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A City Like No Other: Cartagena, Colombia

WELCOME! This is the first of many posts for our Discoverlist blog. We’d love to bring you along on our journey as we launch the Discoverlist app, the nation’s premiere travel companion. This platform allows anyone to easily share travel recommendations with friends. No longer do you need to type random notes in your phone to remember where you’ve been. Instead, use our app to keep track of all of the hot spots you find during your travels. You can also quickly search for recommendations to plan your trip, even before you hop on a plane. Travel planning should be far less stressful and our app is here to help you!

We (the founders of Discoverlist) have traveled all over the world and want to share some of our adventures with you because that is what Discoverlist is all about—easily sharing hot spots with friends! And, if you are still reading this, you either love to travel or are interested in Discoverlist. Either way, we’ll consider you a new friend.

For our first adventure, let’s explore Cartagena, Colombia! WOW, what an awesome city! Cartagena is not only a friendly city with people that will do anything to make you smile, but also it’s a city with beautiful, colorful, colonial architecture that leaves you in awe. Since the locals speak English quite well you don’t need to speak Spanish to survive. Whether you take a leisurely stroll through the Old City or wander through the modern downtown area, the stark contrast brings only pleasantries to the eyes. In this post, we’ll use our Cartagena discoverlist (check it out in the app!) to help you plan your trip and showcase why it’s certainly a destination that everyone should have on his or her bucketlist.

 

 

The Layout

I (Susana, a Discoverlist co-founder) went to Cartagena only for a weekend. Henry (the other Discoverlist co-founder) went a couple years ago for an extended weekend. This year I wanted to be in another country for my birthday weekend, but I really only had three days to spare. If I can travel somewhere for three days, I will do it! Why should I wait until I have a full week available to travel, when there are so many more countries that I still want to see?! Time is of the essence, so I booked it. I arrived in Cartagena on Friday morning and flew out Sunday night, but I did A LOT in those three days. I guess you could say I got the “gist” of the city and the culture. Fully immersing myself into the culture has always been my top priority for every trip.

Cartagena is split in two sections, the Old City (aka the Walled City or Old Town) and Bocagrande, with its tall hotels and nearby beaches. I decided to stay in the Old City because I wanted to get as much of the history and culture in the short amount of time that I was there. And I am very glad I did!

 

What to do first

What I tend to do every time I travel, especially when it’s a quick trip, is get on a Hop-On Hop-Off bus. In the 90 minutes that the bus takes me around the city, I can quickly see everything it has to offer and plan what I want to see while I am there. The first thing that I realized was that the area known as Bocagrande was primarily beaches, bars and restaurants. While all of that is great, it was not quite what I was looking for during the trip. The tour guide on the bus was excellent. He spoke passionately about the city’s rich history and gave what seemed to be an unfiltered perspective on life in Cartagena. I absolutely loved that we drove by the house of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Colombian novelist, who wrote one of my favorite books entitled “Cien Años de Soledad” or “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I highly recommend you reading it. I probably would not have seen it if it weren’t for the Hop-On Hop-Off bus. Thank you Mr. Tour Guide!

 

The Old City

I stayed in the Old City in NH Cartagena Urban Royal. When you have limited time, it’s important to find a hotel/room that is centrally located to everything you plan to do. This hotel is in a perfect spot in the Old City, right in front of the main plaza. Besides that, it has a great rooftop area with a beautiful view of the city and a decent sized pool for refreshing dip. Cartagena can get very hot, as it was when I was there in April, so a pool certainly comes in handy. COLORS! As previously mentioned, the beautiful, colorful, colonial architecture leaves you in awe. Walk the cobblestone streets and experience the 360-degree beauty of the city.

 

Las Palenqueras

Learning about las palenqueras was my favorite part of this trip. As I mentioned earlier, I love learning about the culture and history of the countries I visit, so meeting these beautiful women was amazing. These ladies wear colorful, traditional dresses and sell fruit in the streets. I bought a fruit salad several times from them for only $5, and my taste buds thanked me each time. The fruit was incredibly fresh and delicious. Taking photos of las palenqueras is fine, but you should know that they will probably get upset if you take a photo without giving them a tip. And why not give them a little something? They are just trying to make a living.

Their history is fascinating. These women travel daily to the city to sell fruit from their village, San Basilio del Palenque, which is about an hour southeast of Cartagena. San Basilio del Palenque was fought for and settled by escaped slaves in the early 1600s and is often cited as the first free town in the Americas, operating independently from the rule of Spain. ¡Viva la revolución! Las palenqueras originate from the Maasai Tribe and have managed to preserve all of their traditions throughout the centuries. One custom that piqued my interest is how they celebrate death. According to the locals, las palenqueras believe that when someone dies he or she transitions to a better life, so the celebrations to commemorate someone’s passing are typically larger than those to celebrate someone’s birth. Colors are culturally significant. Blue signifies love as it’s the color of water and rain, which is something to be grateful for in a very dry land. Red signifies work, sacrifice, and blood. Yellow represents the happiness and joy that the sunlight brings. Lastly, green signifies the relationship between man and the earth. The history, beauty and unique qualities of the Palenqueras undoubtedly make them a powerful symbol of Cartagena.

I met locals quite easily while I was there so I was able to experience their nightlife as well as the “tourist’s nightlife.” I walked in the streets where the locals live, as they sat outside with their families and neighbors to chat, eat, drink, dance and celebrate life. What a beautiful sight to see! If you want to check it out too, head near the Plaza del la Trinidad Getsemani. You’ll see plenty of locals hanging out in the plaza, which is surrounded by restaurants and bars.

For drinks, I decided to stop by Maria Bonita Taqueria Cantina, which is a Mexican restaurant. Yes, I chose a Mexican restaurant in Colombia. I know, I know .. I should probably do all things Colombian when in Colombia, but it looked super cute and I was curious. As soon as I walked in, I fell in love! It is decorated with inspirations of Frida Kahlo, one of my favorite women EVER, so I had to give the spot a chance. I only had a few beers there because I wanted to sample an arepa that was calling me from a food cart just outside of the cantina. If I had it my way, I would have brought the arepa into the Cantina, had my beers, and enjoyed Frida, but we all know the rules—no outside food allowed. Anyway, the arepa was only 50 cents USD (1,450 COP) and it was delish!

We then went bar hopping within the Old City, including some rooftop bars. Since I live in New York City, my standards for rooftops have been set relatively high because I’ve been to so many with spectacular views and vibe. Cartagena is definitely welcomed in my rooftop club as it offers some rooftop bars with awesome views. Now the drinks are not as cheap as I expected, but it wasn’t so bad. After all, I am on a roof in Cartagena. I took it in stride and enjoyed myself, as you should too!

Next, I went to The Clock Pub, which is a rooftop bar that has a band that plays every Friday night. It also an excellent view that you should probably check out if you’re in the area. If you’re looking for more of club vibe on the roof, I’d recommend checking out Mirador Gastro Bar. Fair warning, it’s open until 6am so you can party all night if you want, BUT it does get very packed so don’t expect a lot of personal space. I think there may be a small cover to get in, but you might get in free like we did. Outside the bars and clubs, you’ll likely see promoters that try to steer everyone inside. And what’s the best way to get people inside a bar? Umm, make it free to get in! I’d recommend exploring as much as you can and at least try to negotiate if the promoter asks you to pay to get in. You probably should walk away, and see if they say “wait, wait..come back.” That usually does the trick. I was also told that Caponera Café Bar was a great spot for salsa dancing, but I didn’t get the chance to check it out. But hey, maybe next time!

 

Food

Let’s just put it out there. If you head to Colombia and can resist all the deliciousness that is on every street corner and in the many restaurants, you clearly have will power that needs to be studied in a research lab. Seriously! From the arepas, empanadas, and pandebonos to the freshly-caught seafood for ceviche or pargo rojo frito, your taste buds will be in an amusement park of satisfaction. Don’t forget about the palenquerias that I mentioned above who fulfill all of your mouth-watering, fruit desires. What makes Cartagena wonderful is that you can sample everything on a budget that aligns with your pockets. I pretty much had everything throughout my three days. If you’re a true foodie, you may be tempted to consider a food tour but we think you can find plenty of spots without having to pay for a guided tour. If you download our Discoverlist app, and search for “Cartegena” you’ll quickly find some of our recommendations.

 

Beaches

And now, the beaches. If you’re planning a trip to a coastal city like Cartagena, we imagine that you probably want to know where to go for the beast beaches and views of the water. Before we tell you our opinion, you should probably think about what you value most in a beach. If you’re hoping for the picturesque, postcard-worthy beach with pristine waters and white sand, then be prepared to hop on boat or shuttle bus and head to Playa Blanca (Isla Barú) or Rosario Islands (Islas del Rosario). If white sand isn’t a must, then there are few more options within minutes of the downtown area.

    • Playa Blanca – Since this is one of the closest white sand beaches to the downtown area, it is a popular destination for tourists, which means it may be more crowded at the docking point. Venture a bit farther away from the docking point, and you’ll begin to see areas with fewer people. You can lounge in a hammock, get some food or a refreshing drink, or just relax. It’s your world so do as you please. How do you get there? Well, that’s fairly easy. Most travelers choose to make it a day trip, leaving by boat from the port at Muelle de los Pegasos around 9am/10am and returning around 3pm. Before booking, be sure to verify whether you’ll be on one of the faster speed boats that go directly to Playa Blanca or one of the larger, but slower ferries. There are also a number of shuttle bus options. Personally, we like the speed boat option since you’ll be on the water and it’s approximately 20 minutes. As we said, time is of the essence. However, the ride will likely be a bit choppier on the speed boat so get your buns ready. If you’re comfortable with negotiating, you can also find a local boat owner that will take you if you prefer a more private route. Whichever mode you choose, the white sand you’ve been yearning for will soon be under your feet.
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    • Rosario Islands – A bit farther from Playa Blanca, you’ll find an archipelago that is part of the protected Natural National Parks of Colombia. From Cartagena to Rosario Island the boat ride is approximately 50mins. It’s typically the next stop on the boat that takes you to Playa Blanca. Equally as picturesque as Playa Blanca, if not more, you will find even fewer people which will allow you to enjoy precisely what you came for – the beach. We’d advise you to skip the aquarium if given the option. Let’s just say it’s probably not what you expect. Depending on the length of your trip, you should probably consider staying a night. There are plenty of accommodations with easy access to the white sand and crystal clear water. If you don’t want to stay overnight, then a day trip should do the trick.
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    • City Beaches – Near the downtown area, you’ll find darker sand beaches that are likely very close to all of the action. Bocagrande and El Laguito are probably the most popular, as the area is nestled with a slew of restaurants, hotels, and well…the city. You will not find any of these beaches on a “Top 10” list primarily due to the lack of white sand and aqua color that you’d find on a postcard. However, if you’re short on time or just prefer not to head to Playa Blanca or Rosario Islands, they are a convenient option for travelers.

 

So, that’s a quick rundown of the magic that is sprinkled throughout Cartagena. There’s plenty more for us to share but we all know attention spans are short. Perhaps this is good time for you to download our Discoverlist app and see what other travelers just like you think about Cartagena. Quickly browse the photos, read the comments and recommendations, and book that trip with ease. Stay tuned for our next adventure!