The day I fell in love with Nicaragua

The day I fell in love with Nicaragua

I really did not have great expectations on Nicaragua. I hardly knew anybody who had been there before me, and those few persons were not particularly enthusiastic about it. For whatever reason, I had the impression it was a characterless country. I remember asking them: “Was Nicaragua cool?” And their answer was: “It is not really that great”. I certainly did not mean it to be the highlight of my backpacking trip through Central America. But it turned out to be.

The beaches near San Juan del Sur are gorgeous - photo courtesy of Alessandro Abis

The beaches near San Juan del Sur are gorgeous – photo courtesy of Alessandro Abis

Truth be told, before visiting Nicaragua I did not know much about it. My knowledge was limited to the fact that it is the second poorest country in the Americas and that it had once been under the influence of the United States, that got seriously involved with it to the point of being sued to the International Court of Justice for breaking its obligations under customary international law. Even though I used to be a human rights lawyer, I knew nothing about its current political situation and its human rights issues.

So, when I arrived in Nicaragua, I figured all there was to do there would be going to some beach, try to surf if I had the guts to do so, and just chill out till I continued on to Costa Rica. Soon enough, my plans were all cancelled and I had to reconsider all my misconceptions. I fell in love with Nicaragua on a long lasting affair that has brought me to visit it two more times after my first one, and to hope I can go again.

Isla de Ometepe, volcano Maderas

Isla de Ometepe, volcano Maderas

Yes, I had a really good time in Nicaragua. I found the country to be incredible: gorgeous beaches, beautiful colonial cities, lakes and volcanoes, diverse wildlife and all of this at unbeatable prices. I managed to do so many things in Nicaragua, that I had never done before – such as volcano boarding. But most of all, I fell in love with its history of resistance and revolution, and with its proud people, who chin up and never give up despite all the difficulties that life presents them with and always have a smile on their face. Yes: for as poor as Nicaragua is, I found its people to be happy. And that happiness was contagious. It made me reconsider many aspects of my life, and put back into the right perspective what I thought were some majour problems I was facing.

Las Isletas, Nicaragua

Life is simple and fulfilling in Nicaragua

I happened to be in Balgüe, the most rural village on Ometepe Island, on Christmas day. I had arrived there the night before, and my Christmas eve had been a very low key dinner at the hostel. I have never been a big fan of Christmas, you see. I just can’t stand all the frenzy: people going crazy with the preparations; all the traffic due to shoppers who rush out to get the ultimate useless gadget to put under the Christmas tree; and the long, unbearable meals with the family and relatives. To me, it was just such a waste of time and money.

Things to do in Nicaragua

Lovely locals in Nicaragua – photo courtesy of George Kenyon

Then, I just ended up spending Christmas (well, part of it) with a random family in Balgüe. I had gone out that day for a walk in the village (no more than a few houses along the main road), and got caught in a thunderstorm. It was pouring, I had no umbrella, and the hostel was a good hike away – it would take me a good 45 minutes under the incessant rain, on an uphill path in the forest to get to the secluded Finca Magdalena. As the rain was getting stronger, I started running to find some shelter. I literally walked in the first place I found – and this happened to be a private house, where people were gathered on a covered patio and played guitars and sang along to celebrate Christmas.

I enjoy perfect sunsets when I travel alone

The wild beach of Poneloya

All I did was open the gate, wave my hand and say: “Feliz Navidad!” That’s when I realised that I was standing in someone’s house. In any other place on earth, the owners would have called the police, chased me out, yelled at me. Here, they just stared blankly at me, surprised at first, then handed me a chair so I could join the celebrations. It was a modest house, really: a bare clay pavement inside and out, no more than 2 rooms; children, dogs and chickens all running about, inside and outside. I doubt they had potable water. And I am sure they did not have any fast internet connection, a flat screen tv, a luxurious shower and any of the commodities that we seem to can’t live without at home. I doubt they had had an endless meal to celebrate their Christmas. Yet, they looked happy and they surely seemed to be having a great time in their celebrations, much more than I would do at home when eating the best delicacies that one could find on the table.

Nicaragua - photo courtesy of George Kenyon

Nicaragua – photo courtesy of George Kenyon

How could these people be so happy, even though they were so poor? I finally understood: they had each other; they could count on one another. And more than anything else, they did not fall into the materialism trap: they did not have an insatiable desire to own things, thinking that they would finally feel happy once they managed to get their hands on the latest gadget – be it a smart phone, a new pair of shoes, or a flat screen tv. And since they were not materialistic, they did not turn into selfish and excessively competitive human beings who felt envy for anybody who owned more than they did, including the stranger who had just walked through their gate; they had not lost faith in the human race, thinking that they could not trust anybody.

I am sure that they faced difficult times – times in which they wished for an easier life, for more comforts and simply a bit more money. But this did not turn them into cynical, sour and cunning people who would try to take advantage of others to make whatever little extra that may make their lives a bit easier. It was quite the opposite: they embraced life, and whatever it brought them, in a hopeful way and with a smile on their face. That very smile that had disappeared from mine, because regardless of how lucky I may be, I felt overwhelmed to make money and buy things so to prove others and – most of all – myself that I was really accomplished.

These people helped me put my life back into perspective. They helped me understand what really counts for me. Sure, there have been many times in which I wished I had more money to buy things that I feel I need in order to have a better life: a new laptop that performs better; a smartphone that doesn’t freeze any time someone calls me; a pretty dress to wear at a party. But owning things will never make me feel accomplished, because things perish, they get old, they become useless. What I am truly happy for is that I have a mother that still comes with me when I have a doctor’s appointment and I am terrified of what may happen to me; a father that thinks I am a hero because I can swim really well; and a sister that values spending time with me and is the best friend I could hope for. And I have a few, close friends that support me, whatever crazy thing I do – including jumping off a 12 meter cliff.

I am quite sure that lovely family in Nicaragua forgot about me. I don’t mind. I never even asked for their names, but I will never forget their smiles, their singing, and I will never stop thanking them for teaching me what really matters in life.

Today, when people ask me if Nicaragua is a good place to visit, I say it is – the most underrated country in Central America is gorgeous and its people are truly amazing.

Have you been to Nicaragua? Do you love it as much as I do?

Things to do in Colombia: coffee tasting and mud hiking in Salento

Things to do in Colombia: coffee tasting and mud hiking in Salento

Colombia is one of the largest producers of coffee in the world, second only to Brazil. The quality of the coffee beans is excellent – after all, the climate and altitude are perfect for growing coffee. I thus expected coffee boutiques everywhere, millions of ways to prepare coffee, coffee shops and tastings. But this was not necessarily the case: more often than not, I had to make do with Juan Valdez, which is pretty much like the Starbucks of Colombia, or with the “taza sucia” (literally, dirty cup) that I could have at the many stands in the street.

The best coffee beans are exported and what is left to the locals is a lower quality coffee, which incredibly is imported from Ecuador. Thus, interestingly, when I travelled to Colombia I wasn’t be able to really have anything more than just decent coffee and often had to make do with tinto (a small cup of weak black coffee) or other coffee based drinks. I am a coffee puritan, I like my coffee with no milk and most importantly with no sugar, so to me the most horrifying coffee I tried was the one made with agua de panela, unrefined sugar melted in hot water – which gives coffee a tremendously sweet taste. One may like it if having a seriously sweet tooth though.

Things to do in Colombia

Having this in mind, one of the things to do in Colombia is visiting the Eje Cafetero. This is one of the most spectacular places to visit in Colombia and will allow visitors to see at least one of the many coffee fincas in the country, where they will be able to experience the full process of coffee production, from picking to toasting and sipping.

Places to visit in Colombia: Eje Cafetero, or else the Colombian version of Switzerland

Places to visit in Colombia: Eje Cafetero, or else the Colombian version of Switzerland

The best starting point for a visit of the Eje Cafetero is Salento, located at 1800 meters above sea level and one of Colombia tourist attractions in itself. This is a picturesque village, where colonial architecture meets the paisà style. It is a lovely, small and colourful colonial town surrounded by hills and forest, with a main street full of artesania shops, many relaxing bars, a chilled atmosphere, making it one of the places to visit in Colombia. From here, it is possible to visit a number of fincas.

Salento is also very close to the gorgeous Valle de Cocora, perhaps the very best of Colombia attractions. One of the top things to do in Colombia is hiking the Valle de Cocora. This is a lush, tropical valley surrounded by high peaks and cloud forest. Jeeps leave several times a day from the main square of Salento to take intrepid travelers to the valley. Arriving well early before departure, may ensure getting a seat. I leave things last minute so my I had to stand: getting to the valley thus turned into yet another adventure.

Things to do in Colombia: ride on the back of a jeep

Things to do in Colombia: ride on the back of a jeep

Once in Cocora, most people rent wellies. I surely did and I highly recommend it, along with carrying a good rain jacket as it does rain a lot there! Visitors then embark on a difficult, muddy hike that offers gorgeous views of the spectacular palma de cera (wax palms), some of which are as tall as 70 meters.

Things to do in Colombia: renting wellies to go on a hike in Valle de Cocora

Things to do in Colombia: renting wellies to go on a hike in Valle de Cocora

What I loved the most about it was that it really looked like a tropical kind of Switzerland – weird and amazing at the same time. Everything is green – many different shades of green. There are cows happily chewing grass everywhere. And there is a thick fog that covers the palm trees and the mountains, giving it a mysterious aura. It just is magical. A tiring hike (imagine getting deep in the mud!), but definitely one of the most amazing things to do in Colombia.

Valle de Cocora is one of the most spectacular places to visit in Colombia

Valle de Cocora is one of the most spectacular places to visit in Colombia

There is one main path that takes hikers to the beautiful hummingbird reserve (there is an admission fee of about 2 dollars which includes a drink), where it is possible to spot thousands of hummingbirds zipping by. On the way back, it is possible to also take an alternative path that takes visitors closer to the palm trees and to the Finca de la Montaña, where Don Luis Alberto and his family will give them a warm welcome and a good cup of coffee and from where the entire valley can be admired.

How to get to Salento

From Bogota, it is possible to take a bus to Pereira or Armenia. It takes about 9 hours to drive the 350 km, as the road cuts through the mountains and thus it is curvy; there is also lot of traffic. However the views are spectacular. It is best to carry some motion sickness tablets. I definitely needed them. Once in Armenia or Pereira, a local bus will take about an hour to reach Salento.

Where to sleep, eat and drink

There are many hostels in town, some better than others. I enjoyed my stay at Hotel Las Palmas, a family run guesthouse whose owner is a lovely, caring lady. Breakfast is included in the price and all rooms have a private bathroom with good hot showers. There are also two lovely cats in the house, which to me is always a bonus.

During the weekend, I ate in one of the many stalls in the main square. Otherwise, a good option is La Funda de los Arreiros. The local specialty is trout, which can be prepared in many ways and is usually served with a huge patacon (fried plantain, which here is pressed to make it thin and crispy). The local trout gave me a good break from the otherwise slightly monotonous food I ended up having while traveling.

For a drink, I went to Billar Danubio Hall. It really can’t be missed: located on the main shopping street, this is a huge bar with many pool tables, and is packed with locals playing pool, sipping beer or aguardiente and singing famous Colombian traditional songs. At some point while there I was the only woman in the entire bar. But everybody was so friendly that it never was a problem.

Colombia tourist attractions: Salento

Colombia tourist attractions: Salento

Looking for more places to visit in Colombia? Click here.

Click for a more detailed Colombia Travel Guide.

 

 

 

 

 

Things to do in Bogota and Villa de Leyva

Things to do in Bogota and Villa de Leyva

The huge capital of Colombia takes my breath away, for there are so many things to do in Bogota. Part of the reason is its beauty, but mostly for the altitude: it is located at about 2600 meters above sea level. Add to this the incessant traffic and pollution, and it will be hard to breathe. What is most interesting about Bogotà is that, being the main city of what is considered a tropical country, it leaves me somehow puzzled. I did not really believe that the average temperature is 14 degrees celsius. And it does rain a lot, especially in the rain season – so, I was glad I had packed a raincoat, an umbrella, and warm clothes.

Yet, it is an interesting city to visit and I wanted to spend a few days wandering around its squares and museums: there are many things to do in Bogota. It is modern, very progressive and lively, with a vibrant cultural, political and social scene, and at the same time as relaxed as only a Colombian city may be. It is a city of contrasts: La Candelaria with its elegant colonial buildings on one side, and the skyscrapers and glittering towers on the other.

Candelaria at night is one of the things to do in Bogota

Candelaria at night is one of the things to do in Bogota

Bogotà is the main airport hub and has connections to the rest of the country and the world. It is well connected to Cartagena, and from Bogotà there are flights to Leticia, in the Amazon – this can only be reached via plane.

Things to do in Bogota:

The city is to big and interesting that I am never left wondering what to do in Bogota.

Plaza de Bolivar is the heart of the historic town, and is interesting to see, despite being, according to the Lonely Planet, a mishmash of architectural styles. On the western side of the plaza, the Catedral Primada is Bogotà’s largest church and can be visited for free. The Capilla del Sagrario, right next door, is the only colonial building on the square and there is no admission fee either.

One of the best things to do in Bogota is going for a walk around La Candelaria: located east of Plaza de Bolivar, it is packed with cobbled streets, museums, theaters and cafes and street food.

What to do in Bogota: trying street food!

What to do in Bogota: trying street food!

Things to do in Bogota: snapping as many Renault 4 as possible. This nice man is an institution in Bogota!

Things to do in Bogota: snapping as many Renault 4 as possible. This nice man is an institution in Bogota!

Visit Museo del Oro: I was looking for what to do in Bogota and headed to Museo del Oro. It has the biggest collection in the world of pre-hispanic gold work.

Visit Museo Botero: one of the things to do in Bogota is visiting this incredible museum. It is a great gallery founded by a donation of Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, and there are works of other artists such as Picasso, Mirò, Renoir, Dali, Matisse and Monet.

On of the things to do in Bogota is to go up the Cerro de Montserrate: considered one of Colombia attractions, this is by far my favourite one in town. It is more than a simple mountain. It is a peak that towers over Bogotà, at 3200 meters above sea level, and a symbol of pride for the residents of the city. The view of the city from up there is amazing, but try to go on a clear day to fully enjoy it. There is also a lovely, flowery park at the back. It is possible to go up by teleferico or funicular, or, if up for the challenge, there are 1500 steps to the top. I also advise to wear warm clothes. It gets chilly at that altitude!

Things to do in Bogota: go up to the Parque Montserrate

Things to do in Bogota: go up to the Parque Montserrate

Where to sleep, eat and drink in Bogotà

The city is huge, so I had to consider my options carefully since I didn’t want to blow my budget on transportation. Most travelers opt for some cheap accommodation in La Candelaria, and while I must say the area is pretty and safe, it does get very quiet during the night. It is best to find a hostel that has a kitchen to prepare your meals, as almost everything closes at 7 pm, including fast food chains, and even street food is harder to find after dark. Surely, one of the things to to in Bogota is trying some of the local street food – arepas are delicious, there is a huge variety of fruit too. The best bet for late night food may be the Bogotà Beer Company pub – there are several around town, and one in La Candelaria in Calle 12D No. 4-02: this offers pub staples and great draft beers.

Things to do in Bogota: trying a beer at Bogota Beer Company

Things to do in Bogota: trying a beer at Bogota Beer Company

Villa de Leyva Colombia, the most beautiful colonial town in the country:

When I have had enough of crowded and polluted cities and ran out of things to do in Bogota, one of the best places to visit in Colombia is Villa de Leyva. This is a good place to recharge dead batteries. Declared a national monument in 1954, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this small city is a beautiful colonial settlement perfectly preserved – there is no modern architecture here. The town was funded in 1572 and feels like a walk-through museum: the main plaza is one of the largest squares in the Americas, and nearby there are three perfectly restored colonial mansions that now house cafes, restaurants and craft shops. The weather in Villa de Leyva is pleasant – dry and mild – and many bogotanos come over for the weekend to enjoy the beauty and the climate. There are many activities in the surroundings, such as a number of hiking paths. There is also the possibility to go biking or horse riding.

Colombia tourist attractions: Villa de Leyva

Colombia tourist attractions: Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva can be reached from Bogota with direct buses that take roughly 5 hours, and from Tunja which is about one hour away. It offers many budget options to sleep and eat, such as El Solar Hotel in Calle 10A No. 10-60, a lovely hostel whose owner is a really sweet lady.

Things to do in Colombia: parking your carriage outside

Things to do in Colombia: parking your carriage outside

For more things to do in Colombia, read here.

Why San Gil is among the places to visit in Colombia

Why San Gil is among the places to visit in Colombia

Colombia is a huge country, and it is much more than the old cliches of narco-trafficking and kidnapping. As the Lonely Planet describes it, it is a great cocktail consisting of caribbean atmosphere, the great mountains and glaciars of the Andes, the Amazon, the unique Tatacoa desert, cloud forest, colonial cities, indigenous, Afro-descendants and European cultures, and colourful and friendly people. Top all of this with a great, relaxed atmosphere and here is the perfect place. One could spend months travelling around the country, and still feel unfinished and wanting to explore more.  Furthermore, some of the places to visit in Colombia are so isolated that no roads get there. Leticia – the main starting point for a visit of the Amazon basin – can only be reached by plane.

Why San Gil is among the places to visit in Colombia

By all means, I know I am an adventure seeker, and I know I have a choice of about a million places to visit in Colombia. But, since I was looking for some of the great Colombia tourist attractions combined with fun sports, I headed to San Gil. This is definitely THE place for extreme sports and I could easily fill up my days there with all sorts of activities, from rafting to rappelling, torrentismo (rappelling down a waterfall), horse riding, paragliding, caving, mountain biking, and so much more.

The best thing to do for me, since I didn’t want to burn all my energies was to alternate any of these extreme activities with quieter ones such as swimming in natural pools (such as the Pozo Azul), visiting the nearby waterfalls (Cascadas de Juan Curi) and going on easy, nearby hikes. Although San Gill is small city, it gave me a pleasant and authentic Colombian feel and it is not crowded with travelers. I could enjoy its atmosphere fully during the day, at the local market, or after sunset, when the locals meet for evening drinks in the main square, children happily run around, and everybody is up for a chat.

Things to do in Colombia: go mountain biking with Colombian Bike Junkies

Things to do in Colombia: go mountain biking with Colombian Bike Junkies

Rafting

Among the things to do in Colombia, there is some great rafting. Many companies in San Gil organise whitewater rafting excursions. Unexperienced rafters may prefer opting for the easier Rio Fonce – with rafts of grades 1 to 3.

I was in the mood for something more challenging, so I opted for the Rio Suarez: around 30 dollars for a full day (about 6 hours in total and snacks included, consisting of fresh fruit, local cheese, crisps and drinks). Colombia Rafting Expeditions is the most reliable company in town. I was picked up from my hostel and driven (about one hour drive) to the starting point.

The English speaking guides are very experienced, and did everything to make my day memorable. After a briefing on safety measures, we started rafting down the river. We all got soaking wet, we got the chance to swim in the river carried away by the current, and we even had to get to shore to hike up for a while, and even jumping off cliffs. The only low point is that there is nobody taking pictures for the rafters, so I would advise to carry a waterproof camera.

Things to do in Colombia: go rafting with Colombia Rafting Expeditions

Things to do in Colombia: go rafting with Colombia Rafting Expeditions

Mountain biking

Another one of the things to do in Colombia is mountain biking. Mountain bike tours near San Gil go through the Chicamocha Canyon and they allowed me to visit the beautiful Barichara, an immaculately renovated city of white-washed buildings and stone streets, with a beautiful cathedral and a gorgeous and airy main plaza, which is definitely one of the places to visit in Colombia.

Places to visit in Colombia: Barichara

Places to visit in Colombia: Barichara

The best company running the tour is Colombian Bike Junkies. It is based out of  the restaurant Gringo Mike’s, which is also the meeting point. The trip lasts all day (by which I mean ALL day – do not expect to be back before dark!), it costs around 60 dollars. Ok, that is not cheap but it possibly is the best and most fun among the things to do in Colombia and it is worth saving on other things to embark on this adventure.

Colombia Bike Junkies is reliable, the bikes are in excellent state, and it is organised to the point that when I booked the tour, I was even asked where I wanted to have the front and back breaks, and even a meal preference (yes: a delicious lunch, snacks such as fresh fruit and home baked cookies and water are all included, as well as a “well done” beer after finishing) and my size, as at the end of the day I was given a t-shirt that will always remind me of this great adventure.

There was a very good guide at the front, ready to help with any problems and to give instructions and advice on the technicalities of the path; as well as a guide at the back, driving a jeep and carrying any equipment that may needed to fix bikes on the road, including flat tires. And, to top things off, I didn’t have to worry about taking pictures as the two guides took plenty of shots in key points and moments and shared them with participants. Look at me in full motion:

Things to do in Colombia: mountain biking!

Things to do in Colombia: mountain biking!

The 50 km trip will be tiring: going downhill is challenging for non-expert mountain bikers, yet it is a lot of fun. After the lunch break, the path is an easier (in technical terms!), slightly uphill 16 km road.

By the time I got to the finishing point, I was dusty, sweaty, dirty and, most importantly, happy and accomplished and that beer tasted oh so good!

What do to in Colombia: become a Colombian Bike Junkie

What do to in Colombia: become a Colombian Bike Junkie

Where to sleep and eat in San Gil:

Open House Hostel in San Gil is an excellent option for backpackers. It is very close to the main plaza: it is clean, quiet, and it has nice, comfortable beds, an airy common area and very well equipped kitchen and a nice backyard. My humble advice is to cook at the hostel, as, other than Gringo Mike’s, there aren’t many good options to eat in town and the market sells lovely fresh vegetables and fruit.

How to get to San Gil:

San Gil can be reached by bus from pretty much anywhere in Colombia. There are night buses from Cartagena (the trip lasts 17 hours and goes through Barranquilla); there are regular buses to and from Bogotà (8 hours, around 17 dollars), Medellin (11 hours, around 30 dollars) and Bucaramanga (2 hours), which is the closest airport.

Looking for more things to do in Colombia?

 

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!