“Dios bendiga Cartagena, La fantástica, Viva el África, Viva el África” says Carlos Vives, a Colombian Vallenato singer in his ode to Cartagena, Colombia: La Fantastica. In his song, he alludes to the Afro-Caribbean roots of the people. I’d later find out what made this city so fantastic!
Before traveling solo to Colombia for two weeks, I was sure that I’d see Medellin and Bogota, since I’d be flying in and out of these two cities. I also knew that I didn’t want to spend a week in each (but now I want to live in Bogotá, so…).
Aside from visiting these cities, I had to decide between Cali, Santa Marta, and Cartagena. Where would I spend 3-4 days? I wanted to experience more than just the mountains. Cali’s famous salsa and music scene had an undeniable allure. Santa Marta, on the Caribbean Coast just like Cartagena, appealed to me as the gateway to Parque Tayrona and La Ciudad Perdida. I’d need more time.
When I asked foreigners and Colombians about Cartagena, I heard mixed reviews:
“Cartagena is where tourists go to find cheap sex and cocaine.”
“It’s more expensive than Miami.”
“There’s not much to see-it’s where rich people go to vacation.”
On my final days in Medellin, I had to pick a place, but I couldn’t decide. Finally, I went to the Laundromat in El Retiro to pick up my neatly folded clothes-in-a-bag. While there, I met Carolina, a kind and friendly woman my age who spoke perfect English (she went to college in Chicago). We would’ve been friends if we’d studied together. Now, she was back in Colombia, helping her family manage a Laundromat after they’d moved from Bogotá. I was telling Carolina all about my trip, and presented her with my dilemma. Her father, I skinny man with black hair and rimless glasses, sat behind her, sewing a garment. Her brother sat nearby, helping him.
Carolina and I asked her father for advice on where I should go. “If you have a few days, go to Cartagena. La ciudad amurallada (the walled city) is nice, and the beaches are, too. Just be warned that vendors won’t leave you alone. They’ll offer you massages and sea shells, but just tell them no.” I ended up chatting with them for about 30 minutes. It was getting late, and since I’m used to heading home by the time it gets dark in Nicaragua, I headed out.
The next morning, I bought a plane ticket to Cartagena on Viva Colombia airlines. It was one of the most impulsive things I’ve ever done. I’d be leaving in about five hours! Since I knew no one in Cartagena, I scrambled to find a place to stay. A host named Libi had an apartment for about $17 a day, so I made a reservation. I called her to confirm that everything was in order for me to arrive that night, and she said that there was a problem-the apartment wasn’t ready. What she could do, however, was give me the keys to another beach front apartment for $20 a day. I’d have air conditioning, and be by the beach? Fair deal. I booked it for three nights.