Today, is my last day in Cartagena, Colombia. A week can be such a long short time. Some days I tried to fill my time with as many activities as I could and other days, I just… lived! As I am reflecting on my week, I wanted to take this time to share with you some of my observations and thoughts about Cartagena.
Arriving in Cartagena
Visitors will immediately notice that the Rafael Núñez International Airport is rather small and looks like it has not been updated since the turn of the century; also, there is no WiFi. The easiest way to get from the airport to the city is by taxi. You will have no trouble finding a taxi as drivers swarm the small arrivals lounge. It is important to note that taxis only accept cash. To get cash, I highly recommend that you go to an ATM rather than an exchange booth—the rates that you pay to exchange will likely be higher than to withdraw. Taxi rides to the center of the city will only take you 15 to 20 minutes and the cost… is super affordable! I only paid about $7 for cab fare!! Make sure to go with an authorized cab for safety reasons, but also so you are not seriously overcharged.
Talking to Strangers
I had to talk to many people for one reason or another here in Cartagena and, on a whole, I would say locals here are much friendlier than in some other countries. In the U.S., addressing strangers on the street is quite formal, one typically says “ma’am,” “sir,” or “miss” for adults (in the South, greetings are more familiar however). In Cartagena, the greetings were much more familiar, and strangers became amigos and acquaintances became mi amor. This is quite different than my experience in Russia where people were referred to as “girl,” “grandma/ grandpa,” or “young man.”
We live at night
Cartagena is definitely a night city. Stores open late and close late. People eat late and stay out late. Perhaps, this makes sense as the days are hot, while the evenings and nights are cool and breezy. This is the high season, but still, every night of the week the streets are teeming with life and there is always some sort of fiesta going on in a few parts of the city.
Whatsapp—the texting/ call through wifi app—is really big here. One giant hassle for me while traveling is that I do not have cellular service abroad. However, on this trip I was very lucky to find out that the hotel communicated via Whatsapp! Also, I scheduled a tour to see the Volcán del Totumo (more on that here) and was happy that I could communicate with my tour guide through Whatsapp texts.
¿Hablas español? If you know some Spanish you will be happy to discover that Colombian Spanish is rather uncomplicated and a more “pure” version of the language. For non-natives, places like Argentina, the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and parts of Spain can be a challenge to communicate because the Spanish spoken there is very unlike what is taught in the classroom. Many of my Spanish teachers in school were Colombian, so, perhaps, I am just biased here….
I am a budget traveler and I warn those of you who are also budget travelers to not go too cheap with your accommodation. I paid about $30 a night for a basic single room. Positives – good (cheaper) location, clean room, breakfast included, friendly staff, air conditioning. Negatives – the toilet broke, the bed was incredibly firm, and no hot water (water is not freezing, but there is only one temperature—cool). If you have any doubts about the safety of a location, I highly suggest doing your research and looking at the location on Google maps. It’s a terrible experience to feel unsafe and unhappy in your accommodation, so, don’t go too cheap!
It’s everywhere! Even in the less touristy parts. Try the arepas (fried corn dough pastry), they all look the same, but a few vendors claimed to me that theirs were the best. There is also a healthy selection of fresh fruit, with mango spears being most popular.
If you are looking to travel to South America, do consider Cartagena! It is an underrated Caribbean jewel and it’s rather inexpensive! These past few nights I’ve been going to the equivalent of a four-star restaurant and was delighted to find that most entrees are under $20 (USD)—even the fancy fish ones. At the end of the day, we make our own happiness and adventures. If you do decide to travel down here, Dear Reader, I hope that you will make the most of your time!