Rain pounded the streets of Cartagena. Due to poorly chosen footwear (this seems to be a recurring theme in my travels) we had to walk slowly over the slippery sidewalks. We waded through ankle-deep puddles and crossed streets overflowing with traffic and rain, eventually arriving at the deserted entrance to the old town. We took refuge under a covered walkway, ordered a deep fried local snack and proceeded to wait out the unexpected downpour. It didn’t stop raining for the whole day (we got completely soaked on the way back to our hotel) but luckily we had another day to explore behind Cartagena’s city walls.
The walled city of Cartagena
Cartagena’s walls were built to protect the city from pirate raids, which were an annoying side-effect of being a prosperous city on the Caribbean Coast of South America. Today the walls enclose a perfectly preserved Spanish colonial city, one of the finest in all of the Americas. After entering the mustard coloured main gate, and passing the walkway we hid under the previous day, we made our way along Cartagena’s cobblestone streets. First up was San Pedro Claver Church and its imposing wooden doors. From there we wandered the streets without a plan, absorbing the flavour and history of this colourful colonial city. The sun made for a nice alternative to the pouring rain, but the Caribbean heat was intense. The brightly painted houses, with their small wooden verandas, frame the hectic streets of the old town. We walked down almost every one of them, taking the occasional break in a plaza or restaurant. Thinking back, we didn’t actually step inside a church or visit any museums or tourist attractions. The town itself is an attraction, and exploring it without a plan is a great way to do it.
Walking on the city walls
Cartagena’s walls provide elevated views of the bustling walled city. After negotiating with an old woman for a bottle of Powerade, we walked along the walls until the sun wore us down. We headed back to the shade of the backstreets, where we found a cheap (if a little uninspiring) set meal, consisting of a sugary drink, soup and a plate of meat.
Cartagena at night
We headed back to our hotel, (located in Getsemani, about a 10 minute walk from the old town) where we rested our tired legs. We headed back to the old town at night where we sat on small plastic chairs, ate beef skewers (with a side order of beer) and talked to some fellow travellers. We then walked around the old town some more, but didn’t stray too far from the well-lit areas. I was worried that Colombia would be the most dangerous country I had ever visited, but we had no problems during our month in the country (it pays to be careful at night though).
Tayrona National Park
After Cartagena we followed the tourist trail to Santa Marta, the gateway to Tayrona National Park. I’ve heard so many people rave about this place lately and I really can’t see why. We only did a day trip, but I thought it was expensive (the entry ticket was $20) and the beaches were a bit underwhelming. We didn’t see any wildlife either, which is apparently one of the draws of the national park. We saw way better beaches in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, so think twice before you believe the hype. People do camp there and I guess it’s a whole different experience, but from what I’ve heard it’s basically just a big bunch of backpackers sleeping in hammocks and smoking lots of weed (which admittedly does sound kinda cool). If you’ve been to Tayrona National Park let me know what your experience was like.
Cartagena is considered to be one of the nicest colonial cities in South America and it definitely lived up to its billing. We loved walking around the walled city of Cartagena; make sure you check it out on your journey through Colombia. Also, make sure you watch Love in the Time of Cholera (an adaptation of the Gabriel García Márquez novel) – it was mostly filmed in Cartagena.
If you are looking for more places to visit check out my Colombia archives — we visited so many cool places, including Barichara, the Tatacoa Desert and Salento.
Have you been to Cartagena? What is your favourite colonial city in South America? Let me know in the comments below!
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Wednesday 25th of January 2017
We have been to Tayrona almost ten years ago and camped at the beach (with a tent) for a few nights. It was fantastic, good hiking in the mountains behind, nice beachwalking and swimming and beautiful stars at night. I guess it is much more crowded now, ten years ago Colombia just came back on the tourist map.
Monday 30th of January 2017
It must have been a lot different back then! They actually closed the park for a while not long after we went, it was getting a bit overrun but that didn't bother me too much, I just thought it was a bit overrated -- I'd heard so many people rave about it!