Cartagena, Colombia was the first city of our three month backpacking trip after we quit our jobs. It will always hold a special place in our hearts.
Our travels in and around Cartagena were amazing, and we have truly fallen in love with this city of brightly colored buildings, delicious food, and amazingly kind people who have so much pride for their home.
Here is a little run down of what we did in Cartagena:
- 5 days of Spanish lessons at Nueva Lengua
- 1 castle explored (Castillo San Felipe)
- 5 different tropical juices drank (My favorite? Lulo con leche. Un-freakin-believable)
- 1 mud volcano bathed (Volcan Totumo)
- 3 beaches visited (Rosario Island Day Trip)
- 1 dress bought at a supermarket
- 2 “routine” pat downs by the police
- 1 massage on the beach
- 4 days of sunburns
- 2 hostels slept
- Many cervesas drank, countless pictures taken, muchos Spanish phrases learned, far more arepas than a human should eat were consumed, lots of travelers met, and one unforgettable city explored.
If you are ever in Cartagena, you have to explore the old walled city and get lost among the colorful doors and beautiful plazas. Buy fresh fruit from a cart vendor and get a shot of the local coffee from a man carrying thermoses.
At night time, stroll from plaza to plaza and watch dancers perform routines for people dining out on a patio.
Hotels in Cartagena, Colombia
Cartagena is one of the cites in our 10 Romantic Getaways Around the World. Be sure to check out the article for more holiday ideas with your hunny.
Luxury Hotel - Hyatt Regency Cartagena - Ocean front views, 5-star rating, massive pool, and on-site restaurant
Mid-range: Couple Stay - Hotel Boutique Casa Isabel - Cute rooms, rooftop bar, and a great location
Budget: Social Atmosphere - República Hostel Cartagena - Located in the old walled city, pool and bar, mixed dorm and free breakfast.
Not only does Cartagena, Colombia have tons to explore, but there are some pretty cool day trips from the city. In the city you can have a beach day at Boca Grande (but it probably won't be relaxing, more on that later), get lost in the old city and the colorful streets, or take a language course to improve your Spanish.
Our favorite day trips from Cartagena were the Rosario Islands, the Volcán de Lodo El Totumo (Mud Volcano), and the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.
Beach Day at Boca Grande Cartagena
The city of Cartagena sits right on the Caribbean coast, however, the beaches in the actual city leave one with much to be desired.
Boca Grande is the biggest beach in Cartagena. It's often compared to Miami Beach for the juxtaposition of a beach next to white condo high-rises.
Well, we ventured to Boca Grande, and let’s just say that it was pretty disappointing. After living in Miami for two years, I can assure you its beach is far superior to Boca Grande.
For one, as soon as our feet hit the sand, we were approached by vendors selling everything from drugs to ceviche. When I go to the beach I prefer not to have to say “No, gracias,” every 3 minutes.
A second reason we were unimpressed was the beach was dirty. The sand felt dirty, and it was littered in places with cigarette butts and trash.
It was nice to spend the morning in the ocean, but we both left feeling kind of icky.
Rosario Islands Day Trip from Cartagena
Since our beach day wasn't exactly what we were expecting, we decided to make a day trip to the Rosario Islands to relax on the famous white sand beach of Playa Blanca.
One morning, we walked to the marina and bought tickets for a boat. We didn't actually leave the harbor until about 30 minutes after we were slated to leave. Not really surprising. After all, we're in Latin America, and nothing starts right on time.
The part we weren't expecting, however, was that we were on a broken boat. Well not exactly broken, but one of the motors wasn't working. We spent the first 40 minutes cruising at a snail’s pace, while other boats sped by.
Finally, a captain from another boat tossed a wrench aboard, and a few whacks of the motor later, we were speeding out of the city. Ah, the powers of Colombian engineering!
As we approached the beach, I could tell it was't just another Boca Grande. No, this beach was beautiful. White sand, clear turquoise water, palm trees swaying in the wind, and thatched roof huts lining the beach.
As soon as I jumped off the boat, I was surrounded by a swarm of vendors trying to sell me every service available. One older man shoved an oyster in my hand, cracked it open and squeezed a lime over it. “Probar este, gratis!” Try it, free!
*Note: We heard from someone later that they tried the supposedly “free” oyster, then was charged 5,000 pesos (enough for a decent meal).
At the same time I had an oyster in hand, a woman squirted a glob of lotion on my shoulders and started rubbing them. “Masaje, señorita!” Massage ma'am!
Yet another man tried to put a pearl bracelet around my wrist.
Ben was climbing out of the boat when he lost a sandal. Imagine his surprise when, after finding his shoe and heading to shore, he saw me surrounded from all sides by vendors! I was frozen, unsure of what to do, so it was a relief when Ben grabbed my hand and led me away.
Though we did wave off vendors most of the day, we eventually fell victim to massages. They felt good, but we had to tell the women to stop after about 20 minutes. They kept telling us we were “so tense because in America you work too much”, and they wanted to charge us more money.
No way was I getting tricked this time!
After playing in the turquoise water and relaxing on the sand, we enjoyed fresh fish for lunch, followed by jugo de maracuyá con leche (passion fruit juice) made right in front of us. Talk about paradise.
By the early afternoon, we were pretty exhausted, sunburned, and ready to take a cold shower. (I have never enjoyed cold showers until staying in Cartagena!)
Although the boat ride out to the beach was a bit crazy with the motor not working and all, the ride back was INSANE. No exaggeration.
The afternoon brought choppy winds, and the waves around us rose two or three meters. But that didn't slow the captain down. People were crying (yes, seriously) and getting sick around us, waves were splashing on board.
With each wave, the boat would fly up in the air and smack back down sideways, making everyone clutch their seat. Well, there were two seats onboard without backs, and guess who was sitting on them? That’s right, Ben and me.
I don’t get seasick and I’m not afraid of fast boat rides, but there were a handful of times I seriously thought we wouldn't make it back.
About halfway back the waves were much calmer, making for a much more pleasant ride. Since we weren't clutching onto anything we could find and fearing for our lives anymore, we were able to focus on other things – like how badly we got sunburned! Ouch!
El Volcan del Totumo (Mud Volcano) Day Trip from Cartagena
A busload of tourists + a volcano filled with mud = a rather interesting and surprisingly fun experience!
Even before arriving in Colombia we had heard lots about this “mud volcano”, and decided that it was worth a visit.
If you are planning on doing this trip, we want you to know that the mud volcano is a really cool experience, but it is not exactly culturally authentic. It is a pretty touristy experience but if you have mindset from the start, it will be a pretty fun day.
In the morning, we boarded a bus with other foreigners and locals alike, all excited for the experience that lay ahead. After an hour drive, we arrived at El Volcan del Totumo.
No, this volcano is not spewing with hot lava or seeping smoke, but rather, it is a 50 foot mound filled in the core with yep, you guessed it – mud!
Legend has it that Totumo used to spew fire and lava, but a priest who believed it was the work of the devil sprinkled it with holy water, turning it into the muddy attraction that it is today.
We climbed to the top and looked down into the muddy pit, crawling with giggling mud-covered people I can only describe as “creatures”. One man in our group compared the scene to watching catfish flop around in a watering hole. A pretty good description, I’d say.
Once it was our turn, we climbed down the ladder into the crowded, gooey, muddy pit and discovered what all the laughter was about.
We were immediately greeted by a local man who slid us across – yes, we skidded across the mud on our backs – to other men who proceeded to give us “massages”. I thought it was rather relaxing, but Ben felt a bit uncomfortable as the man rubbed his stomach and upper thighs. All this time, another man above the mud pit snapped a dozen pictures of the awkward massages with our camera.
After our massages, we were passed to the other side of the pit where we could play and laugh with the others.
Though the people in the pit were of all ages, speaking several different languages, from different walks of life – we were the same once we were immersed in the pit. Giggling, splashing, floating, and covered in mud!
Our guide told us that the mud supposedly has “healing and therapeutic properties”, but I’m not convinced. My skin didn't really feel rejuvenated after immersing in the mud, but the weightless feeling of floating on top of the dense mud was unlike anything I've ever experienced.
After splashing and floating to our hearts’ desire, we climbed out of the pit on a slippery ladder and made our way to a lagoon where local women were waiting to wash us. Now this was also quite the experience.
The woman who approached us took a bucket of water and threw it over my head, and repeated this for some time – digging her fingers in my ears and nose to clear out the mud. Next, she… well, I’m not going to describe it in detail, but let’s just say my swimsuit was nearly removed and she scrubbed enough to get me clean. I couldn't help but laugh as I watched her do the same to Ben.
We were informed before reaching the volcano that the people who provided services – such as photo-taking, massage-giving, and mud-cleaning – were from an impoverished town nearby, so it was customary to tip for their “services”. If you do this trip, please tip appropriately.
After tipping to locals, the group headed to a beautiful restaurant on the beach. We swam in the ocean while our food was being prepared, then enjoyed the traditional Colombian meal of rice, salad, plátanos (smashed, fried plantains), and chicken or fish.
Eating an amazingly fresh and delicious meal while watching the waves roll in was the perfect way to conclude our mud volcano experience.
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas Day Trip in Cartagena
During one our first days in Cartagena, we visited Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. We learned on our audio tour (which was well worth the purchase) that the construction of this fortress started in 1536, but it was very advanced for its time. The fort was designed so that if it was attacked by the enemy, the Colombian soldiers could still defeat them from within. This impressive structure was attacked on several occasions, but never conquered.
The Cartagena heat was magnified as we explored the castle made of stone, so walking down into the maze of underground tunnels was a much-needed break from the sun, as well as one of the most interesting features.
The fortress takes a few hours to complete the audio tour but we would recommend it because not only do you learn a bit of Colombian history, you'll get a great view of Cartagena as well.