members’ English is not great, and true to warm-weather fashion they are rarely in a rush. Expect longer wait times for your cocktail and plantain chips…

While most of the food and drinks in the Walled City are pricier than what we’d see in most other areas, we New Yorkers felt like we had a good 50% discount on everything. For example, the cocktails are priced around $25,000-$28,000 COP ($1USD = $2800 exchange rate at banks/airports) meaning they were around $9 as opposed to the $17 we see in the city. For the most part though, everything in the Walled City is considered “overpriced” to capitalize off the tourists. You will only see “real” Colombian prices at more authentic restaurants in the alleys less traveled by tourists that are far from the plazas.

We browsed many boutiques on the way back to the hotel with one market being our favorite. It was laid out similar to Artists & Fleas here in NYC and sold beautiful jewelry, shoes, art, and notebooks. The stores in Centro range from more authentic stores to bougie boutiques and select designers. Our favorite was probably…an ice pop store. La Palettería was a hit for us during the summer heat. Their popsicles are around $1.80 USD and absolutely delicious. They have a wide range of fruit flavors and sweet flavors. Lauren tried a few native fruit flavors like guanabana and arequipe. I stuck strictly to the citrus fruits because I’m #boring.

 

Alquímico

That night, we ventured to what would be our home for the first half of the trip: Alquímico. This bar is well known to host memories for many of Cartagena’s visitors. It is a bar centered around the ancient art of alchemy and experimenting with combination of elements. Located in an old building, Alquímico serves a different cocktail menu on its two stories and rooftop tiki bar. Each menu has a different theme and is created by the famous mixologist Daniele Dalla Pola responsible for Esotico in Miami. The first floor incorporations infusions into their liquor using spices, specific unique flavors, or Colombia ingredients. The second floor’s menu is more classic with only very small twists to your typical mules, mojitos, and martinis. The rooftop tiki bar (accompanied by a live DJ) plays with your sweet and sour tooth by introducing a wide set of flavorful combinations. Some have added flavors of coconut or other tropical sensations. Almost all cocktails contained real sugarcane.

The goal of the bar is to create a beautiful harmony of all your senses with eclectic mixes of modern music in an exclusive old town setting. It was truly incredible, enough for us to forgo the other bars and clubs and spend as much time we could each night in Centro at Alquímico. Here we met tons of people from all over the world (who also somehow all live in New York with us…) and experienced the creepy thing people call “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” I MEAN “Separation” as everyone we met on this trip knows someone we know. At the end of our three days in Centro, we were so enamored by the place and recognized by staff that management secretly sold us some very special souvenirs which they never do and promised us to not tell… 😉

P.S. A running joke I had the entire trip was that Alquímico was the area’s Hotel Chantelle with a quaint rooftop with string lights and La Jugada, the bumping bar/club across the street with palm trees, clubby music, and pink neon lights, was The DL. (Refer to my Instagram highlight reel for footage.)

 

Rosario Islands: Isla Grande, Cholón

Day two was dedicated to the Rosario Islands. The famous Rosario Islands are an archipelago off the coast of Cartagena and close to Panama. These islands are famous for their luxurious resorts and seclusion from the rest of the areas around it. Isla Grande is the most popular and closest. It is also home to the area’s most annoying place: Playa Blanca. This beach is a LONG skinny strip of sand with huts and billions of chairs and umbrellas set up. If you come here for relaxation, you’re not going to get it. The hundred and one vendors (sadly usually Venezuelan refugees much like those in the old town) are hustlers who are not afraid to chase you down or disrupt you from your slumber to get you to purchase one of their floatation devices or hats or God knows what. If you truly want a Rosario Island experience, I suggest finding day passes to beach clubs or staying one night at a resort on the island. I’ve heard great things about Blue Apple and Playa Libre.

The boats for the islands leave between 8am-9:50am at the port right outside of the wall. The rides are usually 1-2 hours through very choppy waters. This is not a trip for the underweight children, elderly, or those with any health issues. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who is pregnant either. The last boat does leave around 9:45-10am. We took that one unfortunately, but got a decent tour of the islands with Liza Tours.

The tour took us to Isla Lizamar, a beautiful oasis with a small hotel on the side of Isla Grande. The place had a water slide going into the water and kayaks for anyone who wanted to go up and down the strait. It also had two pools, hammocks, beautiful birds, and was kid friendly. We roasted here, ate some fresh fish and coconut rice (their staple cuisine), and then hopped on the boat two hours later to Isla Cholón.

Chólon has a reputation for being a party spot. Many boat companies rent out boats or yachts to large groups looking to party the whole ride, there, and back. When we stopped by on a Thursday, it was relatively empty. However, our experience was not fantastic. Being the only non-Spanish speaking females, we were the largest target for all the vendors. They gave us “great” service by leading us to the huts in the water and giving us seats and pina coladas but the attention was smothering. We didn’t get a second to relax. Then, two women insisted on giving us massages despite our numerous “No gracias.” Eventually we just gave up and took the 20 minute full-body massages. Big mistake.

Everything here is going to be overpriced for non-Colombian visitors. The boat tour guide who accompanied us was timid and didn’t step in to prevent them from overcharging us. Our massages should have been $15 USD. They charged us $45 and wouldn’t back down. They even tried to charge us $21 for just being under the hut. In the meantime, vendors kept pushing bracelets and other trinkets. When we got to a standstill, comedic relief came when a random guy walked up to us with a giant toad out of the water. I had a good 5 second stare with the bulging eyes of the toad before Lauren started shrieking and I started yelling “NO QUIERO!!!!!”

Long story short, an English speaking Colombian woman stepped in and helped us resolve the bill issues. Be VERY careful on the islands and always ask how much something is first. At least we got cute photos from it…

 

Castillo de San Felipe

Day three was dedicated to hitting up restaurants on our Vogue list and experiencing one historical landmark, Castillo de San Felipe. We honestly could have hit La Popa monastery but time constraints were real…

This fortress sits right outside the Walled City on the Hill of San Lázaro to dominate any approaching by either land or sea. It was constructed by the Spanish during the colonial era around 1536 three years after Cartagena was discovered. It expanded more in 1657 and was renamed to honor Philip IV of Spain. This fortress played a role in the 1697 raid on Cartagena during the War of the Grand Alliance and 1741 Battle of Cartagena de Indias during the War of Jenkins’ Ear (ew). Mid-1815, Cartagena was invaded by a large Spanish expeditionary force under Pablo Morillo. The city fell in December and royalists at the time gained full control by May 1816.

 

Castillo was not too large to explore and only took about an hour without a guided tour. We snaked through the corridors and climbed to the top to see the view and cannons. Standing on the top of the fort staring down at the modern elements of the bay and resort strip (Bocagrande) skyline behind the older looking city of Cartagena and the historic Walled City was breathtaking.

Chiva Bus (Party Bus)

I read everywhere that all tourists should experience this thing called a Chiva bus. Imagine a correctional facility bus with no doors or windows, painted tons of colors, club lights, and lots of alcohol. The bus picks everyone up at select areas and takes you around outside Walled City, around Getsemaní, up and down Bocagrande, and out to the actual city of Cartagena. It drops you off at a nightclub in the area for an hour and brings you back home to where you started.

The first half of our experience was terrible because we were stuck in row directly in front of 14 California girls who were the epitome of why people hate American tourists, basic bitches, and sorority girls (and this is coming from a sorority girl). Just picture a lot of badly pronounced Spanish, yelling, complaining, and stopping the bus TWICE because someone spilled their drink the first time and needed “A NAPKINA!!!” and the second time because they (on the top of their lungs) “NECESITO THE BAHHNEEEOOOOOOO!”

Luckily they left when we stopped at a square for music and food so that Lauren and I and two other American tourists could take over and be the “better” Americans in the back row (although at some point everyone else on this bus probably begged to differ as the alcohol flowed on). This was the one “wild” night we had… I’ll let the vlog speak for some of it, and the rest will just remain very much solely on Lauren’s, mine, and our new friend’s phone…

 

Getsemaní

This area south of Centro is what some call the “Brooklyn” of Cartagena because of the art and graffiti that beautifully paint the neighborhood. Some streets are very much abandoned with rundown buildings that seemed to hold tragic stories. Others are all unique hostels or small family owned shops. Although still considered part of the old town/Walled City, the streets are much quieter and with only two visible populations to my tourist eye: backpackers staying in the hostels and natives who live in the area. The square in the center of town gets rowdy at nights with tons of locals hanging out, enjoying street food or cafe food, and watching dancers perform (see the vlog).

Mercato Bazurto

The second to last day of our trip was probably one of the most special experiences. We booked with Duran Duran Tours (a fantastic father son duo) to visit the local market in Cartagena city, taste Colombian fruit, and bring groceries back to the mother’s home to cook! The market is not a place you should go without a local or established tour guide leading you around. For starters, it’s about 10-15 minutes outside the Walled City and consists of local traffic. We were instructed to wear closed toe shoes (it is pretty dirty in there), no jewelry (aside from ring bands), and no expensive electronics (especially your phone). Since there is little to no tourist traffic here, people are not afraid to rip jewelry off you or snatch your phone out of your hand as you’re recording. Luckily, that didn’t happen to me thanks to my phone ring and holding it close to my body, as I was determined to get footage and photo for you all.

This market used to sit right outside the Walled City in what is now the convention center. It grew so big, they moved it out to the city and have talks about moving it even further out now. The market look like what you’d picture a developing country’s market to look like. Unlike the markets I’ve seen in Asia, there is much less structure and order. Furthermore, all surfaces are old wood, NOT sterilizable stainless steel 😬. There are also no fans to swat bugs away. For some people, the following photos and my video footage may seem so gross and not FDA approved. To those who love the authentic environment and buzz of all the people haggling, it’s a cultural paradise. Lauren and I fell into the latter category. To me, it was my childhood in Taipei copy and pasted into South America.

There are ratty burlaps strung over the wooden rickety stands to create shade for vendors. The dirty paths are rocky and uneven with thousands of prior pedestrians indents. The air is steamy and smells like a combination of something deliciously fried and raw gutted fish. Fresh fruits and vegetables are laid out daily, as well as meat and fish out in the open. There are medicinal plants, pharmacies, spices, grains, knick-knacks, fresh made cheese, fresh made corn tortillas, delicious street food, and even a barber shop. Outside the main market are other stands and stores that sell anything from clothes to rollerblade wheel replacements to giant lumps of charcoal and coal that practically blend in with the young boys covered in the black dust helping customers out.

Afterwards, we headed to their home where Maria, our sweet and loving chef of the day, taught us traditional Colombian recipes such as sugarcane coconut rice, vegetable stuffed fish, fried plantains, and so forth. We also made slightly sweet juice from the tamarillo fruit (and possibly uchuva? someone please fact check me on this!) that is similar to that of a tomato but tenfolds more delicious (possibly because I was in charge of making the juice). It was probably the most delicious meal I ate in Colombia.

If you’re in Cartagena, I HIGHLY recommend giving Duran Duran Tours a call. They have so many other tours and provide airport transportation! They really are dedicated to their tourists and put their heart and soul into creating a safe, positive, and unparalleled experience for you.

 

Cafe Havana

Cafe Havana is a Cuban themed salsa bar in Getsemaní! We headed here on our second to last night in Cartagena for some upbeat music and a good cardio session. Cafe Havana has a $30,000 entrance fee ($10 USD) but with that comes a free mojito! Since it was a Sunday night, there weren’t many people there but just enough to enjoy the amazing live band and get a feel for what the environment is like on other nights. The crowd here is a bit older, but if you think your local moms’ hips don’t lie, you’re wrong.

 

Monkeys Tattoo Studio

Our very last stop was at the well-known Cartagena tattoo parlor, Monkeys. Lauren had been talking about possibly getting her “querencia” tattoo in a Spanish speaking country. At first I thought she was joking, but Colombia is actually known for its art, including tattoo art. There are a large number of famous parlors in Bogotá and Medellín, but only one in Cartagena. Seeing that I loved the artist Jackson’s work (@Jackson_Tattooer), I decided to channel my Aries genes and trust him with my artwork for my second tattoo. Part of me was nervous I’d regret jumping the gun, but I’ve wanted a second one for a while and realized the only thing I would love is my own work. I chose a piece I created ~4 years ago, a piece that most of my friends know very well as it has hung in my sorority house, back at home, and in my NYC apartments. I have yet to do a real debut of this tattoo on the ‘gram, but I’ll give you the freshly tatted photos here…

 

 

What To Know Before You Go

For starters, you need to know some Spanish. Not everyone here understands or speaks English outside the hotel concierges. Start memorizing vocabulary and verb conjugations. Most places accept credit cards, but I’d bring half the money you’d spend (you’ll probably spend ~$100 USD a day) in cash to be exchanged at the airport.

Despite Colombia’s reputation for drug cartel, crimes, and (legal) prostitution, Cartagena is one of the safest cities to visit with relatively minimal risks. Yes, there are hookers who roam the squares and bars and clubs at night. They don’t bother you, so don’t bother them. To be honest, you’d have to really look for them as they dress like what all girls in America dress like for clubs: tighter outfits and heels. If you’re a male looking to experience the sex industry, all I can say is be safe and be smart.

There are also vendors who have trays of cigarettes, candies, and gym that try to entice you by saying they sell “everything” meaning weed and cocaine. Ignore them, or simply say “No gracias” should they persist. I promise I didn’t learn this first hand, but please listen to this tip I was shared: if you do come to Colombia in hopes of trying things “fresh” instead of that smuggled, the connections here know they’re selling to eager and possibly dumb tourists. They have no problem giving you things that aren’t as pure or are possibly laced. Be smart.

In terms of what to wear, the temperature here is usually in the mid 80s during the summertime and high 70s at night. There is a sea breeze, but be prepared to be sticky and sweaty 24/7. Bring cotton clothing, avoid anything too tight, and pack extra underwear as you may be showering 2x a day. The women here dress in bright colors and are often very fashionable. I didn’t feel out of place or unsafe wearing what I would usually wear in America, but I was careful not to bring anything too risqué or revealing as tourists already receive unwanted extra attention from men.

On that note, men here don’t understand our feminist campaigns against cat calling and creeping. They will make comments, stare in disturbing ways, yell “LADY GAGA SHAKIRA BEAUTIFUL” at you, and even try to serenade you until you bark at them to go away. Sadly, you’ll get used to it. Ignore them, and only acknowledge them if they get too close or are really following you. Like the creeps of NYC, a simple “No!” or glare usually scares them away, as in they try to be all big and yell things as they back up and run away.

Lastly, the vendors in the streets and on the beach who hustle hard for money and annoy the absolute shit out of you are sadly Venezuelan refugees. Respect that they probably have very little in life and need every penny they can get before and kindly smile and decline or walk away quietly if they bother you. It’s really annoying and takes away from the beauty of the town, but understand where they’re coming from and you’ll find that each approach bothers you less. However, if you see a kid touch you and beg for money, you can push them off or sternly tell them to back off. Many of these kids are instructed by mothers to beg and use the pity card…

Now that this is all said and done, enjoy the (ratchetly edited) vlog of our trip! I apologize it is not as high quality as I’d like, but I’ve worked till 9pm for the last 10 days and barely had time to crank this out before my flight for Morocco.

Until next time, bisou bisou…

 

 

 

 

 

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Erica Huang
Erica Huang

Based in New York City, Erica Huang is the creator and voice behind Bouge & Rouge. This blog is a playground of her thoughts where she invites you to join her on her journey through her 20s. Erica shares her lifestyle, fashion and beauty tips, adventures, and personal thoughts with the goal of inspiring others to always persevere and be unapologetically yourself.

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