Three days in Palomino, and I was reenergized and sporting a lovely sun kissed glow. The caribbean beaches might be the end all be all for some backpackers, but for me, too much resting makes me stir crazy. So off to Cartagena we went.
How can I describe Cartagena in a way that exemplifies the magic of this walled city? It has the charm of a historic town in Spain, the vibe of a caribbean island and the nightlife of ibiza all nestled within these grand walls enclosing the city.
The stone fortress walls stood proud against the crashing waves of the mediterranean, as we entered through them. I was overwhelmed with how pristine and gorgeous the city squares
were inside. It was truly something out of a fairytale book. Bright yellow and pink edifices and apartment building poured their flowered terraces over the perfect stone streets. Little cafes serving sangria while ancient churches loomed above. We saw wild iguanas 5 feet long, exotic birds and the most vibrant flowers I have ever laid eyes on. The food was fresh and savory, the nightlife heart pounding.
Where to stay:
You can’t go wrong choosing a hotel or hostel in the Getsemani neighborhood if you’re there to enjoy the nightlife. We wanted to be right in the action – literally – so there was no better choice for us than The Media Luna Hostel. The first floor of the hostel has a small wading pool and outdoor terrace, the second floor a large bar with porches overlooking the streets, and the third floor boasts a rooftop wide club. The building is an old colonial restoration, and while there are no frills, a certain charm does exist. This is not the place to stay if you plan on getting any sleep, but lucky for me, hitting the pillow wasn’t penciled in my itinerary.
If you walked right out of the hostel you will eventually end up at the San Felipe Fort, a massive piece of history that stands proud against the crashing waves. Left will take you out to the most touristy part of the city – where you can only take horse and buggy for transportation after nightfall. Little overpriced restaurants pour onto brick squares looming under ancient cathedrals. Mariachi type bands strum their guitars looking for tips, street performers do tricks for kids, and expensive store fronts keep their lights on and doors open far into the evening for the well off tourists. And behind the hostel stretches streets of quaint restaurants and bars, hotels and hostels and more cobble stone squares where you can lazily sip a glass of sangria in the evening heat.
What to Do:
This list could go on and on. The city is quite expansive, so I would suggest doing a tour to get acquainted with the layout as soon as you drop your suitcase in the room.
1. the nightlife – it’s everywhere! If you’re lucky enough to be in Cartagena on a Wednesday, stop by Media Luna for the roof party.
2. mudbaths in the Volcano Totumo – ask the hotel receptionist to help you set up a tour. They are located a short ride outside the city and it is relatively inexpensive to get there. Bring a bathing suit you don’t mind getting dirty (maybe even ruined) and a towel! When you get to the volcano, you’ll climb these rickety old wooden steps up to the top of what felt like an enormous anthill. When it’s your turn you’ll be instructed to climb down into the mud that lies 15 feet below. The feeling is just plain bizarre. It is like you are weightless, but that you are too heavy to move. You can’t walk or swim, and you cannot push your head all the way under, no matter how hard you try! You just succumb to mother nature and let the mud heal you. There are locals who will massage you for 15 minutes, you are expected to tip them for their services at the end. After the massage you’re free to float around for another 30 minutes or so before you climb out. The steps climbing out are extremely slippery, so be careful. There is a local who you can give your digital camera to that will take photos of you in the mud, he too expects to be tipped. Back down a separate set of wooden stairs and you will hobble the 1/5 mile walk on pebbles down to the lagoon. The mud will start to dry and tighten your skin with each step. At the lagoon, a local woman will take your hand and guide you to the lagoon. She will sit you down in the water, remove your bathing suit and rub the mud from you while she dumps water over you from her bowl. I found this to be much more uncomfortable and intrusive than I had imagined, but it gets the job done. She too, expects a tip.
3. Sailing. It would be a shame to be in Cartagena and not take advantage of the sailing. If you have the time sail to the San Blas Islands for what is acclaimed to be one of the best snorkling spots in the world. Renting a powerboat for wakeboarding or jetskis also fall under this activity.
4. Salsa Classes. I was skeptical at first, but for only 20,000 pesos I figured I’d put my pride aside and see if I couldn’t pick up at least the concept. The teachers at “Crazy Salsa” were amazing. So good that I actually used the moves for the rest of my trip – with confidence!
5. Shopping. Save all of your Colombia shopping money for your stay in Cartagena. They have everything from homemade bracelets sold on the streets to designer leather bags.