A concise guide to the things to do in Cartagena

A concise guide to the things to do in Cartagena

Colombia is huge, and it would require several months of travelling to discover its many beauties. However, one of the places to visit in Colombia, for however long one may be staying, is Cartagena, which is considered – and rightly so – the most beautiful city in the country. It is a perfect Caribbean vacation spot, it can be easily reached through regular flights and long distance buses. It is ideal for romantic city breaks: picture cobbled alleys, balconies covered in bouganvillea, beautiful facades, street art, music and lovely restaurants. It is great for nature lovers and beach bums too: it is a good starting point to visit the beautiful Islas del Rosario, where I could escape to whenever I felt like relaxing on the beach or snorkeling on the coral reef. There are so many things to do in Cartagena, that it is no surprise Cartagena is one of the main tourist attractions in Colombia.

Cartagena is one of the main tourist attractions in Colombia

Cartagena is one of the main tourist attractions in Colombia

Having this in mind, Cartagena has always been on my list of places to visit in Colombia, and in fact, it was my first stop in South America after having spent three full months in Central America. Despite my original plan to reach Colombia in the most adventurous way (sailing San Blas, in Panama, to cross the border via sea), I ended up having to be a not so adventure traveler and catch a flight from Panama City through Bogotà – read here to find out what happened. As soon as I landed, I knew there would be so many things to do in Cartagena.

Things to do in Cartagena: have a cold cerveza

Things to do in Cartagena: have a cold cerveza

Things to do in Cartagena

I am all about first impressions, even when it comes to places I visit: the minute I stepped off the plane and walked into the city, I fell in love with Cartagena, and it will be a long lasting affair I think. I knew I would soon find out what to do in Cartagena.

Right on the Caribbean, it enjoys a hot climate – if anything, too hot! – year round (December to April are the driest months), but the breeze that starts blowing in the afternoon cools the city a bit, making it more pleasant to walk around. It was entirely built by the Spaniards in such a way that the wind coming from the sea could circulate more easily, to bring relief from the heat. And relief I had to seek – just to give you an idea, imagine that despite being used to it, I was so exhausted from the humid heat that I would spend my day walking in search of a cool spot, drinking freshly pressed juice, and do one of the must things to do in Cartagena: sit in a tiny alley and wait for the breeze to come.

Things to do in Cartagena: sit in a tiny alley in Getsemani to enjoy some cool breeze

Things to do in Cartagena: sit in a tiny alley in Getsemani to enjoy some cool breeze

The old town of Cartagena is one of the tourist attractions of Colombia, in particular the inner walled city with the historical districts of El Centro and San Diego, with many beautiful squares, churches, museums and other places of interest. Getsemaní, the outer walled town, may not be as well preserved as the rest of the historic centre, but it is full of character and it is undergoing constant renovation. This is also where I managed to experience a bit of action and meet the locals. Quieter during the hot day hours, it gets really lively when the breeze starts blowing. I didn’t have to work hard to find out what to do in Cartagena: just walk out of the door!

I then saw people pulling chairs right outside their doors and sitting there to enjoy the cool(ish) air. Children would start playing football in the squares and Plaza Trinidad, the heart of neighbourhood, would become a football field, while everybody sit on the benches to have a chat and a drink, and street food vendors magically started appearing. Chances are I would meet people who were glad to share their anedocts about Getsemaní. I met the former mayor just by chance, as I sat next to him in the square and said hello: he was up for a chat and eager to explain a lot about the history of the area. This is how I learned that Getsemaní used to be a brothels area in the past.

Places to visit in Colombia: Getsemani, Cartagena

Places to visit in Colombia: Getsemani, Cartagena

I am a strong believer of getting the feel of a city rather than visit each single museum, church, square in it, although I know that there are so many things to do in Cartagena. It is in any case impossible to visit them all, there are so many. So, my budget tips for savvy travellers is to pick a few among the many places of interest. If interested in churches, I would enter them for free during mass, but I had make sure to wear appropriate clothes. Since I had a tight budget, I found that walking around is a free and great way to explore the city. That’s my favourite activity for sure.

Outside Cartagena

Visiting the archipelago of Islas del Rosario is one of the things to do in Cartagena. Located about 35 km south of Cartagena and consisting of 27 small islands – some of them so small that they only fit one single tiny house – it can be visited on a one day cruise leaving from the Muelle Turistico. This would normally start between 8 and 9 am and stop in many islands as well as in Playa Blanca, a long white sandy beach, before returning to Cartagena in the late afternoon. I would not miss it: the Caribbean waters are so clear and clean, the visibility so good, the coral reef so lively that I had to at least take a peek. Besides, here are some of the best beaches in Colombia.

Tours can be arranged through the hostel, and it should cost no more than 20 dollars including lunch. Carrying snorkeling gear is a good idea, otherwise it can be rented for cheap on the spot. I was so lucky to be randomly invited on a private boat, so I also managed to skip the crowds and got a chance to enjoy the freshest and loveliest lobster and crab: local fishermen usually approach the boats with their catch of the day, and offer to cook it. Cheap and delicious!

Best beaches in Colombia! Islas del Rosario, Colombia

Best beaches in Colombia!

Islas del Rosario, Colombia

I had to jump in!

What to do in Cartagena: eat lobster, crab and patacones: 100% fresh, 100% delicious

What to do in Cartagena: eat lobster, crab and patacones: 100% fresh, 100% delicious

Where to sleep and eat in Cartagena:

As one of the main tourist attractions in Colombia, Cartagena is inevitably more expensive than other places in the country. But since it is big and varied, there is something for any budget. Couples on a romantic getaway will enjoy boutique hotels. Younger and penniless crowds won’t have problems finding a good backpackers hostel. Just make sure to read the reviews before dropping by or committing to a room or a bed. I made the mistake of not doing it (what do you know, I am considered an experienced backpacker!) and ended up in the seemingly quiet Mama Waldy in Getsemaní. Pity it gets wild after dark, with parties and loud music until well after midnight, right in the common area where all (cramped and somewhat dirty and suffocating) rooms face, making sleeping almost impossible.

Good food is easily available in the many local eateries and even from street stalls, with lots of options – from grilled meat and corn to arepas and amazing tropical fruit and fruit juices. By all means, no matter what the guide book may suggest, avoid pizzerias – they are sad businesses and the food taste like it comes straight out of a can or a box: no reason to spend a fortune to eat poorly when, for a few dollars, you can have much better and fresher food in the street.

Things to do in Cartagena: try all the fresh fruit!

Things to do in Cartagena: try all the fresh fruit!

For more things to do in Colombia, click here!

Getting around in Cuba

Getting around in Cuba

Vintage cars are one of the symbols of Cuba. They are anywhere. Some are so dear to their owners, who take so much pride in them that have completely renovated them, changing the engin, placing new appliances, and what not. Some others are just plain old cars, which make loads of noise and, what is worst, produce an incredible amount of smoke and pollution. Yet, riding on one of those cars is an experience and you will want to do it. Sitting on the back seat you almost feel on a huge couch. Yes, they are comfortable!

Havana, Cuba

Old Ladas

Havana, Cuba

Traffic light in Havana

The other side of the coin is that… some cars are just plain old and rotten. It is apparently so expensive to buy a car in Cuba, that Cubans who do own cars learn how to fix them over and over, and you will see their old moscovite car has no belts, has wooden doors (yes!), you will have to use special tools to put the windows up and down, and the engine is a second hand peugeot – literally, bits and pieces taken here and there, until eventually the car becomes decent. No matter what, any car will have a very good and possibly brand new stereo – Cubans can hardly live without their music and there is nothing better than driving around listening to music.  Do not worry if your car doesn’t have safety belts! Law in Cuba apparently says that belts are compulsory only for 1990s cars or newer. Ah well! Then you are safe, right?

Cars in Cuba

Fixed cars

Believe it or not, according to our driver the car pictured above costed him 9500 CUC. Just as it was. I have no idea how much he will pay to replace the various bits and pieces, but surely he looked and sounded very proud of it.

Interested in experiencing other means of transportation? Try the sidecar, if you manage:

Havana, Cuba

Sidecars are still very common in Cuba

Or go for a bicitaxi – tourists are not supposed to use it, they are only meant for Cubans, but nobody really checks. And with a bit of luck, your suitcases will fit too.

Baracoa, Cuba

Will it manage to fit our bags?

Need a quick ride in town? Get a horse carriage, if you can stand horses having to deal with traffic and what not:

Camaguey, Cuba

Horse carriages in Camaguey

Want to try something new? Go for a cocotaxi – slow but nobody’s ever in a rush in Cuba:

Santiago

Cocotaxi in Santiago

Want to risk your life? Camionetas might do for you. I have no idea how many people actually manage to get on board, but it looks like MANY. Apparently you can only go without really carrying much lugguage. I wonder how much smoke one breathes there? Also… well there are frequent accidents, some causing the death of passengers:

Cuba

Camionetas – a cheap way to travel around

 

Travelling long distance? Get a Viazul bus. If you can stand the bus stopping continuously to let passengers (or better, drivers friends) on and off – literally at their door; or to allow the drivers to say hi to friends they spot on the street; or so that drivers can pick up some groceries and drop them off at home; or you are not afraid of cockroaches, don’t mind feeling freezing cold because of the air conditioning although the temperture outside is mild and pleasant, and most of all don’t mind if the bus has to stop so that the driver can change a flat tire that was so smooth, no wonder it exploded, then this is a must!

Baracoa, Cuba

A tire exploded on the way from Santiago to Baracoa

This happened to us on the bus from Santiago to Baracoa, a 5 hours bus ride through Guantanamo, via La Farola, up and down, curvy road, yet spectacular view. I am very glad the tire exploded before getting on that road!!

Want to go for “luxury”? Get a Transtur bus. Hardly any stop – only for toilet use, for a smoke for the driver, food etc, or so that the drivers have a chat with other Transtur drivers they see driving by.

Cuba

Pit stop in the middle of the highway

We took a Transtur from Cienfuegos direct to Vinales. At some point the bus stopped in the middle of the highway, we saw another Transtur stopping on the side, going the opposite direction, and the drivers all got off, crossed the street to meet in front of our bus (still in the centre of the highway) to have a smoke and a chat… and pick their noses. Oh well!

Whatever means of transportation, you surely will have an experience!!!

Care to know more about my Cuban adventures? Read here.

Scams in Cuba

Scams in Cuba

The sheer weirdness of Cuban hospitality

Cubans are supposed to be world famous for being very friendly and hospitable. In fact, I have met several people who have been invited over for a meal, coffee or what not by a Cuban family. Strangely, usually men, some of them hardly able to communicate in Spanish, but who somehow managed to become friends with the locals and were asked to stay for lunch. The same never happened to us – two girls traveling alone. Whether it was a drink we were having, a meal or anything else, we always had to pay full price and even when we were “invited,” it was in exchange of money.

Communication never was much of an issue when traveling. We had no problems with the language, and indeed we could easily chat with people. But overall, we did not find Cubans as hospitable as their reputation would let us imagine. And we faced several scams in Cuba, some more unnerving than others.

We had our first lesson of scams in Cuba in Havana, where we stayed at a casa particular recommended to us by some fellow Italians. We arrived there with a number of presents for the owners – earrings and a hair dye for the landlady, a book for the landlord, as well as stuff we were asked to carry over there. Imagine our shock when we found out we had been charged for the cup of tea we asked one morning, the very same cup of tea made with a teabag some friend from Italy had dropped/forgotten at the house. Sure, Cubans have to take whatever opportunity to make that extra buck (as my friend explained to me when I told her what happened to us in the very same house she recommended), but do they not get the value of reputation?

On a different occasion, in Santiago, we spotted the lady at the ticket counter of a museum varnishing her nails. As we smiled at her and showed appreciation for the colour, she offered to share the varnish. This was actually funny, but to be honest we were not ready to get our nails done there and then.

In Baracoa we found ourselves in troubles: a power shortage meant that we had no chance to withdraw money or exchange our euro before getting on the bus to Santiago and then Camaguey. We had to save as much as we could, so we decided to walk to the Viazul station and carry our suitcases, as we could not spare much for a bicitaxi. Trouble is that the conditions of the streets in Baracoa are not exactly great for walking around with a suitcase. A young fellow saw me having difficulties, and as he walked next to me offered to carry my suitcase. My first reaction was to thank him for the offer, but politely refuse as I had no money to spare because of the electricity shortage. To my surprise, he told me he was going to the station anyways, so I should not worry, he was glad to help! Oh bless. When we then walked into the station to get our tickets, the lady at the desk was drinking a deliciously smelling coffee. We could infuse ourself in the smell, and as she realised that, she offered a cup.

On an evening out in Cienfuegos, we decided to get a bicitaxi to enjoy the Malecon. We talked to our driver, and ended up inviting him a beer. I suppose this set the ground for one of the most unnerving tourist scams in Cuba. We became so good friends that, in the end, he suggested that on the day after he’d take us to the historical cemetery “en amistad” (friendship – ie for free). So much amistad indeed that, despite having agreed on a price to begin with and despite having given him a number of goodies for his girlfriend and having paid him more than we had agreed, he demanded even more money and was about to yell at us when we refused to pay him more than established. Needless to say, we did not go see the cemetery on the day after. Not bad for a good scam in Cuba, right?

The best scam in Cuba, however, is yet to come. On our first night in Vinales, we had a salsa lesson. As the dancing school was undergoing renovation works, we had to take the class at our teacher’s neighbour’s apartment. The lady was nice, polite, the house small but spotless. As we finished the lesson, we asked the teacher if he could suggest a paladar for the night. The lady jumped at the occasion and said we could eat there. In disbelief for the invitation, we asked for a clarification. Of course we were not going to be invited: we’d have to pay for our food, we’d be served at the table and sit by ourselves. Just as in a restaurant, only with the embarassment of being in someone’s home. We told her we’d eat there the day after and we suggested that the family, as well as our teacher, should eat with us. Now, they were shocked! Tourists asking to eat with Cubans? Woaaaaa! Well… We come from a land of hospitality: anybody entering our home, here, is offered at least coffee, of not more. Imagine how it would be like if we presented him a bill on his way out!! So much for hospitality, we decided the day after that it would be too weird for us to have to pay for our dinner (whether a modest one or a luxury one) when invited at someone’s home, and we arranged to tell the lady we’d not eat there after all.

My guide in Vinales – the same guide who wanted to sleep with me – invited me for a mojito once. After the bad experience of dealing with him during the day, I was not ready to drink with him, and in any case I expected his invitation to be more in the Cuban style: “I invite you, we both drink, you pay” (something that happens to all female travelers in Cuba). When we eventually met in the square, I was already having my mojito. He did not have any, I did not suggest he should. I guess he got the message: no, I was not going to fall into his trap. After all, a friend of mine on the very same day had run an experiment with a Cuban party: he kept drinking the rum he was kindly offered, until he eventually thought he had reached his limit and stood up to leave. The people at the party complained, invited him to stay longer, told him they were going to get more rum. He pointed at the almost empty bottle. He was not going to pay for another one, which is what he suspected they wanted from him. He was told all sorts of rude things as he left. After all, he managed to play their game: I drink, you pay!! 😉

Before boarding our flight back to Europe, we decided to have one last mojito at the airport. As we observed the bartender very closely – we told her we wanted to learn how to make good mojitos too – we noticed she dropped some extra Havana Club 7 anos in our drinks, something she did not do to other customers. We had a nice long chat with her.

All in all, we left puzzled: for as much as they are friendly and hospitable with their fellows, Cubans are the opposite with travelers and whatever occasion is good for them to make that little extra money, whether for a reason or not. It is a bit of a nonsense to us: on this side of the world, we are usually hospitable to friends and travelers almost in the same way, and if anything, we treat travelers even more politely as we want to ensure they have a great experience and come back to visit. We’d never dream to invite travelers for a drink and then demand that they pay. We’d never ask money in order to give directions. I guess we are not as poor, yet, I have travelled to other poor countries and never experienced anything similar.

What is yet more interesting is that the most hospitable people we met are the ones who had no apparent reason to be so friendly and kind. The guy in Baracoa, the lady who offered us coffee at the station, the bartender who added a little extra good rum in our drink. I suppose good things sometimes come when you least expect it…

For more of my adventures in Cuba, read here.