(Re-edited and updated December 2018)
Cartagena is Colombia’s most touristy destination. No wonder, they have a Caribbean beach and a walled old town that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
|The bell tower – la puerta del reloj – which is probably the most popular gate to the historic old town.|
But to me, this blessing is rather a curse: It’s the most touristy place I’ve visited in Colombia and it has nothing really unique.
Well, Cartagena’s walled Old Town, founded in the 16th century, is certainly very cute and deems Colombian….if you’ve seen only this city and its beaches. In this case, you will adore the lovely squares, cobblestone streets, and colorful colonial buildings at Colombia’s fifth-largest city.
|Plaza de los Estudiantes in front of the elegant restaurant Alma.|
And indeed, they are well-maintained – just like any other World Heritage Site is since otherwise, they would lose this status and all the privileges coming with it. Since maintanance of the old buildings must be quite costly, the shops and restaurants they are housing are stocked to the wealthy tourists’ taste and ridiculously expensive.
|The main square, Plaza de los Coches. This is where in the Colonial days they parked their carriages.|
|Every shop is cute – but also quite overpriced within the walled old city of Cartagena.|
The city beach on Cartegena’s beach-peninsula Bocagrande is ok. A little like many beaches in the US, i. e. in front of sky-high hotel- and condo-buildings.
|If I want some place that looks like the US, I actually go to the US.
(Photo: poirpom, Cartagena skyline, Colombia, CC BY 2.0)
Rooms are overpriced: you get half of the other places’ standard, but you easily pay double or even triple. Trips to Isla del Rosario, Isla Barú etc. are sold at every corner and are often a rip-off, i. e. they promise you the world, show you intriguing pictures of deserted beaches – I don’t know where and when they took them; certainly not on the beaches we’ve seen.
Playa Blanca / Isla Barú
After being a bit disappointed with Cartagena’s city beaches, I thought a trip to the celebrated Playa Blanca on the Isla de Barú would appease me.
Well, if you’re looking for a secluded beach, Playa Blanca is not what you are looking for.
We arrived at Playa Blanca via our shuttle bus about an hour before the first speedboats of tourists did. Crossing from the parking lot to the beach was a shock: Puddles of reddish-brown liquids flanked the path, covered with styrofoam containers and plastic bags.
However, once we reached the beach, we were offered beach chairs at each and every restaurant. Already at this early hour, the beach is far from being empty: It’s packed with all sort of businesses like bars, shops, and jet ski rentals. Latter must be a gold mine since the entire time that we spent on this stretch of sand – in front of the wooden Police Station since that was the only spot where we didn’t have to rent a beach chair – we were inhaling the fumes from the ocean. Come to think of it, I believe it would have been healthier stretching out next to a freeway.
From our spot in front of the Police Station, I can only recommend you watch your stuff on the beach – albeit the biggest issues Playa Blanca’s sub-department of the Policia Metropolitana had to solve were fights between the local hawkers.
|Where is Martin Parr when you need him?|
So anyways, if you are into very, very crowded beaches, pushy beach sellers, oceans covered with clouds of gasoline from all sorts of boat motors, if you don’t mind getting your head shaved off by jet skis while trying to swim in large crowds, then this is the perfect place for you.
After Cartagena, I needed someplace more real, much more Colombian. We decided on Santa Marta, located likewise on the Caribbean coast – about four hours further east.
To buy a ticket from Cartagena to Santa Marta we walked in the heat and heavily whirled up sand to the marsol station to buy the tickets at about 16 $, and downtown we could have bought them from a travel agent for like 17,50 $ – so don’t bother to walk against the sandstorm, get them in town.
Best place to sleep:
Actually, I cannot really recommend you an accommodation – mainly since I don’t know what’s your focus when visiting Cartagena: Do you want to hang out on the beach? Do you want to explore the Islas del Rosário? Are you mainly interested in the famous old town?Whatever you choose, you can still do everything since there are local buses and relatively cheap cabs bring you to all places of interest. You just have to pick what you’d like to have in your vecinity.
Best place to eat:
I’m afraid I didn’t make Cartagena sound like the greatest place ever; well, to me, it wasn’t. Very pleasant, though, were our daily dinners at San Valentin, serving a lighter version of Colombian cuisine, lots of good seafood – as well as excellent cocktails at happy hour – from 7 p. m. to 10 p. m. two for one. However, it wouldn’t hurt to turn the aircon down a bit – or you pack a warm jacket for the evening.
Calle Vicente Garcia # 6-23
Phone: + 57 – 7 – 664 11 12
Then go to the main post and take your pick!