When one thinks of Cartagena Colombia, vacation destination is probably not the first thing that springs to mind. Colombia is far more famous to North Americans for its exports, both coffee and the other less legal one.
This is a shame, for as many South Americans have long known, one of the best value vacation spots around is the city of Cartagena on Colombia's Caribbean coast. For those wanting a vacation with a little Latin spice and have already tried Mexico, Cuba, or the Dominican Republic, then this is the place for you.
Cartagena is really two separate cities, each with its own distinct personality. The original walled colonial city is now the district of El Centro. Nearby is the modern beach and high-rise district of Boca Grande. There are other districts and regions in the city, but they are mainly residential and/or industrial and of only passing interest to visitors.
In Boca Grande modern high-rise apartment buildings, condos, and hotels line the beaches. In El Centro, located only a short distance away, step back in time to narrow cobblestone streets and ancient forts. Casinos and discos and beach bars are only a short taxi ride from horse drawn carriage rides and intimate torch lit restaurants. Cartagena offers something for everyone.
One place to start a tour of Cartagena is from the mountain top monastery La Pompa which towers over the city. The trip up here is worth it for the spectacular view alone. Here one can really appreciate the differences in the old and new parts of Cartagena.
The monastery is included in the itinerary of the city tour offered on an almost daily basis by "Contactos Tours." This tour is a great way to orient yourself to Cartagena. Contactos have a main office in Boca Grande and desks at several major hotels.
Boca Grande does not offer much in sightseeing aside from its beaches. These are mainly designed for people watching and some water sports due to the crowds and proximity to the city. For more isolated beaches and good areas to snorkel and scuba dive one must take a small boat trip to either Baru Island or the Rosario Islands.
Both of these are located only a few hours from the city and offer a variety of attractions. Day long, overnight and longer excursions can be arranged to suit all tastes and budgets. Again the best source for a trip would be Contactos Tours.
Most of the sites are in the old city, El Centro. Here are located the winding narrow streets, the ancient buildings with their charming balconies, the beautiful churches and the numerous plazas and squares. El Centro has been declared a UN heritage site for its preserved ancient buildings.
The best way to see all this is on foot, although a horse drawn carriage ride is also recommended, especially at night. Try to take in some of the numerous museums the city boasts, including the Naval Museum, and the Gold Museum. There is also the building that housed the infamous Spanish Inquisition in South America complete with artifacts and displays.
The old city is a fortress completely surrounded by walls up to 20 metres thick and 10 metres high. It is however only one of several forts built to protect this important port. There are several others in the general area including a couple in the outer harbour that can only be reached by boat.
The most impressive of all is Fuerto de San Felipe de Barajas located on a hill just outside El Centro. This is the largest fortress the Spanish built in South America. Construction was begun after the city was raided and sacked by Sir Francis Drake in 1586. It was later crucial to the successful defence of the city from an invasion in 1741 by the British. In front of the fortress is a statue of Don Blas de Lezo, Cartagena's saviour in that siege.
Just outside the city and easily reached by taxi or local bus is the fishing village of La Boquilla. This small village boasts a long secluded and beautiful beach and numerous small bars and restaurants. It is a favourite weekend destination for those who live in Cartagena. An added bonus is the mangrove swamp the village borders. Enterprising locals will take you on tour of the swamp in dugout canoes for a small fee. This is a side trip well worth taking.
Finally for those interested in a health cure for any overindulgence, there is a dormant volcano with medicinal hot springs and mud baths located outside the city. Organized tours to this are also available on a regular basis.
A variety of choices can be found in regard to accommodations throughout the city. Depending on the level of luxury one wants, rooms at Cartagena's better tourist hotels can start for as little as $65-70.00 US per night. In addition there are several cheap hotels in Boca Grande where a room can be had for as little as $15-20.00 per night. These are however are very basic. One option is to purchase an air/hotel package from a Canadian Tour Operator with direct service from either Montreal or Toronto.
Getting around Cartagena is easy. Taxis are plentiful and cheap. There are no meters and prices are set depending on how many zones or districts one travels through. From Boca Grande to El Centro is usually $3.00 while within a district it is $2.00. Make sure you negotiate the price beforehand, and note prices do increase at night.
For the more adventurous there is the local bus system which may appear chaotic, but is actually as efficient as it is colourful. Renting a car in the city is not recommended due to the narrow streets and heavy traffic. The local saying is that drivers here consider traffic lights as only Christmas decorations.
There is no way to list all of the numerous restaurants in Cartagena, suffice to say one can't go hungry here. Naturally seafood places predominate, but one can find something to satisfy all tastes and budgets from fine dining in El Centro to fast food in Boca Grande. Cartagena boasts some excellent steak restaurants and a wide variety of other dining establishments including everything from Italian to Japanese cuisine.
There is no need to call it a night after dinner. For quiet relaxing evening try any of the small bars and cantinas that surround Plaza Santo Domingo and soak up the atmosphere. Relax at an open air table with a few friends, pleasant conversation, and a cafe Colombia or a cold Polar Beer.
Want a little more excitement then grab a taxi and in five minutes you'll be in Boca Grande where the party goes on until dawn. The main area for discos and night clubs is at Carrera 1 and Calle 5 near the beach.
Feeling lucky, then try one of the several casinos also located in Boca Grande. Recommended is the one in the Hotel Caribe, which should not be confused with the nearby Caribe Casino which is also worth a visit.
When you've exhausted all these choices then head over to Calle de Arsenal near the convention centre. The street is lined with several small bars and restaurants, and while the pace is livelier then El Centro it is not as frantic as Boca Grande.
The most popular place here is Mr. Babillios, a restaurant and home to "table dancing" Cartagena style. There is no dance floor here so after dinner patrons climb up onto the large oak table and dance the night away. Usually they remove the dishes first.
A good introduction to Cartagena's night life is to book a trip on the nightly Chiva Bus tour. This is a open bus that tours the city stopping at several bars and clubs for a drink and then continuing on. The bus has its own bar and live band to keep you in a party mood between stops. Reservations can be made through your hotel. For something less exciting and more intimate, a horse drawn carriage ride through the old city is also available.
The basic currency is the Colombian Peso. The exchange rate is tied to the export price of coffee and does fluctuate. US dollars are recommended and will be accepted at some but not all places as are credit cards, although your passport is required to make a credit card purchase. The best exchange rates are of course offered by the banks, but this can often be a lengthy and bureaucratic process.
Some banks will only exchange certain foreign currencies and then only at certain hours. The lineups are long and again your passport is required. The casa de cambios or money exchanges are faster but the rates are not as good. The worst rates of course are those offered by hotel front desks.
Some of the larger jewelry stores like Caribe Jewelers have private banks on the premises in which money can be exchanged and even credit card advances arranged. The rate is only slightly less than the bank and with a lot less hassle.
Need to change money at night then try one of the casinos, the rates will usually be better than the hotel's. Finally there are literally hundreds of ATMs in Cartagena, mainly in Boca Grande. Some but not all will accept Canadian and American credit cards and the exchange is at bank rate. Please note they will only accept a four digit PIN.
Cartagena is a shoppers paradise with goods to suit all tastes and budgets. First and foremost are gold and emeralds. There are numerous jewelry shops in both El Centro and Boca Grande many of which can make up a custom piece within a couple of days. When you visit be sure to check to see if there is a small attached factory where you can watch these skilled craftsman at work.
Other good buys are reproductions of Pre Colombian art. Leather goods such as boots, belts, beautiful hand made vests, and bags are also available. Wall hangings and other Indian artifacts are also good buys.
One of the best places to shop for these items is at Las Bovedas in El Centro. This is a series of 23 dungeons built into the outer wall of the city. Originally built as barracks and storerooms. Twenty-two have been turned into small but upscale shops.
The last is a small bar run by a retired matador. Naturally it is decorated with artifacts from his past, including capes posters and several mounted bull heads. It's a great place to take a break from shopping.
For coffee and other similar purchases like tobacco and alcohol, your best bet is one of the large department stores, Vivaro, "the Colombian Walmart', or the more upscale Magali Paris. Both have stores in El Centro. The former is located near Las Bovedas. Prices and selection here are generally better than at shops geared toward the tourist trade.
For those who enjoy bargains and don't mind haggling there is another alternative. The beaches and streets of Boca Grande are filled with people who will try and sell you anything. For the most part what is offered is the same as one finds at almost any tourist destination around the world. Cheap T-shirts, imitation designer sunglasses, fake Rolex watches and Cuban cigars abound here.
To say that there sales pitch is persistent is an understatement and being kind. One enterprising individual must have the airline schedules memorized. On my last day he had added cheap nylon flight bags and suitcases to cart all the other souvenirs home to his wares.
One set of vendors worth dealing with are the Native Indians. They sell elaborate wood carvings, and colourful clothing, vests hats and ponchos. They are much more polite and reserved then the other vendors, almost shy. Some real bargains can be found here.
Colombia has an unfortunate reputation as a violent and dangerous place to visit and sadly for some of the country that holds true. Cartagena however is the exception to this fact. The importance of the tourist trade and a large police presence ensures that it s no more dangerous to visit than any other comparable sized city.
Common sense and some basic precautions should ensure a worry free visit. For the bargain hunter and/or the person seeking something just a little different, this is the place to go. The beauty of the city is only surpassed by the friendliness of its inhabitants.
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