Colombia Part 2: Cartagena

For as much of a pleasant surprise as we got with Bogota (read about part one of our trip here), our Cartagena trip was something of a counterpoint. Cartagena is a really interesting place and I'm not disappointed that we went, but our trip was marred by some ahem difficulties that made it less than ideal.

Overall, Cartagena is very Caribbean-influenced. Traveling to Cartagena was much more similar to visiting the Dominican Republic than places deeper in South America (like Brazil, for example). It's also located only 700 miles from the Equator, so it's hot (and steamy) year-round.

First: we arrive at the airport in Bogota for our flight on Avianca airlines. When we try to check in at the airport kiosk, we're told our flights didn't exist. But we have printed confirmation emails with our assigned seats listed? Right!? So, we go to Avianca's customer service desk, where none of their six employees speak English. (I mentioned in the Bogota post, but this was a constant challenge and a unique problem for spoiled Americans like us who are used to finding English speakers at airports and hotel check-in desks.) My husband, thankfully, speaks enough Spanish that he was able to explain the problem to them (sort of) and they were able to respond (sort of). What we learned is despite the fact that we'd booked and paid for flights, Avianca just decided to cancel our tickets. For no reason. No one could explain to us what happened (even in Spanish). They never sent us an email or tried to contact us; they just cancelled our tickets.

The bad news is, well, that. The good news is there are 10 or so flights per day to Cartagena, so they were able to put us on the next flight. Our actual flight was fine, but I'm still wary of Avianca airlines. Pro tip: if you book with them, download their app on your phone and make sure you can find/check into your flight online. If you can't see it online, you may be in trouble.

As we were waiting in the airport, we checked the weather for Cartagena and it looked gross: pouring rain for the two days we'd be there. Because we'd read that Cartagena itself is pretty miserable in the rain hot, steamy, smelly but that the nearby Rosario Islands didn't always suffer from the same climate, we decided to book a boat tour and get out of the city the next day. While sitting at the airport, I contacted a tour company, The Informed Nomad, via WhatsApp to book a private speedboat tour for the following day. (WhatsApp: crucial communication app when traveling internationally. Everyone abroad has it. Download for free and use to text/call friends abroad. We also use to call restaurants and make reservations, etc.) The tour company gets total props for their excellent communication (in English!) and availability.

As I'm chatting with the tour guide via WhatsApp text, he casually mentions that the boat usually includes a cooler of beers but it won't tomorrow because it's Ley Seca. "Excuse me?" "No alcohol day." "Excuse me?" So, Ley Seca literally means "dry law." Cartagena was holding an election on Sunday and so they (probably wisely) implement a total ban on all alcohol sales from 6:00 p.m. Saturday to 6:00 a.m. Monday. The problem was we were set to land in Cartagena at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday and leave at noon on Monday. SO THAT KIND OF WAS A LITTLE BIT OF A PROBLEM FOR US.

It was only NOT a huge, terrible problem because I accidentally found out about it through this tour guide moments before we were set to board a plane. His response was to virtually shrug and say "Ley Seca." Which probably means he does not have the (totally healthy and normal) dependence on alcohol that my husband and I do. Maybe some people can go on a boat sober? (Wouldn't know; never tried.) But this was not great.

So, my husband and I do what all (totally healthy and normal) people do: sprint our little legs off to the nearest Duty Free Store, load up our backpacks with as much booze as we can carry, force our (weirdo) friends (who can apparently have a good time without drinking and were nonplussed by "Ley Seca") to carry-on our surplusage, and board the plane.

Which also didn't serve any booze.

Look, I'm just saying.

So: we arrive in Cartagena and take a taxi to our Air BnB, which is right in the historic district. The place where we stayed was completely lovely: modern, spacious, and very, very cool. Like, literally. This place had air conditioners like it needed to cool down the inside of a pizza oven. I think that 50% of the air conditioning power in all of Cartagena was in this place. There are people at the Ice Hotel who were warmer than our AirBnB.

We had a 24-hour concierge in the lobby and a rooftop pool, which was lovely and made us feel very safe, especially since the area we stayed in Cartagena was significantly sketchier than our neighborhood in Bogota.

We threw our things into the AirBnB, and then ran (maybe literally, I'm not telling) through the rainy streets to a grocery store to stock up on booze for the weekend. And, though it's not particularly flattering to tell this story, it was a very wise move, because Ley Seca was truly enforced: every restaurant, bar, grocery store, bodega, etc., stopped selling booze at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday. But nothing makes you feel young again like drinking Corona Light out of an empty water bottle that you hide in your purse, amIright?

The historic area of Cartagena is totally lovely: brightly colored row houses with white trim, impressively decorative door knockers, shady little squares with big, sprawling trees. It's also hot, breezeless, and genuinely steamy after their (frequent) rain storms. It's not very clean and the street trash means there's a constant hot garbage smell. While we never felt in danger, per se, but it is impoverished and touristy enough that it's full of very aggressive panhandlers selling their wares on the streets. A firm "no, gracias" is frequently required; ignoring them was not enough.

The first night, we stopped at a little cafe for a quick appetizer and one last celebratory Mojito before Ley Seca kicked in. While the downtown area was still bustling with vendors and music, I have to think that Cartagena's legendary raucous nightlife was dampened by the lack of booze. We wandered around town and then had a late bite at "Marzola Parrilla Argentina," an Argentinian steakhouse on our street (San Diego Plaza). It's no surprise we wandered in here: we were tempted by a literal grill on their front stop where they're roasting peppers, onions, and delicious-looking meat. We followed our noses up the steps to the crazy-looking inside: it was part Voodoo church, part Nashville bar, part grandma's attic. It was basically like the True Blood opening credits exploded in a restaurant. Highly recommend.

The next day, Sunday, was our Rosario Islands trip. We were very impressed with the tour company who picked us up at our AirBnB and delivered us to the dock where we met our boat. We were less impressed when the English-speaking tour guide who'd arranged the trip helped us into the boat, pushed us off, and waived to us from shore as we set sail with two Spanish-only speaking skippers. Again, an occasion where my husband's conversational Spanish saved us from being literally marooned at sea with no way to communicate with our captains.

The islands are approximately an hour speed-boat ride off the coast of Cartagena. We went to three stops during our day: first, to a clear water pool where lots of boats anchor to hang out. We were told we were going there to snorkel, but that didn't happen for a few reasons. First, the snorkels weren't included in our trip; they had to be rented from guys in kayaks. Second, I'm a first-rate germaphobe, and the guys in kayaks seemingly had no access to hand sanitizer (or UV lights. Or a hose?). Third, and possibly most importantly, there were no fish. I've seen plenty of sand without paying money to put on someone's old booger snorkel, so we skipped that part.

Second, we stopped at this crazy "island" to eat lunch. I say "island" because I never actually set foot on any kind of shore while we were there. Instead, we jumped off the boat and waded through some shallow water to sit in plastic chairs around a table under a palapa. We ordered from a laminated menu of seafood that these people friggin' picked up out of the ocean, plopped on a grill (presumably on terra firma that I never saw), and brought to our palapa.

Lesson learned: you will never vacation as hard as washing down your cheap, giant lobster with rum sucked out of a coconut while sitting waist-deep in water under a palapa off the coast of Cartagena. (Oh yeah, that party island straight up didn't care about Ley Seca. Go Rosario islands!)

Then we went to a sandy beach and hung out, which was great until a thunderstorm came, and then we speed-boated back to Cartagena. That night, we ate at Restaurante Mistura, which was chosen on the sophisticated criteria of "it has a tree indoors," but ended up being delicious. (This unassuming  hole-in-the-wall opens up into a gorgeous space inside. It's an open-air atrium with, yes, trees, and live music.)

And then we literally watched Romancing the Stone, because we had to.

Side note (my specialty!): Romancing the Stone was a wildly popular romance adventure movie in the 1980s. But it was so popular that it was responsible for a generation of Americans mispronouncing the named "Cartagena" as "Cartagenya." Everyone in the movie pronounces the city as if it has an "eñe," that Spanish "ñ" with a tilde on top that converts the letter into an "ny" sound. (Think: señor.) But it doesn't. I can't find a clip of them yelling "Cartagenya" at each other, so here's my favorite scene in the movie as consolation. (Y'all should really just rent it. It holds up.)


Our last day in Colombia, the sun was shining, the air was a bit cooler, the birds began to sing: Ley Seca had lifted!  We wandered around, bought coconuts and ice cream from some street vendors, and had delicious Cuban sandwiches at a quirky hot spot called Tobacco y Rum, which is primarily a cigar bar. So if you don't want to inhale but want to make sure your clothes smell like you did, I recommend lunch there. Then we boarded our flight back to Bogota.





Overall, Cartagena is a colorful, noisy, raucous Caribbean place with some excellent food from all parts of the world. To be fair, other than our Rosario Islands trip, we did not venture outside of the main historic district, so I'm sure Cartagena has its more cosmopolitan parts. While I'm glad we went, I'd be more inclined to go back to Colombia and explore Bogota and Medellin, which also have colorful colonial districts but without the oppressive heat and with a cleaner, friendlier vibe.


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