The Colombian Diaries (3/5): Cartagena
Day 1, Tuesday: I arrived at lunch time in the city which inspired so much the Colombian writer Gabriel García Marquéz and I could immediately understand why: Cartagena has indeed an aura of magic and charm, accompanied by a magnificent sea breeze, a pure Latin vibe and amazing colorful buildings.
On the other hand, and putting things in a more down-to-earth perspective, I had the impression that I had landed in Africa, such were the number of black and dark-skinned people walking around. Just as a piece of advice, if you ever plan a trip within Colombia, make sure you start in the north, continue through Cali and end up in Medellin because, if you do the other way around, you will feel the shock and every one around will look ugly.
I first went to Papaya hostel, in the more alternative area of Getsemani, to drop my things, to get some indications about the city and to change my clothes, because the mild weather of Medellin had nothing to do with the real hot temperature of Cartagena. Since it was still 3:00 in the afternoon, I looked where the closest beach was, in order that I could still enjoy the torrid sun.
But after walking 20 minutes, I realized that the city’s beach was indeed quite shitty (as many people had already warned me) so I decided to go back and to visit the walled city, which is the same to go to such a city as Venice: along with a breathtaking architecture goes a too high touristic flow, a combination which always gives the feeling that something is out-of-place and that its essence is somehow bogus and inauthentic. Even so, the former factor is so appealing that it can, in a sense, mitigate the effects of the latter and I found myself stopping and looking at those historical buildings and structures with real admiration.
I then got back to my hostel to go for a power nap, since I had almost not slept anything and needed to recover to be fit for the evening. Since Lewis would be arriving around 9:30 pm, I went to have dinner in a nice, cheap Italian restaurant, where I ate a nice chicken pasta and got bitten all over my body by these annoying bugs which exist in the north of Colombia (worst than here, only in Barranquilla where you are decimated).
Without understanding quite well whether that part of town was safe, I “took the risk” and walked towards the walled city (it was less than 10 minutes away), to meet Lewis and an American guy – very similar to Jimmy Fallon, whom we then started calling Jimbo – and after some mismatches in our communication, I finally met them at around 10:30 pm. They had not eaten anything so we went to the main square to find a place to eat, as well as meeting up with Vanessa, one of the girls Lewis had “microwaived” in Medellin and whom he would be getting now the opportunity to stop playing around with.
We first stopped at an Italian restaurant to grab something fast and drink a couple of beers and afterwards we seated down next to the salsa bar Donde Fidel – the bar itself is crap but the music and the atmosphere is quite nice – and while Lewis and his beloved Vanessa were talking, Jimbo and I were walking around to check whether some prospects or opportunities, to engage in a conversation or even to dance with, would show up. But since there were almost none, we eventually sat next to the other two, just to realize that Lewis was pushing the same button and that the interaction would lead again to nowhere.
We stood up, went back to Getsemani, looked for other alternatives but the night was simply dead. We took Vanessa back to her hostel and then I went to sleep, because it was better to dream about good things than to face real depressing stuff.
Day 2, Wednesday: We woke up early to do an excursion to Playa Blanca, a supposed paradise on earth which attracts lots of tourists (the red sign should have popped up in my head). After a 40 minutes trip and several hints gotten from the driver who was taking us to the Baru peninsula, we arrived at the beach and immediately understood that we had fallen into a 200% tourist trap, both by the way the sellers started bugging us constantly to purchase every and possible service or item and by the way the beach was packed and had almost no no bit of sand available. And the one which had, was either taken or “for sale”, meaning it was either renting a beach chair or nothing.
We first took the lunch included in the package which, naturally, was far from being good and against which Lewis started whining and complaining about, in his already known style. Then we walked along the shore to find a calmer place to sit down and try to enjoy the nice sun. We eventually found a hostel, which had a nice terrace, and told the lady that we would be consuming some drinks, so she allowed us to stay there and finally we were able to have some deserved rest.
The afternoon ended up being very nice, while the recipe was the same as usual: joking around with my good fellows, with no girls next to us. In the late afternoon, we got back to Cartagena and went home passing through the walled city, where in the surface there were no preoccupations, everyone was chilled and the time flowed according to nature laws of nature.
I went for a power nap and when I woke up, Lewis and Jimbo had met a very cute French girl, who was travelling totally alone. Even if these kinds of girls somehow annoy me (the typical traveler, who most of the times is vegetarian, likes cheap deals engages in conversation with everybody), I must admit that they are quite interesting and fun to talk to, and indeed Laura was not an exception to this rule.
We then went to have dinner all together in a typical Colombian restaurant nearby, where we could eat at a very cheap price and have a nice time. The waitress who was attending us was a hot Venezuelan who also participated in our good mood and I, always with me antenna tuned not to lose an opportunity, referred that we should go out together – towards which she answered “you just need to ask” – so I just picked up her number while leaving the restaurant.
Without knowing quite well what to do, we decided to go the walled city and to check which place was better, until Jimbo suggested to go to El Mirador, a bar on the rooftop of the hotel Torre del Reloj. A stunning view and even better cocktails made us totally seize that moment, one of these in which you feel like the time stands still and the world is a total fair place.
But after a while, and because we were also there to have real fun and not just to philosophize, I decided to move the troops to where we could listen to some music and to see many people around (because in that rooftop, that was not the case). And according to what I had read and heard from some people, the “world famous” Café Havana was the only and obvious choice.
After a couple of minutes inside I realized that, on one hand, the decoration, the feeling and, of course, the music give you a total Cuban feeling but, on the other hand, the bar lacks totally a party feeling, which is even more noticeable to people who are not so into Salsa.
And that was exactly what happened: one hour after we had entered, I found myself alone in the bar, because none of the other three was into this Latin rhythm. Even so, Jimbo then came back to the place, claiming that Lewis had gone home with Laura, so we tried to extend the party as much as possible.
I was really enjoying listening to the live band, while trying to apply my salsa moves on some of the (unattractive) girls who were there, almost in vain, until I spotted a nice brunette, not only in terms of her dancing skills but also concerning her looks. She was a Bulgarian who was travelling around the country, a fact which gave me a small excitement within, but which quickly vanished after understanding that she was not so interested on me (perhaps more on the two locals she was hanging around with).
I ended up the night talking to a Polish girl who lived in Germany, was anti-Poland and loved Angela Merkel, just because the chancellor was “so tolerant and evolved”. That conversation and attitude, more than being in Colombia and having no attractive women around me, made me almost vomit, not without first telling her some truths, such as that she should be ashamed of turning her back into her country and that she should not idolize someone who is simply destroying Europe slowly and irreversibly.
I then went home feeling that, even if there are already some foreigners in Colombia with some advanced ideas, fortunately those are a very small minority, and the country still lives and breathes a normal atmosphere, without this western hysteria of multiculturalism and acceptance of everything.
Day 3, Thursday: The last day of our stay in Cartagena and guess what? Laura had not slept with Lewis (actually he thought that Jimbo was the one who had gone home with her).
I woke up at around noon – meanwhile Laura and Jimbo had already been under a 30 degrees sun doing a street-art tour, while Lewis had been checking his iPad the whole morning – and all of us decided to go to the local beach, as we did not want to lose much time rather to enjoy the nice weather as quick as possible.
The beach itself was, at least, big and had a wide sandy area, which allowed us to deal with the annoying vendors in a much easier way. In the end of the afternoon, because the mood among us was quite pleasant, we decided to go to Cafe del Mar, to listen to some cool chill out music, to have some cocktails and, of course, to watch the amazing sunset (you can imagine the overdose of smart phones and cameras recording that moment).
Then, it was time to go back to the headquarters, to take a shower and to get ready for the last night in the city which has, sincerely, much more to offer during the day that when the sun goes down.
When we were discussing where to go having our dinner, a below-the-average German girl had already joined the group, so we needed to take her into consideration as well (it was one of these travelers who is proud of just spending 20€ per day, but about whom one can clearly notice that she has a solid familiar “support” behind her “humility”).
We eventually chose a more or less expensive restaurant, which made Lewis sweat already a little bit but, since it was the last time we would be with Jimbo before he would go back to the US, we both agreed he deserved such a farewell.
In the end, for our surprise and without any of us noticing it, Jimbo had paid for the dinner when we took out our wallets. Naturally we insisted with him to reconsider his decision, but the smile on his face just showed that there was no way to revert his altruistic action, a proof that you must always look for the good deeds and intentions and never be cheap, that sooner or later there will be a return with a positive outcome, even if you do not ask for it.
We left the restaurant with this great feeling on one hand, because after all we were already a group and we were having a nice time all together, but with this disappointing sensation on the other, as the nightlife of Cartagena had provided us just mild moments of fun (I can not stand such bullshit when people say “it is not the place which matters, rather the people you are with”).
Since Jimbo had already become a fan of the El Mirador, we followed his will and went there to drink the tasty cocktails they offered and this time Lewis and I “sponsored” our American friend, not because we wanted to compensate the paid dinner, but mostly because we felt that it would be a great pleasure to do it (Robert Cialdini defines perfectly these two principles – reciprocity and liking – in his book Influence).
After the great view, it was time to find a place in which we could dance and also be among other people (women), in order that we would end the Cartagena experience on a high note. We went around Getsemani and the only place we could find with some action was a small bar which was playing reggaeton songs, whose video clips were being shown in a big screen.
So there we were, the three musketeers plus Laura, the cute young blond who really knew, even taking into account her age, how to adapt perfectly to all of us and even how to tease every one of us in a very subtle way. Of course that I, even really enjoying her company, was totally aware that no girl is a snow flake, so I was looking at her with the same suspicion as I look to any other attractive girl.
Because not only Laura was already “threatening” to leave and go home but also Jimbo was again in a drunk mode, Lewis and I made a (secret) agreement to try to push Laura into him. So when she finally said she would leave, we almost obligated Jimbo to escort her to the hostel, in order that he could eventually have something with her.
We were quite hopeful in the outcome of that last attempt, which was then totally shattered when we saw our American friend entering the bar again, fifteen minutes after he had left. We still wandered around other bars and I even checked how Café Havana was, but the result had already been written on the stars: that this experience on this coastal city of Colombia would not give us anything else than some chilled moments.
+ Food: It is indeed great, going from fish to seafood with a wide offer and great quality. If you are not on a low-budget and want to give pleasure to your taste buds, Cartagena is for sure one the best choices in the country;
+ Logistics/Atmosphere/Attitude of people: If we take in consideration the walled city, the good vibe people bring into this city and the short distance among the most important places, Cartagena is simply great. The best choice in Colombia either to bring your “loved one” or to spend relaxing days with a (mixed) group of friends;
+ Points of interests: By far the most beautiful city in Colombia, an award which deserves no dispute. The colorful architecture, the sea breeze, the dazzling light and the historical monuments are all elements which put together form a picturesque city which every human being in his or her right mind should visit at least once in a lifetime.
o Music: Most of the places I was at had, at least, good music but the truth is that Cartagena does not really have a relevant scene. I know we can enjoy the salsa bars Donde Fidel and Café Havana, the cool music of Café del Mar and also the International Music Festival but, aside from these, somehow the city lacks a musical spirit which, for instance, Cali or Barranquilla have in a much higher degree;
o Accessibility of women: Which women? I believe I did not chat with any local woman, so it is indeed quite difficult (would say impossible) to analyse further on this topic. In any case, the couple of “false locals” I met (like the Venezuelan who worked at the restaurant) were quite nice, so it might be that in Cartagena has women who in general have a good attitude towards foreign guys.
o Security: If we are talking about the walled city, then let me present you to the safest place in Colombia; on the other hand, in a neighborhood like Getsemaní, you can already fell the difference and see many bums around. And from what I noticed on the other areas of the town, it only gets worse;
– Prices: Please bear in mind that I am not comparing Cartagena with New York or London – otherwise it would obviously get a “+” – rather with the other Colombian cities which means that, according to this perspective, it is really expensive (especially if you eat or go for drinks, inside the walled city). Of course that you still can get good deals, but you need either to be lucky or to run away from the center, which just shows that Cartagena is basically a big tourist trap;
– Quality of women: I was three days in Cartagena and I do not remember seeing one stunner, not even a really attractive girl. If we exclude the foreigners, then I believe zero was the exact number of attractive women I saw wandering around.
– Nightlife: If Café Havana is the night reference for having fun, then it’s all said about the nullity which Cartagena is in terms of its nightlife. Maybe I was unlucky or perhaps it might be different during some special events (it is usually referred as the best place to spend the new year), but the truth is that such a cool city deserved a much better and more varied range of options.
The verdict: Let us put it like this: if you are looking for a beautiful city, with great logistics and a nice, international atmosphere, come to Cartagena without thinking two times, as I can guarantee you that you will be amazed by both the walled city and the positive vibe everywhere around. On the other hand, if you are a (single) guy looking for fun and hoping to meet the next hot Colombian, then the only recommendation I can give you is not to step foot in this city, otherwise you will just be throwing money away, something which will surely happen, as Cartagena is eventually the most overpriced city in Colombia.