A short guide for visiting or living in Cartagena.
15.06.2016 - 07.01.2017 35 °C
Welcome to Cartagena
I lived in Cartagena for six months, working for a public institute.
It is a captivating, beautiful, yet sometimes confounding place to live.
Here is a guide to making the most of your time there, and some lessons learned.
The is South America The Caribbean
Many visitors arrive from Bogotà or Medellín, and find themselves in a very, very different world.
The climate, use of language, people, culture and atmopshere on the Caribbean coast is dramatically different to the southern areas of the country. But that's Colombia.... It's a diverse universe of itself, unlike any country I've been to.
When I first arrived here from Panama City I experienced genuine culture shock (in a good way) for the very first time. It was nothing like Panama. It felt like Cuba on steroids.
Cuba and Colombia certainly have a long standing kinship. Cuba played host to the epic peace talks between the Colombian Government and FARQ, and the two countries share a passion for music and dancing. Bars to barber shops curiously adorn Cuban flags on the walls, and Salsa is everywhere.
Cartageneros identify themselves primarily as afrodescentes before anything else.
It's worth noting that Colombia is the second biggest afro-latin country, after Brazil.
You will learn a lot about Colombia's afro culture and history here.
Have a listen to Carlos Vives' ode to the city in Fantastica and the chants of "Viva Africa!" here:
Cartagena was the first major city in the Americas where slaves were liberated (after the tiny Palomino), and was also the site of the first riots to end Spanish oppression.
Colombia is definitely a boisterous country, and not for the faint hearted.
Cartagena takes that idea to another level. The traffic is chaotic and loud music is everywhere!!
It is a remarkably friendly and open city. It doesn't take long to make friends in Cartagena!
Finding a place to live long term can be a little difficult here. The options on the internet are more tourist orientated and priced accordingly.
For long term apartments boots on the ground works best. Feel free to send me a private message for contacts.
There is a great Expats in Cartagena Facebook group that is also a great source of information and support.
Getsemani is the up and coming hipster area of the city.
There are many great restaurants, bars and hotels.
The area around Trinindad Square is a hive of activity every night - but especially on weekends.
Music blasts from family homes and blends into a wondrous mash of rhythm. Many families cook food from their homes and sell to revellers.
Every Sunday night, local Zumba instructors give a free class in Trinidad square which is seriously intensive in the heat... lasting nearly two hours.
it's a great way to sweat out the weekend's excesses!
Manga is a posh bayside suburb where I lived for six months.
It's tranquil by Cartagena standards, and has a gorgeous walking track lined with outdoor exercise equipment along the water - looking out to the myriad of boats that dock here.
It has a lot of great boutique restaurants and small bars. If you are going to live anywhere in Cartagena, I really recommend here.
it's very close to the old city.
Just like the other Spanish Caribbean ports, Cartagena is a baseball city!!
There are several pitches around the city, and in all the schools and colleges.
The interesting thing about pitches in Cartagena is that they often play loud music during the matches amping up the atmosphere.
It gives a great vibe to the games.
The main streets behind Getsemani are closed from traffic on Sundays to make way for a baseball tournament!!
Bodytech in Bocagrande rivals any high end gym in the first world.
It has two levels looking out to the ocean from the 5th floor and has every piece of equipment you can think of, including an MMA octagon.
Like the rest of Colombia and the Caribbean, music is an extremely prominent and important part of culture in Cartageana.
Salsa, Vallenato and Champeta rule the roost.
As Cali is now known as the world capital of Salsa... Cartagena is the capital of Champeta; a folk and melodic beat heavy genre from the Atlantic coast of Africa.
Champeta parties are great fun and really exemplify the open and boisterious nature of the Colombian north (and presumably the African coastal towns). You will also find Champeta in neighbouring Barranquilla and Santa Marta.
Music legend Joe Oroyo was a Cartagenero (though he adopted Barranquilla as his home later in life)
Here is one of Joe's more famous songs depicting the rebellion and revolt of slaves.
Champeta found it's way to Colombia via the Atlantic coast of Africa.
Champeta parties are great fun and raucus!! The great thing about Champeta is that you don't need to dance it with a partner, but of course many people do! You will notice friends dancing in big circles at Champeta parties, and also expect to be pulled in to join them.
Watch famous Cartageneros, Bazurto All Stars brand of Champeta here:
Donde Fidel is probably the most famous spot in Cartagena.
A relatively small and unassuming bar that plays Salsa and only Salsa... very, very LOUD.
Music at Fidels is so loud that folks can sit in the tables, outside - on the other side of the street to enjoy the music.
Inside, the walls are lined with photos of Fidel himself with many of the Salsa legends from Colombia, Cuba and Puerto Rico over the past 50 years!
The vibe is casual and reflects the working class boisterous nature of Salsa lyrics and culture that Latino musos established so long ago in New York, and took to their home countries.
I met all kinds of people here - from Colombia and abroad.
Folks bring drum sticks to bang out rhythmns, and dance betwen their tables; either in tuxedos after the many weddings in town or just in shorts and thongs after a day at the beach.
Bazurto Social Club
This is the home of Champeta in Cartagena and also the namesake of Cartagena's most famous Champeta band!
I love this place and made many new friends here.
The decor is great and vibe is friendly.
Keep your ear to the group for Champeta parties, including the monthly Champetú.
They are so much fun and have a unique, friendly and fiery vibe of Cartagena.
I mention this place, but really it's the worst club in town with the best view.
They play electronic/house music and as such really only pulls in backpackers and their hangers on.
Each time I was dragged in there, I waded through sweaty gringos who had inhaled more of the white stuff than their bodies could handle, inflating their sense of importance and eroding their sense of decorum.
If you're missing home and "getting on it", then by all means, but it's not a very Colombian place to be.
This is a bit further out in the burbs in a small complex of different clubs.
As the name suggests, the club plays a lot of Jamaican dancehall and also Bachata, Salsa and Reggaeton.
As the weather is either hot and balmy or hot and swealtering, many people just congregate and drink in the many public plazas.
You might wonder how this can happen without trouble.... well the simple thing is that law and order works in Colombia.
The cops have a presence and are formidable. I've seen them deal with even moderate rowdiness with brutal, military precision.
Dont worry about drinking at night with your friends, just don't be an idiot or talk back to cops, because they will not hesitate.
The plaza at the famous Clock Tower is eye and ear opening.
The raucous tunes blasting from Donde Fidel provides a soundtrack for the myriad of tourists who roam the gorgeous area, along with the many ladies who stand relatively unassumedly in their finery looking like fashion models; availing their company for wealthy tourists.
Cafe del Mar
The only place you MUST visit just once.
Words really can't describe it.
It has an amazing view, nice cocktails and decent service.
Around the wall, you will find many impromptu parties and vallenato buskers roaming the ornate surrounds.
Tourists and locals alike congregate around the wall, where the sea breeze provides gives reprieve to the heat and the illiminated ancient city in the background looks amazing!
As Colombia's premier destination there are awesome restaurants everywhere for all budgets!!
I don't even need to list any here, none will disappoint though, my favourite restaurant experience in Cartagena is....
The walls of this huge old building are lined with photos from pre-revolution Cuba.
The area in front of the band stage is a swimming pool where clients and sit and dip their feet after dinner or whilst sipping coctails.
Cartagena's beaches are not the best in the country, or even the Caribbean coast of the country - but their are the most lively.
Music blasts, folks sit and wade in groups, drinking beer and eating.
The beaches of Cartagena are somewhat hedonistic - especially "Playa Hollywood" (Hollywood Beach) where literally everything is within reach of the many touts.
Cartagena has several malls, that are pretty standard, but be aware prices vary depending on the neighbourbood. The same pair of Adidas will be pricier in Bocagrande than at Caribe Plaza....Caribe Plaza is the biggest and best of the bunch, and throughout the old city are myriad of jewellers and awesome clothing stores that cater to hot weather.
Bocagrande Plaza is a must visit, if not simply for the amazing view out over the beach to the Caribbean sea.
Is Colombia safe?
Well generally speaking it is. The kind of thuggery that happens in the suburbs of my home city in Australia is unheard of in Cartagena.... simply because the police presence in Colombia is really strong, visibile and formidable. Colombian cops have leverage to act as the situation requires - and they use it... and everyone knows it.
At closing time in Gertsemani, a group (of what looks like hundreds) of cops march through the streets and make sure everything is closed and that people are moving on.
Drinking in the street, for the most part is legal and most young people drink and socialise in public spaces - the same as most latin countries but I have never seen any act of disorderly behaviour in an entire year in the country.
Cops are almost always within eyeshot.
One day after teaching class, I was walking along a main road. As I passed a police check point a male and female officer were dancing together to music blasting on their cell phones, and occasionally stopping cars for shake downs, but kept the music on. As they ushered the cars away, they resumed their boogies with big smiles. Only in Colombia.
It's hot, humid and chaotic, yet beautiful, majestic open and friendly.
i had an awesome six months living there and made great friends and took away wonderful experiences.