South America Travelling

Why You Should Visit Cartagena

If you have been following my journey through South America on Facebook or Twitter then you will already know that I am in love with Colombia, a country that only had a place on our itinerary as we were visiting friends in Bogota. As it turns out, Colombia is easily my favourite country in South America so I knew that I would be sad when the time came to leave.

Our date of departure was already set for January the 17th when we would be leaving Colombia for Panama aboard the Stahlratte, one of the many boats that cruise through the San Blas archipelago.  We would spend our last few days in Cartagena, a city that I was first introduced to in the 80s by Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito in the movie Romancing the Stone. Despite focusing on trafficking and kidnapping, I thought Cartagena sounded like an exotic and exciting place that I hoped to visit myself someday.

The walls of Cartagena

Unfortunately, Cartagena is misrepresented in the movie and the scenes were actually shot in Mexico but in reality the city is even more exotic and exciting than I ever imagined. History oozes from every crumbling wall: this is a city steeped in tales of siege, capture and piracy. The old town stands testament to all facets of history, from the market square which was used for slave auctions, to the beautiful buildings left by the Spanish. Now the colonial walled city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a delightful place to while away a few days—or weeks. Cartagena is the sort of place that will swallow you up, you can get lost amongst winding cobbled streets, bougainvillea-fringed balconies and stone walls. Some parts of the city reminded me of Venice but with cobbles and horse-drawn carriages rather than canals and gondolas.

It was the perfect place to end our South American journey.

View from Portal de los Dulces
Detail from Cartagena houses

After a chilly start in South America, we had been longing for some sun on our backs and we found it in abundance on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The city of Cartagena marks a transition from the intensity of South America to the laid-back vibe of the Caribbean, it is a place where salsa and rumba beats float in the air from bars and restaurants, women dressed in brightly-coloured clothing peel exotic fruits in the market squares, and the pace of life noticeably slows to a relaxed saunter.

Fountain in the square

Cartagena is a convenient place to cross between Central and South America as the Darien Gap makes the journey impossible by road. Many operators offer crossings between Cartagena and Panama, via the impossibly beautiful San Blas archipelago, and there is no shortage of information about these boats in the hostels and cafes of Getsemani. If you are planning to take one of these trips then do your research beforehand as there are many reports of drunken captains, inexperienced crew and lack of food. Check out my next post about my journey with the Stahlratte—a boat that I would highly recommend.

Have I convinced you yet? Will you visit Colombia?!

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