By Tiffany Chek
As soon as the doors to the plane opened, you could feel the heat surround you. Cartagena de Indias was one of those small airports where you arrived onto the tarmac. The heat was a welcome change though to the coolness of Medellin and Bogota.
I always wanted to go to Cartagena ever since I saw the movie ‘Romancing the Stone’, however since most of my travelling companions were not even born when the movie came out, my ‘Joan Wilder’ jokes were lost on this crowd… nevertheless, I was not disappointed in Cartagena.
The real ‘Jewel of the Nile’ so to speak is the old walled city of Cartagena which is a UNESCO world heritage site full of charming colonial buildings, cobblestoned streets, horse drawn carriages and 16th century plazas. When visiting Cartagena it is a must to stay in the old walled city which is full of enchanting and romantic boutique hotels. We stayed at once such delightful hotel ‘Sophia Hotel’ centrally located on the ‘Plaza de Aduanas’. Furnishings were stylish and service was friendly and helpful. The rooftop had a fantastic view with small pool that was nice for a dip during sunset.
The best way to explore Cartagena is by foot and losing yourself in the colourful sights and sounds of the streets, wandering until you happen upon one of the many plazas that are interspersed within the streets.
Whilst wondering around on your own is a nice way to get a look at the town, it’s also great to get a real insiders look into the city and we participated in a great tour ‘Real food, real places and real people’. We started off visiting the Mercado de Bazurto, which is a bustling, crowded, lively market where locals are going about their daily shopping procuring some of the most fresh and exotic Colombian ingredients not found in the supermarkets. Music blares and stall owners happily dance to the beat along with a cheeky glass of rum … or two…
After the market, we ventured back to the old walled city to wander the streets some more and stop at different street stalls to try some street food such as Arepas which are a delicious pancake type food made of maize and often filled with cheese and various exotic fruits. The best stop was saved for last at the Portal de Los Dulces, an avenue dedicated to all things sweet. Stalls and stalls of delicious coconut candies, ‘Dulce de leche’ little dolls and more! This tour really was a good way to experience Cartagena as a ‘local’ and feel safe in trying the local street food.
As charming as the old walled city is, it is also worthwhile venturing out to see the impressive fort of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas which is the largest Spanish built fort in South America. Make sure to bring water and a hat! Cartagena has a humid tropical climate and the hike to the top of the fort certainly makes for hot, thirsty work. The fortress also contains a complex system of tunnels and you also have the opportunity to walk through some as long as you are not too tall or remember to duck.
All in all, Cartagena is definitely one of the must see destinations in Colombia with something for everyone… history, culture, architecture, food and music. I definitely recommend getting out amongst the locals and if you are feeling brave you can attempt your hand at Salsa … they are more than happy to show you the ropes and show you how it’s done when you are failing miserably! Cartagena also has nearby beaches for sun lovers in the Rosaria islands with its pristine beaches and clear azure waters. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to visit and laze around… it was a work trip after all J
Cartagena is just on small part of a truly amazing country and I can’t wait to go back to explore more. Contrary to popular belief, Colombia is super safe and I felt safer in Colombia than some parts of Sydney! Colombia is often overlooked as a destination on the traditional ‘South America’ circuit but I think it definitely deserves a place.