A Visit to Cartagena, Colombia

Our younger son chose Cartagena, Colombia as the destination for the second week of our Christmas vacation together. The first week was supposed to be in Peru to visit Machu Picchu, among other sights. But when the Peruvian government declared a state of emergency right before we were to fly there, we opted to go to Mexico City instead. That turned out to be a great plan B for us. We were all pleasantly surprised by how much we liked it there.

Cartagena was a different story. First officially founded in 1533 by a Spaniard, visitors to this old city on the Caribbean Sea will find themselves constantly swarmed by vendors trying to sell you products or services: bracelets, necklaces, massages, handicrafts, hats, sunscreen, water, fresh fruit or seafood, beer, potato chips, insect repellent, cigarettes, etc. To me it feels so desperate. Some people won’t take no for an answer and stand by you for an uncomfortably long time before you have to be more insistent that you absolutely positively do not want to buy anything the vendor is selling!

In Colombia the poverty rate in 2020 was over 38% of the population. This was defined as living on less than $5.50 a day. No wonder people are so desperate to sell their wares. Being here makes me long for a world where everyone has enough, not one where some people are obscenely rich while others struggle to survive or simply starve to death. Why can’t we have a world where everyone has enough? It just makes me so sad.

Our son Andy and his friend Ricky have traveled widely around the world. They both observed that vendors in Cartagena are very aggressive about wanting to make a sale. They both said only Bangkok, Thailand was worse, where vendors had chased them down the street and they felt frightened.

Having noted all this, if you are still curious about Cartagena de las Indias and might want to visit at some point, I will share some of what we saw here. But, first, a little history. This area was exploited by Spain in the mid 1500s and was a key port from which Spaniards sailed across the Caribbean Sea with gold and other riches taken from different places in South America. The city was also a major market for the slave trade, with Spaniards bringing thousands of Africans here to be sold. Slavery existed here from the 1500s until its abolition in 1851. So this is a South American country with a rich history. So what’s it like to visit now as a tourist?

First of all, the view from our hotel room was stunning as you can see for yourself.

View of the beach from Hotel Dann, Cartagena

Unfortunately when you go down to the beach you must pay for the use of the chairs and the minute you sit down to relax, prepare to be swarmed by vendors. But once you go in the Caribbean Sea for a swim, they will leave you alone and you can find peace.

The food in Colombia is very good, especially the seafood as it is very fresh. Shrimp cocktails and ceviche, a citrus-marinated seafood cocktail, were particular standouts here.

Ceviche with fried plantains

You can also buy small crabs and freshly shucked oysters at the beach for a reasonable price.

Pablo preparing crabs for us to eat on the beach

About 20 minutes taxi ride away from our hotel is Getsemani, one of the neighborhoods of interest in Cartagena. Apparently it used to be the “red light” district over 5 years ago but has since been cleaned up to make it more attractive to a wider variety of tourists. There are many small shops, restaurants, bars, boutique hotels and a variety of wall murals to appreciate here. This is a selection of some of the colorful murals we saw there.

The walled old part of the city is also interesting to see. The walls were constructed to defend the city from frequent pirate attacks and foreign invasion.

Cannon by the sea wall to repel invaders
Clock tower by walled city and statute of Spanish founder of Cartagena, Pedro de Heredia
Metal sculptures in front of restaurant in walled city
Bolivian lady in local costume
Photo of Boca Grande, Cartagena

There are several nearby islands including Baru Island and the Rosario Islands. Baru has white sandy beaches and the Rosario Islands have good snorkeling.

We took a day trip to the islands and really enjoyed the snorkeling at one of the Rosario Islands. We saw a wide variety of colorful fish swimming among a coral reef. Here are two photos from Islas del Rosario (Rosary Islands).

It is much more peaceful on these islands but there are still vendors trying to sell you things there too, just not as many.

If a bombardment of sales pitches doesn’t bother you, I would recommend Cartagena and its nearby islands for the seafood, the sandy beaches, the rich history and the variety of activities you can do there. But if aggressive selling by street vendors does bother you, I recommend you give it a miss. Go somewhere else, anywhere else really, but not to Bangkok!


7 thoughts on “A Visit to Cartagena, Colombia

  1. The old town of Cartagena is the most beautiful example of Spanish colonial architecture that I have seen. Regrettably the influx of tourists has taken away the local life, but the houses are in good condition and often converted into accommodation for visitors. The vendors are quite annoying but they are used to being turned down, so you have to be tough, sometimes against your will.

    Liked by 1 person

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