Our long trip through South America started with an overnight flight to Cartagena via NYC, arriving around 1pm local time. Walking off the plane felt like going into a sauna, with the temperature around 92 and 85% humidity. We went through customs, got our bags, and took a taxi to our first hostel, Hostel Mamallena, situated in the historic district just outside the walled portion of the old city.
The streets of Cartagena are buzzing with everyday people, traffic, vendors, horses, and tourists. Everywhere you go, you can hear music, though it’s not always obvious where it is coming from. Things are particularly chaotic along La Media Luna, a street mostly made up of small shops, restaurants, and hostels, including ours.
Inside the walled city, the streets calm down a bit, due to less traffic, but you never get away from the massive amount of people walking every which way. We constantly wondered, where are all these people going all the time? And what are they up to?
And all the while, it’s an inescapable oven.
All of this, however, is justified by the rich history and beauty of the old walled city. It was built by the Spanish beginning in the 1500s, with huge, cannon-bearing walls surrounding picturesque buildings. The city was the biggest port in the Carribean, shipping a majority of the gold that the Spanish were collecting from the native people across the continent. It was often attacked by pirates, hence the giant walls. All of this has been impeccably preserved, and walking around within this part of the city feels like going back in time.
While in Cartegena, we visited a history museum displaying a wide variety of artifacts from The Inquisition, including some torture devices that were used to punish anyone that didn’t follow the strict religious rules imposed by the Spanish. We also went through a gold museum containing a wide variety of pure gold jewelry and trinkets, as well as some urns and other ancient artifacts from the indians that lived in the area before the Spanish arrived. As magnificent as the city is, the dark history of violence here definitely stands out.
Our favorite time in Cartagena was walking around at night in the walled city. It’s like the whole place is having a party. Music everywhere, guys selling beer and street food on every corner, including on top of the giant walls, horse-drawn carriages clopping through the narrow cobblestone streets, flower-covered balconies, buildings in every color, groups of young people in elaborate traditional costumes playing music and dancing in tree-filled plazas – it all feels like something Disney would try to recreate.
The only land entrance to the city was defended by San Felipe Castle, which is basically a huge mound of brick and cement, covered with cannons, overlooking the city. Dark, low clearance tunnels run randomly through it, which were fun and a bit creepy to explore.
One day, we took a shuttle from our hostel to the nearby Playa Blanca, the nicest beach in the area. The water was perfect, very blue, and was so nice to get a break from the otherwise constant heat. The only downside was a small army of vendors walking along the beach selling everything from trinkets to raw oysters to massages, none of which we wanted. Sitting on the beach was an exercise in saying “No, gracias” constantly. So we stayed in the water as much as possible.
Our first food experiences in South America were great. It’s so cheap, and the quality of the food we were getting was impressive. Our meals cost only a couple dollars each. We had some plate lunches, street food (empanadas, meat skewers, corn on the cob), wraps, and even found a vegetarian restaurant serving a big lunch with soup, salad, rice, beans, and fried dough balls similar to a falafel. We also hit the grocery store a lot, which was pretty cheap and fun to browse around in.
After several days, we were ready to move on up the coast to Santa Marta and Parque Tayrona, a jungle beach paradise.