Cartagena – A Magical City of Beauty, History, and Heat Stroke

About sometime mid-week last week, my students informed me that Monday was a holiday (All Saint’s Day according to my internet search) and we didn’t have classes. Since Cartagena was on my bucket list, and I didn’t know when I’d be getting another long weekend, I decided to go for it. On Thursday night, I bought a plane ticket, and flew out Friday morning (both of my classes were conveniently cancelled that day, since my students had to be at other activities). I also got permission to take Tuesday, off, so it worked out pretty great.

My flights to Cartagena were incredibly relaxing. Flying domestically in small airports is so amazing. Short flights, empty seats on the plane, no rules about liquids in your carry-on, and not having to lug around a huge carry-on for a weekend trip. I flew from Armenia to Bogota to Cartagena, so my hair couldn’t make up it’s mind to be normal, nice and sleek, or a giant nest of frizz.

Cartagena is hot and super humid. I started sweating when I stepped off the plane, and didn’t stop again until I landed back in Bogota.

But it was beautiful. Sooo beautiful. Like walking around in a post card.

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I went to Cartagena alone. I was a little worried. Not about getting kidnapped or mugged or anything. Just worried about being lonely. I hadn’t really done a lot of solo traveling. Just the one time when I missed my flight to Istanbul and got to spend a day by myself in Chicago. I still remember going to the Sears Tower. After you go through the line, they have someone there to take your picture so they can try to sell it to you later. I still remember the lady looking at me like I was a puppy with 3 legs when I told her that I wasn’t with the group of people behind me, but was by myself. Then I spent another couple of days alone in Thessaloniki after my travel buddy headed back, but I couchsurfed with an awesome guy who showed me around the city, so it didn’t feel like solo traveling.

However, I had read some empowering travel blog articles about how awesome solo travel is, and it turns out, it was really pretty awesome. I love traveling with people, but it was a nice change from normal vacations. You know, where you spend half the time deciding where you want to go, when you want to get up, where you want to eat, and what you’re going to do. I just did whatever I wanted. And I wasn’t lonely at all, thanks to some pretty cool people I met at the hostel.

I arrived in Cartagena right before a heavy rainfall began. Then it stopped, and I decided to venture out and see what was around. After about 5 minutes, the downpour started again, so I booked it back to the hostel (El Viajero, which I highly recommend if you’re traveling to Cartagena, because unlike many hostels, it was not gross, and was actually really pleasant and pretty).

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The Courtyard at El Viajero

I met a girl from Germany who is here on an internship, and we chatted for awhile. The next day I walked around the Walled City, then met up with her for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant. That afternoon, I took a tour in a Chiva, which is a big colorful bus that is usually driving around at night, blasting music and acting as a mobile dance party for drunk people.

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The Chiva

I took it for the much tamer city tour. It was nice in the sense that it took me around to all the major points of interest in the city, and horrible in the sense that it followed the common theme of tourists as cattle that you herd around from place to place while they try to take as many pictures of themselves as humanly possible in the allotted amount of time. But I got to see the Castillo San Felipe (an old Spanish fort), the Cerro de la Popa (the highest point in Cartagena), and got a little tour of an emerald store. We did a couple of other stops too, but it was stuff that I had already seen around the area where my hostel was. I didn’t get a lot of great information from the tour. They spent the first 45 minutes cutting wires and reconnecting them (I really thought someone was going to get electrocuted) to try to get the speakers to work with the microphone, after which point the tour guide held the microphone right up against his mouth so that I was spending the whole time trying to discern what he was saying in Spanish when all I was hearing was the “waah-waah” that Charlie Brown’s teacher used to do. I was pretty glad when it was over.

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Castillo San Felipe

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Castillo San Felipe

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Cerro de La Popa

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Cartagena from Cerro de la Popa

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You should have seen the line of tourists waiting to get a picture of themselves in the shoes.

I decided to treat myself to some ceviche, coconut rice, and an ice cold michelada at La Cevicheria. It was quite a pleasant meal until a 55 year old man from Spain decided to invite himself over to my table, and order dessert for us to share. After having spent the previous week fending off attempts of courtship from a mid-50s Colombian man, I almost had to laugh at my terrible luck. What is my life?? After the waitress took a year to bring me my check, I finally escaped to meet my imaginary friend who was waiting for me and would probably not want to join this guy for drinks later. Luckily my imaginary friend was indeed not up for it.

The next day was beach day! Me and my aforementioned friend from Germany decided not to spend the extra money and time getting to the Islas Rosarios (which I’ve heard very mixed reviews about) and instead went to Castillo Grande, right in Cartagena. It was ok. This beach was pretty much all locals, so the vendors weren’t as bad. However, it was still a pretty consistent stream of “Do you want some water/beer/ice cream/sno-cones/cotton candy/fish/shrimp cocktail/ceviche/water toys/sunglasses/massages?” Yes, they sell shrimp cocktail and ceviche out of a little cart that they push around in the sun all day. Probably not a good choice. With most of them, you could just shake your head, and give a quick “no gracias” and they’d move on. The massage ladies, however, are intense. They don’t take no for an answer, they’ll just come up and start touching your leg. I’m not that okay with strangers touching my legs, so my alarmed look and adamant “NO GRACIAS!” after they grabbed my shin did the trick. It was also not the Carribean beach you would imagine with white sands and crystal blue waters. More like brown sand and greenish brown water, which was not cool and refreshing but kind of warm and weird. BUT it was a beach. And having lived most of my life landlocked, who am I to complain?

That night, one of the hostel employees said they were taking everybody out to a bar, so I decided to tag along. This is not something I would normally do, because it can be really awkward, going to a bar with a group of people, and not knowing anyone in that group. However, during this trip, I have been really trying to adopt a “fuck it, why not?” attitude. So, I thought, fuck it…why not? And I went. It actually turned out fine. Despite from a few awkward minutes at the beginning, I ended up meeting some really cool girls from Australia who are traveling around South America. I talked with a girl from Chile, who added me on Whatsapp, so that I could get in touch with her when I go to Santiago with my mom, and I talked to a guy from Australia, who, as the night progressed and his blood alcohol level increased, decided to go from lightly joking about me being an American, to basically flat out calling me stupid and interrupting me every time I tried to say something by shouting something about dumb Americans which he thought to be funny and I thought to be rude and pretty obnoxious. It was sometime around then, where I said, “Well, I’m gonna peace out then,” and left him standing by himself while I headed back to the hostel. Other than that rather exhausting encounter, it was a pretty fun time. And did I mention, this was basically a private bar on the rooftop of another hostel? Which was weird, but pretty awesome.

On Monday, it was a holiday, so the city was kind of dead. I’m having a brain fart and don’t even remember what I did. I think just roamed around the Walled City some more. Then, in the evening, I went with the Australian girls to grab an empanada and we ended up in a little restaurant called El Balcon (The Balcony). It had an adorable little balcony (who would’ve thunk) where we looked out over the square and had some drinks. I had a caiparinha (Mary, if you’re reading this, I drink them out of nostalgia for the Amazon every time I have the chance…and also because they’re yummy) and a Michelada El Balcon, which is the weird sounding, but surprisingly delicious mixture of beer, lime, maracuya juice and bits of peppers, with salt on the rim.

On my last day in Cartagena, I strolled around, did some shopping, and was reading 100 Years of Solitude while sitting inside the window of the old stone city wall looking out on the sea, when I received a text message from my airline saying my flight was cancelled and I should call them to figure something out.

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Sitting in the window of the wall.

So I went back to the hostel to get some internet and look up their number. They put me on a later flight to Bogota, but said I could still get on the same flight back to Armenia. So I enjoyed my extra couple of hours, and then headed to the airport. When I checked in, they said my new flight was late, and it wouldn’t give me enough time to transfer in Bogota. So unfortunately I had to spend another night in Cartagena. And I am not being sarcastic when I say unfortunately, because it meant I had to take a taxi back into the city, get another hostel, get in touch with SENA to let them know I wouldn’t be able to make my 6 a.m. class, and then go to bed so I could get up at 4:30 the next morning and go to the airport. I decided to be cheap and check into a different hostel that was cheaper. I figured if it wasn’t good, it didn’t matter, because it was just for the night. I didn’t realize how much of a lifesaver the air conditioner at my other hostel was until I tried to sleep without one. Needless to say, I was not too chipper when I was checking in at the airport at 5 a.m. the next morning. And since the showers at that hostel were gross, I was also greasy and smelly. It was nice to get back to my apartment, take a shower, put on some clean clothes, and not be dripping in sweat for the first time in 5 days.

But I’m glad I got the opportunity to go. Cartagena is a must-see, and I met some awesome people. I also met a lot of really crazy people, which I will devote an entire post to, so keep an eye out for that coming soon.

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