Our trip to Cartagena wasn’t a big dream of ours. Honestly, there were other places in South America we preferred to visit, but with a limited amount of time (8 days), we didn’t want to spend too much time in the air. To be honest, I think we mostly went simply because I wanted to get in my 6th continent. It would have been easier to book a trip to Cancun for some great diving & good food, but we both agreed we needed and wanted to continue visiting new places.
From Phoenix to Cartagena took approximately 10 hours with Delta, through Atlanta, which was incredibly reasonable considering. …and it was even better when we were upgraded to first class from Atlanta to Cartagena. Because of traffic below we had to circle several times for close to 45 minutes before we could land. This is when disappoint began to set in.
I had done all the research that I thought was necessary on the city & the things we could do & places we could stay. One thing I took note of was the beautiful crystal clear blue waters that are shared with the bahamas, the Caribbean Sea. As we circled through the air & I stared out below from my first class seat, I notice that the water wasn’t nearly as blue as I thought. In fact, it was brown …dirty murky brown. I hoped we were staying in a different area and that, maybe, what I was seeing wasn’t our beach destiny. Those dreams were quickly crushed.
When we arrived at our hotel, Hilton Cartagena, we got checked in and laid down… It was lights out in the middle of the afternoon. What was supposed to be just a quick siesta turned into a major snooze fest. (Our flights left at midnight Phoenix time, so we really never slept.) When we woke up… hunger set it in & we knew we needed to head out to search for food. We walked off the grogginess in the intense humid air. We made our way down Carrera 2, a main road, and found ourselves at what would be a favorite for us, Carbon de Palo. There, we were serenaded by a group of older Colombian men, we feasted on international cuisine like pasta with an incredible bolognese sauce & the best fried beef empanadas I have ever head. It made the damp heat tolerable, and put our bodies at ease.
Because we were still tired, we decided to head back to the hotel. We felt like our meal at Carbon de Palo had made up for the oversleeping & missing out on the culture on day one. But… on our way back, we spotted one of my favorite things, CREPES!!!! How could I not… Nutella crepes and I were made for each other. I had googled where to find crepes, and I had found Crepes & Waffles. However, what we had found on our journey was Mr. Crepe (now permanently closed). …and Mr. Crepe understood my needs & fulfilled them… and my tummy. With bellies satisfied, we stopped at the convenience store for a few liters of water, before we headed back to bed.
We awoke at a reasonable hour with enough time to hit the breakfast buffet… It was your typical buffet with a bunch of Colombian fare as well. I myself, went with the omelettes and fruit. Once we were fed, we headed back to the room & readied ourselves for the day ahead. Which meant, I loaded up my bag with necessities & Brad put on sunscreen.
We headed downstairs & grabbed a taxi that could take us to the old city of Cartagena about 5 km away. We wandered aimlessly for a while. While we walked, Brad decided that he wanted a hat. It was the first time, in our travel history that he had decided he wanted to buy something before me. So we searched for a Panama hat for Brad in some of the small shops along the North wall of the old city. He walked out a happy man, and slightly more protected from the sun. As we headed back towards the center of town, we went in search of an antique shop I had found online prior to visiting, El Arcon Anticuario. After hours of wandering & trying to follow the GPS on our phone, we found it. The whole reason to visit was for a door knocker. The store was a decent size & filled with all sorts of miscellaneous things (pictures were not permitted). They had ample amounts of beautiful door knockers in all sorts of different shapes. However, since we still had another 5 days, we decided to hold off on buying in case we found anything better.
By this time we were hungry again, so we headed back to where we started at the Plaza Fernandez de Madrid, searching for a place to grab lunch. We walked by cafes, one after another, looking at the menus for something that sounded interesting. Our choice, Atahualpa. Although Google labels it as Caribbean food, I believe it may have Peruvian influence, partially because every picture on their wall is of Peru in some capacity. Our food was really good. I had a rice and chicken dish, similar to Paella, that came with long fried potatoes that were like long tater tots & Brad had steak with what I think were fried plantains. YUMMY! Each of our dishes were preceded with a delicious soup. …but to be honest, it was way too hot for soup.
After wandering a little more, and enduring as much sweating as we could handle for the afternoon, we headed back to our hotel to unwind & check out our beaches. Unfortunately, this is when I discovered the unpleasantness of our beaches. Although they were clean & private, the water was very murky from the up swept sand due to all of the seasonal weather (so I was told). Also, just because it was private doesn’t mean they don’t permit the locals from trying to sell you boat rides across the water, massages, and other miscellaneous things. We tried walking along the south beach near our hotel, which seemed a little better. But I just have no desire to be in murky ocean water… Jaws! lol. In this direction, people were also trying to sell us things, and the beach was a bit dirty due to it being public. We felt our only option was to turn around.
As the day wore on we made plans for dinner. We showered & got cleaned up, and then Brad led the charge to a Mexican restaurant he had found, DF COMIDA MEXICANA. To be honest, I had completely forgot about this meal. I don’t even remember what I ordered…which I think speaks for itself. I remember thinking it was decent food, but I think for Mexican I will stick to eating it here in Arizona. With the night still young, we headed on to just walk. Our walk, naturally, led us to Mr. Crepe where I indulged in my usual. With that, we just headed back to the hotel.
This day was a challenging one. I think it was the only day we really thought that we didn’t like Cartagena & it was because we felt like we had been duped.
After breakfast, we were ready for something new. We had decided that we wanted to go diving, and had found a place just up the way along the lagoon. We were impressed with what they had to offer & booked three dives the following day. We were really excited to get back to it.
As we began our walk into town, we were talked into a trip across the water to another beach, Buru. We were so enticed by the beautiful photo we were shown of candy blue waters and bright white sand. We were told it was just a boat ride away for a set price (I think $20 each). We were sold. We went back up to the room to change & grab all of our beachy needs. We headed back down & met the guy who directed us to the boat. We loaded on & then were pushed out to sea. It took between 20 & 30 minutes to cross the bay, and to our dismay it was exactly the same as the other side, except worse. We were directed out of the boat and shuffled along the beach & shown a “cabana” where we could sit and set our stuff. We were unsure about what to do at this point, so we tried to make the best of it. The water was warm, we had semi-cold beers to drink, and that was kind of it. I couldn’t get over how murky the water was here too. The air smelled of gasoline from all of the boats, there was load music blaring, it was full of people, there were jet skis screaming by & other water activities happening that just did not suit the relaxing mood we were looking for. Our dreams of just lounging on a picture perfect beach where we could relax and drink cocktails had been smashed. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t want to be under the cabana because really it was just a long tent crammed with plastic chairs and tables and other people & we didn’t want to be in the water because you couldn’t see what was going on… We opted to leave, less than an hour after getting there.
We found our guide, and told him we wanted to go back. We asked him where the place was that he showed us & he then told us that it was another 40 minutes away. That the weather had made Baru all murky. He proceeded to tell us that we had to pay for the table we had been sitting at in addition to the beer. Brad started getting very upset at this point because none of this was communicated to us. We told him we would only pay for the beer, not the table. …and it turned into a whole debate that we finally ended up winning. It took another 20-30 minutes to get back on the boat since it had to come back from the other side. This time, they packed it full of people.
When we were off the boat outside our hotel, Brad paid the guy for everything. We were both frustrated at this point & had to just shake it off. We knew we would laugh about it later, and with beaches out of the question, we opted for the hotel pool. The area was clean & there was a swim up bar… (I should make a mention that I don’t typically use hotel pools, especially beachside ones.. so that should really tell you about the ocean water here.)
We decided it would be a good night in for us after all of the craziness, so we made a reservation at the hotel restaurant, Tinajero Steak & Seafood House. This was probably the most low key moment of our trip. There was no pressure to find anything, deal with language barriers, minimal sweating, and we didn’t have to go far. The food & vibe were great & we finally were able to laugh about what had happened earlier. We enjoyed the setting of an old-fashioned Cartagena style home with loads of Spanish influence. It made the meal that much more enjoyable.
It was scuba day!!!!!!!!!! We were so excited to dive & were at the dive shop, La Tortuga Dive school, bright and early. We were loaded into the vehicle with another family, and we did our best to squeeze in. It really was a tight squeeze. They drove us a little ways to a dock around the bay where we boarded the small boat & headed for the open water. We had two separate dives planned off of the Rosario Islands. We first headed toward an island where we dropped the first group who were doing a shallow dive. Then we headed to our location. The first dive was around a large sunken boat, we were able to swim all around it’s surface which was truly neat because this was our first time diving around a wreck. There were many little colorful fish & the boat was covered in colorful coral & large clams. When we were finished we boarded the boat, stripped off our gear, and headed back toward the other group.
Once the other group had boarded they parked the boat & we all jumped back in and swam to shore. It was so fun! This was another first. Usually, you are never close enough to an island to do such a thing. This little event added to the adventure. We all rested on the white sand, some of us shade and others not. We had little snacks & just enjoyed the warm water rushing up onto our legs.
Before long, it was time to head back to the boat. We swam for it. After we all climbed abouard, we headed to our next dive location. It was around a reef. There were loads of colorful fish, but nothing I found to be truly noteworthy. One way or the other, I was in my happy place, the ocean.
When we arrived back to the mainland, the guys unloaded the boat, and we were taken back to our hotel. Brad & I got cleaned up and headed back out. We wanted to get some food & in our American shame knew exactly what we wanted. Domino’s. Just off of Carrera 2, was our pizza paradise. A nice cheesy pizza with garlic crust was calling out to us! We feasted.
With our stomachs full, we decided to just walk. We walked, and we walked, and we walked. We walked in the rain a little ways, but as it started to come down harder we took cover inside of Juan Valdez Cafe. Brad sipped down some coffee, and I just hung out until the rain seemed to slow. As we continued on our way down the road, we did make a pit-stop for crepes… But this time we stopped at Crepes & Waffles. I ordered my norm, while Brad ordered nothing (a mistake). He insisted I share, and I did involuntarily, as usual. I enjoyed my sweet treat, but I assure you that it was not has good as Mr. Crepe (RIP). We returned to the street once again to dry skies and kept to our path. We walked all the way into the old city which was approximately 5 kilometers (from our hotel). It was necessary considering the pizza we had just scarf down… and the crepe.
We spent the rest of our day here. The late afternoon turned into night. We explored the streets in the dark with the city lights shining bright. We encountered a musical performance and dancing in one of the squares, and were wandered in and out of small shops. In one of them, I bought a beautiful water color painting of the old streets of Cartagena. We ate skewers of grilled meat and vegetables and had salted corn on the cob from street vendors. We even tried the arepa con queso, a cheese stuffed corn cake (it is incredibly salty). It is safe to say that the meat and veggie skewers were our favorite since they cook their corn a little less than Americans.
It was a really fun night. I think possibly one of my favorites. I love wandering & discovering new places, things, and food. …but maybe not the arepa con queso.
With the night coming to a close for us, we decided it would be good for us to head back to the hotel. It had been a busy and active day for us. The heat had worn us down & we knew we would sleep well.
With a tinge of uncertainty of what the day would hold for us, we decided over breakfast that it could be a good idea to visit Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. So, we grabbed a cab back to the old city & started from there. Brad grabbed a snack & a local food cart, an amazing arepa con pollo (maybe), and snapped some photos of more of the lovely buildings. Even though our walk wasn’t extensive, the humidity on this day was insane. It was mostly cloudy, but we were dripping sweat. It was the Colombian Cleanse! Thankfully, I always carry an umbrella, which Brad used to guard himself from the peaking sun. …and I just managed. We wandered up to the top of the Castle (fortress), and through the winding tiny hallways throughout. To me, it seemed that Colombians were a smaller people (There is no way that vikings would have ever fit down the narrow corridors). After exploring for maybe an hour, we couldn’t take the heat anymore. We were melting & Brad was riding the struggle bus. (He should’ve brought his hat.)
Before we crossed back over the bridge, we both new we wouldn’t make it without water. We found a small grocery store & made our way in to the air conditioned mecca quickly. We tracked down the refrigerated liter bottles of water & checked out. Within minutes, our bottles were half empty. We were quickly restoring our bodies lost water contents.
Then came our desire for lunch. We made it back across the bridge into the Gethsemane side of the old city. We stumbled upon an Indian restaurant, Ganesha Restaurante, and thought, “why not!?”. We sat down in the cool restaurant & ordered chicken korma & naan. A perfect combination for the sweaty day. It was exactly what was needed. By now, the sun was out with a much stronger force. It was a brutal day as we pressed on.
I found another great shop full of imported goods and antiques, Casa Chiqui, they had beautiful things. However, alot of things I could buy here at home, and for some of the more local pieces the prices were way to high to be justified. It was a fun place to look, maybe dream, but not to buy… and definitely not with Brad by my side.
Instead, we ended up buying a brass iguana door knocker from the man on the street. Unfortunately, when we had gone back to the antique shop from a few days before, they were closed. The one we had bought was very nice, and the price was fairly reasonable. It wasn’t my ideal situation, I don’t even know if it’s an antique (extremely unlikely).
Again, we needed a break. So we headed up the stairs of a small cafe called El Balcon. We just got a couple of drinks, and tried to regroup, but it felt impossible. We sat on the balcony overlooking the street below and taking in the breeze, we did our best to let our bodies cool. Finally, with Brad tipsy and me hydrated, we hit the streets again. We were spent. We began to try to find our way back towards the outskirts of the old city to grab a taxi back. The inevitable heat had us stopping for gelato on the way at Gelateria Paradiso.
When we reached the outer wall, we found a line of kiosks that offered boat rides & a day on a private island in the Rosario Islands. We were very intrigued. We knew the water near the islands was far better than what we had by our hotel, and we were running out of things to do. Not to mention, a day of just chilling on a luxurious beach sounded great. We booked it for the next day, and went to grab a taxi back to the Hilton Cartagena.
Once we got to the hotel, we decided to head back down to the pool for a bit to cool off. We spent maybe an hour goofing off in the water again. Then we did the usual showering before getting ready to head to dinner. We knew exactly where we were going, which felt rare. The restaurant was Kiosco el Bony, a beach side restaurant (it sits on the sand) serving up fresh seafood. We grabbed a table near an open window in the muggy building and watched the sunset over the water. It was a gorgeous view in a fun spot. Since I am not a huge seafood person, especially in foreign countries, I let Brad order the fish, and I opted for a chunk of beef and a pile of fries. Safe… and worth it. We both enjoyed our meals immensely. It was a great recommendation from diving guide the day before & I would definitely recommend it to anyone else in the future. After dinner, we wanted to stay out a little bit loner & what better way than with crepes!? …That’s right we went back to Mr. Crepe, wandered a little, then grabbed our bottled water at the market & headed back to the hotel.
Once again, after breakfast we were out the door early to head back toward the old city. We made our way to the docks where we were instructed to wait with the large group of people heading to our tropical paradise with our own private cabana & luxurious beach.
We got our wristbands, made our payments and waited patiently before we were all boarded onto the full boat one by one. The large number of passengers made it somewhat uncomfortable, but I didn’t care. Paradise was waiting. As we began to slow down and made our descent into the small stone built dock my dreams, once again, began to slowly be dashed. It wasn’t quite what I was thinking of, and the pictures we were shown, once again were slightly misleading. Although we did each have our own private cabana on a private beach, the water was still a little ways away down a rocky set of steps, or from a small ladder off the dock that was down a set of stairs. The beach was littered with small sharp rocks and broken shells that made walking in slightly like torture. It was more pleasurable to swim around and exhaust your muscles than it was to walk in and out. I knew I had to make the best of it, this was as good as it was going to get. Hey! At least the water was crystal clear!
The other bummer is that I anticipated a bit nicer of a facility. What they didn’t tell us was that our meal would be served at picnic tables on the much more 2nd world appearing behind-the-scenes facility. I should preface that the whole situation wouldn’t have bothered me if I truly knew what I was getting into before booking. They made it seem so much more glamorous than it actually was. I will say that the lunch (I chose chicken) was very delicious!
After lunch, Brad made friends while swimming & I sat on the beach for a little bit looking for shells that weren’t broken (there were none) before I joined him. We both donned our hats in the water trying to keep any further UV rays from turning us pink while we waited for the grey clouds on the horizon to push in further. I think we were both happy to be in the beautiful aqua waters despite the rough entry. Sunburns or not… “Deception” or not… It was a good way to spend the better half of the day. NOTE: I feel like I may have made it sound like I was very unhappy with the whole experience, and I wasn’t, just caught of guard to be truthful. This was a far better experience than what we had in Baru.
The boat ride back was a little different than the one going. Instead of just going straight back to the mainland, we made several pit stops to pick up additional passengers and their luggage. They crammed them in the best they could, and then we continued on our merry way. At this point, the weather was stirring and so were the waters. The boat ride became quite choppy and little more exciting than some may have wanted. However, we made it back safe and sound while taking in the lovely views of the old city.
Once on dry flat land, we made our way back across the street to grab a cab & head back to wash up. When we got to our room the rains had hit & it became a waiting game. When we walked out the door we had no idea what we were in for and headed along our usual route. We noticed the roads had flooded and anticipated a slightly more challenging excursion than usual. It wasn’t long before a set of cars made their way through (nearly a whole tire deep in water), pushing the waters over the curb and onto the side walk, drenching the lower portions of our legs. We were partly amused and partly disgusted thinking of having the dirty Cartagena street water all over our shoes and clothes. We quickly turned back to the hotel to change, laughing along the way.
All changed up & re-rinsed, we headed back out, but decided to take the back way around the lagoon. We were in the process of looking for a place where I could get dumplings. We found a place not too far, Maii Sushi. This worked out great since Brad’s favorite food of all time is sushi. He stuffed himself with sushi rolls & stuffed myself with chicken and pork dumplings… It was great. NOTE: That was the nice thing about Cartagena is that they have all sorts of different types of cuisine to enjoy!
Afterward, you guessed it… Crepes… and then a leisurely stroll back to the hotel.
It was our last day in Cartagena & once again we were unsure of what to do. We went back and forth until after breakfast when we decided that we should just go to Aviario Nacional de Colombia. We didn’t do much research on it. I just kept seeing it on all of the tour cards in the taxis. We aren’t huge bird lovers, but we love nature & wildlife and figured there was nothing better to do. We were a little surprised at the cost to get there & back, I think $60 or $80 USD, but the driver said he would wait for us. Because of the remote location there were no taxis there to bring us back.
When we pulled up to the Aviario, I still wasn’t sure what to expect. We saw the quaint but nice, entry set up with a large hang out area for a bunch of Macaws and other types of parrots. We said our hellos to the birds, and followed the arrows leading us in to the first exhibit. The very first exhibit was a large walk-in aviary full of beautiful exotic colorful birds. Many of them were not shy and loved chatting with us. Others played coy and we had to admire from afar. As a whole, we easily spent over half an hour in this one enclosure. It was that exciting. NOTE: I can tell you this now, what we experienced at the Aviario Nacional was hands down the best experience of our trip & possibly one of the top 10 in all of our travels. This was the best “why not, we have nothing better to do” decision of my life!
We continued on our way down the path and saw many other stunning birds including more parrots in all the colors, large cranes, emus, flamingos, etc. The last encounter we had was with a bunch iguanas near the water that mingle with the ducks. There were bright green and deep brown and had no interest in being too close. They were truly something to behold though.
On our way out we stopped at the main parrot encounter near the entrance. We were having a lot of fun with some very interactive and quite cheeky small green parrots. They were not at all shy, and had no problem hopping all over at us, biting us, and just being flat out impertinent .
As we were headed toward the exit, I couldn’t resist one more stop on the big enclosure we first enjoyed. We spent several more minutes inside snapping last minute photos, and Brad said goodbye to his favorites. We didn’t want leave. As we made our final exit our two green parrot friends were now sitting on the railing out side the entrance of the large enclosure. They stalked us, so Brad decided to start talking to them again, and within a moment of my arrival one was on my shoulder and biting at my ear. I was at a loss, and Brad had to help me free. I said my last goodbyes to these little monsters, while Brad headed on without me. As I made my way behind Brad, I suddenly felt an impact with the top of my head. No joke…. There was a parrot on top of my head. The little fella loved me & wanted to come with. All I could think to do was call to Brad. “Braaaad….. Help!” When Brad turned around & saw what was happening he couldn’t help but laugh at what had unfolded. (I think it will be one of his favorite memories of me until he dies, and I don’t blame him.)
I was parrot-free when we got in the cab, but the last thing I wanted to do was leave. However, I was looking forward to escaping the mass amounts of mosquitoes in the park. TIP: If you visit the National Aviary bring bug spray or buy it at the window because you will get bit over and over if you don’t. Brad was craving pizza again, and I couldn’t blame him. He can’t get Dominos in the Congo, so we had our driver drop us off outside of the restaurant. We ordered, we sat, we soaked in the humidity… actually, it soaked the water out of us, and we chilled. We enjoyed the savory meal for a little while, but the wind was picking up & there was a light rain happening on and off and we thought it might be wise to head back to the hotel for a little bit. My feet were filthy from wearing flip flops at the Aviary (all the paths are dirt), and I wanted to just get cleaned up & start packing. It seemed reasonable. We made our way back on foot.
A little while later we were ready to go back out for our last supper in Cartagena. I was ready to go, but also, not. I would miss the great food & the Aviaro, but I would not miss all the sweating. We made the conscious decision to have our last meal back at Carbon de Palo. The same place we ate our first night. We figured with empanadas like that, how could we go anywhere else. The atmosphere was great and the food was good. It was all we needed to close out our trip. We enjoyed the singing of older men & feasted in the intense heat while praying the fan get stuck in our direction. We talked about the women’s wrestling that was playing on the tv & soaked in our last night alone together.
We walked along the streets listening to all the sounds. Brad wanted ice cream so we stopped at a shop along the main road & then headed back toward the hotel for my nightly crepe. …and finished up our last night in the hot tub talking about life.
We woke up, ate breakfast zipped up the luggage, and headed to the airport a little early. We had plenty of time until our flight left & it felt like it never would. The Cartagena airport was fairly small, and getting out was challenging. Literally…. They did last minute random passenger checks while the flight was boarding and I was one of the lucky few. We were all grouped together and escorted to another room off to the side of the terminal. I thnk all of the Americans were a little sketched our and people were pretty upset to be missing their boarding groups for this. Brad boarded the flight without me& thankfully was able to ensure that our seats and baggage were all set, while I had my personal carry on sorted thru (again) and answered random questions. ….there was no coccaine to be found. haha. Once they had their way with my bags, I was sent on my way & thankfully got to cut the line for the plane since I had priority boarding. Finally, I was on the plane & and headed home.
There is no place like home… but those empanadas were the bomb!
Cartagena Travel Tips: Don’t go with overly high expectations… I feel like that was my biggest mistake. Cartagena is a neat city, but 7-8 days was too long for me. I could have settled at 5. Also, Cartagena isn’t a great beach city… Not like Phuket or Cancun… I, personally, wouldn’t go back to go the beach. As a whole the beaches were dirty, crowded, and full of muggy water… Unless you want to take the long boat ride to the islands… but even then there are better beach options. Go to Cartagena simply for the culture, and the Aviario… & get the empanadas at Carbon de Palo. Bring bug spray, sunscreen, and be ready to sweat!